Memories of a true tragedy


By Tim Charlesworth

The world of football is full of talk of, ‘the good of the game’ and other meaningless epithets.  Football is mostly, however, what economists describe as a ‘zero sum game’.  Every winner creates a loser.  If you get together a group of Arsenal devotees and a group of Tottenham devotees and put them in a room, they will tend to focus on their differences rather than the numerous things that they have in common.  It’s a curious thing to overhear a conversation between rival fans.  An undertone of teasing contempt is never far away.

As a result, it is not really true to speak of a ‘community’ of football supporters.  It is not often that football fans can find it in their hearts to admire each other.  However, I like to think that most of us have the humanity to empathise with, and admire the Liverpool fans, and the way that they have handled the tragedy of Hillsborough.

The Liverpool supporters were the victims of one of the most shameful attempted Police cover-ups I have ever come across.  The actions of the South Yorkshire Police would have been outrageous in a banana republic.  In a democratic nation, they are unforgivable.  I can understand people who make mistakes in their professional lives, even if those mistakes have terrible consequences.  But the attempt to cover it up and blame the Liverpool supporters can only be seen as criminal, and I hope the perpetrators feel the full force of British justice, even at this late stage.

The survivors and their families, despite the terrible effects of trauma, maintained a dignified, persistent, civilised and noble campaign to reveal the truth.  The finding of ‘unlawful killing’ at the inquest this week, was the final vindication of that battle.   I take my hat off to each and every person involved.  The 96 people who lost their lives, were people who went to a football match to cheer on their team.  It was a different world to the football of today, a world in which something as elegant, efficient and modern as the Emirates Stadium, couldn’t even be imagined.

As a teenager in the 1980s, I stood on the bleak North Bank terraces of Highbury with my schoolmates.  Those terraces were similar to the Hillsborough terraces in many ways (although, to their eternal credit, the Arsenal directors refused to install fences between the terraces and the pitch).  Those games were amongst the most memorably thrilling experiences of my young life.  They are experiences which future generations will never share.  

When the crowd surged forward, you went forward, carried in a wave of irresistible humanity.  You were acutely conscious that if you lost your footing (on the poorly surfaced concrete, complete with the occasional steps that gave the terraces their name), you were dead.  The people behind you were as helpless as you were, and couldn’t stop surging forward any more than you could.  If you fell to the floor you would be mercilessly trampled.  

Trying to stay on your feet whilst having no idea what direction you are going to move next, is a disconcerting experience.  Of course, most of the time, falling was not an option, because you were too tightly packed.  But every now and then, fleeting holes would open up in the swirling crowd, a bit like an eddy in a swollen river.  If you were on the edge of such a gap, falling suddenly became a real possibility and you needed to keep your wits about you.  Such anomalies prevented you from simply relaxing and ‘surfing the crowd’

As the crowd surged, it would be compressed and breathing would become momentarily impossible, but the moment would soon pass, and the sensation just added to the thrill.  The overall effect, was a thrilling one for teenage boys like me and my friends.  The excitement of football was combined with the raw masculinity of the terrace community and its inherent dangers.  

Add to that, the thrill of trying to get in and out of the ground and its environs, in the days when football was routinely an excuse for neo-fascists to engage in organised ‘leisure violence’ (how is this fun?).  Many a time, we dodged down side streets to evade charging opposition fans, screaming hate and viciousness, or colossal steel hoofed police horses.    It was a heady cocktail, and it felt like being initiated into a man’s world.

Deaths on football terraces were not unknown, but they were almost always as a result of people falling and being trampled.  As far as I can recall, we never seriously considered the possibility of being crushed to death whilst still standing.  The real risk of trampling accidents was on the way in and out of the ground.  When a crowd was moving purposefully, such as at the beginning or end of a match, sudden gaps could open, allowing one to fall to the ground if tripped or pushed.  The entry and exits were genuine moments of danger, especially when cramped staircases or tunnels were added into the mix.  

I suspect that the Liverpool fans at Hillsborough felt much the same.  Once they were in the ground, they probably felt safe.  It is often told that the problem started as a result of a Peter Beardsley shot striking the bar.  It was perfectly normal for a surge to accompany such an event.  As the victims felt the first pressure of the crush which would kill them, they probably weren’t overly concerned.  And  may not even have been particularly distracted from watching the game.  As the problem persisted, they would presumably have become aware that this was not a normal incident.

The Police have come in for much criticism for the way that they failed to respond to the danger in front of them.  It is a frequent complaint of the fans there that day, that the police ignored the tragedy developing around them.  I think the police were guilty of many failings that day, but the callousness of the pitchside officers, in the face of this disaster is curiously understandable.  The police would have been just as accustomed to crushes on football terraces as fans were.  They were probably no more sensitive to the real risk of death or injury from crushes than the fans.  

Before Hillsborough, such things were virtually unheard of during a match.  Whilst it quickly became clear to fans that this was not an ordinary crush, this turn of events would have been less obvious to the attending police officers.  It isn’t possible to see that someone is not breathing just by looking at them, especially not in the context of a noisy packed football stadium.  

And so, a tragedy of unimaginable proportions unfolded.  As a father of two girls, I will be forever haunted by the idea of Trevor Hicks watching, from one of the lateral stands, the disaster that killed his two beautiful daughters.

And after Hillsborough, the season continued.  After a break of 21 days, Liverpool played football again.  They won the replay of the fateful FA Cup semi-final, and fittingly went on to win the FA Cup Final, during which the Everton fans showed a touching solidarity with their opponents.  

In the league, Liverpool, the leviathans of the English game, put together a fabulous run, slowly reeling in the runaway leaders, George Graham’s young Arsenal team.  Because of the delay to the league fixtures resulting from the Hillsborough disaster, Liverpool’s final league game, to seal the double, was against Arsenal and was played after the FA Cup Final.  For us, it was all but hopeless. We had to win by two clear goals.  In the previous four seasons, Liverpool had lost six home games, only one of which was by two goals, and that was over three years earlier.  We hadn’t won there for 15 years.

It had been obvious for a while that the outcome of the league would hinge on this fixture and my friends and I planned to go.  It may seem unreal to modern supporters, but it was relatively easy to get tickets for this game, even though it was clearly the closest and most exciting finish to a league season of all time.  As the game approached, Liverpool seemed like a dark, distant and dangerous place to visit on a late Friday night.  Our courage was further dampened by the fact that we felt that this was mission impossible.  We resolved [sighs] to watch it on television.  Interestingly, even at this point, the danger of being crushed to death on a football terrace didn’t play any part in our decision.

I think the moment of Michael Thomas’ winning goal will never dim for me.  At the time, I thought of nothing but the pure joy it bought us.  I was a young man consumed by the narcissism of teenagehood.  My mind was full of the sense of a title thrown away and then rescued at the very last moment.  Our hopes were strangled, only to be reborn, and our 18 year wait for a title was ended (I was 16 at the time). 

But when I look back, with the wisdom of years, and the bitter tinge of grey hair, I reflect more and more on the vanquished.  The numbing disappointment that the Liverpool fans must have felt was, at once, both cruel and irrelevant.  It wasn’t even the worst thing that happened to them that season, and yet it seems pitiless to have heaped another source of sadness on to the Liverpool fans that day.  This was a time when the ‘double’ still held legendary status.  96 fans would have gone to Hillsborough dreaming of another step towards the Liverpool double of 1989.  I can’t help but feel sad that those dreams were not posthumously realised, snatched away in a single moment*.

Despite all our tribal differences, there will always be a place in my heart for the lost Liverpool 96.  And in that sense, at least, they never will walk alone.


*Interestingly, the iconic baseball team, the New York Yankees suffered a similar fate to Liverpool in the 2001 World Series, following the 9/11 attacks.  Many baseball fans consider this the greatest World Series of all time.  After a freakish run to the final, with numerous last minute heroic wins, the Yankees seemed destined to be world champions for an incredible fourth consecutive year.  It would be a fitting sporting tribute to the thousands of murdered New Yorkers.  Like 1989, the baseball season had been postponed to accommodate a period of mourning, and was finishing late.  With the series tied at 3-3, the Yankees led 2-1 late in the seventh, and deciding match.  They brought on Mariano Rivera, the greatest ‘closing pitcher’ of all time.  Rivera had to close out two innings. He predictably closed out the first, but in the bottom of the ninth and final innings, with national emotional pandemonium about to break out, the unthinkable happened.  Rivera conceded two runs to lose 3-2.  If you aren’t a baseball fan and hadn’t followed Rivera’s career, it is difficult to understand what a bizarre occurrence this was.  It was the equivalent of a Gus Ceasar clean sheet or an Alan Hansen hat-trick of own goals.  Just like Michael Thomas’ goal, you could never get away with making this stuff up.  Like Liverpool, the Yankees have never recovered their dominance of the sport.

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15 Replies to “Memories of a true tragedy”

  1. A very fine requiem , Tim . Well put and heartfelt . Thank you . Justice delayed is justice denied . If everyone was truthful from the beginning ,so much pain , heartache and ill feelings could have been averted . I’m just glad that the truth has come out . May they rest in peace .

    I had watched that game with a friend , a Spurs fan , who stayed up with me and was cheering on for Arsenal . As the game neared its end , I smiled when Steve McMahon was giving that one more minute geeing up sign to his team mates , and also that ‘deer caught in the car headlights ‘ look by John Barnes .

    My fiend asked me why I was smiling , and I remember telling him to the effect that ” This is ours now !” . And so it was that all of the Arsenal universe experienced that ‘Micheal Thomas Moment ‘ , and we all went ballistic . It was also the first 1st Division title win for me , having started to follow the club in earnest from the 1971-72 season.

    My housemate , a Liverpool fan did not want to watch the game and slept through all the noises we were making . He had asked me to record it , and when he woke up the next morning , he rewound the last few minutes , watched it and went off in a huff to work !

  2. A factor being lost but I think just as important is the fact that the FA chose to hold the game at Hillsborough despite the fact it did not have a ‘ground safety certificate’.

    Arsenal were not chosen for neutral games by the FA because Arsenal refused to install fencing between the terracing and the pitch.

    Had there not been fencing between pitch and terrace the fans at the front of the terrace at Hillsborough could have escaped on to the pitch and lived.

    No safety certificate and fencing 96 lives lost. We know about the Yorkshire police at long last, but what about the FA?

    I remember an interview on TV later that evening (possibly part of a news bulletin) in which a former police crowd controller at Arsenal was asked about the real life horror that had taken place.

    He said that he could not comment on what had happened but that afternoon at 2.20 pm there were around 3000 people in the ground at Highbury. By 3pm there were 39000 people in the ground. That’s 36 000 people entered the ground at the approximate rate of a 1000 a minute’.

    He said that this speed of entry was as a result of strict crowd control.

    Yorkshire police blamed the hooligan element which was a large part of football at that time and was the ‘mass media’ headline football news almost everyday at the time.

    Arsenal dealt with this problem in the ground by having ‘sin bins’. Offenders were locked in them and not allowed out until they had been interviewed by the police and the crowd had dispersed. By that time this would mean there wasn’t any one to fight with or against.

    Your sentiments are my sentiments. I lived in Liverpool for two years and have a great love for the city and its people.

    However when confronted with the question by locals ‘Which team do you support?’ Meaning Liverpool or Everton? I was honest and said ‘Arsenal’

    Such is Liverpool humour that I would either be given an acted pretend look of shire unbelief or a put down.

    One put down I remember was:

    ‘Oh he is from London. He can’t help it!’

  3. Nobody deserves to die or get killed when going to a football match.
    But when it comes to Liverpool I can only say: 1985 Heysel. Hillsborough was an accident, bad organisation, whatever.
    Heysel was murder.
    A group of Liverpool fans attacking a neutral part in the stadium: inexcusable!

    Sorry for the outburst but being from Belgium that is a scar in our football memory that will not easily go away.

    All fine and well that they got their justice. But what about the Belgian people who just went out to see a good match of football between two of the best teams in Europe at the time and never came back.

    Has Liverpool ever done anything about it? A serious question in fact as I am not aware of it. And no, putting flowers down every now and then is in my opinion not enough.

    Sorry for the rant and being a dissonant voice in this but since 1985 the name of Liverpool leaves a very sour taste in my mouth.

  4. But loved the article Tim. Like I said: nobody deserves to get killed when going to a football match. NOBODY!
    And a nice walk down memory lane.

  5. Despite all the injuries suffered to Coutinho, Origi and to a host of their players, Liverpool can still knockout Villarreal next Thursday night at their Anfield Stadium if all things being equal with them, can’t they?

    I watched the Europa League match between Shakhtar Donetsk and Sevilla. And I saw a Pgmob-like referee who refereed that match did many anti-Shakhtar refereeing. Many injury causing two footed hard tacklings by Sevilla players were committed on Shakhtar’s players, some of which should be a straight red card. But those Sevilla’s card offences were completely overlooked by the match center referee. As if that was not enough, he went on to award a late undeserved penalty to Sevilla without the match official behind the Shakhtar’s goal signaling for a Pen.

    I hope Uefa will not engage this referee for the return leg of Liverpool match against Villarreal at Anfield. Because this referee performance at Donetsk was a show of game biasness against Shakhtar. Can Juggen Klopp be trusted to get his Liverpool side to the final? We’ll see.

    Let the Police forced to depart this World of 96 souls of the Liverpool fans at Hillsborough in 1989 rest in our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen!

  6. Good to be reminded of Heysel. It hasn’t got a mention in all this coverage in the British press.

    Good points about the FA too. I’m glad that Arsenal didn’t put up the fences, even though it cost them the revenue from hosting matches.

  7. Banana republic?

    1:”The term was originally invented as a very direct reference to a “servile dictatorship” which abetted (or directly supported in return for kickbacks) the exploitation of large-scale plantation agriculture (usually banana)”

    2:”In modern usage the term has come to be used to describe a generally unstable or “backward” dictatorial regime, especially one where elections are often fraudulent and corruption is rife.

    3:By extension, the word is occasionally applied to governments where a strong leader hands out appointments and advantages to friends and supporters, without much consideration for the law.

    4:A banana republic can also be used to describe a country where a large part of its economy and politics are controlled by foreign powers or even corporations.”

    Now they all can be applied to any modern nation if you dig deep enough, tell me i’m wrong.

  8. May the souls of the 96 football supporters who lost their lives in Hillsborough & all the others that lost their lives just watching football rest in peace.

    Walter – I still remember the footage of the Heysel disaster & the Milan supporter waving a gun. It was not just Liverpool fans that caused the problems.

  9. Menace,
    yes that was terrible but that was long after the Liverpool “supporters” attacked the neutral part. If my memory is still correct they managed to find the Juventus scumbag and arrest him. The gun was an alarm pistol.

    I also would like to point out that as far as I can find Liverpool never did anything special to compensate the killed people. There has been paid some compensation but only by the Belgian governement, the Belgian FA and UEFA. Liverpool who delivered the hooligans paid nothing.

  10. I’d like to thank Tim for this piece particularly.

    When the verdict of the inquest came out I felt Untold should have a piece in relation to it, but I found I could only touch upon the issue and then move on. I couldn’t find the words.

    Tim has found them, and I’m glad Untold has found a way properly to cover this issue.

    On Heysel, Liverpool FC used to have a full page on their website which was easy to find and which spoke about the darkest day in the history of the club. It was, I felt, fitting and correct.

    There is still a page, under the new site, and it is linked from

    It is at but it seems a little brief to me. But these are very difficult statements to get right.

  11. Walter – while compensation is a gesture, nothing can bring back the family that was destroyed by totally unnecessary physical violence. It has no place in sport nor in society. Liverpool at that time were owned by a wealthy family. The impact of Heysel was felt by Arsenal as European football was denied for a few years. If I am not mistaken, it was also part of the reason for fences. Such a dreadful shame that a beautiful game has claimed so many lives across the world.

  12. Obviously mistakes were made on that tragic day but over the years some of the lines have been blurred.
    If you watch the footage outside the ground as a previous poster said the Police were faced with deciding to risk people being crushed to death outside or opening that gate to relieve the pressure there.
    We know what happened and the tragic consequences and the cover up afterwards was plain wrong.
    But the thousands of fans arriving late and drunk, many without tickets were as much to blame or more so for what subsequently occurred but this is now being airbrushed out.
    Whenever drunk fans are mentioned now we hear that those who died weren’t drunk indeed they were not but I think blame has to be equally shared between the Police the F.A, Sheffield Wednesday, the local safety authority who judged the ground fir for purpose and the late arriving fans who were basically uncontrollable trying to force their way in.

  13. John Boy. I am a bit sad to read your comments about drunken Liverpool fans. As far as I know, the allegation that the fans were ‘late and drunk’ comes only from South Yorkshire Police. If there is one party who has repeatedly demonstrated that their testimony about this disaster is unreliable, it is the South Yorkshire Police. I see no reason at all to believe that this testimony is true, and lots of reasons to think that it is not. The fans were late, but their lateness was mostly the result of traffic on the M62. There is no evidence to support the implication that they were late because they were sitting around drinking. If you look at the footage on youtube of the scene outside Leppings Lane that day, I see no evidence of drunken fans. I see fans singing (not a sign of drunkenness amongst football fans) and eager to enter the ground. If you looked at an Arsenal crowd from the late 80s, you would see much the same thing. Spirits were certainly high, as is to be expected on a sunny day, before such a big match. Undoubtedly some of them had had a drink. It is not unusual for football supporters, then or now, to have a pint or two before a game. Generally speaking, football fans don’t like to drink too much before a game as it makes them want to wee, and this causes them to miss parts of the game.

    Of course, the Liverpool fans did push. Football fans (including Arsenal) do push when in the middle of a crowd. This kind of pushing gets worse if they are anxious and missing a game that has already started. It is not unusual, and police forces need to plan for this kind of thing (one of the heartbreaking things about Hillsborough is that if the police had delayed the kick-off instead of opening the gate, all this could have been avoided). We don’t really see this kind of crush outside turnstiles at the Ems because it is so well designed, and the crowd is so sparsely distributed, but it was common at many grounds in the late 80s, including Highbury. I think the problem was caused by the accumulation of a thousand tiny pushes, rather than any outrageous behaviour. Even the South Yorkshire Police have never suggested otherwise. Human beings naturally stand is manner that makes it easier to tip their balance forwards than backwards. This means that once a crowd that is all facing in the same direction is moving forwards, it is remarkably difficult to stop. If you have ever been in a surging crowd, you will notice that it falls forwards easily and gracefully, but recovery is slow and cumbersome. It makes me sad to think that there must be several hundred Liverpool fans who know, or suspect, that in their anxiety to get in, they contributed one of these tiny pushes.

    However I look at the Hillsborough disaster, I find it impossible to avoid the conclusion, that the only reason that me and my friends didn’t die in this horrible manner, is nothing to do with how we behaved, or that we were Arsenal not Liverpool. I think we simply had the good fortune not to go to the wrong ground when the local police were having an off day.

  14. I am sure many of the police on that day ended up doing their best in chaotic circumstances.
    That was a tragedy of the time, circumstances, poorly designed stadium….with a history of such problems, poor crowd control. Nobody meant for people to die clearly.
    But, the coverup , like other cover ups….Savilles activities for starters seems beyond our comprehension. And it was not just senior police, that clearly went up through the media to the very highest levels of government at the time. Some viewed the South Yorkshire police as Thatchers own Pretorian guard. She used them to great effect against striking miners for starters. And she didn’t let them down when they needed help from the top over Hillsborough….her press secretary, Bernard Ingham had a few interesting things to say on the matter.
    Then, future politicians, including the ever pragmatic Tony Blair bottled a proper enquires.
    Can only admire the families, their supporters, and the likes of Andy Burnham and Teresa May for their work on this. Yes, those guilty of cover ups, perverting the cause of justice should be punished, whether they have retired on their nice pensions or not. But don’t forget the politicians for their role.

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