Insight: Era of lucky escapes before Hillsborough

Having sat for 267 days of evidence, it should come as no surprise that the Hillsborough inquests, the longest jury proceedings in British legal history, threw up an ignominious roll call of those culpable of football's darkest hour.
Scotland fans at the Scotland v Ireland rugby international at Murrayfield in February 1975Scotland fans at the Scotland v Ireland rugby international at Murrayfield in February 1975
Scotland fans at the Scotland v Ireland rugby international at Murrayfield in February 1975

From the negligence and suppression of South Yorkshire Police to the inadequate response of emergency services to the unfolding disaster, last week’s verdict identified a catalogue of errors that contributed to the unlawful deaths of 96 supporters.

Yet long before the families completed their journey from vilification to vindication, one aspect of the tragedy had had lasting repercussions across the sport of football – that of stadium safety. Among the 76 recommendations in the Taylor Report of 1989-90 was the introduction of all-seater arenas, a direct response to the systemic failures at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground.

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At the time of the disaster in April 1989, many regarded Hillsborough as a modern stadium, fitted with state of the art CCTV and a counter system at the turnstiles that allowed monitoring of spectator numbers. Such innovations only disguised wider problems, with warnings of its unsuitability pre-dating the tragedy by nearly a decade. Eight years previously, 38 Tottenham fans were injured in a crush at the Leppings Lane end of the ground during an FA Cup semi-final against Wolverhampton Wanderers. The police had opened a gate after congestion at the turnstiles. An assessment of the counters revealed that 335 too many fans had been permitted on to the terrace.

Just two years before Hillsborough, Leeds fans attending the ground complained of severe overcrowding during their FA Cup tie against Coventry City, with some fainting in the melée.

Steve Lawrence, a civil servant who attended the match, recalled feeling the sun beating down on him as he stood on the terrace, but it was so tightly packed, he was unable to lift his arm to shield the glare from his eyes.

None of these flashpoints were followed up. The safety certificate of the ground, issued in 1979, estimated the capacity of the Leppings Lane standing area at 7,200. The inquests heard from John Cutlack, an expert stadium engineer, who said the safe figure was 5,425. On the day of the tragedy, pen three, where many Liverpool supporters were crushed to death, held up to 1,430 people. It was designed for just 678.

In its overview of the disaster, the Hillsborough Independent Panel was damning of the stadium’s safety record over the course of the decade. It was, the panel stated, a period of “unheeded warnings, the seeds of disaster”.

For a generation of Scottish football fans, the harrowing scenes of Hillsborough and the evidence that followed brought back memories of the Ibrox disaster of 1971, where 66 fans never came home after being crushed to death on stairway 13 of Rangers’ stadium. The momentum of the crowd meant that once people started to fall, there was no way of holding the mass of bodies back. It remains the worst disaster in the history of Scottish football.

Many supporters of that vintage believe it was a miracle that there were no similar disasters, especially when historic attendances are revisited. An astonishing 149,415 supporters packed Hampden for 1937’s home international against England, an all-time record gate for a European international. As late as 1970, Celtic’s European Cup semi-final second leg against Leeds attracted 136,505 fans, still a record for a Uefa competition.

Paul Goodwin, co-founder and chief executive of the Scottish Football Supporters Association, recalls attending the national stadium three years later, one of about 100,000 who watched Scotland take on Czechoslovakia. “I was only a young lad and it was the first time I’d gone to a game by myself, I was scared. Looking at the footage now, I’m astonished that my parents let me go, really. It’s staggering that there weren’t more disasters. It’s total luck.”

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Yet the misgivings about large-scale attendances and stadium safety were not the preserve of adherents of the beautiful game. In 1975, Scotland’s match against Wales at Murrayfield drew a world record crowd, estimated at 104,000. With open terraces on three sides, supporters flocked to the stadium in the hope of seeing Scotland take a step towards a Triple Crown.

It was an era in which Murrayfield internationals were not all-ticket affairs; the Scottish Rugby Union had no way of knowing how many people were flooding into the ground. The consequences were perilous.

Sean Miller from Glasgow, who stood among the throng as an 18-year-old, recalled yesterday: “It was an unnerving experience. You can’t compare it with Hillsborough because there was no perimeter fencing, and if there had been crushing, we would have spilled out on to the pitch. But people were falling from the steep embankments. It was hard to move.”

John Wood, secretary of the Royal High School FP club, told The Scotsman at the time that people in the crowd who had fainted had to be passed over the heads of other supporters, while others were injured against crush barriers. “Is it going to require a disaster like Ibrox before they do something about it?” he asked.

Soon after, Edinburgh City Police and the SRU announced that home internationals would be all-ticketed, with Murrayfield’s capacity significantly scaled back to 70,000.

If that match led the SRU to enact change, it was Hillsborough that did the same for football. Weeks after the disaster, Michael Forsyth, then minister with responsibility for sport at the Scottish Office, met the Scottish Football Association and the Scottish Football League to discuss existing practice on safety and the main issue of all-seater stadiums in Scotland.

It was a generation after the Ibrox disaster. That dark chapter in Scottish footballing history led to the Wheatley Report and the subsequent Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975, which laid particular emphasis on spectators having safe entrance to and egress from stadiums as well as giving strict guidelines on how many people could safely be accommodated in a given area.

It also acted as a tragic precedent that eased the way for Scotland to implement the key Taylor recommendations. The authorities were compelled not by law – the report was not binding in Scotland – but a moral obligation, and so the Scottish Office pressed ahead on a voluntary basis. Within 12 months, Forsyth unveiled a timetable that asked dozens of clubs across the country to make the necessary changes.

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Some found themselves the focus of nationwide media attention as the old traditions of the beautiful game gave way to the new. Four months after Hillsborough, St Johnstone played their first game in their new McDiarmid Park home, the first purpose-built, all-seater stadium in the UK.

The broadcaster, Stuart Cosgrove, a lifelong Saints fan, recalls a period of “significant change”, with the club’s chairman, Geoff Brown, having “a very strong sense of what the future of the game would be like”.

“There was an emotional resistance to leaving the old ground and there was a perception that McDiarmid Park had lost something,” he adds. “The word that you heard mentioned a lot was ‘soulless’, with people complaining about the lack of atmosphere.”

But after Hillsborough, everything changed. The Perth side suddenly found itself deluged with ticket requests. Their opening game of the season at home to Clydebank drew a crowd of 7,267. Come October, a near capacity 10,169 descended on Perth the same month for Partick Thistle’s visit. “I remember some folk had travelled from Birmingham and Carlisle for a game against Hamilton,” says Cosgrove.

Some sides, however, endured a painful transition. Raith Rovers had to move their pitch in order to find the space to build a new stand near a railway line at their Stark’s Park ground, while Falkirk were denied promotion to the then Scottish Premier League because they did not meet the strict regulations on ownership of a 10,000 seater stadium. To this day, mention of the Taylor Report is a source of anger among some of the club’s supporters.

In Cosgrove’s view, the rush to usher in the new standards could have been handled better.

“I think the Taylor Report put a disproportionate measure on other clubs,” he said. “The last major football tragedy in Scotland had been the Ibrox disaster and there wasn’t the same level of public anxiety in Scotland, despite the pressure from football authorities for change.”

Goodwin agrees: “The big impact of the Taylor recommendations was modernisation of grounds as there had been a total disregard right across the football industry with a lack of not just safety, but comfort.

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“However, the reality is that Scotland probably didn’t need some of the provisions and there have been consequences. There has been a detriment in the atmosphere at games.”

Some 27 years after Hillsborough, one of the key arguments about football stadiums – seating and standing areas – has come full circle. Last year, Celtic were granted permission to introduce a safe standing area made up of rail seating, allowing supporters to stand or sit in seats with a “lock and latch” mechanism. The section, which will initially accommodate up to 2,600 supporters, is scheduled to be introduced for next season.

It followed nearly half a decade of debate and dialogue with authorities. Even now, there remains opposition to the idea, not least from many of those who lost their loved ones at Hillsborough. Margaret Aspinall, chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, has described it as a backwards step that will return football to the 1980s. “There has never been a disaster since Hillsborough,” she has said. “That’s not a coincidence.”

The families’ concerns are being met with sympathy and sensitivity, but a gradual support for the return of standing areas is building. If Celtic’s initiative proves a success, it is likely other Scottish clubs will look to follow suit.

The UK sports minister, Tracey Crouch, has said the government will “monitor its introduction in Scotland closely” and “reassess” its position once a body of evidence emerges, while politicians in Wales have called for the devolution of stadium safety powers to its National Assembly.

Cosgrove believes the argument is “tipping in favour” of safe standing areas and foresees them becoming more common in the Scottish game. He attributes the trend to improving technology and stadium design, but also the mindset of supporters.

“We have much greater levels of self-policing by fans nowadays,” he says. “We’ve seen it with sectarian issues and when the Tartan Army have been following Scotland games abroad. It’s much clearer now among supporters what they consider to be acceptable behaviour and what is unacceptable.”

Goodwin points to research emerging from Germany which shows the rail seating used for safe standing sections is safer than traditional seats and makes it easier for potential public order offences to be addressed.

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He accepts that the prohibitive costs involved means it is likely that, other than Celtic, Rangers and possibly Aberdeen and Hearts, few clubs will be able to foot the bill. Yet in his opinion, the value would outweigh the price.

“We’re desperately needing atmosphere generated in our grounds and it’s a good way to do it,” he says.