With reports of overcrowding at the match between Sheffield Wednesday and Newcastle there are questions to ask about why Hillsborough is the way it is.
So was this a case of history repeating itself, or is there nothing to see here? From this distance, the reports of overcrowding during the FA Cup match between Sheffield Wednesday and Newcastle United certainly sound troubling, not least because of the location at which it took place: the Leppings Lane Stand at Hillsborough.
Just the name ‘Hillsborough’ sends a cold echo through anybody old enough to be able to remember the day in April 1989 when almost 100 supporters were crushed to death and the official response was to leap to an immediate cover-up which systematically sought to blame those who died for their own deaths. National newspapers were involved. MPs were involved. The police were involved. And it took more than two decades for the truth to finally come out and be properly acknowledged.
There had been warnings prior to the disaster of 1989. Spurs fans spilled onto the pitch during their FA Cup semi-final against Wolves in 1981 because of overcrowding. The same thing happened when Leeds United played Coventry City there in 1987, and even when Liverpool supporters were on the same terrace in 1988. The Hillsborough Independent Panel described the years between 1981 and 1989 as a period of ‘unheeded warnings, the seeds of disaster’.
And on Sunday evening, at the same stadium, in the same stand, there was another overcrowding issue. Newcastle supporters reported that they considered the situation on the concourse behind the stand to be unsafe, with the area too narrow for the 4,500 travelling supporters occupying it and being directed towards the wrong part of the stand. Many described it as ‘too small’. The phrase ‘unfit for purpose’ has also been used. At least The Sports Grounds Safety Authority have already announced a review.
But all of this does raise the question: why is the Leppings Lane Stand even in place, looking almost exactly as it did more than three decades ago? After the Bradford City fire of 1985, Valley Parade was half-rebuilt. The Heysel Stadium in Brussels was eventually completely rebuilt and renamed. In one sense, it feels surprising that this lasting reminder of something as tragic as the Hillsborough disaster should still just be sitting there.
Of course, it doesn’t take much digging to understand why this should be, from a practical perspective. Sheffield Wednesday have had plenty of financial issues throughout the 21st century and although they’ve not been in administration – dozens of other clubs have over the last 20 years – there have certainly been near-misses, not least in 2010 when only the last-minute intervention of a bank prevented the club having to enter it over an unpaid bill to HMRC.
But it also feels as though opportunities have been missed over the years. The early-to-mid 1990s were a period of unprecedented rebuilding work in English football, as clubs rushed to get the work required as a result of The Taylor Report implemented. The first couple of seasons of the Premier League were played out against a backdrop of building sites.
And when this building frenzy was just about reaching its peak, England were awarded the 1996 European Championships and Hillsborough was selected as a host stadium, but £7m was spent on redeveloping the South Stand at Hillsborough instead. Plans were also unveiled for a redevelopment in 2009, but those were dependent on England winning the bidding to host the 2018 World Cup.
The decline of the team and their inability to get back into the Premier League in more than two decades has severely impacted Sheffield Wednesday’s ability to redevelop a stadium which, when all is said and done, does meet current safety requirements, to the best of anybody’s knowledge. Infrastructure changes tend to come when clubs can afford it. Sheffield Wednesday sold their their ground to their owner and got a points deduction for doing so as recently as 2020.
If anything, Hillsborough is surprising for how similar it looks today to three decades ago, when so many other grounds have been redeveloped elsewhere, with many changing beyond recognition and quite a few disappearing altogether. To put it another way, apart from going all-seater, Hillsborough hasn’t really changed that much since, well, before Hillsborough.
Well, at least not superficially. The Leppings Lane Stand was built for the 1966 World Cup, but while it looks visually very similar to 30 years ago, changes have been made on the inside over the years.
But this snaps us back to 2023. If the Leppings Lane Stand is safe and meets current safety requirements, how come this happened during the Newcastle game?
4,500 tickets is a large allocation, but the FA Cup entitles away teams to a more than they would usually get for league matches. FA rules state that away fans are entitled to 15% of the stadium capacity up to 9,000 tickets, unless the home side are prepared to send more. The allocation allowed for away supporters for Premier League matches is 10%. Hillsborough’s current capacity is 34,854 on safety grounds, reduced from 39,732. With 4,500 tickets being the equivalent of 13% of this capacity, the number of them allocated seems to have been in line with what would have been expected. So the matter of what, exactly, did go wrong here certainly does warrant further investigation.
Sheffield Wednesday’s early comments on the matter came across as somewhat defensive. They stated that they ‘have engaged in extensive dialogue with all relevant parties to review the circumstances to best assist the FA with their enquiries’ (‘all relevant parties’ doesn’t seem to include actual Newcastle supporters who were there), and that they had enough stewards on duty for their safety certificate (well okay, but having a lot of stewards present isn’t the same as having a lot of well-trained stewards there).
In addition to this, they added that they didn’t sell more tickets than they should, and that, ‘The turnstiles were opened 30 minutes earlier than a regular matchday, two hours before kick-off at 4:00pm, to allow Newcastle supporters to enter the stadium in as timely a manner as possible’, which starts to teeter towards blaming Newcastle supporters for the conditions while overlooking that the stadium should be safe no matter when people enter it. If a lot of them do turn up late, then their entry may have to be staggered. Kick-off may have to be delayed. It’s simply not good enough to imply that it’s their fault because they didn’t get into the ground early enough.
If there is ever to be a significant redistribution of money in football, it might be a good idea to ring-fence at least a proportion of it for infrastructure. Newer facilities will be more fuel-efficient, easier to maintain and safer, and may allow clubs to better build their revenue streams. It certainly seems like this would be a more useful way of redistributing money within the game than merely giving a wider array of clubs the ability to pay even more in agent fees and wages than they already do.
It should be concerning if there are credible reports of overcrowding at any match, all the more so when the match concerned is being played at Hillsborough. It is to be hoped that the upcoming review identifies what went wrong on this occasion and ensures that lessons are learned from what may have been something of a near-miss. And Sheffield Wednesday, when they can afford to, should probably consider replacing the stand which has stood so surprisingly at one end of their ground since tragedy struck. More than 30 years after so many people were killed in their stadium, it’s long past time for it to be demolished and replaced by something modern.
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