Why Hillsborough debate was also a victory for ALL football fans in battle to be treated like human beings and not criminals

I can lay no particular emotional claim to what happened at Hillsborough on April 15, 1989.

None of the 96 who died were known to me personally. I was not at the game. I am not a Liverpool fan.

I wasn’t even in the country when the disaster happened. The first I knew about it was when I picked up a copy of El Pais at Chamartin Station in Madrid the next day and saw the terrible pictures from Sheffield staring out from the front page.

But like most other football fans - in fact, like most other human beings - I have felt a growing anger at the treatment of Hillsborough’s bereaved in the 22 years that have elapsed since the tragedy.

Anger at how parents have had to battle past layer upon layer of secrecy and deceit just to find out how their children died.

Anger at the lies that were told about the behaviour of Liverpool fans that day and the relentlessness of the calumnies that were aimed at them.

Anger that they were portrayed as the scum of the earth, an out of control rabble who were merely reaping what they had sown.

Anger that the fact that many of them acted like heroes, desperately trying to save the lives of the injured when the police and the emergency services fell into paralysis, was at best overlooked and at worst actively concealed.

Maybe that is why so many people felt a sense of catharsis on Monday night as they listened to a debate on the tragedy in the chamber of the House of Commons.

It felt as though, at last, the British establishment was having to face up to the reality of what had happened. It felt like, finally, the establishment, not football fans, was in the dock.

“It is to parliament’s eternal shame,” Brian Reade wrote in this paper yesterday, “that it took 22 years for Britain’s worst sporting disaster to be debated.

“It is to the nation’s shame that no one has been held to account, or apologised, and that the truth still lies hidden.”

Absolutely right, and part of the reason for all that is that the victims of Hillsborough were football fans.

Because politicians treat football fans with disdain that is only ever interrupted by fleeting periods of naked self-interest.

Sure, they’ll get behind a World Cup bid now and again because they think it might be a vote-winner. But that’s it.

For the rest of the time, football fans are like the infantry, expendable and mute, a group to be used and discarded.

Anybody who was a football fan in the 80s, for instance, knows instinctively that Hillsborough was not caused by fans.

It was caused by the system. It was caused by conditions at grounds. It was caused by the impotent policing that was the norm at so many stadia.

I remember being bent double over stanchions during crushes at the Baseball Ground and Filbert Street, feeling momentarily alarmed and then thinking it was funny and exciting.

I remember crushes on the way into grounds and near stampedes on uneven terracing after the final whistle had sounded. Hillsborough was football’s perfect storm of decay, neglect, complacency and incompetence.

That was why MP Andy Burnham, who has been such an eloquent voice in the campaign for full disclosure of official documents relating to Hillsborough, said he knew exactly what had happened as soon as he heard of events in Sheffield.

He was at the other FA Cup semi-final between Everton and Norwich City but his mind shot straight back to his own experiences as a supporter at Hillsborough and the stories he had heard of problems in the central pens at the Leppings Lane End.

I remember what it used to be like at our stadia before the Taylor Report, how fans were treated like animals. Or perhaps more accurately, how fans were treated like the enemy.

It’s much better now. Conditions have improved beyond recognition. Grounds are safe.

But still echoes of the old attitudes to fans remain. Footage of an elderly Manchester City fan being bullied by police and stewards at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday was evidence that football supporters can still be treated more like prison inmates than paying customers.

The current and long overdue debate over Hillsborough is about the ongoing search for a form of justice for those who died there in 1989.

But as an additional benefit, it may also serve to remind those now in authority that football supporters everywhere deserve to be treated with respect, not like hordes of escaped criminals.

***

The funeral of Jack Marshall, the football-mad little boy who died of a brain tumour last week aged six, will take place in Scunthorpe on Friday. His mum, Tracey, has asked that mourners turn up in their football shirts.

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