With 96 deaths and 766 injuries, Hillsborough remains the worst sporting disaster in British history.


Here, sports historian Simon Inglis explains how the Hillsborough disaster unfolded and why the legal battle to prove that Liverpool fans were unlawfully killed took more than 27 years…

Why Hillsborough?

Throughout the 20th century, the FA Cup – established in 1871 and arguably the world’s most famous domestic football competition – attracted bumper crowds. Attendance records were common. Wembley Stadium would not have been created, as it was in 1922–23, had it not been for the Cup’s extraordinary appeal.

Traditionally, cup semi-finals were played at neutral grounds, one of the most popular being Hillsborough, home of Sheffield Wednesday. Despite a close call when 38 fans were injured during a semi-final in 1981, Hillsborough, with its capacity of 54,000, was considered one of Britain’s finest grounds.

As such, in 1988 it hosted another semi, Liverpool v Nottingham Forest, without incident. It therefore seemed the obvious choice when, coincidentally, the two clubs were drawn to meet in the same fixture a year later, on 15 April 1989.

What went wrong on the day?

Despite having a larger fanbase, Liverpool, to their annoyance were, as in 1988, allocated the smaller Leppings Lane End of Hillsborough, consisting of a seated tier accessed from one block of turnstiles, and a terrace for 10,100 standing spectators, accessed by just seven turnstiles.

Even by the standards of the day this was inadequate and resulted in more than 5,000 Liverpool supporters pressing outside as the 3pm kick-off approached. Had the start of the match been delayed, the crush may well have been managed. Instead, the South Yorkshire Police’s Match Commander, David Duckenfield, ordered one of the exit gates to be opened, allowing 2,000 fans to rush through.

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Those who turned right or left towards the corner pens found room. However, most headed unwittingly, with no warnings from stewards or the police, to the already packed central pen, accessed via a 23m-long tunnel.

As the tunnel filled, those at the front of the terrace found themselves pressed up against steel mesh perimeter fences, erected in 1977 as an anti-hooligan measure. Incredibly, with fans patently suffering within full view of the police (who had a control room overlooking the terrace), the match kicked off and continued for nearly six minutes until a halt was called.

Ninety four people died on the day. Two died subsequently. Another 766 were injured.

Liverpool fans try to escape
Liverpool fans try to escape the crush that developed at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield on Saturday 15 April 1989. (Photo by Roderick Smith/Alamy Stock Photo)

Who were the victims of the Hillsborough Disaster?

As recorded by a memorial at Liverpool’s Anfield ground, Hillsborough’s youngest victim was 10-year-old Jon-Paul Gilhooley, a cousin of the future Liverpool and England star, Steven Gerrard. The oldest was 67-year-old Gerard Baron, a retired postal worker. His older brother Kevin had played for Liverpool in the 1950 Cup Final.

Seven of the dead were female, including teenage sisters, Sarah and Vicki Hicks, whose father was also on the terrace and whose mother witnessed the tragedy unfold from the adjacent North Stand.

Jon-Paul Gilhooley's funeral
The parents of Hillsborough’s youngest victim, 10-year-old Jon-Paul Gilhooley, at his funeral in April 1989. (Photo by Manchester Daily Express via Getty Images)

Who was responsible for the Hillsborough disaster?

In his Final Report, in January 1990, Lord Justice Taylor put forward a number of recommendations, the best known of which was for all senior grounds to be converted to seating-only. But just as importantly, he also imposed on the football authorities and clubs a far greater responsibility for crowd management, while at the same time urging the police to be better trained and to balance control of the public with fostering positive relations. As many of newly emerging football fanzines of the time argued, innocent, law-abiding fans were fed up of being treated like hooligans.

Professor Phil Scraton, whose damning account, Hillsborough – The Truth was published 10 years after the fateful day, echoed many when he questioned those officers manning the fences. “The screams and desperate pleas… were audible from the perimeter track.” Other commentators noted how brutalised local officers had become as a result of the Miners’ Strike, five years earlier.

But the harshest spotlight fell on the police’s Match Commander, David Duckenfield. He had been allocated the task only 19 days beforehand, and this was his first major game in control.

Injured Liverpool fan at Hillsborough
An injured Liverpool fan at Hillsborough. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

How did The Sun newspaper become part of the story?

Based on initial briefings by the police, The Sun laid the blame for the Hillsborough disaster squarely on Liverpool fans, accusing them of being drunk, and in some cases of deliberately hindering the emergency response. It alleged that fans had urinated on a policeman, and that money was stolen from victims. Overnight The Sun achieved pariah status on Merseyside.

'Do not buy The Sun' Liverpool taxi
A City of Liverpool taxi with 'Do Not Buy The Sun' emblazoned on its side. (Photo by EnVogue_Photo/Alamy Stock Photo)

What was Margaret Thatcher’s reaction to the Hillsborough disaster?

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was no admirer of football. On the contrary, in response to increasing hooliganism at games during the 1980s her government was in the process of enacting the controversial Football Spectators’ Act, requiring all fans to join a compulsory identity card scheme. Mrs Thatcher visited Hillsborough the day after the disaster with her press secretary Bernard Ingham and Home Secretary Douglas Hurd, but spoke only to the police and local officials. She continued to back the police’s version of events even after the Taylor Report exposed their lies.

Nevertheless, as the flaws inherent within the Football Spectators’ Act now became apparent, its terms were changed to place the emphasis on stadium safety rather than on spectator behaviour. But Mrs Thatcher’s disdain for football was never forgotten and, fearing a public backlash, many clubs refused to allow a minute’s silence to mark her death in 2013. Sir Bernard Ingham, meanwhile, continued to blame Liverpool fans until as recently as 2016.

Margaret Thatcher visiting Hillsborough Stadium
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visiting Hillsborough Stadium the day after the disaster. (Photo by Derek Hudson/Getty Images)

What happened after the Hillsborough disaster?

Much to the pain of the victims’ families, the legal process to establish the facts and ascribe guilt has endured over 30 years.

In 1991 a jury in the coroner's court found by a majority verdict of 9­–2 in favour of accidental death. All attempts to revisit that verdict were stymied. In 1998 the Hillsborough Family Support Group launched a private prosecution of Duckenfield and his deputy, but this too was unsuccessful. Finally, in the 20th anniversary year the government announced that a Hillsborough Independent Panel would be set up. This took three years to conclude that Duckenfield and his officers had indeed lied in order to deflect blame onto the fans.

A fresh inquest was then ordered, taking a further two years before the jury overturned the original coroners’ verdict and adjudged in 2016 that the victims had in fact been unlawfully killed.

Duckenfield eventually faced trial at Preston Crown Court in January 2019, only for the jury to fail to reach a verdict. At his retrial later that same year, despite having admitted to lying, and with barely any reference to the Taylor Report findings, to the incredulity of the Hillsborough families Duckenfield was acquitted on charges of gross negligence manslaughter.

Hillsborough flowers
Flowers in the goal at Hillsborough to commemorate the 96 lives lost, April 1989. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Who was Anne Williams and what was her connection to the disaster?

Refusing to believe the official record of her 15-year-old son Kevin’s death at Hillsborough, Anne Willams, a part-time shop worker from Formby, fought her own relentless campaign. Five times her pleas for a judicial review were turned down until in 2012 the Hillsborough Independent Panel examined the evidence she had gathered – despite her lack of legal training – and overturned the original verdict of accidental death.

With evidence from a policewoman who had attended her badly injured son, Williams was able to prove that Kevin had remained alive until 4pm on the day – long after the 3.15pm cut off point set by the first coroner – and that therefore the police and ambulance service had failed in their duty of care. “This is what I fought for,” she told David Conn of The Guardian, one of the few journalists to cover the entire legal saga. “I was never going to give up.” Tragically, she died from cancer just days later.

Hillsborough campaigner Anne Williams
Hillsborough campaigner Anne Williams arrives for the Hillsborough disaster memorial service at Anfield, marking the 24th anniversary of the disaster in 2013. (Photo by Peter Byrne/PA Archive/PA Images)

Have the lessons of Hillsborough been learned?

On the legal front, seemingly not. Campaigners’ attention has now turned to the promotion of a ‘Hillsborough Law’. If passed, the Public Authority (Accountability) Bill would put the onus on public servants to act at all times in the public interest, with transparency, candour and frankness, and for bereaved families to gain funding for legal representation instead of having to raise legal fees themselves. But a second reading of the bill has been delayed – the bill has not progressed through parliament since 2017.

Hillsborough campaigners warn that the same issues that obstructed their efforts are now being repeated in the case of Grenfell Tower.

Listen to architect Peter Deakins discussing his involvement in the creation of the Grenfell tower block and considers its place in the history of social housing in Britain:

Has stadium safety improved since the Hillsborough disaster?

Hugely. The Taylor Report recommended that major grounds be all-seated after 1994, and that the role of local authorities should be overseen by a newly formed Football Licensing Authority (since renamed the Sports Grounds Safety Authority). A raft of new measures relating to medical needs, radio communications, stewarding and safety management has now become standard. Not least is the requirement that safety is now the responsibility of stadium operators, not the police. All FA Cup semi-finals are now staged at Wembley.

Before 1989 there had been tragedies at Ibrox Park, Glasgow in 1902 (26 dead), Bolton in 1946 (33 dead), Ibrox again in 1971 (66 dead) and Bradford in 1985 (56 dead). In between there were dozens of other isolated fatalities and near misses.

Since Hillsborough there have been no major accidents at British football grounds. But as Taylor himself warned, the greatest enemy of safety is complacency.

Simon Inglis is the author of several books on sporting history and stadiums. He reported on the aftermath of Hillsborough for The Guardian and Observer, and in 1990 was appointed a member of the Football Licensing Authority. He has edited two editions of The Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds, and since 2004 has been editor of the Played in Britain series for English Heritage (www.playedinbritain.co.uk)


This article was published by HistoryExtra in April 2020