The Long Shadow of Hillsborough

As the World Cup winds down, the inquest into the Hillsborough disaster that killed 96 football supporters continues in England. Bill Buford reported on the tragedy in his 1990 classic Among the Thugs, excerpted here.

This year, the 25th after of the Hillsborough disaster, has been one of ongoing mourning. On the anniversary in April, Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard dedicated an emotional victory to the 96 victims, one of whom was his cousin, the tragedy’s youngest. As the Tour de France wound through Sheffield in its second stage last weekend, Hillsborough was remembered. While the World Cup enters its final games, each featuring traditional soccer powers with legions of fans, Hillsborough is never far from the organizer’s minds. Buford’s account is as haunting today as ever, with passion for sport undiminished around the world—perhaps even heightened—and capacity for negligence still frightfully unabated. 

I got a flight to London the next morning and arrived around lunch time. It was an April Saturday afternoon, sunny and warm, the beginning of spring. Half-way home, I turned on the car radio and was reminded of the FA Cup semi-finals. The first one was between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, and it would be a good game. I thought I could get home in time to see it on television.

I didn’t make it. I was still on the road when the match began, and after two minutes the radio commentator said that something was wrong. There was trouble on the terraces behind the Liverpool goal. There was a sad, not-this-again feeling in his voice, a quality of resignation, that the supporters, especially those from Liverpool, were sacrificing a game of football to pursue their own violent entertainment: again. The play continued, but you could that that the commentator was not watching it, that he was trying to figure out what was happening on the terraces. He couldn’t definitely say that it was crowd trouble, but it was something serious, and the police were gathering near the spot. And then, in an instant, that was it: the game was over. The referee had been told by the police to stop play. That was about the time I arrived home. The stadium was about to become the most famous in the world.

I recently came by a copy of a video made by the West Midlands police, and it provides a useful way of examining what happened that day. The West Midlands force had been asked to carry out an investigation to decide whether criminal proceedings should be brought, and the video formed part of their evidence. It is a compilation drawn from at least seven different cameras. Since the deaths in Heysel Stadium, most grounds have closed circuit television, and video operators have been trained in filming crowd trouble.

The first video sequence, made a short time after the event, is background information; it shows the visitors’ entrance on the west side of the stadium and the arrangements for the supporters inside. A voice points out the seated section upstairs and the terraces below, paying particular attention to “pens” three and four. “The pit” is the area at the bottom of the “pens,” just before the perimeter fence. The fence itself is a high one—taller than a tall man—and is made of chain-link steel and bent back towards the terraces to prevent people from going over the top. Each “pen” has a small, locked gate. I have mentioned elsewhere that the experience of standing in the terraces is a herd experience, but I had not known, until watching this police video, that the accepted language used to describe the supporters’ arrangements—pen, pit—is borrowed from livestock farming. I also hadn’t known that the accepted term for the fencing is “caging” or “the cage.”

The second sequence comes from a video camera situated outside the entrance on the day of the match. The entrance consists of seven turnstiles housed in four small wooden huts. By 14.30—the time appears in the upper right-hand corner of the frame—there is a terrible crush: there are no queues, only people, several thousand of them, packed as closely as possible, pressing forward. By 14.34 the surging starts, and the crowd tumbles in one direction and then, like water when it crashes against a wall, comes tumbling back the other way. It is impossible for anyone to stand still. I, like any other supporter, have been in a crush of this kind and would have known, even with thousands of people in front of me, that, somehow, I would eventually get in. I might miss the first minutes of the match; I would never miss the match itself. I would never hear these words: the game is sold out; go home. The police would want me inside—whether or not there was room. It is an accepted practice. It is also an accepted practice to fudge the figures. It follows that, if more are admitted than have been officially deemed safe, then the numbers have to be adjusted accordingly. Besides, it’s a trade-off; the terraces are a cash business—no tickets, no receipts. You can’t pay tax on revenue that doesn’t exist.

By 14.39, the crowd, large to begin with, is considerably larger; in nine minutes, the crowd appears to have doubled, spilling out of the waiting area and into Leppings Lane behind it. There are now about six or seven thousand people, a thousand people for each turnstile. You can see panic on the faces of the policemen. They can’t hear each other and can’t be heard by any of the supporters. In the video you see one shouting ineffectually to one of his colleagues. A superintendent, grown agitated, suddenly starts pushing supporters out of the way for no reason other than an apparent need to have some room around him. Another policeman, on a horse, starts abusing people at random; he hits one in the face with his fist. There is spittle collecting on the corner of his lips, and his eyes dart from side to side. A policeman will later be thrown from his horse.

He couldn’t definitely say that it was crowd trouble, but it was something serious, and the police were gathering near the spot. And then, in an instant, that was it: the game was over. The referee had been told by the police to stop play.

The start of the match is twenty minutes away.

On the other side of the turnstiles, facing the supporters as they emerge from them, are two more video cameras. By 14.41, they are recording a steady traffic of supporters entering the ground by going over the roof of the ticket huts. Every now and then a policeman apprehends one of the lads as he lands after jumping from the roof, but there are too many coming over to be stopped. I find the sight extraordinary—I count about a hundred supporters before I stop counting—and the little huts are dwarfed by the people swarming around them.

I also find myself studying the legitimate, paying supporters. Each one emerging from the turnstiles shows some sign of what he has just been through. His clothes are crushed or crunched up. If a supporter is wearing a sweat shirt, the sleeves have been pushed up his arm. His trousers are askew and need re-arranging; his shirt has been twisted round and has to be tucked in again. His hair is a mess and he runs his fingers through it. Several supporters pat their clothing to confirm that they haven’t been pickpocketed; one emerges holding his ribs. Most of the supporters then go straight into the ground, but many—just less than half, it would appear—linger for a while. They have now been admitted, and, with the match a few minutes from starting, they can afford to wait for a short time. They stand around, catching their breath, having left one crush behind, about to enter another inside. It is as if they are delaying the next encounter, putting it off for a minute or two. In fact, from 14.30 until the stadium is cleared about an hour later, this interim waiting area, this no man’s land, will be the only place where a supporter can claim that his body belongs to him—where he can govern its movements—and not to the crowd.

These two video cameras also record the supposed “cause”—minutes before the start of the match—and much footage is given to it: a blue gate, normally used as an exit, is opened and it allows people to come rushing through, forcing their way into “pens” three and four of the terraces, even though both are filled past capacity. But can this blue gate be the cause? I rewind the video; true; the gate is opened and a large number of people are admitted without tickets. But there is more. I slow down the video; I let it proceed frame by frame; I look at the faces. I know these people. I have seen them endlessly. Each one entering that gate is prepared for the experience he is about to undergo. He has been educated. He knows what he is. A lad knows what is expected of him, how he will be seen, what his value is. A history of Saturdays, a culture of Saturdays, has taught him that he is pocket money for the organization that will shortly pack him as closely together with the other lads as is humanly possible. He is an item of cash flow. He knows that he will be caged, locked up, held in by spikes and barbed wire. He knows, too, that the police know his face, that it is endlessly replicated in an endless vault of police videos, an always-accessible archive that could prove in an instant, if proof is ever needed, that he is a criminal. When he passes through this blue gate (or through the turnstile or over the roof of the ticket hut), he looks neither left nor right but straight ahead. In view is Tunnel A, the long dark passageway that, rising slightly, then slopes into the pit below, and he is already a member of a crowd. He has changed in this way so many times that he doesn’t even think about it. There is little self-awareness; hardly a choice; no moment when he abandons volition or control or identity. He is gone, climbing slightly as the passageway rises, dropping slightly as it slopes, gaining speed, moving fast, pushing on the bloke in front, being pushed by the bloke behind, herd speed, unthinking speed. There is no room, but there is always no room—it doesn’t call for a moment’s thought—as he presses on, crushing and being crushed, doing as he is being done.

The match has just begun.

The crowd on this particular day is a large one—this is a Cup semi-final, after all—but, in most respects, the scenes both outside and inside the gate are not remarkable. This, as I have tried to show repeatedly, is how people attend football matches. This is normal. It is only the ending that is different and that is because ninety-five people died. I don’t want to relive that ending, except to mention one last thing, the work of a particular camera. It is my last digression.

Its footage begins at 15.05 and lasts for eleven minutes. Unlike the other cameras, this one—the seventh in the evidence—is hand-held, and the operator, walking back and forth before the pen, is using it to find out what has happened: no one seems to know yet. The match has just been stopped, and the press photographers are starting to gather round. It would appear that a few police still believe that they have been called over to stop a pitch invasion. One youth, who has ventured too far on to the playing field, has had his arm twisted behind his back.

In the background, you can hear a chant: It’s a shitty ground. It is weak and breathless; this is at 15.06. There will be no more chants.

A policeman—a big, round-shouldered man, with a large flat face—has seen something and steps up close to see what it is. The video camera follows. It appears to be the concerned expression on the policeman’s face that has attracted the operator; he is using the camera unusually, like a pair of eyes, and it seems possible to follow his thoughts.

The policeman leads the operator to the front corner of the cage. This is the point where one “pen” ends—“pen” three in fact—and the next “pen” begins. The next “pen” is not crowded, and the people there are trying to rescue those caught in “pen” three. You then hear someone shouting: “Open that gate,” and the camera swings in the direction of the voice. It belongs to a lad in his early twenties, dressed in jeans and a black-and-white check jumper. He is standing in the uncrowded “pen” and is upset by what is taking place in the neighbouring one. He is angry. “It’s my fucking little brother,” he says. “Open your fucking gate...” His voice is squeaky and full of emotion. The camera swings to the right. There is no gate. It swings back to the lad in the jumper. He is now screaming at the policeman, pointing a finger at him. The camera swings back to the policeman: he is helpless; he is trying to tell the lad in the black­ and-white check jumper that he can do nothing, that it is not his gate, that there is no gate, but the lad doesn’t understand. The camera drifts to the right of the policeman, to “pen” three, and there is a boy crushed into the corner, with his arms above his head. Someone tries to reach over to pull the boy up by his hands, and the boy seems to respond but then his hands slip down, limp, as though he is asleep and doesn’t want to be wakened. His lower lip looks bloated, and his expression is one of drowsiness.

In the background, you can hear a chant: It’s a shitty ground. It is weak and breathless; this is at 15.06. There will be no more chants.

It is 15.07 and this is the first hard look at what has happened, and the camera becomes a little erratic. It swings back to the lad in the jumper. He is calling the policeman a scumbag, a fucking scumbag. The abuse seems so light and ineffectual against the power of the feeling that it is trying to express: “It’s my fucking little brother.” The camera swings back to the right, for the boy, but he is not there. The camera rocks from side to side. It swings back to the left—nothing—and then once again in the direction of the boy. He is not there. The camera is lowered and focuses on a small hand clinging to a piece of the fence. The operator then walks a few paces, to get another angle, but, having made his way past a policeman, still can’t get an image. His equipment, meanwhile, is starting to pick up bits of background speech, which I notice only on my third viewing of the video.

“I don’t believe it,” a voice says.

“Look at that,” another says.

“They’re all collapsed in here.” This one is high pitched, uncomprehending.

A man steps in front of the camera. He is in his twenties—good looking, with dark hair, wearing a bright red shirt. He wants the attention of the policewoman crouching before the fence, and as he taps her on the shoulder, his gaze follows hers into the crowd. He then touches the sides of his head with the tips of his fingers—he does this very delicately—and his face crumples. “Oh, my God,” he says. He turns in the direction of the camera and then back to the crowd. “Oh, my God,” he says again. The camera follows the line of the lad’s vision and then it goes wild. The distress is manifest. The camera swings left, left again, and then right. The operator walks away, stops and turns for one more look—confirmation? duty?—and enlarges the image, but it is too much and the camera is rapidly thrust in the direction of the ground, at the operator’s feet. It is brought up again, sharply, but avoids the scenes directly in front of it and focuses, instead, on someone escaping by going over the top of the fence. The camera dwells on his buttocks. It then swings back in the direction of the lad with the black-and-white check jumper—he is still there, with so much distress, so much unhappiness in his eyes—and whirls round again towards the corner: his little brother is gone. Left, right, and then out towards the pitch, up to the sky, and then back again, dwelling, accidentally, on the face of another young boy who falls at the operator’s feet, but the boy is expressing terrible grief, and you can tell that the cameraman is unhappy to have come upon this, that it is wrong to be intruding on this grief, and the camera swings away again—up and then to the left—and finds a policeman. It is possible, I felt, to infer the operator’s will, his determination not to move the camera. It focuses on the policeman; it stays with the policeman, although the policeman is engaged in a fruitless, desperate act: he is trying to pull down the fence. No one is helping him. He has not said a word to any of the police alongside him. He has no tools. He is trying to pull the fence down with his hands—his fingers are wrapped round the steel mesh of the chain link—but the fence will not come down. On the other side of the fence, someone is dying; someone is dead; but the fence will not come down. He pulls, but nothing happens. He pulls and pulls and pulls and pulls.

Hillsborough: the most famous stadium in the world. What happened there confirmed something in me. There was something inevitable about the ninety-five dead, relentlessly logical, even overdue. I found it eerily appropriate to have turned on the radio then. I had left DJ so precipitately because I had become surfeited by his company, by him, by his life, by his culture; I had decided that I had seen enough; and then to have discovered that I was turning on the radio just as the lads were starting down Tunnel A: I felt I had reached a resting place. My adventure had come full circle.

There is such a raw terrible power in the crowd. Fascists and revolutionaries understand its power. The National Front knows its potential and how rare it is to see that potential realized and how difficult it is ever to control it. A small discovery: I recently learned that Mussolini and Gustave LeBon, the father of crowd theory, were great correspondents, mutual admirers: Mussolini re-read LeBon’s book every year; LeBon praised Mussolini’s iron will, his traits as a leader, a commander of crowds. Mussolini understood the crowd and knew to respect its power. It was football—its administrators, its cowboy owners and operators and the lad culture that has built up around it—that didn’t understand either the crowds it was creating or the terrible, killing power that was in them.

At the time of the book's publication, the death toll was 95. It was raised to 96 in 1993 when one victim was taken off life support.