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Hillsborough and its aftermath

Although it remains the name of the ground of one of England’s famous old football clubs, since 1989 the word “Hillsborough” has more strongly evoked Britain’s worst sporting disaster.

On 15 April 1989, at the start of an FA Cup semi-final, a crush on the steel-fenced terraces of Sheffield Wednesday’s stadium resulted in the death of 96 Liverpool fans and left hundreds more injured.

The inquiry into the disaster, led by Lord Chief Justice Taylor, established the main cause as a failure of police crowd control.

Events began to unfold from around 14:30 BST. The game was to be a repeat of the 1988 semi-final, in which Liverpool had faced Nottingham Forest at the same venue.


Liverpool fans had begun arriving at the ground from midday, but had to enter their designated stand at Leppings Lane through a small number of decrepit turnstiles.

Once inside, many made their way on to the terraced lower stand which was ringed with blue-painted steel fences and laterally divided into “pens”.

A crush of supporters built up outside the ground

Fencing had been put up by many football clubs during the 1970s and 80s to control crowds and prevent pitch invasions.

By about 14:50, pens 3 and 4 – those directly behind the goal – were full, but outside the ground thousands of fans were still waiting to get in.

The pens’ official combined capacity was 2,200. It was later discovered this should have been reduced to 1,600 as crush barriers installed three years earlier did not meet official safety standards.

At 14:52, police ordered a large exit gate – Gate C – to be opened to alleviate the crush outside the ground. Around 2,000 fans then made their way into the ground and headed straight for a tunnel leading directly to pens 3 and 4.

This influx caused severe crushing in the pens. Fans began climbing over side fences into the relatively less packed adjoining pens to escape.

Makeshift stretchers

It was later estimated that more than 3,000 supporters were admitted to the central pens – almost double the “safe” capacity.

At 15:00, the game kicked off. Five minutes later a crush barrier in pen 3 gave way, causing people to fall on top of each other.

Supporters continued to climb perimeter fences to escape, while others were dragged to safety by fans in the upper tiers.

At 15:06, a policeman ran on to the pitch and ordered the referee to stop the game. In the chaotic aftermath, supporters tore up advertising hoardings to use as makeshift stretchers and tried to administer first aid to the injured.

The fences created a barrier against which fans were crushed

The authorities’ response to the disaster was slow and badly co-ordinated. Firefighters with cutting gear had difficulty getting into the ground, and although dozens of ambulances were dispatched, access to the pitch was delayed because police were reporting “crowd trouble”.

Of the 96 people who died, only 14 were ever admitted to hospital.

Lord Justice Taylor wrote that the key element of police control at fault was the failure to close off the tunnel leading to pens 3 and 4 once Gate C had been opened.

He went on to criticise police for their failure to handle the build-up of fans outside the ground properly, and their slow reaction to the unfolding disaster.

Some of his strongest words were reserved for the police commander, Ch Supt David Duckenfield, for “failing to take effective control”, and South Yorkshire Police who attempted to blame supporters arriving at the ground “late and drunk”.

‘Accidental death’

Despite the Taylor Report, which was also critical of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club and Sheffield City Council, on 14 August 1990 the director of public prosecutions decided not to bring criminal charges against any individual, group or body on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

Inquests in 1991 into the deaths of the victims returned a majority verdict of accidental death and ruled they were all dead by 15:15.

However many families disputed this and began to campaign for a fresh inquiry.

In the wake of renewed public and media interest in the disaster, which followed the broadcast of Jimmy McGovern’s documentary-drama Hillsborough in 1996, Home Secretary Jack Straw ordered a “scrutiny of evidence”.

Lord Justice Stuart-Smith’s conclusion was that the fresh evidence did not add anything significant to the understanding of the disaster, and that while statements should not have been edited, this was simply an “error of judgement”.

Jack Straw accepted the findings and ruled out a new inquiry, but in August 1998 the Hillsborough Family Support Group brought charges of manslaughter against David Duckenfield and his deputy, Supt Bernard Murray, in a private prosecution.

The case came to trial in 2000. After six weeks the jury found Mr Murray not guilty of manslaughter and said it could not reach a verdict on Mr Duckenfield.

The judge, Mr Justice Hooper, ruled out a majority verdict and refused a retrial on the grounds that Mr Duckenfield had faced public humiliation and a fair trial would be impossible.

In 2006, Anne Williams, the mother of 15-year-old victim Kevin Williams, took a case to the European Court of Human Rights challenging the verdict of the original inquest.

She claims her son was still alive at 16:00 on the day of the disaster and did not die from traumatic asphyxia.

Family support groups and campaigners believe if the court decides there is a case to be heard, it will place pressure on the British government to open a new inquiry.

A petition by Mrs Williams hit 100,000 signatures earlier this year, meaning the issue could be debated in Parliament.


Written by Israel Saria

For the last 20 years I have been working as a football pundit. This experience has provided me with a very useful insight into football and the opportunity to carry out extensive research into the game including its players, the stadiums, the rules and tactics and I have also been grateful to meet a wide range of people connected to football in the UK, Tanzania, Germany .....

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