12 October 2012
In 1989, society and the establishment hated and mistrusted football fans. If the disaster at Hillsborough hadn't happened, it still would have done somewhere else before long, just as devastatingly, and just as rife with recrimination and bitterness afterwards.
I've been to Hillsborough four times as a supporter and once as a journalist. The latest visit as a supporter was last Saturday. Away fans are given the infamous Leppings Lane end. The road itself is residential, predominantly, and a huge roundabout with a standard Highways Agency sign leads up to it. It's called, somewhat doggedly, the Leppings Lane roundabout. It's a road with national significance but still local meaning. People who live or work on Leppings Lane will be proud of their locality, and there's no reason why not. But that stand, that away end, especially now as the horrors of that semi-final day return to the public psyche, is unmatched as the most gruesome place in football.
It's not the actual viewing area that's the problem. Clearly the crumbled terraces that were divided into three cages - cages, that word still makes me shudder - with inadequate emergency exit facilities have long gone. The stand is now divided into two tiers of seating, with the lower tier not taking up half the allocation but much less of it. And they don't even allow that lower tier to be used. The upper tier only is where away fans go, and to access that tier you have to go through the same turnstiles, up the same staircases, into the same cramped concourses and up the same narrow walkway tunnels to reach the open air that greets you with the game that Liverpool fans used in 1989.
It's not just that these are the same - you can tell they're the same. The concrete floors in what is by some distance the most unroomy concourse I've ever experienced in nigh-on 80 grounds is ancient. The catering staff stand behind age-old cages, like exhibits in a Victorian asylum, dispensing the pies and ale from under a hatch measured at just big enough via millimetres to fit an open bottle of beer through. The walls are undecorated, the toilets awful, the whole place dusty, unloved, untouched, utterly bleak. I'd been before, in similar numbers with other Hull City supporters, but perhaps because - no, absolutely definitely because - the lethal combination of rank facilities and an attitude by the authorities ranging from suspicious to evil had finally been fully exposed to the world, 23 years after 95 funerals had been held and one life-support machine was ticking over, I felt at my most queasy and uncomfortable there.
Sheffield Wednesday own this ground, and this end within the ground. I have no idea what the facilities are like for home fans in the other three stands at Hillsborough. They may be similar, they may be totally removed from what the visiting supporter paying £28 to watch his team has to endure. But the very notion that they haven't actually touched the access and indoor sections of the most notorious stand in football since it contributed majorly to the deaths of 96 people, even after all this time, is pretty much unforgivable. Maybe they have plans to do so - if so, these plans are long overdue. Maybe they should raze the whole damn end to the ground and start again. Not one person would mourn it.
Hull City won the game and I left the stadium with very mixed feelings indeed. Satisfied with the result, shocked at what we had to put up with. This is without the continued stinking attitude of South Yorkshire Police, whose current incarnation seem hell bent on putting football fans in their place for daring ever to question their authority, judging by the relief sent to look after men, women and children of all ages who wear black and amber scarves and wanted to watch their team play in comfort, safety and - lest we forget - with a bit of fun. Football is sport. It should be a fun experience to watch it.
Hillsborough's fateful Leppings Lane feels and looks like the self-same Leppings Lane end that produced English football's darkest day. I now don't want to go again.