Paul Rouse: Football’s darkest day continues to cast a cloud over Liverpool

On April 15, 1989, in homes and in pubs all across Ireland, people sat down to watch Liverpool play Nottingham Forest in the semi-final of the FA Cup.

Paul Rouse: Football’s darkest day continues to cast a cloud over Liverpool


On April 15, 1989, in homes and in pubs all across Ireland, people sat down to watch Liverpool play Nottingham Forest in the semi-final of the FA Cup.

It was a fine spring afternoon, not ordinarily one for sitting in front of the television. But this was different: The number of live soccer matches shown on television that year in Ireland could more or less be counted on the fingers of one hand.

So this was a rare treat: Liverpool against Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield.

It promised to be brilliant — and RTÉ had it live.

2.59pm-3pm: Brendan O’Reilly, RTÉ Studios: “From Hillsborough, live and exclusive to Sports Stadium. Let’s join our commentator George Hamilton, with Johnny Giles.”

George Hamilton: “Welcome to Hillsborough. The sun has come out to greet you ... And the match is on, with Liverpool in red playing from left to right. Forest in their changed strip of all-white.”

The first cheer of the match comes in the second minute when the brilliant defender, Alan Hansen, receives the ball in the middle of the field.

Hansen has been out since suffering a knee injury in a pre-season. He plays the ball out to his left his central defensive partner, Gary Ablett. Ablett is caught in possession, however, by Nigel Clough and Forest force a corner.

This first corner leads to a second and as the camera pans across the penalty area, you can see the mayhem on the terrace behind the goal at the Leppings Lane End.

There are already people trying to climb the huge steel fence that holds Liverpool fans in their terrace pens.

3.02pm: John Giles: “It’s a big gamble, I should imagine, by Kenny Dalglish to play Alan Hansen. He’s a great player, probably the best central defender in the country when he is fit. But it’s his first game of the season and in such an important match. I hope it comes good for him, because he deserves to do well.”

The play is now mostly down the far end of the field, or around the middle.

Ronnie Whelan, Ray Houghton, and Steve Staunton are mixing it with Stuart Pearce, Neal Webb, and Steve Hodge.

Occasionally the ball strays towards Bruce Grobbelaar in the Liverpool goal. Behind him, you can see more and more Liverpool fans climb the fences — there are now dozens behind the goal.

Liverpool supporters climb to safety during the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough in 1989. Picture: David Giles/PA Wire
Liverpool supporters climb to safety during the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough in 1989. Picture: David Giles/PA Wire

When the game is in its fifth minute, the TV director leaves the action and switches to a camera which shows a close-up of what is happening behind Grobbelaar’s goal.

There is a clear crush behind the goals, something George Hamilton notes in his commentary. The ball sweeps to the far end and Peter Beardsley hits the crossbar with a volley. The ball is cleared to the far end — where Liverpool fans are now on the pitch.

3.06pm: George Hamilton: “And the police are on the pitch to tell the referee to stop proceedings because there is a danger here that the crowd is going to encroach onto the pitch because of overcrowding at the back of the goal.”

The referee, Ray Lewis, taps Ronnie Whelan on his lower back and says something. The players are being called off the pitch. A supporter grabs Liverpool defender Steve Nicol, points to the terrace, and tells him what is happening.

The cameras show Graeme Kelly, the secretary of the English FA, walking on the pitch. And then other cameras show two Liverpool fans, men in their 20s, hugging each other and crying.

And then there is a young man on the ground, clearly seriously ill, and police are tending to him as he lies, stretched out in the penalty area.

3.07pm: John Giles: “There shouldn’t be overcrowding. If the tickets were distributed and allocated properly, there shouldn’t be overcrowding like this, should there?

George Hamilton: “It’s quite obvious there that some of these fans have been injured in the crush behind the goal ... And still the crowd sways; it’s a very dangerous situation.”

John Giles: “They’re not out of trouble there by any means … I wouldn’t like to be in that crowd, that’s for sure.”

George Hamilton: “This is a situation fraught with danger. Crowds are corralled these days in football stadia and if there is any pressure on from the crowd behind, there is simply nowhere for those at the front to go.”

The cameras now show people being pulled out over the fence, people being pulled out of the crowd to the upper deck, people falling to the ground.

There are two dozen police on the pitch now, walking from the Forest end to the Liverpool end, headed towards the crush.

Fans on the terrace at the Leppings Lane end of Hillsborough Stadium are crushed against the fence on April 15, 1989 — a day when 96 innocent men, women, and children lost their lives. Picture: John Giles/PA Wire
Fans on the terrace at the Leppings Lane end of Hillsborough Stadium are crushed against the fence on April 15, 1989 — a day when 96 innocent men, women, and children lost their lives. Picture: John Giles/PA Wire

There are already a few policemen on the high steel fence, standing looking into the crowd. They stand on that fence beside Liverpool fans. They are facing back into the crush, gesticulating frantically, police and fans trying to get the crowd to move back up the terrace.

But the crowd cannot go anywhere except forward.

3.09pm: John Giles: “There’s a lot of pressure on the front there. You’ll find there’ll be a lot of kids do go to the front to get a good view of the match. And they’ll be in serious trouble at the front there.”

George Hamilton: “It certainly seems like something has gone very seriously wrong in that terrace.”

More and more people are now lying on the pitch. A first person is on a stretcher.

Fans are still being pulled over the fence and pulled into the upper deck. There are scenes of panic and dismay and mayhem.

A father gets up off the grass, holding the hand of his young son — a boy of maybe seven years of age. The father is bewildered and the son is shocked.

A young male is put in the recovery position.

3.14pm: John Giles: “I certainly wouldn’t like anyone belonging to me to be in that crush.”

George Hamilton: “There will be serious questions asked about this afterwards. That was a situation that should never have developed.”

An ambulance screams along in front of the stand and down to the terrace. A man takes a jumper and makes a pillow out of it for his friend, who is stretched on the grass and in considerable difficulty. He lays his friend’s head on the pillow.

Somebody is trying to give CPR to another person on the pitch.

More members of the South Yorkshire police make their way across the grass. A long, black line snakes along the far sideline.

Across the pitch, fans are trying to resuscitate other fans. Makeshift stretchers are being used to carry people away.

A second ambulance arrives.

George Hamilton hands back to Brendan O’Reilly in the studio in Dublin.

Shortly afterwards, the programme returns to Hillsborough and live pictures are shown of people who have been crushed.

By now the scenes are of absolute carnage. People are motionless on the ground.

There are frantic attempts to revive others.

This is a day like no other.


There are people for whom that day — April 15, 1989, the day Liverpool played Nottingham Forest in the semi-final of FA Cup — has never ended.

It lost their lives at a soccer match, and ever since that day, their families have fought for justice.

It has been more than 30 years now.

Last month, the manslaughter trial for of the former South Yorkshire police chief superintendent David Duckenfield led to a not guilty verdict.

The outrage provoked by this verdict has been raw and deeply wounding.

It was manifest when Christine Burke, whose father, Henry, died at Hillsborough stood up in court after the verdict and said to the judge: “I want to know who is responsible for the death of my father, because somebody was.”

The judge — Peter Openshaw — offered no reply.

A short while later, Margaret Aspinall, chairperson of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, whose son James, 18, was one of those who died, said simply: “I blame a system that’s so morally wrong within this country, that’s a disgrace to this nation.”

The outpouring of grief and anger was made all the more stark because of the events of the last decade.

After a long campaign for justice, families of the dead had succeeded in 2012 in having the verdict of ‘accidental death’ from the original 1991 inquest quashed.

This verdict was so reviled that some families declined to accept the death certificates of those they had lost.

A new inquest was ordered.

This inquest — which ended in 2016 — deemed that the 96 Liverpool fans who died at Hillsborough had been ‘unlawfully killed’.

Crucially, it also deemed that no behaviour of Liverpool supporters had contributed to the disaster.

A central aspect of that inquest had been the unravelling of Duckenfield. In the course of his evidence to the inquest, Duckenfield had admitted multiple failures in his handling of the match.

These failures were manifest at every level — from his basic knowledge of the stadium, to how he prepared for the day, and on to his handling of events around 3pm.

By the end of his evidence, under questioning from his own barrister, Duckenfield had agreed with the statement that his “professional failings led to the deaths of 96 innocent men, women, and children”.

The verdict of the inquest had prompted the Crown Prosecution Service to bring a prosecution that Duckenfield was “culpable of gross negligence manslaughter”.

A first trial on this charge had ended in the retrial which concluded at the end of last month. At both trials, recordings of what Duckenfield had admitted to were played to the court.

But his barrister argued that those admissions were being taken “out of context” and were the product of days of arduous questioning. there were other issues that mattered also, the court was told.

It was said that other officers on the ground should have acted more decisively, that their own initiative should have brought them to intervene, that the design of Hillsborough was at fault, that the crushing was not foreseeable, that Duckenfield was — in effect — a scapegoat.

And among those who were blamed, anew, were Liverpool supporters, and the allegations that supporters had misbehaved were raised again.

And David Duckenfield was exonerated by the court.


3.15pm: George Hamilton: “In fact, John, the word has just come through as to precisely what the problem was. There was a gate broken — one of the exit gates was broken which enabled fans without tickets to gain access to the terrace. And that is the precise cause of the problem.”

This was a fiction — although at the time George Hamilton could not have known it.

Indeed, in the context of the hooliganism of the 1980s and in the aftermath of the Heysel Stadium disaster, the words he spoke were eminently reasonable, particularly given the fact that the source of the story was the highest levels of the South Yorkshire Police.

Hamilton’s commentary (and that of John Giles) during those minutes when — live on air — it became clear there was a serious problem in the terrace was restrained and, indeed, in the circumstances, it was remarkable; the sense presented throughout is of something having gone badly wrong in terms of crowd control.

Because, of course, the fans did not break down the gates. Instead, the gates were opened by policemen who were acting on the instructions of the South Yorkshire Police match commander — David Duckenfield.

David Duckenfield
David Duckenfield

As David Conn has written in his magisterial reporting which stretches back across the decades on this story, Duckenfield admitted at the inquest in 2016 “that he told a ‘terrible lie’ even as the disaster was happening, falsely blaming Liverpool supporters for forcing open a gate and rushing in.

That false account began years in which South Yorkshire police officers blamed the victims, rather than their own mismanagement, for the disaster”.

With people dying on the field, Duckenfield told the Football Association chief executive, Graham Kelly, that Liverpool supporters had rushed in through a gate they had broken open.

It was a lie which had actually been exposed later in 1989 when a public inquiry was established.

That inquiry had produced an interim report in which was authored by Lord Justice Taylor, who recorded that David Duckenfield had ordered a large exit gate to be opened to alleviate a crush that was developing outside the Leppings Lane turnstiles.

Some 2,000 people poured in through the opened gate. Many of those people headed straight down a tunnel that was facing them. They came out of that tunnel straight into the crowded central sections of the terrace.

It was in these sections — pens 3 and 4 — that the crush of people turned lethal, eventually killing 96 people.

Following on from the lie told by Duckenfield about the broken gate, senior police officers issued further lies, ones that are among the most notorious in modern British history.

These lies painted pictures of drunken, violent fans. The lies were published in The Sun newspaper in the week after the game, under the headline, ‘THE TRUTH’.

The lies told of fans robbing from victims by picking their pockets, of fans urinating on police officers, of fans beating up a policeman who was giving the kiss of life to a dying man.

When the 2016 inquest declared that no behaviour of Liverpool supporters had contributed to the disaster, it was a hugely important moment.

As the families emerged onto the steps of Warrington court after that inquest, they broke into a spontaneous rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.

You do not have to be a supporter of Liverpool Football Club to be deeply moved when you look at that footage.

Gathered together are parents and children and siblings of those who died.

Some are wiping their eyes as they sing out the words with raw emotion. Others are embracing and still more pointing to the sky.

They had spent too many years fighting for the rights of their loved ones.

Down at the far end of the court steps, a man stands swaying with a large red scarf held high over his head. On the scarf is the mythical Liver bird and, in huge letters, white-on-red, the word: JUSTICE.

But what does that word mean now?

Paul Rouse is professor of history at University College Dublin.

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