Sacrifices at Hillsborough are crucial part of Premier League story

Posted by ap507 at Apr 26, 2016 05:25 PM |
University of Leicester academics speak out following inquests’ verdicts

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 26 April 2016

A University of Leicester researcher who was at Hillsborough 27 years ago has spoken out following the announcement of the verdicts from the disaster’s inquests.

Writing in the Leicester Mercury, John Williams, University of Leicester senior lecturer in sociology said: “The very formation of the Premier League, the design of its glossy and safe stadia, and the change in attitudes of police and stewards to fans over the past three decades, owes a lot to what happened at a football stadium in very different conditions a generation ago. We can only now officially say what really took place on that awful day 27 years ago.

“Twenty-seven years: Hillsborough 15 April 1989. It seems like yesterday to me. I was a relatively young man then, excited at watching my club in an FA Cup semi-final on a sunny afternoon in Sheffield. This was normal enough – Liverpool FC were regulars at that time at English football's top table. Not any more: Leicester City have now taken over!

“What was not 'normal' - at least not by today's standards - was the crass arrangements made for fans at that football match: our awful treatment by the police, the terrible (and ultimately fatal) facilities on offer, and the poor performance of the rescue services.

“The new Inquest has finally confirmed that police mismanagement, gross mistakes, dangerous stadium facilities, an inexperienced and negligent match commander, and a basic lack of care for supporters, all contributed to a terrible disaster. Ninety-six people were lost, we can now finally say, unlawfully killed.

“Honestly, how long does justice need to take?”

Writing earlier in his book Red Men, John Williams charts how English football clubs had long displayed too little care in its treatment of football fans.

He says: “In the 1950s English football grounds were potentially highly dangerous places which were poorly regulated – hundreds of fans would often leave stadia before kick-off, afraid for their own safely. It was only good fortune and the care that supporters showed for each other which had avoided similar disasters since the 1946 tragedy at Burnden Park, Bolton in which 33 people had died.

“The 1980s in Britain was a much harsher social and economic climate altogether, and football crowds were more volatile, less consensual and rather less caring. Some commentators argued that Hillsborough was symbolic of a general attack by the British State on working class people in Liverpool and elsewhere in that decade. Certainly the role the South Yorkshire Police had played in the miners’ strike in 1984, the general condition of male football culture in England, and the antipathy Mrs. Thatcher’s government had shown towards football and football supporters, guaranteed the police a fair wind for their account. But perhaps more convincing were those explanations which suggested that the disaster was actually part of a planned general deterioration of ‘public’ facilities in Britain, a development which had also brought a range of recent fatal disasters on public transport, as neo-liberal Tory policies had prioritized the rich and the private over the poor and the public sector.

“Finally, it was also difficult to avoid the conclusion that the deaths were also in some way connected to much deeper-seated problems in masculinities and English terrace cultures and to poor relations between some young male football fans and the police in the 1980s. After all, the Sheffield ground was argued to be one of England’s best appointed stadiums, but this seemed mainly because of the way it was designed to deal with potential hooliganism. The English game was plagued by problems of crowd misbehaviour and had gone down what proved to be a fatal route in terms of crowd management: it was routinely treating all of its travelling customers as potential threats.”

John Williams added that the failures of the South Yorkshire police, but worse their cover up stories circulated in national newspapers and supported by the judicial system,  all contributed to the ‘disgraceful, inordinate delay’.

He concludes in his thought piece: “Football, of course, is a very different experience today. Fan safety is the watchword for police, the pens and fences used to corral supporters have long disappeared and, yes, some fans behave rather differently now. We have all learned from that terrible, sunny afternoon in Sheffield.

“So, when the Leicester City celebrations begin here in earnest, just spare a thought for those sons and daughters, fathers and uncles - fans like you and me - who went to a game 27 years ago only to be defiled and wrongly blamed by officials for their own unlawful killing. Because their sacrifice, properly acknowledged this week, is also a crucial part of this Premier League story.”

Simon Bennett, Director of the Civil Safety and Security Unit at the University of Leicester added: “The 1989 Hillsborough disaster was anticipated, and on multiple occasions. For example, a near-identical crowd-crush incident occurred on Hillsborough's Leppings Lane terracing during the 1981 FA Cup Semi-Final between Wolves and Tottenham. Had the authorities, governing bodies and football industry learned from such 'near-misses', the Hillsborough disaster might have been avoided.

“The 1989 Hillsborough disaster and 1971 Ibrox Park football stadium crowd-crush disaster in which 66 people died and 145 were injured suggest British society finds it difficult to learn from its mistakes. What interests me is why we find it so difficult to learn lessons and implement remediations. Systems-thinking may provide the answer.

“What I find most striking is the scale of the cover-up by our usually venerated 'blue-light' services, especially the Police (South Yorkshire) and NHS Ambulance Service (Yorkshire).

“Britain claims to have a mature, stable democracy underpinned by both formal and informal checks and balances on those in positions of authority (checks and balances include laws, an independent judiciary, parliamentary scrutiny, boards of inquiry, professional associations, special interest groups, regional and local government, an independent university sector, a free press, etc.)

“Yet despite these instruments of scrutiny the Police and Ambulance Service had no qualms about constructing a distorted account of the Hillsborough disaster. Their hubris is quite staggering.”

Dr Bennett added: “In recent times the British press has come in for a fair amount of criticism - no doubt some of it is deserved. But remember this: A free press may be a public's best hope of holding those in authority to account.

“Journalism can be absurd and grubby (witness the obsession with vacuous 'celebrities'). But it can also be revelational and remedial.”

In his contribution to the 2014 book Networks and Network Analysis for Defence and Security published by Springer, Dr Bennett suggests that the post-disaster cover-up proves that public servants sometimes act against the public interest.

In the text, Dr Bennett uses actor-network theory - a way of revealing the relationships and networks that people engineer to achieve a desired outcome - to demonstrate how police officers’ deviant behaviour was organised and sustained over a long period.

Dr Bennett said: “The police service’s culture of secrecy represents a latent error in the modus operandi of the UK police service. The Hillsborough cover-up brings this culture to light and teaches an important lesson—that effective checks-and-balances on the power of the State are essential for the safeguarding of liberty and justice. Such checks-and-balances include a free press and an accessible justice system.

“The prevailing structure, operating practices and culture of the United Kingdom's police service warrant investigation. The British public and honest police officers - who are in the majority - deserve better. The need for greater transparency and stronger oversight is self-evident.”

Dr Bennett says issues that warrant investigation include: police statements being privileged over other types of witness statement; the truth being distorted through the application of crude stereotypes; and the ‘operational freedom’ defence deployed by the UK police service. Dr Bennett suggests it may be used to conceal officers’ unprofessional behaviour.

Dr Bennett’s contribution to the debate about the Hillsborough cover-up and his support for the Hillsborough Family Support Group has drawn praise from MPs and prompted a response from the then coalition Government and South Yorkshire Constabulary.

Networks and Network Analysis for Defence and Security is available from Springer Publishing at or via the University of Leicester book shop. The book describes real-world applications of network analysis to support defence and security.


To contact John Williams email:

To contact Simon Bennett: email

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