Safety failings that contributed to death of 96 Liverpool fans were 'foreseeable', but game was allowed to go ahead anyway
The safety failures of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club when it hosted the FA Cup semi-final on 15 April 1989 at its Hillsborough ground have been chillingly clear since Lord Justice Taylor itemised them in his official report four months after the disaster. Last week, 23 years on, the Hillsborough Independent Panel supported Taylor's conclusions.
Professor Phil Scraton, of Queens University Belfast, who wrote most of the report which was unanimously approved by all panel members, presented its findings at Liverpool's Anglican cathedral last week to the families of the 96 people who died. He told them that after previous crushes at Hillsborough throughout the 1980s "the risks were known and the fatal crush in 1989 was foreseeable".
Now fresh questions are starting to emerge about what the club knew about the safety risks at its ground – and when.
Charles Falconer QC, representing the Hillsborough Family Support Group (HFSG), has called on the director of public prosecutions to investigate charging Sheffield Wednesday, as well as South Yorkshire police, Sheffield city council and the Football Association, with corporate manslaughter.
"Because the risks were known but the club and FA went ahead anyway with hosting the semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough, we want the DPP to examine whether their conduct amounts to gross negligence which could be the basis for a manslaughter charge," he said.
Sheffield Wednesday applied to host the semi-final, which 54,000 people attended, and semi-finals in 1981, 1987 and 1988, despite the club's safety certificate for Hillsborough not having been updated since 1979.
There was a serious crush in 1981 on the Leppings Lane terrace in which 38 people were injured. The police moved supporters out, they told the club's then chairman, Bert McGee, to avoid "a real chance of fatalities". Shockingly, the panel found in the minutes of a post-match meeting, McGee replied: "Bollocks – no one would have been killed."
Scraton then described how changes to the ground, principally building metal fences running up the Leppings Lane terrace to divide it into separate pens, made "a demonstrably unsafe terrace dangerous."
There were crushes and problems with the old, inadequate turnstiles in 1987 and 1988, after which one supporter wrote to the FA saying the Leppings Lane terrace "will always be a death trap".
Nevertheless, the FA invited Sheffield Wednesday to host the semi-final in 1989, without asking any questions about ground safety, and the club eagerly applied to do so.
Taylor listed all the club's safety deficiencies and breaches of the Home Office Guide to Safety in Sports Grounds – known as the Green Guide – many of which were in the Leppings Lane terrace, which he described as "unsatisfactory and ill-suited to admit the numbers invited".
Several safety breaches were directly related to the unfolding horror. The seven turnstiles in the Leppings Lane terrace were too few to admit so many supporters – 10,100 from Liverpool – and there was no way of counting how many were in each of the central pens, which became lethally overcrowded.
Hillsborough's overall safe capacity had never been reassessed since 1979; the tunnel that led to the Leppings Lane pens had a gradient of one in six, much steeper than the Green Guide maximum; 40% of fans were too far from the prescribed distance to an exit; the crush barriers were the wrong height and too far apart; and liaison between the club and police on the day "failed".
Yet despite the 96 deaths, the suffering caused to the bereaved families and traumatised survivors, in the 23 years afterwards Sheffield Wednesday never admitted liability.
The families say that as they were trying to cope with their losses the club was unsympathetic, built no decent relationship with them, and treated them with disdain. Not a single director or employee of the club resigned – even Graham Mackrell, the club secretary whose job included overall responsibility for safety matters, stayed in place.
McGee stepped down from the chairmanship of the club in March 1990. He was replaced by Dave Richards, who had not been on the board at the time the disaster happened, but was appointed a director six months later in October 1989. Under his chairmanship, Sheffield Wednesday refused to put up a memorial at Hillsborough for 10 years, until 1999.
Margaret Aspinall, the chair of the HFSG, Phil Hammond, the former chair, and Trevor Hicks, the group's president, all of whom lost teenage children at Hillsborough, recall instantly when asked about the memorial that Sheffield Wednesday initially offered them a small plaque, to be attached to a wall, outside some men's toilets.
"You could not get much greater contempt for families trying to deal with the loss of their loved ones," says Hicks. "Sheffield Wednesday's attitude to the families, and failure to put a memorial up for 10 years, was very distressing to us when we were dealing with the loss of our loved ones. Taylor identified their safety failures as contributory causes of the deaths, yet they behaved as if they did think it was the fans' fault. There was no apology."
Sources close to Richards denied that the families were offered a plaque outside the toilets.
When the families and some of those injured sued for the loss they had suffered, Sheffield Wednesday refused to admit liability or pay compensation. In November 1989, South Yorkshire police did offer damages to some, and as Sheffield Wednesday still refused, the police sued the club and the club's engineers, Eastwoods. They claimed the club were liable because of the inability to control the capacities of the Leppings Lane central pens – "the main cause of the disaster", the police argued – and "unsafe systems" of management and escape from Leppings Lane.
In October 1990, under Richards's chairmanship, Sheffield Wednesday reached a confidential settlement with the police. The club paid a proportion of the settlement. Claims from the bereaved and injured were settled "without admission of liability".
The panel report notes that this drew criticism from the families: "They had wanted South Yorkshire police and Sheffield Wednesday to accept, without ambiguity, their respective responsibilities in causing death and injury."
That acceptance never came. Although Richards, the directors and Mackrell all knew their safety certificate had been 10 years out of date – and also knew all the identified safety failures – the club never actively sought to contradict the false South Yorkshire police stories that supporters themselves had somehow caused the disaster.
In fact, that version of Hillsborough, conclusively proven by the panel to be untrue and deliberately disseminated by South Yorkshire police in a determined cover-up campaign, took hold in Sheffield and has been believed by many ever since. Under Richards, Sheffield Wednesday never apologised to the families for their suffering, nor sought to educate the club's own supporters about its failings and the disaster's true causes.
Only under the new ownership of the Serbian-US businessman Milan Mandaric, who took over in December 2010, have Sheffield Wednesday finally made an official apology. That was issued last Wednesday, the morning before the report was published, following consultation with Aspinall.
Richards stayed on as Sheffield Wednesday chairman until February 2000, shortly after a memorial was finally put up. The club had sunk into debts of £20m, and was facing relegation from the Premier League. Richards left Wednesday three months before they were relegated, to take the job as the first paid chairman of the Premier League. His first salary, as part-time chairman, was £176,667. He is still the Premier League chairman, representing English football internationally, and is a main board director of the FA. His salary from the Premier League last year was £347,000.
In 2006, while the Hillsborough families were struggling to have anyone in authority hear their campaign for the truth about the disaster to be accepted, Richards was knighted for services to football.
This was principally due to him being chairman of the Football Foundation, which gives grants from the Premier League, FA and government to grassroots football facilities and projects.
Richards generally does not talk to the press, but via sources this week he said of Hillsborough that he had been there on the day of the disaster and was horrified by seeing it. He said that prompted him to become a director of the club, and seek to improve its approach to safety. He was the chairman when, with grants of public money, the Leppings Lane and Kop terraces were made all-seated following the second Taylor report. Richards has told Premier League staff he was appalled that Sheffield Wednesday had hosted matches for 10 years without an up-to-date safety certificate. However, he has not made that known publicly during the 23 years in which, including under him, the club resisted liability. Richards said he refused to put a memorial up at Hillsborough for 10 years on legal advice. He said he was advised by lawyers that to do so would compromise the club's stance not to admit liability for the disaster. Representatives of Liverpool Football Club and supporters' groups who pressed Sheffield Wednesday during that period to put up a memorial, arguing that its absence was distressing to families and survivors, recall Richards giving a similar answer then.
Aspinall said: "I am absolutely appalled and disgusted that after our loved ones died and we were caused so much pain and suffering, the chairman of the club where the disaster happened, which failed to put a memorial up for 10 years and treated the families with contempt, has been knighted for services to football and is the chairman of the Premier League.
"While we have been through 23 years of hell fighting for the truth and justice, a lot of people have done very well after Hillsborough. We never got an apology from one of them. Certainly, Sir Dave Richards should give up his knighthood and resign as the chairman of the Premier League."
Richards did not respond to that call for his resignation, other than to pass on the name of the law firm which he said gave legal advice not to put up a memorial. Senior sources at Sheffield Wednesday, however, and the panel, said they had handed over all the club's documents relating to Hillsborough, and seen no such legal advice.
Falconer said: "This idea that Sheffield Wednesday putting up a memorial would amount to admitting liability is utter rubbish. It is about showing respect for the victims, and failing to put a memorial up was consistent with how Sheffield Wednesday behaved under Sir Dave Richards: they wanted to reduce their association with the disaster as much as possible."
None of the directors on the Sheffield Wednesday board at the time of the disaster resigned as a consequence, although in March 1990 McGee stepped down. Keith Addy, a director involved in construction – whose duties, according to club documents, included "particular responsibility for ground alterations and improvements" – stayed on for almost 20 years, until January 2008.
Mackrell, who had been the official designated safety officer for Hillsborough at the time of the disaster, saw Sheffield Wednesday through all the legal processes in which it denied liability, and was promoted, under Richards, to chief executive. He still has high-profile jobs in football, working for the League Managers Association and as a venue director at stadiums hosting matches for European football's governing body, Uefa.
In June 1999, Mackrell left Sheffield Wednesday to become the chief executive at West Ham United. Six months later, for the last eight minutes of a League Cup quarter-final against Aston Villa, West Ham fielded a player, Emmanuel Omoyimni, who had not been formally registered by the club. When that administrative error was discovered, Mackrell immediately stepped down from his job. "I felt the only honourable thing to do was resign," he said at the time.
Contacted this week about the possibility of the DPP mounting a corporate manslaughter investigation into the failings at Sheffield Wednesday that led to the Hillsborough disaster, Mackrell said: "I am making no comment."
When I interviewed him in 2004 for my book The Beautiful Game? Searching for the Soul of Football, Mackrell argued that the police blunder, opening an exit gate to allow a large number of supporters in without closing off the tunnel leading to the Leppings Lane pens, was the disaster's main cause.
"No way would I have any involvement in that whatsoever," he said.
Mackrell said the changes made to Leppings Lane had happened before he joined the club, and "other people" were responsible for them. I asked if he had considered resigning after 96 people died at the ground for which he was the safety officer.
"No, never," he said.