WHEN 96 people suffocated to death in the open air on a sunny Spring day in Sheffield, it was clear everything had to change.
Decades of neglect, complacency and under-investment had turned many English football grounds into little more than death traps made up of fenced-in terraces and tinderbox stands.
Crowd control was, first and foremost, about containing the hooligans that Margaret Thatcher wanted to tackle with a compulsory ID card scheme.
Safety, as the Taylor Report into the 1989 disaster would discover, was little more than a mere after-thought at so many clubs where safety certificates lay forgotten at the bottom of office filing cabinets.
At Hillsborough, for instance, it emerged in the wake of the disaster that their certificate had not been updated since 1979 – even though Sheffield Wednesday had undertaken rebuilding work during those 10 years, most notably roofing the Spion Kop in 1986.
There were similar tales all around the country with the general malaise being such that the very notion of football fans being afforded 'customer service' by the clubs would have been laughed at. You paid your money and expected little in return but the right to stand on a lump of concrete that did not always afford a view of the entire pitch. That was how it had been for generations and that was how it seemed set to stay.
That was, however, until Hillsborough – a disaster that could not be dealt with in isolation as some within the game initially seemed to suggest.
The disaster that claimed almost 100 lives was not a freakish one-off, but instead merely the latest in what had been a long line of accidents that shamed English football. There had been the Ibrox disaster of 1971, there had been the 33 fans who lost their lives at Burnden Park in 1946 and there had been the Bradford fire.
Serious incidents had also occurred at a host of grounds over the years, including one at Hillsborough in 1981 when the FA Cup semi-final between Wolves and Spurs was held up by a near-fatal crush on the very same terrace where the life would be so horrifically squeezed out of the Liverpool fans just eight years later.
So appalling, in fact, was English football's safety record that when Tony Bland, a Liverpool fan from Keighley, had his life support system turned off four years after the disaster to become the 96th victim of Hillsborough, he also became the 282nd fatality at a British sports ground in a little over 100 years.
By that token, the Lord Justice Peter Taylor-led inquiry into Hillsborough had to mark a watershed in the history of the game in this country as it was clear little had been learned from previous disasters.
This was brought home to this correspondent in the final month of 1989 at Middlesbrough's Ayresome Park when serious overcrowding on the crumbling corner terrace housing the Leeds United fans led to several being hospitalised after being unable to escape the crush because of imposing security fencing. So poor was the management of this terrace that cold December afternoon that it seemed the lessons of Hillsborough had already been forgotten after just six months.
Thankfully, the interim and final reports by Taylor – published in August, 1989, and January, 1990, respectively – proved to be the catalyst for change that the game in this country so badly needed.
What most fans remember Taylor for is, of course, the subsequent move to all-seater stadia by a deadline of 1994 (First and Second Division clubs) and 1999 (Third and Fourth Division) – the latter stipulation being relaxed a couple of years later.
This may be what understandably sticks in most supporters' minds with regards Taylor but he actually came up with a whole raft of recommendations that revolutionised the sport. These included new safety measures on exits and entrances, the reduction in capacity of existing terraces and the dropping of the proposed ID card scheme.
An immediate review of all safety certificates was also ordered along with an overhaul of police planning and an improvement of a radio system that had broken down so spectacularly during the unfolding disaster of April 15.
In his interim report, Taylor was heavily critical of the police with a "failure to cut off access to the central pen once gate C had been opened" being a major factor in the subsequent overcrowding.
A lack of leadership on the day was also cited as a factor in what unfolded, while he also called for a complete re-think in how football dealt with supporters.
It was, however, his recommendations about all-seater stadia that had the most impact with new stands – and eventually stadia – springing up all over the country.
Of course, all this had to be paid for and it was here that Taylor delivered once again with the suggestion, later adopted by then-Chancellor John Major, that the 42.5 per cent duty on pools betting tax be reduced by 2.5 per cent to free up millions of pounds that could instead go to the Football Trust.
The upshot was the fuelling of an attendance boom as better facilities helped draw in bigger crowds with the near 18.5m fans who passed through the turnstiles in the season of Hillsborough mushrooming to almost 30m last term.
Family groups returned, attracted back by being able to watch games in comfort at stadia that were no longer scarred by ugly steel cages.
Men no longer had to wade through goodness-knows what on the toilet floor to use a urinal, while women no longer had to put up with being treated as second-class citizens, as was the case when a female friend was once told after asking at Reading's old Elm Park where the ladies' toilets were for away fans: "There aren't any, you'll have to cross your legs."
Hooliganism, already on the wane by Hillsborough, was no longer a deterrent to a day out at the football thanks to better stewarding and better policing – anyone who doubts this should take a trip to Italy or Eastern Europe to see just how far we have come in this country by comparison since those dark days.
All these improvements have come as a result of what happened in Sheffield almost exactly 20 years ago but it would be crass to describe any as the legacy of Hillsborough.
However, if there is to be a lasting effect of that truly awful day in 1989, maybe it is that today, a repeat of such horror is unthinkable inside an English football ground.
KEY POINTS FROM TAYLOR'S REPORT
An interim report in August, 1989, had 43 recommendations. The key points were:
Restriction on the capacity of self-contained pens;
The opening of all perimeter fence gates;
All terrace capacities to be reduced by 15 per cent;
All safety certificates had to be urgently reviewed;
Increased provision for first aid and emergency services.
The final report in January, 1990, of 76 recommendations, added:
The replacement of all terraces with seated stands by 1994-5 (Divisions One and Two) and 1999-2000 (Divisions Three and Four).
Spikes to be removed from perimeter fencing.
Ticket touting to be made illegal.
The setting up of a Football Stadium Advisory Design Council to advise on safety and construction.
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