Hillsborough

Andrew Hussey recalls the tragedy that changed football and made it seem as if an obscure curse was

The new quarter of Liverpool One, the second phase of which was unveiled in October 2008, and which connects the old city centre of Liverpool to its shiny new waterfront, is a triumph of design and urban planning. The shops themselves are something of an irrelevance – it’s just a standard British high street – but the witty and clever shapes of the buildings and streets are breathtaking in their ambition. Most crucially, they show the true grandeur of Liverpudlian history.

Its new vistas link the river to the Welsh mountains and then the sea beyond – all the elements that have made this city what it is. Like Antony Gormley’s life-size statues, which stare out to sea from Crosby Beach a few miles to the north, Liverpool One is about turning outwards to the world beyond. Liverpudlians have often been accused of introspection and self-pity; so it seems appropriate, at the end of the city’s “Year of Culture”, that Liverpool is looking forward in the 21st century with a new-found confidence and pride.

All of this is, however, a long way from some of the dark memories of the city’s recent past. Throughout the 1980s, Liverpool seemed to be fighting a war with the rest of Britain. Its decade began with the Toxteth riots, in 1981. These were an outburst of anger and despair at the way in which Liverpool seemed to be slipping quickly into poverty and isolation and out of the mainstream of British society. From there on, it felt as if the Thatcher government was fighting a civil war against the city. It is this that explains the strange politics of the period – these were the Militant years, when, with a combination of Trotskyism and thuggery, the narcissistic Derek Hatton and his cronies held the city to ransom.

In retrospect, one of the most incomprehen­sible aspects of this decade was the widespread support that Hatton and his mates enjoyed. But on closer inspection it seems hardly surprising, when you recall that unemployment rates in the city were the highest in Europe. By 1989, Liverpool was exhausted and battered. This was all the more painful because, at the same time, Manchester – Liverpool’s great rival only 30 minutes down the M62 – stood ready to steal the cultural agenda with a fashion and rock-music renaissance led by the E-fuelled scallies of Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses.

But we in Liverpool still had football. Merseyside teams had dominated the English League through the 1980s; Manchester United were then no more than a confused shambles. The London teams were not much better. Liverpool may have been a wrecked post-industrial wasteland, but football offered a source of local loyalty and pride. The Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985, in which 39 fans had been killed by a falling wall during a riot just before the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus, had dealt a blow to the city’s footballing culture. Liverpool fans were soon heartily sick of the chant “Murd-er-ers!” which regularly met them at hostile grounds. But by 1989, even those scars were beginning to fade.

The atmosphere on 15 April, as Liverpool supporters set out for an FA Cup semi-final clash with Nottingham Forest at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, was festive. The Reds, under Kenny Dalglish, were at another peak and if they could beat Forest – not a problem, everyone assumed – the stage might be set for a classic all-Merseyside FA Cup final (Everton were playing in the other semi-final). Spring was just breaking through, and it was a spectacular two-hour drive or rail journey from Liverpool to Sheffield through the finest scenery of the Peak District.

No one could have predicted the horror that was waiting at the other end of the trip. The facts of the afternoon are as brutal as they are simple. At 3.06pm precisely the referee, Ray Lewis, blew his whistle and called a halt to the match. He was compelled to do this by the police, who were signalling to him that people at the Leppings Lane end, where the Liverpool fans were clustered, were spilling on to the pitch. Overcrowding outside the ground had forced the police to open an exit gate and fans had surged on to the already congested standing terrace.

The obvious reaction from bystanders was that violence had broken out and that this was a pitch invasion. Yet it quickly became clear that this was not the case, from the high-pitched screaming of fans being crushed to death against the stark blue security fences that kept them penned in. On the pitch, some of those who had scrambled over the fence lay dying on the grass, gasping for breath. Others lay dead, their faces blue and bloated. Those who could walk or stand rushed to carry bodies to safety on advertising hoardings. The final death toll was 96.

This was a catastrophe unprecedented in football memory. But what came next for Liverpool fans was, if anything, worse. First was the long journey home. Lime Street Station and the surrounding streets were stilled into silence. Those who trudged back were grey and ashen, as if returning from a distant massacre. In this most Catholic of cities, there was an unvoiced and obscure belief that some dark vengeance was being wreaked on Liverpool fans for their role in the Heysel disaster. There was, also, anger at the evident incompetence and callousness of the police, whose actions had created the deadly situation in the first place and who left people dying on the field. At an untouchable level, beyond understanding or articulation, there was also survivors’ guilt. This would go on to be one of the deepest psychic wounds left by Hillsborough.

The long civil war conducted against Liverpool and Liverpudlians from the south was not yet over. The next assault came from the Sun newspaper, whose editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, decided that Liverpool fans had not suffered enough. On the Wednesday following the disaster, as families arranged funerals, the Sun devoted its front page to the headline “The truth” and went on to describe how the Liverpool fans had urinated on corpses, robbed the dead and attacked the police. Nobody had seen any of this, least of all a Sun reporter, because it did not happen, as was later established. Yet this was not simply an insult to the dead and their families. It also opened up a new sense of anger and doubt in the city’s collective identity: Who are we that people should believe such things of us? Why are we so hated? These were the questions that Liverpudlians began to ask themselves. To this day, the Sun is despised in Liverpool.

The official inquiry into what had happened at Hillsborough was conducted by Lord Chief Justice Taylor. His report returned a verdict of accidental death, even though evidence of neglect by the police had been established. A private prosecution brought by bereaved families against the senior police officer in charge of the match, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, failed to reach a verdict. To the trauma of bereavement were added the frustration and humiliation of injustice.

Hillsborough was about the individual families that suffered. Their agony is captured perfectly in one of Adrian Henri’s late poems, “The Bell”, which describes the poignant sound of the bells of Liverpool Cathedral tolling for each of the victims. But Hillsborough is also an integral part of the story of Liverpool. It is the story of a crowd being killed live on television in front of your eyes. These people were little different from the working-class Liverpudlians of the 1960s who had inspired Bill Shankly’s greatest teams with their passion and collective sense of belief. The scenes of singing and scarf-waving on the Kop had been shown in black-and-white newsreels across the world.

This was the mob, the crowd, the working class in a group and in action, but it was nothing to be feared. The humour and dignity of this crowd were iconic. These images announced to the world the cultural vibrancy of ordinary people and their pleasures. To this extent, Liverpool fans were as crucial a component of 1960s pop culture as the Beatles.

By the end of the Thatcherite 1980s this same crowd had become the object of scorn and derision. To be working class, to be a football fan, to be unemployed and northern was to be scum. It is hard to write about the 1980s without feeling this way, no matter how primitive such emotions may seem to the present-day sophisticates of the post-Blair left. The year 1989 was when everything changed – music, football, politics. For the people of Liverpool, literally and metaphorically crushed by the blue fences of Hillsborough, it would still be a long, uphill road to Liverpool One and the 21st century.

Andrew Hussey’s most recent book is “Paris: the Secret History” (Penguin, £9.99)