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HILLSBOROUGH: 'It could have been us'

PUBLISHED: 16:41 15 April 2009 | UPDATED: 09:06 12 August 2010

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - APRIL 11:  A Liverpool fan pays his respects to those who died in the Hillsborough disaster prior to the during the Barclays Premier League match obetween Liverpool and Blackburn at Anfield on April 11, 2009 in Liverpool, England.  On April 15 it will be the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, the bells of Liverpools two cathedrals will ring 96 times in memory of the 96 fans who lost their lives. At 3:06pm, exactly 20 years since the match was abandoned Liverpools public transport will stop for 2 minutes. There will also be a memorial service on the Kop where 96 candles will be lit and a representative from each family will be awarded the freedom of the city.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - APRIL 11: A Liverpool fan pays his respects to those who died in the Hillsborough disaster prior to the during the Barclays Premier League match obetween Liverpool and Blackburn at Anfield on April 11, 2009 in Liverpool, England. On April 15 it will be the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, the bells of Liverpools two cathedrals will ring 96 times in memory of the 96 fans who lost their lives. At 3:06pm, exactly 20 years since the match was abandoned Liverpools public transport will stop for 2 minutes. There will also be a memorial service on the Kop where 96 candles will be lit and a representative from each family will be awarded the freedom of the city. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

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FOOTBALL has become infinitely safer since the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989, a supporters leader said. Ben Hayes, Charlton Athletics former supporters director,

FOOTBALL has become 'infinitely safer' since the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989, a supporters' leader said.

Ben Hayes, Charlton Athletics' former supporters' director, vividly remembers the match the Addicks played against Manchester United a week after the disaster that happened 20 years ago yesterday. Silence descended on the crowd as it remembered the 96 that died in the Sheffield crush, and since then, Mr Hayes said, fans have still not let the memory fade.

The 47-year-old from Bickley, said: "There was a minute's silence at 3.06pm, to mark the moment disaster struck the previous Saturday. We had a floral tribute laid on the pitch before the game, it was very moving.

"The silence was observed impeccably by the Charlton as well as the Manchester United fans, which was noteworthy because of all the bad blood that ran between them and Liverpool.

"I was in my normal seat, up at the back overlooking the stadium, and could see the silent crowd beneath me. It was very distressing to think that people went to a football match as we had done so many times, and died. I think every fan there could empathise with the 96 who died that afternoon."

Whilst the Addicks have never enjoyed the immense support of Liverpool FC, Mr Hayes said he and his fellow supporters never felt safe from deadly crushes of people. The freelance coach said: "I'd been to the Hillsborough stands before. I think Charlton played there a few months after the disaster. It wasn't new to anyone.

"Occasionally you would be in a real crush of Charlton fans and a lot of us were stood on terraces and would be carried forwards by a surge of fans after a goal.

" I think a lot of us could see the potential for that to happen again, and knew they had been in crowds that could potentially turn deadly."

Following the disaster the Taylor Inquiry was set up to look at how such a tragedy could happen and rules and regulations around the country's top leagues were transformed. Crowd management and crowd control were at the centre of the report published in August 1989, with plans for changes at all League clubs for the next season.

They included restrictions on the capacities of self-contained pens, the opening of perimeter fence gates and greater first aid and emergency services provision.

A former member of the Charlton Safety Advisory Group, Mr Hayes said that football was "infinitely safer" today, whilst overcrowding was barely an issue anymore.

He said: "I think Hillsborough was a pivotal point if the nation's health and safety culture. It went from reactive to proactive. Since Hillsborough 'crowd control' is not an issue as much as 'crowd safety'. Instead of worrying about stopping fights and over crowding, the main concern now is about how people can enjoy the game safely and leave as easily as possible.

"A lot of lessons were learnt in this country from Hillsborough - a lot of people remember it. But we can't afford to become complacent."

Reflecting on the anniversary of the tragic incident, former Welling United boss and England footballer Paul Parker said: "No professional footballer playing the game in 1989 could fail to be affected by the Hillsborough disaster. A lot has been written about it in the 20 years that have followed but, one thing is for sure, football is a completely different sport now.

"There was obviously some method behind erecting those fences but, on reflection, it was complete madness to effectively cage supporters while they were trying to do nothing more than watch a football match.

"As a result of the Taylor Report this country now has among the safest grounds in the world, and that's something we should be proud of.

"However, another impact of the events in Hillsborough was that it brought the players on the pitch and the fans watching from the stands closer together.

"Before the disaster, the only time I thought about supporters was when we were winning and they were cheering us on, or when things weren't going so well and they criticised us.

"But, after Hillsborough, the role of supporters did play on my mind and I started to appreciate that they were more than a bunch of people paying to watch us play. The relationship changed, and footballers began respecting supporters in a way they had never done before. They were just as important - if not more so - than the 22 players out on the pitch because, without the fans, football would be so much less of a sport."

Kent Reds supporter club organiser, Steve Gill, 53, was at Hillsborough on the day of the disaster and was due to attend yesterday's service at Anfield to pay his respects.

He said: "I have been every year since it happened. The atmosphere will be the same, one of sadness. It's a mark of respect.

"I was near the corner post and it was actually half empty. It should never have happened. I was there quite early and then it just turned chaotic. One day we'll stand up and get the truth. It is a big cover up by the Yorkshire police.

"I can't imagine what it must be like for those who lost relatives at the game. It must be terrible. Then they go and read stories in a certain newspaper, it leaves a bitter bitter taste.

"The way that Liverpool fans were condemned afterwards as murderers is a disgrace.

There are some fans at Chelsea and Manchester who sing songs about Liverpool supporters being murderers now and I just think 'what would you know? You weren't there.' I'll always be proud to come from Liverpool.

"There was something on the telly the other day about Hillsborough but I can't watch it. I can't believe it has been 20 years. I'll always remember it just as strongly, I still feel the same. I suppose my feelings might mellow if someone stood up and said they were wrong. That would mean something to the families. It would be nice for them to get justice.

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