It was the autumn of 1989 when I started in this profession. It was a blur of learning, reporting and trying to write, but the over-riding memory is of the preoccupation, day after day, with a teenage boy on a life support machine.
Tony Bland had been crushed, like so many others, in the Hillsborough disaster five months earlier and his unspeakable injuries had left him in a persistent vegetative state. We reported on his family’s struggle simply to be allowed to withdraw life- prolonging treatment and permit him to die with dignity. That took them four years.
The family patiently put up with my questions throughout that bleak autumn, while contending with something that none who love an 18-year-old, in the way they loved him, should ever have to experience.
We wrote the stories up for the Liverpool Daily Post, in a city where the memories of Hillsborough were still so raw. Though it all now seems a lifetime ago, Tony’s is the name which returns to mind for me whenever questions of safety in a football stadium come up.
It would take 20 years for the authorities to conclude that there would be no prosecution of Sheffield Wednesday for the part they played in the gross negligence which claimed 97 lives in that disaster. By then, the club were under new ownership, so had effectively become a new organisation, free of criminal liability.
The Leppings Lane end will have its capacity reduced by 1,000 as a result of a safety review
Memories of Hillsborough disaster in that end that killed Liverpool fans in 1989 remain vivid
Wednesday’s club secretary Graham Mackrell was fined £6,500 for deciding that seven turnstiles would suffice for all 10,100 Liverpool fans, on that bright April day. Mackrell did not give evidence at his trial. He replied ‘No comment’ to all police questions.
That is a monumental weight of history for a club to carry around. The kind of moral and reputational burden you imagine would have made Sheffield Wednesday say ‘never again’ and would have sent a bolt of electricity through that club on January 7 this year, when Newcastle United supporters described their experience at Hillsborough before an FA Cup tie.
Those fans told my colleague Craig Hope of narrow access tunnels, non-existent crowd management and children in tears. A sense of being squashed. There was a terrible ring of familiarity.
But there was no electricity. There was not even the courtesy of a returned phone call from Sheffield Wednesday when some of us called to put the Newcastle fans’ testimonies to them.
Needless to say, there was no shortage of communication of that contemptible, contemporary kind for those of us who reported or referenced these testimonies. A tirade of foul, often anonymous abuse ensued from Twitter cretins too fragile or intellectually-challenged to see a genuine act of inquiry for what it is.
There cannot be one question too many to ensure there will be no more Tony Blands – no more Hillsboroughs – yet a warped sense of victimhood and loyalty removed the remotest care for fans of a different stripe.
The Twitter abuse took on a celebratory tone, a few weeks back, because of what Wednesday and Sheffield City Council described as a ‘review’ of the crowd management on the day in question. This was said to have found that all aspects of safety ‘complied’ with the club’s safety certificate. Only ‘minor recommendations’ had been made.
The Sheffield Star reported on this ‘strong’ review and a ‘robust’ 531-word statement on it from the club.
Wednesday’s chief operating officer Liam Dooley just ‘welcomed’ everything. Press release copy. There was less of that about in ’89. It was nonsense. A despicable and cynical whitewash, calculated to cover up the fact that the notorious Leppings Lane end had packed in hundreds more fans than it should have been doing, 34 years on from Wednesday presiding over British football’s darkest day.
The Leppings Lane end has a storied and unfortunate history in regards to football supporters
Newcastle fans complained of overcrowding in the Hillsborough away end back in January
Well, the truth is out now. The full details of the failings – which Wednesday told me they had not seen and Sheffield City Council refused to offer me a reply on – have been made public, though it has taken a Freedom of Information request by Newcastle United to drag them out.
‘Minor recommendations?’ The safety committee which examined the fans’ complaints concluded that 15 measures were needed. The Leppings Lane stand should be reduced from 4,700 to 3,700 – 1,000 fewer fans in a stand which does not even accommodate 5,000. Four new turnstiles should be added. Crowd safety consultants should be appointed. CCTV should be improved.
An apology to Newcastle United fans for a frightening experience would have revealed a little class but forget any notion of that. All we’ve had are those weasel words from Mr Dooley and others – with their vicious little subtext that says, ‘all is well, nothing to see here, you’re making a fuss’. What an affront to football. What an utter disgrace.
The cover-up suggests that nothing has changed where Wednesday are concerned. If this club had one ounce of humility and self-awareness, they would have cleansed the stain on their history years ago by bulldozing the godforsaken Leppings Lane stand. They would have rebuilt and renamed their entire stadium. There would be no ‘Hillsborough’.
That’s what happened at the Heysel Stadium, reconstructed and renamed the King Baudouin Stadium, a decade after the 1985 disaster in which 39 Juventus fans died.
Forget that notion, too. The fundamental structure of the notorious Leppings Lane end is still intact. So, too, the tunnel which is synonymous with the disaster — another haunting reminder of the sport’s darkest day.
Examine images of the Leppings Lane from now and then. You would think nothing malign had ever happened. Extraordinary, really. A scandal in plain sight.
In Liverpool, there will be an air of grim familiarity about all of this, given the obfuscation, backsliding and lies its people associate with the word ‘Hillsborough’.
When thousands of previously undisclosed documents relating to the tragedy were made public by the report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel in 2012, Sheffield Wednesday issued an apology to the families of those who had died. They actually lauded their own ‘totally transparent’ contribution to that process.
It was just another sequence of empty, sterile, choreographed words from a club which is full of them and for whom history clearly means nothing.
EVERTON SHOW THE WAY ON REFUGEES
The story of those who seek refuge within these shores became lost in that extraordinary blizzard of controversy about the right to tweet but it is still there, of course.
If only Everton had garnered as much publicity for the way they work, quietly, resolutely and without ceremony, on this monumentally complicated issue.
It was through them that I met a young man called Jacob Viera at Goodison Park five years ago.
The roll-neck top he wore didn’t entirely obscure the scarring to his neck caused by drug gangs who had tried to electrocute him, for refusing to carry their narcotics over the Kenyan border when he was travelling to play elite youth football.
He had been scooped up by weekly coaching sessions, run by Everton’s community department for displaced young people seeking refuge and asylum in the city of Liverpool. Jacob has since gone on to become a local referee and was last year appointed administrator to the Liverpool County FA.
It took more than a tweet to change his life.
LET’S HOPE WILFRIED WON’T DISAPPEAR INTO THE DESERT
There’s nothing that Saudi Arabia cannot buy but please don’t let it be Wilfried Zaha, a brilliant, experienced, exciting winger who has given Crystal Palace his best years but who, aged 30 and out of contract this summer, will be someone else’s brilliant acquisition.
If Zaha really covets their cash, then let his destination be Newcastle, not a place at Al-Ittihad, the doomsville in the same desert where Cristiano Ronaldo is playing out his time.