IT has taken the Football Association more than 23 years to apologise for its role in the Hillsborough disaster and when an expression of regret was finally made yesterday it still carried the corporate air of an organisation desperately trying to cover its own back.
An initial statement welcoming the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel was woefully inadequate with the word “sorry” being conspicuous by its absence. A backlash ensued before David Bernstein finally issued an “unreserved apology” a few hours later, the FA chairman no doubt hoping that his personal intervention would stem the tide of criticism that was coming their way.
If anything, though, it served only to add to the sense of outrage. This was an organisation which 23 years earlier had put Liverpool supporters in the death trap that was the Leppings Lane terrace and then failed to accept any degree of culpability for what followed. That they did this despite the pleadings of Peter Robinson, Liverpool’s then chief executive, who beseeched them to switch the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest to Old Trafford, makes their decision all the more inexcusable.
Hillsborough had been taken off the list of venues for FA Cup semi-finals following a serious incident in 1981 in which a crush developed on the same terrace on which 96 Liverpool supporters would perish eight years later. The crucial difference on that occasion was that police opened gates, allowing 500 Tottenham Hotspur fans to escape. Disaster may have been averted but the failings of the FA and Sheffield Wednesday ensured it was merely delayed.
It was 1987 when Hillsborough, which still did not have a safety certificate, went back onto the list but it was only as a result of the FA prioritising public order issues over public safety in keeping with the prevailing Thatcherite vision of football fans. Leeds United had reached the semi-final and the FA decided that it would be better to keep their supporters within the confines of Yorkshire rather than allow them to travel to another region.
Kick-off for that tie against Coventry City was delayed as a result of congestion outside the stadium. Neither that nor problems during Liverpool’s semi-final against Nottingham Forest the following season was sufficient to make the FA realise that Hillsborough was unfit for purpose. English football’s governing body had ample opportunity to intervene prior to April 15 1989 but not once did they do so. Their complacency was one of the root causes of the Hillsborough tragedy but there is still no admission to this effect, just an ongoing washing of hands that would make Pontius Pilate blush.
“The FA and English football has changed immeasurably, and learnt many lessons in the last 23 years. English football is now a much safer, more welcoming environment for supporters,” Bernstein said yesterday. In respect to the advances prompted by the Taylor Report he is, of course, correct. But in terms of the FA’s own treatment of supporters, which at times continues to border on the contemptuous, he allowed himself to appear woefully out of touch with the ongoing failings of the organization he heads.
This is the same FA, don’t forget, which last season ordered Liverpool and Everton to play an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley on a Saturday lunchtime despite rail improvements causing the cancellation of trains between Merseyside and London. The same FA which scheduled a third round tie between Aston Villa and Manchester United in January 2002 to begin at 7pm on a Sunday evening. United fans invaded the pitch three times. The same FA which staged the 2005 FA Cup semi-final between Blackburn Rovers and Arsenal at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium with a 12.15pm kick-off. Blackburn supporters had to begin their journey at 5am.
In one respect, Bernstein is right about the FA changing. They now prioritize television demands and income streams over the needs of supporters, in the 1980s it was more about putting security before safety. The end result, though, is the same and that is unlikely to change unless and until the FA holds up its hands and acknowledges its own shabby role in the Hillsborough disaster, an admission that was sorely lacking in Bernstein’s statement.