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What if…? The Hillsborough disaster and counter-factual history

Like most people, I welcomed the new report on the 1989 Hillsborough disaster in which 96 Liverpool fans dies. There have always been so many questions around the circumstances of the crush, and around the reliability of the official evidence. In the context of the late 1980s, a time of moral panic about football fans in which all of us were too often stereotyped as trouble-makers, blaming everything on the fans was too easy. The new report, with its findings of doctored evidence, health and safety failings at the stadium, and poor leadership amongst the emergency services, takes the blame away from the dead. The fact that this report came on the same day as fire killed 289 people in a Karachi factory that had no fire escapes reminds us that health and safety is not about stopping fun, it’s about saving lives.

The Hillsborough Memorial, Sheffield

For me, the Hillsborough disaster always has a personal resonance. The match was an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Liverpool had qualified by beating Brentford, the team I support, 4-0 in the quarter-final. Brentford were then a Third Division team (which translates into League 1 in the post-Premiership rebranding of the Football League), and getting into the last eight of the FA Cup was a triumph in itself. We had beaten Manchester City and Blackburn Rovers in the two previous rounds, and the away tie at Anfield was one of the biggest games in the club’s history. All of us who travelled up to Liverpool knew that we would lose, and that giant-killing dreams rarely come true. How would our solid but, let’s face it, lumbering right back Andy Feeley keep John Barnes at bay? How would our Division Three strike force of Richard Cadette and Gary Blissett penetrate a Liverpool defence that let in only 28 goals that season? After Cadette missed an early chance, we were trailing a respectable 1-0 at half-time, but the second-half deluge came – on the pitch and from heavy clouds – and Liverpool ended with a comfortable 4-0 win. The whole crowd gave the plucky Bees an ovation, and then all of the Liverpool fans burst into a chant of ‘We’re going to Wembley’. None of us there could have known that 96 of them wouldn’t make that trip, dying instead on the terraces in Sheffield. Remembering that chant, and tying it up with the pictures of the devastation at Hillsborough, still makes me shiver.

As a historian, I’ve never spent too much time worrying about counterfactual approaches to the past, the ‘what if…’ school of history. Hillsborough, though, always takes me there. Rarely can one football match have had such massive implications. If Brentford had beaten Liverpool, there would have been no Hillsborough – it’s that simple. The semi-final would have been between Brentford and Nottingham Forest, and would have been played at a different neutral ground somewhere south of Nottingham – Villa Park, White Hart Lane, Highbury, and Stamford Bridge had all been used for such matches. While no ground was perfect at that time, the specific safety failures at Hillsborough would have been avoided. Without the disaster, there would have been no Taylor Report, and no move to all-seater stadiums. While the radical redrawing of the game’s economics could well have happened anyway, the financial climate that surrounded Taylor was certainly a key factor in the 1992 Premier League splinter group and the dominance of Sky. Most importantly, though, 96 lives would not have been needlessly lost. It’s the human cost of the tragedy, carried by survivors and families, that matters. My desire to re-write these horrors by imagining an alternative world in which Brentford beat Liverpool is irrelevant in the face of this.

However, as we have seen, creating a counterfactual version of history is exactly what happened as part of the official response to Hillsborough. Some politicians lied; police officers were told to re-write their reports to shift blame on to the fans; and The Sun carried its infamous story ‘The Truth’, for which it has now finally apologised. The new report has shown how a fake narrative held sway for 23 years. As historians, we need to understand the context out of which that fabrication grew, and support the bereaved in their quest for justice and closure.



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