If you wish to make a name for yourself in the sphere of ‘Health and safety’ you can do so by getting things horribly wrong. When excellence is maintained in safety regimes nobody notices because nothing happens; no accidents, no loss of life, no catastrophes: for that’s, of course, the objective.

Stadium safety guidelines around the world are based to a large extent on UK Safety standards. These are stringent regulations, which were adopted following disasters that occurred at British soccer stadiums in the past; particularly in the 70s and 80s. The loss of life and injury suffered by fans at these events can be attributed to poor design features but common to all of these disasters was poor leadership before, during and after the events.  

In another blog the story is told of the commander of a Nuclear Submarine and how he had to get to grips very quickly with a vessel and crew he knew nothing about. He did this successfully by giving more responsibility to those under his command; he discovered the leaders from within; something very useful in a battle situation.

In the United Kingdom a South Yorkshire Police commander found himself in a similar position to the Submarine Captain in that two weeks following his appointment he took charge of a Football Association Semi-final at the neutral Sheffield Wednesday ground in Hillsborough. Liverpool v Nottingham Forest was the fixture and a similar game had taken place 12 months previously without incident. So why did 96 supporters lose their lives at this fixture?

In summary the fenced off pens (3 and 4) directly behind the goal where the Liverpool supporters were situated were full beyond their safe capacity before the game began. These pens were accessed by a tunnel, with a steep incline, under the stand which in previous years would be closed off once the terraces reached their capacity. Because of poor crowd control outside the gates and an insufficient number of turnstiles, a dangerous crush developed at the ‘Leppings lane’ entrance. The police having lost control of the situation, quite rightly, opened a gate allowing fans into the ground and bypassing the turnstiles in order to relive this dangerous crush. Once in; supporters who could see the pitch through the tunnel headed for its entrance to access the viewing areas 3 and 4 causing a fatal crush to develop in, already overcrowded, standing terraces. The entrance to the tunnel on this occasion was not blocked. If Liverpool supporters anxious to see the game were denied access to the tunnel they would have proceeded to viewing areas to the left and to the right of the overcrowded pens. These areas were at 50% capacity and the ground in general was able to cater for all supporters present on the day. Although the opening of ‘Gate C’ allowed fans in without having their tickets checked it is doubtful if anyone, without a ticket, would have travelled all the way from Liverpool to Leppings Lane in Hillsborough when in previous years their tickets were checked several times before reaching the turnstiles. If indeed some supporters did not possess the required ticket the numbers would have been so small as not to have any bearing on the subsequent tragedy.  

It would seem that there was no ‘hand-over’ procedure whereby the new Police Chief was given details of the ground and the most appropriate crowd control procedures. The custom of closing off access to the tunnel was known as the ‘Freeman’ tactic, named after Superintendent Freeman who in the past put the procedure in place on match days.

On Saturday April 18th 1998 there was obviously a lack of leadership displayed by commanding officers but why didn’t police officers on the ground ‘step up to the plate?’ Why didn’t officers and stewards take it upon themselves to close off access to the tunnel when the terraces were obviously full to the naked eye and every CCTV monitor trained on them?

The Liverpool supporters who spoke afterwards gave accounts of being carried with the surge of the crowd or of being unable to move because of the crush. They had no control over their fate but others had.

In the aftermath of the tragedy there was a serious lack of leadership displayed by the Ambulance service. For a long time the only visible appliance was a solitary and voluntary ‘St.John’s’ ambulance behind the goal area. Despite 42 vehicles and crew being nearby they weren’t deployed onto the pitch; eventually two ambulances did make the trip to the Lepping’s lane end. Again the question has to be asked as to why individual ambulance crews did not take the initiative to enter the ground themselves? The second inquest held 27 years after the event concluded that more lives could have been saved if the Ambulance response was adequate. People died as a result of neglect despite the fact that 42 ambulances and crews were present and available in the same ground.

Following the tragedy the police propaganda machine aided by a willing press and some influential UK Soccer figures painted an extremely negative picture of Liverpool fans on the day and of the population of Liverpool in general. Theresa May, the home secretary, later to have a difficult and short tenure as Prime Minister, had her finest hour when she praised the supporters, in a statement read into the House of Commons records, for their unselfish acts of heroism in the aftermath. These supporters had torn down advertising hoardings to use as make-shift stretchers and they also gave what assistance they could to the injured as well as providing as much dignity as possible in the circumstances to the dead and dying. There is no evidence from police and ground CCTV images to support the lurid claims made regarding the supporters behaviour during and after the tragedy but the power of the press was such that these statements were given credence in some quarters until officially debunked in the second inquest and in the House of Commons statement 27 years after the event. 

On the 11th of May 1985 the wooden stand in Bradford City’s Valley parade stadium burnt to the ground and 56 people lost their lives. While timber structures were subsequently banned and replaced by steel and concrete stands the tragedy at Bradford could have been averted by taking the simple precaution of removing accumulated litter from under the seating area. Locked escape routes were another cause of fatalities. The Fire Service had pointed to the potential hazard of litter under the stand but there was a failing in leadership once again because no one followed up on the matter. If the day before the match a Fire Officer had stated that the event was unlikely to receive a ‘Fire Cert.’ it would be safe to say that in a matter of hours the litter would have been removed and emergency exits checked.

It took just four minutes for the packed stand to burn to the ground. The leadership and courage of individual Police Officers survives in footage to this day with many officers and civilians subsequently receiving commendations for their bravery.

Hillsborough and Bradford would be mere footnotes in English Soccer history if a tunnel entrance had been blocked off and a stand kept free of litter.

Great leadership often involves simple unglamorous acts.