“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness.” When I remember this Charles Dickens’ famous quote, I can’t help but think of the Liverpool FC’s magnificent era in the 70s and 80s. That period which took the club to the highest heights and the lowest lows of unbelievable roller-coaster ride.
Between 1973 and 1990, the club won 11 English league titles, 4 European cups (currently UEFA Champions Leagues), 2 UEFA cups (currently Europa league), 3 FA cups and 4 league cups. It was a success not reached by any other British club before or since; and LFC broke all kinds of British soccer records while doing it. And above all, they did it playing some of the most scintillating soccer in Europe at that time.
Then, there were the two huge disasters connected to the club that would shape the English and European soccer for decades to come.
Crowd troubles have been part of sports since The Ancient Times, but organized hooliganism has not made its ugly appearance in England until the 1970s. Its climb coincided with the rise of the Liverpool club to prominence. During that time, almost every English club’s fans formed their own groups of hooligans (known as firms) and had special names for them. For Liverpool fans, it was “The Urchins.”
Hooliganism was not only confined to England. As a matter of fact, it has plagued most of Europe. The English clubs’ firms not only fought with each other, but also they fought with other European clubs’ fans. Even the English national team has stirred some troubles during their meeting with other national teams, especially on their travels abroad.
The hooliganism was a huge national security concern to the point that Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister between 1979 and 1990, had established a “war cabinet” to fight soccer hooliganism. That decision followed a match between Millwall and Luton Town in the FA cup in March 13, 1985. The massive riot which followed the match had left 81 people with injuries, including 31 policemen, in addition to massive structural damages and huge economical losses.
The Heysel Stadium Disaster
By 1985 two well known facts about hooliganism emerged. First, fatalities as a direct result of the fight were rare. Most of the casualties were injuries to people and structural damages to the stadiums or the areas surrounding them. Second, although Liverpool hooligans have been active, they were not associated with any major hooligan event. In fact, when people talked about English hooligans then, the Liverpool Urchins didn’t make the top ten of the worst hooligans’ firms. All of that was about to change on the eve of May 29, 1985.
It was the final match of the European Cup between Liverpool FC, which was going for its 5th title in 9 years, and the Italian champions Juventus. The game took place at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels of Belgium. A fight started between the two rival fans in the stands before the start of the game. It led to the death of 39 Juventus fans, mostly due to a stampede and a collapsing wall. A group of LFC fans were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter while 14 of them were sentenced to 3 years prison time.
It was one of the worst disasters in the history of European Soccer and it led to the expulsion of all English clubs from European competitions for 5 years. (Liverpool was banned one additional year)
Prejudice against LFC
At home, the changes were more pronounced. The war against hooliganism intensified with the support of the newly formed “war cabinet.” Clubs imposed new rules to weed off the troublemakers. Every one, including players, fans and administrators, had felt the changes.
There is new reality now. The reputation of the English fans has never been worse. UEFA ban condemned English clubs to the exile from continental soccer. New rules limited the access of the troublemakers to clubs games at home and banned all England fans from traveling with the national team to away games. These rules caused even more discontent among fans in all of England.
Liverpool fans became an easy target for discontented fans from other clubs to vent their frustration. They were the obvious choice because of their involvement with the Heysel disaster. What happened in Brussels could have happened to any English club. And the fact that UEFA had punished all English clubs suggested that all English fans were held responsible. Yet, in England, Liverpool club was the team that was singled out for the blame and the anti-Liverpool sentiments started to grow immensely.
In spite of all the new rules, hooliganism continued to plague English soccer. No matter what PM Thatcher and her government did, it seemed hooliganism kept going strong. Discussion included banning all away fans, introducing ID cards and even imprisoning offenders. All were to no avail.
Then, Liverpool’s destiny struck again.
April 15th 1989 will go down in history as the date that changed the face of soccer in England. But for the human race, this date will go down in ignominy. It was the date of the semifinal of the FA cup between Liverpool FC and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England.
Many LFC fans arrived late after they had been stuck in a massive traffic delay. The rush at the gates, as the game had just started, led the police to allow thousands of them into a small area of the stands without the consideration of over crowding. The human crush in the small area led to the death of 96 Liverpool fans, some as young as 10 years old, mostly due to asphyxiation.
It was the worst soccer-related disaster in the history of Great Britain. Yet again, Liverpool found itself involved in another disaster, less than 4 years after the Heysel Stadium’s one. This time, it was different. Although they were truly victims, they were subjected to the most disgraceful smear campaign in the history of sports.
The perfect storm
Since the Heysel tragedy, the hatred against Liverpool was skyrocketing. This hatred was fuelled by envy from fans of other clubs for their tremendous success on the field. The failure of the government to stop hooliganism was obvious and in need of a big boost. The horrible images of the Hillsborough’s disaster could serve as a fodder to manipulate the public opinion.
Above all, the glaring mismanagement by the police department at the stadium could not be exposed to the public, especially by a force that was famous for its brutality against its own people. The violent crack down by the Sheffield police against the miners in Orgreave, South Yorkshire, was well documented.
On top of that, the FA choice of this specific stadium for such a big game and the seating of the crowd in the stadium were all brought to question. Even the ambulance paramedics didn’t escape criticism because, as it was reported, some of them didn’t know how to treat certain injuries which might have contributed to deaths.
Moreover, there was a special kind of tension between the British government and the city of Liverpool in general during that era. Liverpudlians were labelled as rebellious and were targeted by the Iron Lady’s government. In addition, some people believed that anti-Irish sentiment had contributed to this tension, considering many of the Liverpool fans (and the city’s population) are Irish in origin and sympathized with the IRA during that period.
So, when the police department started its scheme to frame the Liverpool fans as the culprits for the disaster, every one came aboard. The stage was set for the ultimate sacrifice. Liverpool fans were being prepared to be slaughtered at the altar of the war on hooliganism.
Framing the victims
It was the perfect cover-up story for every one involved. Everyone, except the Liverpool fans who had to endure the most gruelling 23 years of their lives.
First, not only the families of the 96 victims had to suffer losing their loved ones who died senselessly, they had to live with the idea that those victims caused their own death with their misbehaviour. All the dead, including the ten year old child, were subjected to blood tests to prove they were drunk.
The scenes from the stadium revealed some heroic acts performed by the Liverpool fans to help save each other while the police stood by watching. Some policemen even directed verbal abuse at fans. Yet, those fans were later labelled as thugs, thieves and murderers.
Police claimed that LFC fans were drunk and forced their way into the stadium without tickets causing the overcrowding. They also claimed that during the disaster those same fans picked pockets of victims and urinated on cops. The police even used the British media, like the Sun newspaper which disgracefully agreed, to spread their poisons.
Although official and independent investigations into the matter contradicted the police story, unfortunately, the truth was not allowed to come out and reach the public. The British government ordered the file sealed.
Unfortunately, many fans from other clubs took the government side of the story and went on abusing LFC fans throughout England. Chants insulting LFC fans in general and Hillsborough’s dead in particular spread around all the stadiums. Liverpool FC became the motherland of all hooliganism.
The truth after a long fight
Like in any grave injustice in history, there will always be someone to fight for the truth. For Hillsborough’s disaster, it was the brave families of those 96 victims. They kept up their fights for over 23 years. And finally with the help of people from all walks of life they managed to get the British parliament to release those hidden files.
The truth finally came out. One of the biggest cover ups in the history of sports has finally been revealed.
The main cause of the disaster was “lack of police control,” the report said. 164 witness statements incriminating the police were altered while 116 others were removed completely. 41 of the victims could have been saved if it wasn’t for the incompetence of the emergency services. And then there was the passing of inaccurate and untrue information to the press in order to deflect the blame.
Above all, the report stated that Liverpool fans were not responsible in any way for the disaster. Exoneration at last!
There is no telling the amount of the psychological damages that had been inflicted on Liverpool fans as a result of this disaster. It had affected every one associated with the club, near or far.
The families of the 96 victims spent the past 23 years trying to figure out why. Why did their loved ones have to die when all they wanted is to have a good time at the stadium supporting their beloved team? Why did the South Yorkshire police forces with the help of the media denigrate 96 innocent people? Why did the British government conspire to hide the truth? There are so many more questions they may never know the answers to.
The survivors of the disaster didn’t escape untouched. Suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, marital problems and other psychiatric illnesses were documented among them years later.
The Liverpool fans from all the corners of the earth were affected also. They have questioned every decision by the FA, or any other authority, in regard to their club. The conspiracy theory becomes very popular and common among them. Was there a conspiracy behind the Suarez/Evra affair? Is there a conspiracy among the referees against LFC? Why hasn’t LFC won the league since 1990? And so on.
The ramification of the Hillsborough cover-up might last for a long time. What is worse than living with the suspicion of a conspiracy is the finding out that conspiracy was there all along. It might distort your belief in what is real in life.
You will never walk alone
Last year, the 96 families and the Liverpool fans, with the help of others, came together once again to sign the petition that forced the parliament to open the files and reveal the truth. And I know they will get together again to make sure that justice prevails. Closure will not be complete without justice.
Hillsborough will soon be a memory and will be confined to the history book. But we will always remember April 15th 1989 as the day when Liverpool fans carried their crosses over their shoulders and, together, walked the Golgotha alone.
Gus Keri is on twitter @guskeri
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