By Shane Thomas
The Hillsborough independent panel's verdict was said to send shockwaves throughout the English game. People were reputedly stunned by the revelations that the accountability for the tragic deaths of 96 Liverpool fans should no longer be aimed towards the supporters, but towards the ostensibly esteemed organisations of the South Yorkshire Police, The FA, sections of the English newspapers and the British government.
What was revealed, is that in the aftermath of the tragedy, there was an orchestrated cover-up, in which these respective organisations all set to absolve themselves of any blame, and shift all the opprobrium onto the Liverpool fans. What I'm interested in is why this was so easy to put into action, and why Hillsborough was an inadvertent microcosm for football's place in society under Margaret Thatcher's government.
Back in 2004, the comedian Chris Rock did a marvellous routine on George W. Bush's administration hating rap music, explaining how they can find Saddam Hussein hiding in Iraq, but can't find the person who shot Tupac Shakur on the crowded strip in Las Vegas.
Well, the same could have been said about the attitudes of the powers that be towards football and its fans. Before the days of the Premier League, before Sky Sports, and before England & Gazza at the 1990 World Cup, football may have been the "people's game", but the people in question were regarded as feral, ill-mannered, poorly educated, and barely evolved. The same way British society demonises so many of the working classes today by referring to them as "chavs" - a word I absolutely abhor - the authorities didn't regard football fans as an essential part of the game, but instead as a core section of society's "great unwashed", who were ultimately expendable.
What shocks me about some reactions to the verdict of the panel, is that anyone is shocked at all. While I find stereotyping of upper class people equally emetic, it's sad to opine that back then, many of Britain's ruling class appeared to see those who didn't vote for them as superfluous citizens, and that included many of the disenfranchised northern underclass, with many of them being forced into unemployment as the new wave of tertiary industry swept through the nation. These effects were keenly felt in Liverpool.
So let's not mince words. Those with power didn't care about football fans, with Liverpool supporters near the top of that list. One of the less mentioned aspects about the Hillsborough tragedy, is that it's not as if Liverpool fans had been targeted in advance. In 1981, Tottenham fans nearly fell victim to what would happen 8 years later. Fans were close to being crushed at the ramshackle stadium. However, no action was taken to ensure that Hillsborough updated their facilities, or alternatively the FA could have decreed that the place would no longer be used a neutral venue for FA Cup semi-finals. Neither happened. The stadium didn't even have a safety certificate.
The response from the on-site medical staff was slow and ineffectual as Liverpool's fans were being crushed. The panel revealed that 41 of the 96 deceased could have been saved with basic medical attention. Instead, the police felt it more germane to check the criminal records of the dead, even checking the blood alcohol levels of a 10 year old boy.
Sections of the South Yorkshire Police ensured that their statements correlated to reveal the following; the fatal crush was due to drunken fans turning up without tickets, and pushing their way through the gates. As fans lay on the ground, some breathing their last, the remaining Liverpool supporters picked the pockets of the dead, stopping police officers from assisting the injured, even urinating on some of them. These lies were passed onto The Sun, who printed this under the headline, "THE TRUTH".
That this was ultimately shown to be mendacity of the most egregious nature would matter little. The fact that these unconscionable falsehoods were the official party line for so long, was because it happened to football fans. Northern football fans. Liverpool football fans.
For those of you who bemoan the state of the game today, with its prioritisation of money, fame and other vacuous artifice, count yourself lucky that you didn't have to visit stadiums before the 1990's. It is beyond sickening that it has taken 23 years to finally expose the truth. A near quarter of a century before the authorities - those we entrust with power - were forced to admit that they were the ones who had committed crimes. Maybe not in a legal sense (that remains to be seen), but Hillsborough was the result of a complete dereliction of duty from those who should have known better.
The results of last Tuesday's report may finally be the long overdue vindication for the loved ones of the 96 who died, but on a larger scale, it could also act as a panacea for all fans of the game before the days of all-seater stadia and the Premier League. It shows that football fans were never the uncivilised thugs that they had been branded as. Obviously there was an atavistic enclave, full of bile and bigotry, but much like what is needed in the dilapidated inner-cities, if you create an environment for the game to flourish, its fans will follow suit.
Because people who go to watch the sport aren't inherently better than the fans from the past. We were always like this. It's the authorities who have caught up. But it was too late for the 96. And for those who love football, it proves that the South Yorkshire Police, The Sun newspaper, The FA, and the British government failed every one of us.
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