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Published on June 3rd, 2013


The Hillsborough Disaster – A Cultural Trauma

The FA Cup semi-final in 1989 between Liverpool F.C. and Nottingham Forest, played on neutral grounds at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, ended in disaster. The opening of the exit gate at the Leppings Lane to allow ticketless fans entrance resulted in a crush, leaving 96 people dead and 766 injured. 

In a new article in Acta Sociologica Professor John Hughson and Researcher Ramón Spaaij investigate the localized experience of public grief that followed in the city of Liverpool. The authors state that the Hillsborough disaster must be viewed as an event taking place in a pre-existing climate of public fear over football hooliganism.

This anxiety reached new heights after the Heysel disaster in 1985. Here, 39 Juventus fans were killed after Liverpool supporters breached a fence separating them from the neutral supporters (many of whom wore Juventus colors) and panick-stricken spectators ran towards a concrete wall which collapsed. The Liverpool supporters were blamed for this event, first by UEFA, then by the British PM Margareth Thatcher. Following this, English club teams were banned from European competition for five years.


Poverty and Hooligans

The origin of the word “Hooligan” is ascribed to a notorious Irish family named Houlihan that lived in south-east London in the late 1800s. Liverpool experienced a large-scale migration from Ireland at the same time as the city suffered economic decline. Liverpool with its strong Irish history and population thus functioned as a scapegoat for the country’s outrage over hooliganism. When the Hillsborough disaster took place people were ready to blame the deaths on hooligan-like behavior. However, in 1990, the Taylor Report concluded “the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control.” The findings of the report resulted in the elimination of standing terraces at all major football stadiums in Great Britain, something that later also has been implemented at stadiums in other parts of the world.

The police and parts of the media blamed the deaths on the supporters rather than focusing on the venue or the decision to open the exit gate. The newspaper The Sun had its famous front-page on 19 April 1989 named “The Truth” where it was claimed that “Some fans picked pockets of victims” and “Some fans beat urinated on brave cops”. The Liverpool-fans were basically described as being drunk and obstructing the help effort in the minutes after the crush. Later, the Hillsborough Independent Panel, delivered a 395-page report indicting official failings and vindicating the victims and football supporters. The panel found that there was “no evidence to verify the serious allegations of exceptional levels of drunkenness, ticketlessness or violence among Liverpool fans”.


The cultural trauma

Hillsborough has become embedded into the identity of Liverpool F.C., including its new generation of supporters, and its matches involve a “ritual distribution” of Hillsborough related items. Hughson and Spaaij argue that there was a collective materiality of the cultural trauma that the people of Liverpool experienced. The “Justice for the 96” campaign was started, and sympathy was record high between Liverpool supporters and supporters of their city rivals Everton. Hillsborough has, in other words, provided the people of Liverpool with a strong collective bond.

In the twentieth anniversary of the disaster Liverpool F.C. captain Steven Gerrard, who lost a cousin at Hillsborough, said: “time has gone by but the scars will never ever be healed and the fans and the players will never, ever forget.”


Further reading:

Hughson, John & Ramón Spaaij (2011) “’You Are Always on Our Mind’: The Hillsborough Tragedy as Cultural Trauma” Acta Sociologica 54(3): 283–295.


*Heysel memorial photo by Alphis Tay, gate photo by Jay Clark


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