Tragedy that touched a nation's soul


Memories in football grow ever more shallow. Nothing matters more than the next match, and nothing less than what happened the day before yesterday.

Yet, as the third round of the FA Cup prepares to provide its annual stock of surprises and near-surprises, excitement and argument, the English game cannot escape the fact that it has entered the year which will mark the 10th anniversary of its worst tragedy.

Hillsborough touched the nation even more deeply than the crowd disasters at Bolton in 1946, Ibrox in 1971 and Heysel in 1985. The name is seared into football's soul much as the fireball which swept through the main stand at Bradford City four years earlier destroyed the complacency which refused to recognise that, in certain circumstances, football grounds could become deathtraps.

Ninety-five Liverpool supporters died at Hillsborough on April 15th, 1989, when a crush developed at the Leppings Lane End at the start of their team's FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest. The 96th victim, Tony Bland, died in March 1993 after being in a coma for nearly four years.

No doubt these details and many more will be recalled as the anniversary approaches. The bungled nature of the police operation and the controversy over the coroner's findings will be debated yet again.

The nation's leading tabloid will not want to be reminded of the day it went into the sewage business by blaming drunken Liverpool fans for causing the disaster.

To say that dwelling on Hillsborough now will reopen old wounds ignores the fact that, for the bereaved, the pain and anger have never gone away.

What has happened in football since then can have done little to assuage that anger. It was once the people's game and people died watching it, but events have conspired to take that game away from those whose support sustained it for season after season.

Since that terrible sunny afternoon in Sheffield, the way football in England is watched has changed out of all recognition.

Those who can afford season tickets and membership cards enjoy matches in an atmosphere of safety and comfort unheard of before the Taylor report on Hillsborough demanded all-seat stadiums and virtually guaranteed the onset of the Premier League. Yet an important bedrock of support, the fans who used to pack the terraces, has been ignored and left to watch matches on BSkyB television.

An ever-increasing obsession with money, the rise of the plc which has brought the wealthy even greater wealth, growing evidence that players' wages are spiralling out of control, the widening financial gulf between the Premiership and Nationwide leagues, and the danger of the domestic competitions being downgraded by an expanded European Champions League do not present a picture of a national game at ease with itself.

Only the Football Association believed that the Premier League was set up three years after Hillsborough for the benefit of the England team. Everybody knew that profit was the motivating force, and it is a bit rich to find the Premier League warning of another breakaway should the High Court in England rule the present Sky deal invalid, leaving the big clubs to negotiate their own television contracts.

That is a case of be-done-by-as-you-did if ever there was one.

For all the hype, the FA Cup has never recovered from Hillsborough. First the semi-finals were switched to Sunday, with the kick-offs staggered so both matches could be seen live on TV. Then penalty shoot-outs were introduced to decide ties after one replay.

Now this season's final will not be replayed at all. Should the scores be level after extra-time, the match will go straight into penalties, which would be a poor way to end the last Cup final at Wembley before the old stadium is demolished.

In 1989 the third round of the FA Cup produced the last significant surprise when Sutton United knocked out Coventry City, who had won the trophy two seasons earlier. Watford knocked out Newcastle United after three replays, Manchester United beat Queens Park Rangers after two.

The Cup was predictable that season and Liverpool and Everton headed towards a repeat of the 1986 final.

Amid the daily diet of controversy and confrontation, nothing stirred the nation quite so much as the sight of Brian Clough leaving the Nottingham Forest bench to clout a couple of pitch invaders.

When the semi-final draw paired Forest and Liverpool at Hillsborough, where they had met the year before, the only sensation was one of slightly world-weary deja vu.

All that changed when a policeman ran on to the pitch after six minutes to tell the referee, Ray Lewis, that spectators were dying behind the Liverpool goal.

A strong body of opinion felt that the FA Cup, like the match, should have been abandoned. This, after all, was what happened in France three years later after 15 spectators had been killed and 1,300 injured when a temporary stand collapsed in Corsica before a semi-final between Bastia and Marseille.

At Hillsborough, Graham Kelly displayed a rare show of anger as he put down the phone on a member of the FA executive who had asked if the tie could be played the following Wednesday. "You must realise that people have died here," he snapped.

Ten years later Kelly is no longer the FA's chief executive, Clough has retired and Kenny Dalglish, then the Liverpool manager, is out of work. But the images of that day remain stark and real and football will forget them at its peril.

Hillsborough will never be just another disaster.