This is an immensely moving book. If you have no personal connection to the Hillsborough tragedy you might well assume that you have by now read and heard enough to know all you need to know about what happened on that dreadful day in 1989. Mike Nicholson’s new account of the disaster proves how wrong you would be to think this. He has carefully gathered evidence from myriad sources and explains what happened with tremendous authority, clarity and power. His narrative is factually very precise but at the same time the raw directness of his approach makes it all the more affecting emotionally: so many lives lost, and so unnecessarily – victims of an event that could have been prevented, and that when it did occur could have been responded to with much more thought and urgency.
Nicholson’s sources are quoted at length, and they include many people he has personally interviewed, notably fans who were there and relatives of those who died. He has also drawn on statements made by police, medical staff, football officials and others. But although the book is subtitled In Their Own Words, much of it is actually in Nicholson’s words, and he provides analysis and a chronological narrative which are admirably lucid and coherent.
He begins with an overview of football stadium facilities in the 1980s, emphasizing how different the experience of attending a match was from today. Most fans stood on often overcrowded terraces, which meant there was a great atmosphere during the best games but also a clear safety risk. This was made much worse by the decision to erect perimeter fences, a tragically misguided attempt to curb hooliganism and prevent pitch invasions. After the Hillsborough disaster all-seater stadia became mandatory, and perimeter fences were removed. These responses occurred quite quickly, but establishing the real truth of what had occurred on that terrible April day would of course take much longer.
If all football grounds were potentially dangerous, Hillsborough was especially so. In the years before 1989 there were plenty of warnings of what might eventually happen, but Nicholson shows how these were ignored. Crushes at the Leppings Lane end of the ground occurred at other games (particularly a 1981 semi-final) and fans complained to the FA. There were design faults that should have been obvious to the relevant authorities, but nothing was done.
Much of the book is devoted to the day of the disaster, and here the accounts of the survivors are especially vivid and powerful. We get a sense of the carnival atmosphere before the game, as fans made the journey to Sheffield feeling happy, excited and full of anticipation. Then there is the slow unfolding of the tragedy as the crowd at one end of the stadium grows in size, and the situation gradually gets out of control as a series of mistakes is made. Spectators surged through a tunnel into a central section of the terraces, when they should have been directed around the tunnel towards areas on either side, where there was much more room. The police officer in overall charge ordered a gate to be opened to relieve the crush, but this only made things worse (an hour or two later he would claim fans had forced the gate open). There are graphic recollections – upsetting to read – of desperate attempts to escape the crush and of equally desperate attempts to help others. These accounts include many examples of heroism and compassion, but there is also shocking callousness and stupidity on the part of some police officers.
When it became apparent that something very disturbing was taking place at the stadium, the BBC’s sports programme Grandstand began showing live pictures from the scene. People who were at home in Liverpool recall watching these, frantic with worry over the fate of family members. Deep into the evening many fans who had survived were engaged in a desperate search for friends or relatives they’d lost contact with. There are harrowing descriptions of the scene at the gymnasium where many of the bodies were taken, and again some survivors were spoken to with appalling insensitivity.
Nicholson makes clear just how much misinformation was peddled by South Yorkshire police and the media in the aftermath of the disaster. Evidence was doctored, and witness statements deliberately falsified. It took many years, but the truth eventually came out at the fresh inquests which began in 2014 and ended earlier this year. The book is up to date and includes a detailed chapter on these, including the verdicts that were reached.
Mike Nicholson has done anyone who wants to really understand what happened at Hillsborough a great service. He has not written the book for personal gain, and will be donating his royalties to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital. This is the charity nominated by the Hillsborough Family Support Group; Margaret Aspinall, who chairs the group, has contributed a Foreword to the book. Hillsborough will never be forgotten and there can never be a last word on the tragedy, but it is hard to imagine there will ever be a more definitive account than this.
The Hillsborough Disaster: In Their Own Words by Mike Nicholson is a paperback published by Amberley Publishing and costs £12.99. It is also available in Kindle, Kobo and iBook formats.
Mike Nicholson has also produced a documentary on the disaster, and this can be viewed at: www.thehillsboroughdisasterdocumentary.com