The Hillsborough Stadium disaster of 23 years ago today remains a livid sore in the city of Liverpool. The ‘enemy within’, as The British Prime Minister of the time, Margaret Thatcher, regarded soccer fans, walked into the death chamber like lambs to the slaughter. The ‘slum game watched by slum people’ as the Sunday Times is stated to have so callously put it, like revolution, devoured its own children.
The organisational incompetence on the day was:
greatly compounded by the reaction of the police as events unfolded: essentially, to continue to treat the many injured people as a public-order problem rather than as victims in desperate need of hospital treatment. Police initially blocked attempts to move the injured on makeshift stretchers and allowed just one ambulance on to the pitch, even though many more waited outside. Only 14 of the dead survived long enough to make it to hospital ... The ultimate culprit in this dreadful situation was not the stupidity of the police at the ground - though they certainly deserve their share of the blame - but the wider atmosphere in which football fans were treated as no better than animals.
Despite this there are some from the political right who insist on calling Liverpool the ‘self pity city’ where grief is celebrated rather than experienced, where it is used as a self rewarding reminder ‘of how simply wonderful we are in the face of other people’s misfortunes.’ The misanthrope who authored this sentiment must have been so saturated in self-loathing that he has splashed the dearth of empathy within himself onto the canvas of humanity he treats with such disdain.
I guess this is the type of perspective that sees altruism as a malignancy that needs to be starved rather than fed; that views the rescuer who risks all plunging into a raging river as one intent on saving a drowning self-worth rather than a fellow human; prioritising pulling from a watery grave their own heroism, to be brandished as a trophy, rather than saving the life of another. This is simply a rallying call to forget dead bodies so that live bodies, those in authority responsible for the stadium disaster, can weaken the opprobrium that intensifies around this time. Move on nothing to see here and forget that anybody ever said ‘there would have been no deaths at Hillsborough if the authorities had not acted in the way that they did.’
No doubt, there is umbrage-taking at play, professional or otherwise. A bit of shroud waving by some allows the moral high ground to be claimed and stood atop, an advantage of sorts to be accrued for those in possession of the shroud. Grief, certainly at this distance removed from the event being grieved, cannot serve as a weapon to suppress dissenting opinions. The comedian Alan Davies was pilloried in some quarters for questioning Liverpool FC’s commitment to never taking to the field on the 15th of April, the anniversary of the deaths. There was outrage against this expression of an alternative view. For his thoughts Davies should not have felt the need to be contrite and offer a donation, which was rejected anyway, to the Hillsborough Justice Campaign.
I am far from convinced that refusing to play on the anniversary is the only way or even the appropriate way to honour those who died. It sits poorly against the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985 when Liverpool FC, fielding Kenny Dalglish the current club coach, not only continued to play but completed the game in which 39 Juventus fans lost their lives; fans whose bodies were still warm as the game progressed on the pitch in front of their sightless eyes.
The fans who assembled at Hillsborough this day back in 1989 did so to watch football being played not to be spectators at a non-event. Playing on the anniversary of their deaths rather than not playing would be a more fitting tribute to them. Turning out and making the special effort to play well on this important day would say a lot more in terms of respect than the easy option of not turning up.