Documentary Review of Hillsborough | 30 For 30 ESPN

by JoHarrington

Hillsborough was the worst stadium-related disaster in British history. ESPN's 30 For 30 Hillsborough Disaster documentary is the most comprehensive telling I've ever seen.

In 1989, two central pens at the Sheffield Wednesday stadium were severely over-packed with Liverpool fans. Eventually ninety-six people would be killed in the crush. The youngest was just ten years old.

This was Hillsborough - the name of the stadium - one of the worst football disasters of all time, and Britain's foremost stadium-related tragedy. But the story didn't end in that carnage.

Justice for the 96! That has been the resounding cry of the past 25 years.

In 2014, it's finally happening. As I write, the longest inquest in British legal history is in round two. Hopefully it will finally establish the cause of death of ninety-six human beings, beyond the whitewashed verdicts of the past.

ESPN's '30 For 30 Hillsborough' documentary tells the full story. It's the best recounting of it all that I have ever seen and, for fully personal and selfish reasons, I wish that everyone would watch it.

Why Hillsborough Feels So Personal to Me

There's always a disaster which strikes a little too close to home. Hillsborough was 'my' disaster. The one where, in a parallel universe, I was there.

Image: Jo Harrington Anfield 1988

I'm not from Liverpool. But I think that everyone, in their teens, goes for the bright shining stars, especially if their home team requires more of steadfast loyalty than shared glory.

During the second half of the 1980s, I was football mad, and that meant in love with all things Liverpool F.C. The photograph shows me in autumn 1988, outside Anfield - the home of Liverpool Football Club - grinning like a loon, because this was sacred ground.

By then I'd been a Liverpool fan for three or four years. I could name every fact about every player, especially my favorite Paul Walsh. (I played football too. I wanted to BE Paul Walsh.)

I remember Graeme Souness on that pitch, and Kenny Dalglish running on as a player-manager. I have a vivid memory of cringing as Jim Beglin broke his leg.

I recall Heysel, and Liverpool achieving the Double.  I can still feel how it was to be watching with wide eyes and no nails left, as that ridiculously tense final game of the 1988-89 season played out between Liverpool and Arsenal. This was MY Liverpool era and I tried to see them play as often as I could.

On April 15th 1989, I was pretty upset. My last hope of getting tickets to see the FA Cup semi-final match, between my beloved Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, had just fallen through.

The day before, we were going. Absolutely, definitely going. I'd left school bouncing around like a lunatic, telling all and sundry that I was going to Hillsborough. Half an hour later, nearly home, the situation changed.

My friend's uncle had given the tickets to someone else instead.

Back and forth it went, all through the evening and early the next morning, until it was too late to travel to Yorkshire, even if those tickets had materialized.

So yes, on the morning of April 15th 1989, I was upset.  By late afternoon, for entirely different reasons, I was devastated.

Hillsborough Disaster | 30 For 30: ESPN Films

Hillsborough [HD]

On April 15, 1989, the worst disaster in British football history occurred in an overcrowded stadium in Sheffield, England. 3,000 fans flocked through the turnstiles to head to the area reserved for standing...

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ESPN's Hillsborough Disaster Documentary

This American made film cannot be shown in Britain, while the inquests are on-going. In the Internet Age, I've watched it anyway and was profoundly affected by what I saw.

Image: Liverpool FC emblemI've grown up.  I'll always have a soft spot for Liverpool F.C., but age brought renewed priorities and a lessening of the need to only back the winners.

I consider myself a supporter of my local team these days, but Liverpool is still there in the background.

Moreover, my ties to the city and its people have remained strong. I have Scouse friends, thus I still appear on Merseyside every other month or so.

I tell you all of this not because it's particularly relevant to the Hillsborough story, but it underscores that I've followed the chronicle of the aftermath - on a deep and personal basis - for the past twenty-five years.

Which makes it all the more surprising that the ESPN 30 for 30 Hillsborough documentary could tell me anything new. It did. In abundance.

There was CCTV footage which has been released for the first time. People, who have never spoken publicly about what they witnessed and experienced that day, tell their stories to camera here. We see events unfold practically in real time, with analyses at every juncture.

I did not know what went on behind the scenes with the families, in the Boy's Club across the road and the makeshift mortuary inside the Sheffield Wednesday gym.  I knew all about the dodgy decisions made by the coroner, but not the absolute disdain in which mothers, fathers, siblings, sons, daughters and friends were held. Not afterwards - that story is well known - but right there at the beginning, in the early hours of the next day.

There is a deep anger which comes, when you hear a mother recount how she was told that she may not touch her son. His body was the property of the coroner. "I brought him into this world. I just wanted to hug him." Doreen spoke starkly to the camera. I just wanted to reach through time and shake someone, until she got what she wanted.

Make no mistake. ESPN's Hillsborough Disaster film is hard-hitting and comprehensively factual, but it will also touch on an emotional level. There are segments which will break your heart. Yet others which will infuriate you, and more that will render you proud of humanity.

There are villains aplenty in the Hillsborough story. But there are heroes too.

I've watched a great many news clips, TV specials, movies and documentaries about the Hillsborough disaster in the past. This one is the best telling that I've yet encountered.

Books about Hillsborough and the Fight for Justice

I won't make money out of this. Any commission I receive will be donated instantly to the Hillsborough Family Support Group.

The Lessons of Hillsborough are Important for All

This isn't just a sporting story. It's not merely about soccer. Everyone who ever trusted their government and the police authorities have much to learn here.

Image: Justice for the 96If you're not a football fan, then it might be tempting to think that Hillsborough isn't a narrative to interest you. You'd be wrong.

It's a story that begins in a sporting stadium. It affected sports fans. But it's not about sport.

Beyond the disaster itself, and all that tells about gathering for a big event, crowd control failure and survival - or death - in desperate circumstances, it's a tale about truth.

The first lie was told by the police chief in charge while people were still dying just feet away. Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield was visited by the head of the Football Association. With the two men standing in the police control box, overlooking Leppings Lane terrace where that deadly crush was occurring, Duckenfield panicked. Or attempted to cover his back. Or embarked upon a premeditated and cynical attempt to deflect the blame.

"Liverpool fans rushed the gate!" The Chief Superintendent claimed. It was a brazen falsehood. He personally had given the order to open Gate C, with no officers present to barricade the already too full central pens. His decision ultimately led to ninety-six deaths and hundreds of injuries.

Plus the knock-on effect. Those who committed suicide in the decades that followed, unable to cope with their memories.

Once the lie was out, it was compounded in the hours, days, weeks, months, years and decades to follow.  Politicians, including Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, repeated it in all apparent sincerity, before the press, the Commons and various inquiry boards. Over 1300 police statements were altered by their superiors, sanitized into telling a different story, one which blamed the fans.

Selective and/or misleading evidence was presented at the Inquest, which had set out to establish blame upon alcohol, and drunken Liverpudlians, even if the 'proof' had to be manufactured.

Newspaper headlines blazed lies and repeated them endlessly, as if that made it all somehow the truth. When eye-witness reports, or even official verdicts which didn't toe the party line, contradicted the make believe, then the victims were vilified or the witness had their reputation ruined.

It was self-pity, according to those editors, which caused Merseyside to keep harping on and on about a whitewash. Scousers should accept things and shut up. But Liverpool refused to do that and eventually, twenty-two years later, the actual truth came tumbling out.

Hillsborough 20th Anniversary Memorial Service Chant

I always get goose-bumps watching this. Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, MP Andy Burnham's speech at Anfield interupted.

When Andy Burnham MP stood in Anfield, during the 20th Anniversary Memorial of Hillsborough, it felt like yet another politician delivering empty promises to disguise a whitewash.

Liverpool's supporters had enough of that. Their chant of Justice for the 96 was heart-felt and furious. Burnham represented the establishment, which had closed ranks against a whole section of society. Which had protected itself, even if it that meant perpetuating lies through all official channels.

A sea change occurred after that. Andy Burnham was one of the major players in forcing a deeper review. Two years later, buried documents and altered statements suddenly resurfaced.

Hillsborough is a narrative about the 'little people' uniting against the powers that be. It's a tale of how those who govern, or ostensibly are there to protect and/or represent us, don't always have our best interests at heart. (The final inquiry recorded that 41 of the 96 victims could have been saved, if police and ambulance services had approached this as a disaster, not a mass criminal action.)

Moreover, it tells of how the truth isn't necessarily what's printed in the newspaper, spoken on the lips of world leaders nor uttered by authority figures. And that's a universal tale above and beyond the sporting environment.

But best of all, Hillsborough is a chronicle of Truth Against the World. Of persistence, even when every opinion that is supposed to matter is leveling every weapon in its arsenal against you. Ridicule; scorn; blatant brazen lies published on official letterheads with a stamp; repetition of the same in blazing publicity; judges, coroners, police chiefs and all being so patronizing as they closed ranks.

Yet the Hillsborough campaigners won. The truth came out. That is the lesson for us all.

Other Articles Written by Me about Hillsborough

I've signed countless petitions, written to MPs and done my best to raise awareness over the years. Like I said, it's personal...
... because those who died were people just like me.
Image: Me and a friend with Liverpool match tickets October 1988
Image: Me and a friend with Liverpool match tickets October 1988
Image: Me in Liverpool three weeks after Hillsborough
Image: Me in Liverpool three weeks after Hillsborough

Hillsborough Disaster Books and Plays

Discover more about what happened on that terrace, and the bitter struggle to uncover the truth in the decades long aftermath.
Anne Williams - With Hope in Her Heart

‘Mum...’ This was the last word that 15-year-old Liverpool fan Kevin Williams spoke as he lay dying, one of the 96 tragic victims of the Hillsborough disaster. Kevin’s mum, Anne...

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With Hope in your Heart: A Hillsborough Survivor's Story, the Denial of Justice and a Personal Battle with PTSD

THE HILLSBOROUGH DISASTER - Saturday, the 15th of April 1989 - when 96 innocent men, women and children lost their lives, in Britain's worst ever sporting disaster. WITH HOPE IN...

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We had Dreams and Songs to Sing

A book born out of a once in a lifetime trip to Istanbul. Follow one man's life bound by his passion for Liverpool FC. Watch the Hillsborough and Heysel disasters unfold in front...

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And the Sun Shines Now: How Hillsborough and the Premier League Changed Britain

On 15 April 1989, 96 people were fatally injured on a football terrace at an FA Cup semi-final in Sheffield. The Hillsborough disaster was broadcast live on the BBC; it left mil...

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Beyond Hillsborough

Beyond Hillsborough is a verbatim play, written and set in 2012, that explores the personal consequences of living with the Hillsborough tragedy. Following extensive, never befo...

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Mourning and Disaster: Finding Meaning in the Mourning for Hillsborough and Diana

The Hillsborough stadium disaster of 15 April 1989 and the death of Princess Diana on 31 August 1997 sparked expressivist scenes of public mourning hitherto unseen within the co...

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On April 14th 2012, the 100th anniversary of Titanic striking an iceberg, her home city showed me the human cost.
A Classic TV series from the pen of Alan Bleasdale. A cutting indictment of Thatcher's Britain
Updated: 06/02/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 05/31/2014

I hear you, Frank, absolutely. This wasn't the first time that Hillsborough had trouble up the Leppings Lane end. There were always crushes there for all the same reason. In 1981, Spurs fans had to be rescued in precisely the same circumstances as happened in 1989. But that time, the pitch gates were opened. Hillsborough could have been 1981, during the Wolves v Spurs match, not 1989 Liverpool v Notts Forest. The authorities acted better though then.

But something should have been done. If the lessons had been learned in 1981, then the Hillsborough Disaster would never have happened.

frankbeswick on 05/31/2014

When you look at the design of the ground, you see that problems were bound to have happened, as there was no way of preventing a surge from a crowd, and there was no way of breaking up the crowd pressure. Compare this with the old Manchester City ground, which had an outer wall that prevented surges building up, or Manchester United, whose stairs have turns that slow down surges. Hillsborough should never have been used. The fans were the victims of a complacent FA, greedy stadium owners and incompetent, dishonest police and political authorities. But they were northern working class, so what did they matter to those in power?

JoHarrington on 05/31/2014

{{{{hugs to someone who was there}}}}}} Much love, though I'm naturally duty bound to loathe you, as you support a rival team. <3

They've changed the name of Highbury to The Emirates Stadium? Wtf? I somehow managed to miss that. Or blank it out. Yeah, it's still Highbury to me too.

I'm glad that the article chimed with you too. Justice for the 96.

Mari Nicholson on 05/31/2014

As someone who sat glued to the television when it happened, I lived every moment of your article. I'm still a football fan although I support a rival team, Arsenal. I lived near the Arsenal Stadium in Highbury in my formative years (I still can't get used to calling it the Emirates Srtadium) and it will always be The Arsenal Ground just as they will always be 'the Gunners'. Loved the article, sensitively written.

JoHarrington on 05/30/2014

Police had lost control of the crowd, only one ambulance could get through onto the pitch. The rest were jammed outside, some with missing drivers and keys etc. Then those paramedics inside put people onto their backs, which would have killed some. Meanwhile the police are being given constant orders to stop people getting onto the pitch. They're treating the disaster like attempts at hooliganism.

Ember on 05/30/2014

Wow that's really intense. You said something that shocked me, "The final inquiry recorded that 41 of the 96 victims could have been saved, if police and ambulance services had approached this as a disaster, not a mass criminal action." So this means they just didn't do anything to help while this was all happening? How is that reasonable even if it was "mass criminal action"?

I'll save the youtube link to watch.

JoHarrington on 05/30/2014

I remember reading a book about the Munich Disaster as a child, prompted by a statue local here of a star player killed. It absolutely floored me. My sympathies to your people too.

The key to Hillsborough being cracked was a junior police officer unable to live with what he was forced to do. He handed over the papers that demonstrated what was going on. That chink was prized open to reveal so much. No, it wasn't the ordinary bobby on the street, though many of them obeyed orders beyond all common sense. It was their superiors right up to the top tier of the establishment.

West Midlands and South Yorkshire highest ranking police officers; Thatcher's government undoubtedly - and those which followed for not digging hard enough and/or building upon it; the judges, coroners and other officials presiding over those inquiries, which should have laid bare the truth. They ALL failed not only the 96, but every one of us.

And I'm VERY aware of the Miners' Strike. I grew up in it and learned not to trust authorities then. But I'll admit that even to my cynical mind, the level of corruption over Hillsborough stunned me.

frankbeswick on 05/30/2014

This was a powerful article, Jo. As a Manchester United fan who can remember the Munich disaster, [I was eight at the time] I sympathize with Liverpool and its fans

I must confess that I did not understand the scale of the cover-up by police and politicians. But of course, I should have realized: Thatcher only cared for people who voted Conservative, while Liverpool voted Labour. The police corruption was appalling:lies all the way, and it was the senior officers who were lying, while the juniors were having their honest testimonies suppressed. The corruption went deeper than Hillsborough: the South Yorkshire force honed its capacity to lie during the miners' strike.

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