Tag Archives: tragedy

The Hillsborough Disaster Warnings That Weren’t Heeded – by Rob Atkinson

Hillsborough - an Anfield tribute

Hillsborough – an Anfield tribute

Incredibly, 27 years have flashed past already, since that awful spring day in 1989, when 96 football fans turned up to follow their team towards Wembley – and never came home again. I was one of a paltry 14,915 at Elland Road that day, watching Leeds United eke out a 1-0 home win over Brighton as Sgt. Wilko’s first half-season meandered to an uneventful close. When the news filtered through that there had been “trouble” in the semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, the initial reaction was as predictable as it was wide of the mark: “the scousers are at it again.” Heysel was still fresh in the memory, English clubs were still banned from Europe – and nobody judges football fans quite like other football fans (or, at least, so we thought until the Sun got going). We were tolerably certain, as a bunch of Leeds supporters, that the Liverpool fans had caused more bother, and we glumly predicted another indiscriminate backlash that would envelop us all.

As we were on our way out of Elland Road, though, the full, awful impact started to hit home. There were deaths – people had actually died at an English football stadium – something that hadn’t happened on anything like this scale before. Apart from the Bradford fire – a very different disaster – the only comparable event in England had been the Burnden Park tragedy at Bolton, when 33 had lost their lives in a crush at a hopelessly inadequate ground with over 85,000 attending an FA Cup quarter final. That had been well over a generation before, in 1946. Surely, it couldn’t really be happening again, on an even greater scale, in the shiny bright late eighties?

But as we looked on in horror, the TV and radio news brought increasingly sombre statistics while the death toll steadily mounted – and later the sheer ghastliness of the event would be magnified as the tale of criminal incompetence and official negligence was revealed – and as the filthy end of the press, abetted by weaselling functionaries in Government and the Civil Service, jumped on the “blame the fans” bandwagon that other football supporters had vacated as soon as the scale and nature of the catastrophe became apparent.

If you were a Leeds United fan, a chill ran through you when you thought about what had happened; when you realised that this had, indeed, been a disaster waiting to happen. The Hillsborough Stadium was so oriented that the organising authorities found it easier, more convenient, to allocate stands to the fans of opposing semi-finalists based on where the bulk of those fans were travelling from. So, in 1989, Forest got the large Kop End, while the much larger Liverpool contingent were shovelled into the Leppings Lane End behind the opposite goal. It was the same the year before, when the same two teams contested the 1988 semi-final. And, similarly, in 1987, when Coventry of the Midlands faced Leeds United of the North, the greater Leeds numbers found themselves packed tight in Leppings Lane, while the smaller Coventry band enjoyed the wide open spaces on the Hillsborough Kop.

So two years prior to the Hillsborough Disaster, I and thousands of others were packed into the smaller Leppings Lane End on that April the 12th of 1987. The atmosphere was electric; it was United’s first FA Cup semi for ten years and Billy Bremner‘s men had been in terrific form as they challenged for a double of the Cup and promotion to the old Division One. We were jammed in like sardines on that terrace; looking up you could see fans climbing out of the back of the crowd, up over the wall and into the upper tier of the stand where space was more freely available.

Down on the packed terrace, it was swaying, singing fever pitch from before the kick-off right through to the heart-breaking climax of extra time. You weren’t an individual, you were part of a seething mass that moved as one, shouted and sang as one and breathed – when it could – as one. When Leeds scored their two goals, it was mayhem in there – you couldn’t move, you couldn’t breathe, you just bobbed about like a cork on stormy waters, battered by the ecstasy of the crowd, loving it and, at the same time, just a bit worried about where your next gulp of oxygen was coming from. Leeds took the lead early, David Rennie scoring down at the far end. That shattering celebration was topped when, having gone 2-1 behind, Leeds clawed it back right in front of us as Keith Edwards headed an equaliser and the United army exploded with joy. It was the single most jubilant and yet terrifying moment of my life to that point.

Later, after the match was over, as we trailed away despondently from the scene of an heroic defeat, there was time to reflect on what had been an afternoon of highs and lows, with the physical reaction of that epic few hours inside a pressure cooker swiftly setting in. With the benefit of twenty-twenty hindsight, it’s easy enough now to look back over twenty-nine years and think: “Yes, we were lucky.” Lucky that the incompetence threshold wasn’t passed that day when we were there. Lucky that enough of the terrace fans got into the upper tier to relieve the pressure ever so slightly – was that a factor?  So lucky that it wasn’t us, when it easily could have been. Lucky, ultimately, to be alive and kicking still. The warning signs were there – they just weren’t perceived by those of us – the fans – for whom it had just been another somewhat uncomfortable but thrilling spectator experience. That those signs weren’t recognised or heeded by the people responsible for public safety is a far more damning fact.

Poignantly enough, the luck we’d had that day wasn’t shared by 96 Liverpool supporters two years later. They set off happily, to support their heroes – and, tragically, they never returned. Twenty-seven years on, the wait for justice has been torturous for all concerned. The families and friends left behind, veterans of over a quarter of a century of grief and loss, have never given up their courageous fight, despite cover-ups and official brick walls, despite scurrilous press coverage which reached an obscene and disgusting low point with the Sun – that vanguard of the gutter press – and its sickening lies. 

Now, there is an inquest verdict at last. We have the official findings of unlawful killing and, surely there is finally justice for The 96. And indeed for all of the friends and family they left behind. Yet, even now, with the South Yorkshire Police Force unreservedly accepting the inquest findings, we still have the likes of Thatcher aide Bernard Ingham refusing to apologise for his own scandalous remarks in the wake of the disaster, now utterly discredited as he himself has been. There is no remorse or regret from Ingham, who stands as a symbol of official ignorance and deceit. All he is good for now, this bitter, bigoted old man, is sitting at home and growing his comedy eyebrows.

Twenty-seven years is far too long for anyone bereaved of their loved ones to wait – but justice is worth waiting for, if only so that the dead can sleep more peacefully and the living can have closure of a sort – and move on with the business of being alive. And – as a footnote – how appropriate it would now be if Liverpool FC could go on to win the Europa League after that thrilling victory over Borussia Dortmund – just for the families, the friends and those that were lost on that fateful day and in its aftermath..

There could be no finer or more fitting tribute to The 96, surely, than this long-awaited justice that has been served today – and the return of the Champions League football to Anfield.

Let it be.

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Wes Sneijder and His Galatasaray Knives; Vicious, Malicious or Just Stupid?   –   by Rob Atkinson

Wesley Sneijder on the Taksim Square anniversary weekend - stupid or evil?

Wesley Sneijder on the Taksim Square anniversary weekend – stupid or evil?

Another of those mind-boggled moments this morning, when I saw the picture above. Is this for real? Can anyone really be so stupid, vicious or just plain wicked as to pose that tweet on this weekend, above all others? It would be crassly insensitive at any time – on the 15th anniversary weekend of the murder of Chris and Kev, it simply defies belief.

It’s not automatic simply to assume that Wesley Sneidjer – a player who, as far as I’m aware, has no particular grudge against Leeds United – is having some sort of warped go at the club or the fans. He may well simply be exhibiting a Kewell-esque level of dim stupidity, or lack of thought and understanding. In common with so many footballers, Sneijder may not be exactly overburdened with brains. Even so, this is a low and horrible thing to become involved with, at this particular time, as we prepare to pay our 15th anniversary tributes to our murdered brothers.

And the thing is – someone involved is well aware of the implications and the back story here. Footballers don’t do anything on their own beyond, in some more advanced cases, tying their own shoelaces. There’s an army of marketing people, advisers, agents, scum like that. Somebody knows all too well the effect of that tweet on the Leeds United world. They’ll also be well aware of the amusement it will afford to fans of certain clubs who view this kind of thing with sick and moronic relish. Marketing and publicity are arts without a soul or a conscience. If they can sell their product by appealing to the very worst in the malign minority, then they’ll do it – and they’ll do it knowingly – and to hell with the feelings and hurt of those directly or indirectly affected. That’s a kind of evil in itself.

All of that might make us a little more tolerant and understanding of the comparatively harmless phenomenon of mere stupidity, as exhibited that time by Chuckle Brothers Keys and Gray – or indeed by our one-time hero turned traitor and hate figure Harry Kewell. It’s just odd, don’t you feel, that this particular sort of “stupidity” generally manifests itself to the detriment and insult of Leeds United. You don’t get similar “errors of judgement” being made where Man U or Liverpool are concerned – or do you? You tell me.

And please – if anyone is of a mind to justify any of this crap by saying “Well, you lot sing about Munich” – spare me. I’ve heard it all before. It’s not even true, these days – and even if it were, that’d be no reason to heap misery on the heads of people who will be mourning this weekend, remembering loved ones who went to see a football match and never came home. You don’t visit the sins of the idiot minority upon innocent heads – not if you’ve a brain in your skull or any human compassion in your heart, you don’t. So leave it out, if you’re of a “mind” to send such rubbish in. It’ll only get binned anyway.

...turns out he didn't know.

…turns out he didn’t know

Wesley Sneidjer, unknowingly it seems from the above, has provided the ammunition for a lot of evil morons out there to make what was always going to be a hard weekend for many into something much more hurtful and upsetting yet. I hope he really is suitably contrite. An apologetic tweet was the least he could do, and the removal of the offending item is a real bonus. But the fact remains that there was full awareness somewhere behind this; people seeking to capitalise on hatred and murder. And for those all-too-well-aware smart guys behind it – well, let’s just hope that they eventually find out there’s something in Karma after all.

RIP lads. 15 years on - never forget, never forgive.

RIP lads. 15 years on – never forget, never forgive.

New Play About the Bradford City Fire: “The 56”; a Leeds Utd Fan’s Review – by Rob Atkinson

The three-strong cast of The 56

The three-strong cast of The 56

When the Bradford Fire Disaster happened, I was in the middle of what I feared at the time would be the story of the weekend, as Leeds United fans fought a pitched battle with their Birmingham City counterparts at St. Andrews on Saturday the 11th of May, 1985. A young fan died at Birmingham that day, killed when a wall collapsed amid disgraceful scenes. It seemed certain that the events of the day would create the usual lurid banner headlines. Some fans on both sides would be happy and excited about this; others, less so.

For my own part, I was utterly gutted that we’d lost by a goal to nil, sickened at the thought of yet more bad press for my club – and completely unaware that a lad had lost his life. On the way back to Yorkshire, it became clear that, in the light of the devastating events in Bradford, nobody would be talking about our game and its riot after all. It was a dreadful Saturday in what, with Heysel still to come, would be remembered as a tragically awful season.

On Friday last, three decades older and that much more hard-bitten and cynical, I attended a new drama staged in Barnsley, based on interviews with survivors of that day at Valley Parade almost thirty years ago. It recalled in detail some extremely sad memories and brought back some long-buried feelings arising out of that weekend so many years before. The review I have written of the play, which is entitled simply The 56, is reproduced below.

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This review was originally published on The Public Reviews on 14th March 2015.

With the focus once again very much on the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster as the inquests re-openre-visiting all of those mistakes and examples of scandalously covered-up incompetence – here, on the stark and minimalist stage of the Civic in Barnsley, was an almost unbearably vivid reminder of another football tragedy in Yorkshire, with another shattering death toll.

Four years before the Sheffield calamity, and 40 miles or so up the road in Bradford, an inferno destroyed the old wooden-construction main stand at Valley Parade, home of new Third Division Champions Bradford City. Disaster struck without warning as the Bantams took on Lincoln City in what should have been a joyous celebration of promotion and the league title. On the day though, the story was more of heroism and unbelievable bravery amid terrifying chaos as fire broke out and fan tried to help fan despite intense heat, choking smoke and the speed with which the blaze spread, engulfing the stand and trapping the unfortunates who tragically fled in the wrong direction. It was one of those occasions too horrible to recall and yet too salutary ever to be forgotten. A line in the verbatim text of this hard-hitting piece says it all: 

“It was like a JFK moment, a Princess Diana moment. You’ll never forget where you were when you heard.”

The verbatim testimony nature of The 56 is at the core of what this work is all about. What is heard is no skilfully-crafted dramatic script – it is the actual accounts of survivors, those who were frantically involved on the day in escape and rescue. This lends a raw and visceral feel to the whole thing; the audience is aware at all times that these are real people giving their real and painful memories of events that really happened, and which affect them to this day. The way that the three actors handle this medium is admirable in the extreme. That quality of hearing words as they are formed in the mind of the witnesses is massively persuasive. The whole spectrum is there, from fond reminiscence of the innocently celebratory way that day started, through incredulous shock as events unfolded, so disastrously quickly, to grief, pain, even despair and a little bitterness – but with the pride of a city and a county which united in grief and loss to “just get on with it” as the long process of recovery began. It’s remorselessly impactful and almost uncomfortably inclusive.

The actors do all that could possibly be expected of them in terms of conveying the feelings and reactions of those survivors interviewed. As a piece of theatre, the effect is both harrowing and intensely evocative, with the increasingly convincing feeling of hearing about that awful day at first hand. The pace varies according to the mood of the moment; at times each character is lovingly sharing memories of the lead-up to that day and their love affair with a family football club, in relaxed and humorous monologue. But at other times, the dialogue comes at the audience pell-mell, the witnesses talking over each other as the confusion and bewilderment of developing tragedy is tellingly reproduced. And then it’s back to turn and turn about as each witness talks about the effect on their lives since that time, of the horrific memories they carry with them; mental scars are revealed as well as lasting shock and disbelief. But there is also the pride of getting on with life, of recovery – as club, stadium and city rose again in as literally Phoenix-like a manner as could be imagined.

It’s an appropriately minimalist production; the set is simple yet effective– a mute reminder of the wooden construction at the root of the disaster;the darkness of the backdrop conveys its own mood and message. The audience’s attention is drawn to the mesmeric interpretations of the cast who perform to pin-drop silence and a feeling of collectively held breath. As the testimony comes to a conclusion, the awful death toll – including, let us not forget, two fans of the other side that day, Lincoln City – is read out at funereal pace; a fitting tribute at the last to those who are no longer with us to give their own accounts. The audience reaction at the end is sombre but appreciative of what has been so consummately achieved.

In recognition of the thought-provoking nature of the evening, there was a Q&A session shortly after the end of the play itself. This gave a welcome insight into the creative process, with the actors and the director able and willing to enlarge upon what had motivated them and how they had approached the material so as to convey the testimony effectively, yet with immense respect.

This is a challenging piece, certainly not entertainment in the precise sense of the word. It sets out to remind, to enlighten and to pay tribute both to the dead and to those without whom that death toll would inevitably have been much higher. It tells of how individuals, a football club, a city and a county were struck by disaster, of how they conducted themselves so courageously on the day and of how they gradually recovered in the years to follow. In this, it is totally successful and – for those who wish to know more about what actually happened in Bradford on May 11th 1985, and how, and why – it’s a theatrical experience not to be missed.

The play was reviewed at the Civic, Barnsley on March 13th having previously been staged at the Edinburgh Fringe and in Bradford itself; it is scheduled to tour various other venues until May 23 (Click here for dates and theatres). A collection is taken at each performance to raise money for the BCFC Burns Unit Appeal; donations to this most worthy cause may be made online here.