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17/09/2012

A Reflection on Hillsborough

I have recently spent some time writing an article for Wednesdayite, the Sheffield Wednesday Supporters' Society, on the subject of the Hillsborough Disaster. The article goes as follows:
"It’s been a very unsettling experience to be a Wednesdayite this week, following the release of the Bishop of Liverpool’s report into Hillsborough, as we watched our club take centre stage, alongside South Yorkshire police and Sheffield Council, in grim revelations about that day in April 1989.

The report was followed by an apology from the Prime Minister on behalf of the establishment, matched with an apology from Sheffield Wednesday FC headed by Milan Mandaric, but understandably the repercussions will go much further.
 
Following the report and apologies, we have seen the media spotlight focus on the previously unknown details of the Hillsborough Disaster. Running parallel to this, there has also been a huge amount of debate raging across football fan websites, some of it rational and some of it driven by raw emotion. Amidst all of this there is a real sense of grief that 96 fellow football fans died needlessly and horrifically that day, just as the grief suddenly hits you when viewing the harrowing footage the Valley Parade fire which killed 56 fellow football fans and injured over 200 more. It’s hard not to think, “There but for the Grace of God, go I.” In many ways this week has seen the same reaction we’d get if we sat this nation’s millions of football fans down and made them watch that footage in unison, and then told them parts of the causes and response were covered up by the establishment. 
But football is also a sport of rival tribes, of competing businesses. So as the week has progressed, Wednesdayites have naturally turned inwards, focusing their discussions on to the implications of the new report into the Hillsborough Disaster and the likelihood that the club as a corporation will face some kind of legal action, and subsequent reputational and financial damage – which in turn will hurt us Wednesdayites as a community. 
And so, it’s no surprise, that for Wednesdayites like me who didn’t make the long, admirable trip down to Brighton on a Friday night, the result from that game – a pretty heavy defeat and a bump back down to earth following our great start to the season – didn’t really hit the radar as it usually would. 
In the short term, Sheffield Wednesday FC no doubt faces troubled times. Potentially more troubling than administration. I hope Milan Mandaric and his team will robustly, but sensitively, try to steer the club through this – I think we can trust in this. But the outcome could be nevertheless severe, and given what we know already about the failings of the club leadership in the run up to that day, perhaps not unjustifiably so. 
The question is how should Wednesdayites react? In our defence of perceived attacks on our club, we have to be careful that we do not become destroyers of the bond that we have with Liverpool fans. Since 1989, we have played Liverpool on 21 occasions, 10 of them at Hillsborough. These have passed with football taking centre stage.
I wasn’t there that day in 1989, I was nine years old and my only standout memory is my father looking grey in the face as he watched the television  telling me, “something really bad has happened at Hillsborough”, which was a 20 minute walk from our house. However, those Sheffielders much nearer to the ground, many of whom would have been Wednesday fans given that historically the city’s two clubs have tended to draw core support from their surrounding areas, are reported to have opened the doors to Liverpudlians, making them a cup of tea, providing the warmth of their home and a chance to ring their families who would be fearing the worst. Nothing special some might now say, unless you were there in the thick of it. 
And whilst they did not suddenly lose their loved ones, many ordinary Sheffield people – including stewards, hospital staff and police working their shifts that day, just as we do – were left with the same deep emotional scars as Liverpool fans who got out physically unscathed were left with. This week Bruce Grobbelaar was quoted as saying he thought about it everyday. But this could have come from any of the people involved because this was a human tragedy, which as with so many, bonds those caught up in it at ground level. All fans - particularly those who weren’t there that day - need to move out of their tribe and recognise this. 
The tragedy, I believe, was also one that raises much bigger political issues. This is what makes it distinct from Valley Parade in 1985, Ibrox in 1971 or Burden Park in 1946. The Hillsborough Disaster raises issues around how football fans, as collections of working class communities (in some ways just like the miners), were treated by the organs of state in the 1970s and 1980s – penned in like animals and viewed with suspicion. And perhaps this question extends to the modern day, with multi-national companies and ogliarchs reducing fans to little more than passive consumers. Issues also surround the cover-up that followed and what this says about the culture of secrecy and collusion within the top echelons of power in Britain, namely the government, the police, the justice system and the media. This is not just about Hillsborough, it’s about Millie Dowler, Ian Tomlinson and David Kelly. Again, this is something universal, something that affects us all. 
In the longer term, I think the club leadership have to show vision and effort in moving Sheffield Wednesday FC on from 1989. It could be argued that the club leadership of the 1990s didn’t do this and let us all down, as they did on so many things. The lack of memorial for a decade after the disaster is another indicator of this. I am not sure how long the memorial at Anfield took to be put in place, but ours was too long. Although, having said that, there is an argument to be made that this was a result of shellshock more than the ignorance implied by some newspaper commentators and bloggers this week. Looking to Juventus, they have yet to build a memorial to the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster, and it took twenty years for some kind of organised gesture from Liverpool FC to recognise their involvement in this other dark chapter of football history. 
Mick Quinn, former Newcastle striker and TalkSport pundit, posed a question this week on his show at to whether Hillsborough Stadium should be bulldozed? Many Wednesday fans who listened to the subsequent ‘debate’ reacted with anger at Hillsborough Stadium being portrayed as the only ‘deathtrap' ground of that era and the thought of losing the ‘Old Lady’, seeing it as a collective punishment. I think what Quinn was doing, aside from the usual TalkSport method of generating listening figures through controversial topic questions, is trigger a discussion about moving on from 1989 in the longer term. 
To bulldoze Hillsborough Stadium would be little more than an attempt to erase history, and in doing so, would bring to the rubble heap every other part of it’s story which goes back over a century. Historic games from the 1966 World Cup and 1996 Euros were held there as well as 27 FA Cup Semi-Finals. Plus there are historic features such as the listed 1960 cantilever stand, the first of its kind, and the traces of Archibald Leitch, the famous football architect, on the South Stand. It’s also our home. 
However, the fact is the Leppings Lane stand, which is pretty much unchanged except for the introduction of seats and removal of fences, does need to be replaced. It’s a stand most Wednesday fans rarely visit, viewed only at a distance on busy matchdays. But the stadium tour – in which you get to walk around it on a quiet day – brings home the sense of tragedy there. There is also the simple fact it is rundown and has poor facilities. Until it is replaced, this is the face of Hillsborough Stadium that visiting away fans see, including fans from Merseyside. Again, this can be interpreted as ignorance or shellshock on the previous club leadership’s part, but it's also a result of the financial difficulties the club has experienced over the past fifteen years – a consequence of mismanagement and wider financial problems within the game. 
The club, in redeveloping the stand, could take the example of Old Trafford’s memorial to the 1972 Munich Disaster, with a space dedicated to the story of the disaster and remembrance of those lost for future generations. Now that the truth about Hillsborough is fully in the public domain, in the longer term there could be something similar in a new Leppings Lane. This could be constructed by a Liverpool-based artist with contributions from the families of the victims. The memorial at the main entrance to the stadium could also be replaced, although arguably its simplicity is its power, with the space provided for the rainbow of scarves from visiting fans becoming the tribute rather than the plaque itself. This would be much more fitting than Mick Quinn’s bulldozing suggestion, which in turn would probably lead to a Tesco or something equally cold and faceless being built on this hallowed place. 
As a tribe, Sheffield Wednesday fans – perhaps through the supporters’ society – should also take the initiative to reach out to Liverpool fans with a gesture of solidarity. Maybe this could also lead to events being held from time to time to further a constructive bond. Sheffield Wednesday fans play Sheffield United fans each year in the ‘Sheffield Fans Derby’ with proceeds going to local charities. Something similar could eventually be organised between Sheffield Wednesday and Liverpool fans - and Nottingham Forest fans, who also suffered that day. A fourth set of fans could also be invited (possibly starting with Everton fans or Sheffield United fans, both of whom will also have been impacted) and a small tournament created. 
There are three aspects in the aftermath of a public disaster of this kind – truth and justice - and then reconciliation. The truth is now out there and as the documents are pored through, more and more about that day will be brought to light. Then there will need to be justice for the families, which our club has to fully participate in and be respectfully subject to. From there, we must all attempt some kind of reconciliation, and all connected to that fateful day – no matter how small - have a part to play in that."
There is also some powerful commentary from The Observer here.

3 comments:

reverant said...

Thanks for posting the link to your article Matt. I've just posted a short sermon related to the subject on my own blog.
http://abletochoose.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/youll-never-walk-alone.html

Matt said...

Thanks Ant, I found it to be a moving read - and I think "you're not alone" is an increasingly radical message in the society we have now...

reverant said...

cheers Matt - indeed, I think that the Unitarian message is all about walking together in a world that increasingly sees spirituality is a solitary thing.