Chapter 1: 1981-1989: unheeded warnings, the seeds of disaster

The 1988 FA Cup Semi-Final

2.1.102 The 1988 FA Cup Semi-Final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest was played at Hillsborough on 9 April 1988. The pre-match briefing was held on 23 March 1988 involving SYP, the participating clubs and SWFC. SYP also met with the South Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance Service (SYMAS).[120]  A total of 51,622 supporters attended the match.[121] Early in 1988 a meeting of Sheffield City Council Safety of Sports Grounds Advisory Group had identified a trend in latecomers to matches, noting 'a pattern has developed of people arriving some 15 minutes before the start of the game hoping to gain admission'.[122] 

2.1.103 Interviewed by the DPP in 1990, Superintendent Bernard Murray (who was assistant to the Match Commander in 1988 and 1989) stated that during C/Supt Mole's briefing for the 1988 match he did not mention that there had been overcrowding in 1987.[123] 

2.1.104 On 9 August 1988 a meeting was held at Hammerton Road Police Station between SYP and the fire and ambulance services to consider the emergency response to a major disaster at SWFC. The meeting was chaired by Supt Murray and attended by Superintendent Roger Marshall, Chief Inspector David Beal and Inspector Steven Sewell, Deputy Chief Ambulance Officer Alan Hopkins and Assistant Chief Ambulance Officer (Operations) Jones, SYMAS, and Assistant Divisional Officer Rowlands of the South Yorkshire Fire Service.

2.1.105 It was noted that a senior ambulance officer attended all home matches at Hillsborough and was allocated a complimentary ticket for the South Stand. Insp Sewell commented that while the North Stand offered better access to the gymnasium, 'Sheffield Wednesday Football Club only wish to allocate the complimentary tickets to the ambulance service for use in the South Stand, so that the club physio, Alan Smith, can signal straight away to the ambulance officer if an ambulance is required for a Wednesday player'.[124] This view was not shared by SYMAS, who regarded the presence of liaison officers as important in the event of a major incident and not only to treat players who might be injured.

1988: fans' experience of crushing

2.1.106 In correspondence written after the 1989 disaster it became clear that fans had experienced crushing on the Leppings Lane terrace in 1988. One fan wrote to the Football Association outlining the full extent of his experience of congestion, beginning in the tunnel feeding the central pens. Once out of the tunnel, 'if anything the situation became worse and the pressure behind became worse, causing many fans to stumble and fall down the steps only to disappear under the crowd'.

2.1.107 His letter continued:

... it was impossible to move sideways as the momentum of the crowd continued to push us forward. We were forced to duck under metal barriers or suffer even more crushing. Finally we were forced right up against the barriers which prevent the fans from getting on to the pitch. During the match we had to constantly bear the crushing force of the crowd swaying forward from behind. It would not have been so bad if we had been able to move sideways, away from this central part, but it was so packed, and the constant pushing, jostling and surging of the fans made this prospect appear even more dangerous.

During the game some fans actually collapsed or fainted and were passed over peoples [sic] heads towards the front of this section of the ground ...

Some fans tried to open this gate but it had been padlocked. Some fans attracted the attention of a policeman or steward, I can't remember which, but he appeared to be totally unaware of the situation ...

During the whole of this game we were very concerned for the safety of our youngsters but the police were only allowing injured fans through the gate. After the match finished we all vowed never to enter the Leppings Lane end ever again.

As far as I am concerned, when there is a large crowd entering this part of the ground, it will always be a death trap.[125]

2.1.108 Other fans also referred to problems in 1988 in their statements to West Midlands Police: 'I have been to this ground several times and have been into the central pens before and it has always been uncomfortable. Last year I climbed over the fencing and went to the terrace near to the North Stand'.[126]

2.1.109 In the immediate aftermath of the 1988 Semi-Final, a fan wrote to the Minister for Sport and the FA. Unfortunately, his letter to the Minister for Sport was sent to an incorrect address and never arrived. He received no reply from the FA. When asked in 1989, the FA could not trace a record of having received his letter. He wrote that:

I attended the above football match on Saturday April 9th 1988, and write to protest in the strongest possible terms at the disgraceful overcrowding that was allowed to occur (in an all ticket match) in the Leppings Lane Terrace area ...

The whole area was packed solid to the point where it was impossible to move and where I, and others around me, felt considerable concern for personal safety (as a result of the crush an umbrella I was holding in my hand was snapped in half against the crush barrier in front of me). I would emphasise that the concern over safety related to the sheer numbers admitted, and not to crowd behaviour which was good.

My concern over safety was such (at times it was impossible to breathe) that at half time when there was movement for toilets, refreshments etc. I managed to extricate myself from the terrace, having taken the view that my personal safety was more important than watching the second half.[127]

Debriefing: who knew what after the 1988 Semi-Final?

2.1.110 The 1988 Semi-Final was considered a success.[128] Retrospective evidence from a police officer on duty at the Leppings Lane turnstiles suggested there were no serious public order problems.[129]  According to SWFC 'everything went extremely smoothly'.[130] C/Supt Mole stated that the 1987 and 1988 debriefing sessions made no mention of any injuries due to overcrowding or crushing.[131] 

2.1.111 Thus C/Supt Mole's planning for the 1989 Semi-Final was based on the previous year's operation. He claimed that the only changes were the removal of air cover and the removal of a serial of police officers from the Leppings Lane concourse area. Yet according to Supt Murray, Mole also requested SWFC to reconsider the colour and presentation of tickets to avoid problems at the turnstiles.[132]

2.1.112 The ACC responsible for operations, Walter Jackson, was in overall control of planning and operational policing for the 1988 Semi-Final. He did not attend but, interviewed by the DPP in 1990, he recalled receiving reports following the match indicating the occurrence of a 'minor pitch invasion' at the end of the match which had been handled quickly and efficiently.[133] Overall, he continued, it had been 'a fairly joyous occasion' and he was not aware of crushing or overcrowding in 1987 or 1988.

2.1.113 In his 1988 debrief Supt Murray informed C/Supt Mole that 'we have noted locally the lessons that were learned and the improvements that can be made for any similar future event. Generally I was well satisfied with the event'.[134] In his debrief, Sergeant Hoyland informed C/Supt Herold that 'generally the operation went well and was certainly an improvement on last year's operation'.[135] A lesson learned from 1988 related to traffic and the need to have contingency planning for tailbacks in 1989.[136] 

2.1.114 Supt Marshall could not remember a debrief in 1988 and, interviewed in 1990, he indicated initially that he had not held a debrief with his inspectors. Later, however, he stated that inspectors produced a written debrief and C/Supt Mole 'would always have a debrief after a game'.[137] He concluded that he may have been off duty when a debrief was held or he may have been absent. Regarding overcrowding and crushing, Supt Marshall stated he was unaware of injuries on the terraces and concluded 'there is obviously the possibility that injured people had gone off themselves and gone to hospital'.

2.1.115 In their submission to the Taylor Inquiry SYP referred to the 1988 debrief.[138] They noted that 'some resources', meaning police officers, were 'under employed in and around the ground, particularly in peripheral areas', mainly as a consequence 'of the general change in policy for policing semi-finals in that during normal matches officers are used for more than one role and are moved to different locations during the various phases of the match'. 

2.1.116 At semi-finals 'officers would be allocated a specific task and would remain with that task throughout the operation, the intention being to ensure that the police had control both inside and outside the ground throughout the operation in an effort to thwart those individuals intent on causing disorder or attempting to enter the ground without tickets'. 

2.1.117 This statement makes the first mention of policing 'anticipated roaming gangs of disappointed supporters causing disorder during the match'.  Despite this unsubstantiated claim, 'the levels of officers available was found to be excessive, particularly at the Liverpool end of the Stadium where this type of activity had been expected as a consequence of their reputation and considerable following of supporters'. 

2.1.118 Evidence from fans and police officers identified overcrowding in 1988. The level of knowledge within SYP and the steps taken to manage the crowd are discussed in detail in Chapter 3. There is no confirmation that SWFC directors were aware of overcrowding and crushing in 1988. According to Mr Mackrell, the SWFC Club Secretary, 'everything went extremely smoothly and indeed I have referred to the file I kept for that fixture and the records indicate that we had comparatively little by way of damage to the ground afterwards'.[139]

[120] Inspector Sewell's evidence to Lord Justice Taylor, SYP000123550001, p5.
[121] Internal SYP memorandum from PC Rosevear (Football Liaison Section) to Chief Superintendent Mole, 13 September 1990, SYC000001360001, p3.
[122] Minutes of Safety of Sports Grounds Advisory Group, 23 March 1988, SYP000038710001, p166.
[123] West Midlands Police interview with Superintendent Murray, 25 June 1990, SYP000038900001, pp15-21.
[124] Memorandum from Inspector Sewell to The Chief Superintendent of 'F' division, 9 August 1988, SYP000047780001, p273.
[125] Letter to the Football Association, 16 April 1989, FFA000003180001.
[126] Statement from Liverpool fan, 17 May 1989, SYP000069080001.
[127] Letter from Liverpool fan, 13 April 1988, HOM000028660001, p4. Internal FA note, 'Surely someone must have filed it somewhere', 15 May 1989, FFA000004940001.
[128] The police operation and the experience of spectators is discussed further in Chapter 3, at paragraphs 2.3.35, 2.3.45 and from paragraph 2.3.102.
[129] Statement of PC Ian Selwood, 29 April 1989, SYP000038800001, p39.
[130] Statement of Graham Mackrell, 19 May 1989, SYP000038670001, p80.
[131] Statement of Chief Superintendent Mole, 26 April 1990, SYP000038700001, pp190-193.
[132] West Midlands Police interview with Superintendent Murray, 25 June 1990, SYP000038900001, pp41-43.
[133] West Midlands Police interview with ACC Jackson, 28 June 1990, SYP000038910001, pp14-16.
[134] Superintendent Murray debrief for 1988 Semi-Final to Chief Superintendent Mole, 14 May 1988, SYP000047780001, p277.
[135] Three-page debrief on 1988 match from Operations Room duty Sergeant to C/Supt Herold, 11 April 1988, SYP000047780001, pp278-280.
[136] Internal police minute from C/Supt for Operations and Traffic to ACC for Operations, 26 April 1988, SYP000047780001, pp282-283.
[137] West Midlands Police interview with Superintendent Roger Marshall, 19 June 1990, SYP000038880001, pp16-21.
[138] SYP submission to Lord Justice Taylor, SYP000047780001, pp362-363.
[139] Statement of Graham Mackrell, 19 May 1989, SYP000038670001, p80.