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Hillsborough: A litany of lies

2011 October 21
by Paul Vallely

I once got in a taxi and was asked by the cab-driver where I was from. “Middlesbrough,” I told him. “I hate Middlesbrough,” he replied bluntly, and then told a story which I found hard to credit.

Sometime during the 1980s he had gone with a  group of Manchester United fans to watch his team play away.  They travelled by train. But when they arrived at Middlesbrough station the local police were waiting to order them to remove their shoes and leave them on the platform.

They were then marched in their stocking feet for two or more miles in a column to the then ground, Ayresome Park, to watch the match standing shoeless on the cold concrete terraces. After the game they were marched back to the station to collect their footgear and get the train home.

At first I did not believe this story. How could the police have got away with that? What would the local paper or the civil liberties organisations have said? But it became all too credible when I was taken back to the 1980s during the debate in the House of Commons on Monday on Hillsborough – the biggest disaster in the history of English football, when 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death and 700 were injured at the home of Sheffield Wednesday.

The Labour MP Andy Burnham disclosed the extent to which senior policemen ordered the doctoring on the notes of ordinary officers at the disaster to make them less embarrassing for the police. References to police shortcomings and poor radio communications were deleted. So were notes showing that fans got together in groups to carry the injured while dazed policemen sat weeping nearby. It revealed, one senior officer said of the fans, that “they were ­organised and we were not”.

Those words, Andy Burnham said, go to the heart of the untold story of Hillsborough. They “transport us back to a different time: an era of ‘them and us’, when football fans were the ‘enemy within’. They reveal an orchestrated campaign to put a slant on the events at Hillsborough so blame was shifted off the authorities and on to the victims. ”

Over the past two decades families and the middle-classes have taken to football. But back in the Eighties football was perceived as a national disease thanks to the hooligan behaviour of supporters who routinely invaded pitches, hurled missiles at players or fought in the streets before and after matches. They were a yob minority, but football was an overwhelmingly working class game and there were few voices of respectability to speak on behalf of supporters. Police and public regarded all fans with hostility.

That was why in Middlesbrough fans could have their shoes confiscated to “keep them out of trouble”. It was why at Hillsborough the police got the balance so wrong between containing the minority and protecting the vast majority. It was why, within six minutes of the Hillsborough disaster, a senior policeman told the first lie about what happened, safe in the knowledge that his word would be believed over that of any football fan. It was why police and a Tory MP were able anonymously to brief The Sun for its litany of lies about how the disaster had been caused by drunken fans who picked the pockets of victims and urinated on police trying to help the injured.

It was why the establishment closed ranks, with the coroner at the inquest into the deaths of the 96 ruling that no evidence could be taken of anything that happened after 3.15pm on the day, disallowing evidence of how police prevented ambulance reaching fans who, with swifter treatment, might have survived, their families felt

Football fans felt second-class citizens, and the authorities treated them as such. It could not happen now. But which unlovely people are today lodged in our contemporary blindspot?

from The Church Times

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