23 years on the FA has much to learn and even more to change

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.


  1. Great article, the FA have to be held accountable for allowing a game in their competition to be played at a ground without a valid safety certificate.

  2. Tony, I wholeheartedly agree with your description of the FA`s part in the Hillsborough disaster.Their attitude to the fans as you said reflected the Thatcherite regime prevalent at the time. Sheffield Wednesday Football Club are equally culpable with their penny pinching attitude. SWFC were told by Sheffield Council the crush barriers were not high enough and also the pens were at over capacity as far as safety was concerned.This was a time when clubs had no sponsorship as such and little TV revenue compared to today so bums on seats or feet on terraces ruled their heads. I can`t help feeling though, and this will be considered highly controversial by many, Liverpool Football Club also were partly at fault. As you quite rightly said Peter Robinson implored the FA to change the venue. However Liverpool Football club, aware of the possible dangers , went along with the FA decision to stage the game at Hillsborough. They also did not give any indication or warning to the fans of the implications of Sheffield Wednesday not having an up to date certificate and or the bottle neck nature of access to and from the Leppings Lane end. As I said , this is highly controversial , but Liverpool Football Club along with many clubs of the day also were guilty of treating fans as “punters”.

  3. I agree with the vast majority of this and it’s very well written but I’m again disappointed to see people trying to use Hillsborough for political purposes. Jack Straw has done it this week and the writer here doesn’t mean to but does anyway, perhaps a force of habit.

    Left leaning people and areas will always bring the word Thatcher into these things and whilst in some cases that may be fair in this one it’s creating an alternatively reality.

    ‘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.’

    It’s wrong that Hillsborough was put back on the list, no arguments, but the fear and loathing at the time weren’t simply down to a false perception of football fans from some right leaning government. We cannot re-write history to make it like this, because then we cease to learn the mistakes that football itself made.

    Hillsborough was put back on the list in 1987 and this was less than 2 years after Heysel. People were in prison for manslaughter in Belgium and the game and supporters were in a mess. It isn’t appropriate to blame this on Thatcherism, us football fans hold the majority of the blame for the perception of us as low-lifes.

    It wasn’t just Heysel around that time, there was the huge riots between Millwall and Luton, a kid died at a match in Birmingham, there was a new horror story every month. It’s that scenario of death, destruction and a feeling of fear and anger which led to people being so worried about public safety and viewing football fans as trouble.

    There was nothing romantic about it and to blame a government for the perception that football fans had created themselves lacks any kind of responsibility.

    It was wrong to choose Hillsborough, and people need to pay for that, but it happened under a blanket of death, violence and fear. The perception of football fans wasn’t based on rumours but on actual repeated events, let’s not forget that.


  4. You only have to look at last seasons FA cup semi final, ok it has to be at Wembley but an early kick off for television means tens of thousands of fans leaving in the early hours.

  5. Fantastic article. This was always a disaster waiting to happen and many in football knew this. If it wasn’t Liverpool on that fateful day, it would of been whatever team had reached that semi-final and were allocated the Leppings lane end. Totally inadequate for such and event on on previous occasions disaster had been adverted, just…. I am a Liverpool fan, but even if I wasnt, even if I supported Manchester United, I would feel so much for those Liverpool fans and families that experienced that horror on the day and for the loss of so many so young. Every time I read about the day, I get goose pimples and tears in my eyes. At least now, we can say that justice, at last, has come about, if not 23 years too late. That said, it should never of happened. YNWA x

  6. I agree with what you have written here in relation to the FA. The apologies we have had since the HIP report was published have angered me somewhat because they are only being made because the people/organisations concerned have been ‘found out’.

    But, in respect of the FA, they did have the warnings, not just at Hillsborough from 1981, then ’87 &88, but they also had Bradford in 1985. Another disaster with a loss of life that could have been prevented. An antiquated stadium with inadequate clearing of rubbish and a lack of fire extinguishers for a stand constructed of wood. The FA were obviously not managing the safety of crowds in any way shape or form by allowing clubs to operate this way.

    However, it was not just the FA – it was the corporate culture that existed within the 1980s. How many things happened through a lack of control, naivety or sheer negligence because organisations has this “what can possibly go wrong?” approach to the world – Marchioness, Bradford, Hillsborough, Zeebrugge – to name a few.

    Thankfully, times have changed and corporate social responsibility has improved, but sadly as Tony has mentioned, in football, the last element where social responsibility is applied, is the consideration for the fans – the real investors to the game as a whole.

  7. Douglassmith

    Another excellent piece,keep it up Tony the FA are accountable and should admit their wrong doings

  8. Stick Williams

    Let’s not forget even one year after Hillsborough, Liverpool were forced to play a semi-final against Crystal Palace 12.15 kick off at Villa park, while Man Utd played Oldham at Maine Road much later in the day?
    I mean what sort of idiot would schedule two matches like that?

    It’s like the FA do things such as this as if to prove how incompetent they can be.

  9. Stuart Carroll

    The Farcical Association.

  10. Andrew McBride

    Sad to say while I agree with this article and strongly feel that the FA were very much to blame in no small part for this horror it does look like they will be allowed to escape again.
    While the Police , Fire and Ambulance services have all been pressured in to holding a proper enquiry in to what went wrong the FA have offered nothing. While the public outcry has kept pressure for the inquest verdicts to be changed and those in the Police to be charged only Kenny Dalglish and his family have been vocal in pushing for some form of disclosure from the FA as to what happened and why. I feel we all need to think about getting a petition or a protest aimed at the FA and forcing them to investigate and report . We know that currently much has been done using the internet and media I think we might need to do something directly aimed at the FA before they will even consider acting .

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