By Simon Ellis-Jones
Producer, World Football Focus, BBC Sport
HILLSBOROUGH. The word is tough to write, even harder to say out loud.
Twenty-three years have passed since that day.
A huge number of football fans going to games this week will not even have been born when the 1989 FA Cup semi-final ended in tragedy.
Yet for some, that sunny April day has never ended.
I am one of the lucky ones. On April 15, 1989, I was a 17-year-old with a severe dose of tonsillitis.
So bad that my mum told me I couldn’t go to the match.
Within 20 minutes I had swapped my terrace ticket for a seat in the stands. Mum, happy I wouldn’t be on my feet for 90 minutes, relented.
Dad drove, me and three mates sat in the van.
We got stuck in traffic somewhere near Glossop. The A57 Snake Pass was busier than we expected and the journey from L47 to S6 took almost three hours.
We were not drunk. We were not ticketless. We did not rush the gate.
Yet we walked into that stadium 20 minutes or so before kick-off without having to take our tickets from our pockets.
We walked through a gate opened by South Yorkshire police officers. A gate, it would later be falsely claimed, had been forced open by ticketless fans.
Once inside the ground the terrace appeared to be accessible only via a narrow tunnel.
I could have gone with the others down that tunnel, I could have disobeyed Mum.
From my seat in the stand I had a great view. Fifteen minutes later I was on the pitch. It was not a pitch invasion.
I had little idea what was happening. The shouts and screams told me it was bad.
Fans, using advertising hordings as stretchers, were making repeat trips to one corner of the ground, by the Kop.
I do not remember seeing bodies, just clothes. The pitch was covered. I remember asking myself: “Why would anyone not know they had lost a shoe?”
At the same time my Dad was lying prostrate on the section of terrace next to pens three and four.
He had been crushed so badly his heart had developed an irregular beat. He would later need some serious medical attention.
His life had been saved by a crash barrier buckling, the pressure relieved just in time.
Those lying beneath him were not so lucky. And they were the memories that would haunt him as he waited 11 years for his compensation claim to be heard.
He was lifted over the carnage to safety by other fans. Untrained, blindly doing what they could to save lives. As the police looked on.
Dad managed to get out of the stadium, praying, he later told me, he would see me and the lads standing at the agreed meeting point.
We were all there. Dad went to a local shop to find a phone. Mum must have been worried.
He found a bike shop. At one end was a queue of about six fans, waiting patiently as the shop assistant asked each one in turn for a phone number, which he would dial for them.
Next to Dad was the shop owner, demonstrating a bike to a grandmother. Sirens wailed outside. “I’m not sure she’ll like that shade of green,” Dad remembers her saying.
It is only when you actually sit down to begin a piece like this that the sheer ludicrousness of the Hillsborough aftermath becomes apparent.
Imagine making an error at work, a mistake of such monumental incompetence it set in motion a chain of events which resulted in someone’s death.
During the subsequent investigation you lie about your decision-making, you deflect blame onto the victim and leak misleading information to the press.
But you are caught out. An official inquiry blames you and those in your charge for the tragic accident. You were out of your depth, it says.
Yet there is no punishment.
This is what happened 23 years ago. But it was 96 times more serious.
The reason for the Hillsborough disaster was the “failure of police control”, concluded Lord Justice Taylor.
And so it is nothing short of astonishing that 23 years on, not a single person has been convicted of any criminal offence for the part they played in the deaths of so many innocents.
The Taylor Report which followed Hillsborough had an immense impact on British football.
It was most obvious in the total transformation of British stadia. Terraces disappeared within five seasons and new safety practices put in place.
Thankfully Taylor also recommended the proposed ID card system for fans be scrapped. Imagine the chaos if every fan had to produce identification at the turnstile.
While some lag behind – the disaster at an Ivory Coast stadium in 2009 reminded us of that – British football fans have never had it so good.
New stadiums. Comfortable seats, café lattes and paninis. Even the police are more relaxed.
But never forget, there was a price to pay for your 21st century viewing.
And it could have been you.
* The original version of this piece was first published on the Sky News website.
Alan Davies et al…. Read it and weep
Wow, great piece, in tears
Strong stuff Simon.
I swapped my Leppings Lane ticket for one in the North Stand too.
Not a day goes by when I do not reflect on doing so.
Read it and weep indeed.