Memorial | 23 years on since the disaster, and relatives of those that died have had to fight for justice at every step of the way. (Image | The Telegraph)

The verdict of the Hillsborough Independent Panel was said to have sent shock waves throughout the English game. People were reputedly stunned by the revelation that the accountability for the tragic deaths of 96 Liverpool fans in April 1989 should no longer be aimed towards the supporters, but lain at the door of the ostensibly esteemed organisations of the South Yorkshire Police, the Football Association (FA), certain tabloid newspapers and the British government.

What has been revealed is that in the aftermath of the tragedy an orchestrated cover up took place.

This constituted the aforementioned organisations setting out to absolve themselves of any blame, in the process shifting the opprobrium onto the supporters themselves. What I am interested in is how this deception was so easily accomplished, and why Hillsborough was an inadvertent microcosm for football’s place in society under the government of Margaret Thatcher.

Back in 2004 the comedian Chris Rock did a marvellous routine on George W. Bush’s administration and its hatred for rap music, explaining how they can find Saddam Hussein hiding in Iraq, but are unable to locate the person that shot Tupac Shakur on the crowded strip in Las Vegas.

Perception | This is how most football supporters were thought of during the 1980s in this country – mindless hooligans. (Image | BBC)

Well the same could have been said about the attitudes of the powers that be towards football and its fans. Before the days of the Premier League, Sky Sports and Italia ’90, football may have been the “people’s game”, but the people in question were regarded as feral, ill-mannered, poorly educated, and barely evolved.

In exactly the same way that British society demonises so many of the working classes today by referring to them as “chavs” – a word I absolutely abhor – the authorities did not regard football fans as an essential part of the game. Instead they were a core section of society’s “great unwashed” and ultimately expendable.

What shocks me about some of the reactions to the verdict of the panel is that anybody is shocked at all. While I find stereotyping of upper class people equally sickening, it is sad to opine that back then, many of Britain’s ruling class appeared to see those that did not vote for them as superfluous citizens.

This included many of the disenfranchised northern underclass, with many of them being forced into unemployment as the new wave of tertiary industry swept through the nation. These effects were keenly felt in Liverpool.

So let us not mince words. Those holding power did not care about football fans, with Liverpool supporters near the top of that list. One of the less frequently mentioned aspects about the Hillsborough tragedy is that it is not as though Liverpool fans had been targeted in advance. In 1981, Tottenham supporters nearly fell victim to what would happen eight years later. Fans were close to being crushed at the ramshackle stadium.

However, no action was taken to ensure that the facilities at Hillsborough were updated. Nor did the FA decree that the ground would no longer be used a neutral venue for FA Cup semi finals. Neither happened. The stadium did not even have a safety certificate.

Tragedy | The response of the South Yorkshire Police and medical personnel contributed to the deaths of 41 fans that could have survived. (Image | The Guardian)

The response from the on-site medical staff was slow and ineffective as Liverpool supporters were being crushed in overcrowded pens. The panel revealed that 41 of the 96 deceased could have been saved with basic medical attention. Instead, the police felt it more germane to check the criminal records of the dead, even analysing the blood alcohol levels of a 10 year old boy.

Sections of the South Yorkshire Police ensured that their statements correlated to reveal the following – the fatal crush was due to drunken fans turning up without tickets and pushing their way through the gates.

As fans lay on the ground, some breathing their last, the remaining Liverpool supporters picked the pockets of the dead, stopping police officers from assisting the injured, even urinating on some of them. These lies were passed onto The Sun newspaper, which printed them under the headline, “The Truth”.

That this was ultimately shown to be mendacity of the most egregious nature would matter little. The fact that these unconscionable falsehoods were the official party line for so long was because the disaster had affected football fans. Northern football fans. Liverpool football fans.

For those of you that bemoan the state of the game today, which prioritises money, fame and other vacuous artifice, count yourselves lucky that you did not have to visit stadiums before the Taylor Report was published. It is beyond sickening that is has taken 23 years to finally expose the truth.

A near quarter of a century before the authorities – those that we entrust with power – were forced to admit that they were the ones who had committed crimes. It remains to be seen whether this was in a legal sense, but Hillsborough was the result of a complete dereliction of duty from those that knew better.

Justice | The Hillsborough Family Support Group and others have never given up in their search for the truth. (Image | Sky Sports)

The results of last Tuesday’s report may finally be the long overdue vindication for the loved ones of the 96 who perished, but on a larger scale, it could also act as a panacea for all fans of the game before the days of all-seater stadia and the Premier League.

It shows that football fans were never the uncivilised thugs that they had been branded as. Obviously there was an atavistic enclave, full of bile and bigotry, but much like what is needed in the dilapidated inner cities, create an environment for the game to flourish and its fans will follow suit.

It’s not that the people who go to watch the sport are inherently better that the fans from the past. We were always like this. It is the authorities that have caught up. But it was too late for the 96, and for those who love football, it proves that the South Yorkshire Police, The Sun newspaper, the FA and government we elected failed every single one of us.

[From the editors – The Armchair Pundits fully supports, endorses and is proud of the fight for justice and the truth that has been undertaken and maintained by the families and relatives of the innocent victims of the Hillsborough disaster. Their efforts have been vindicated after 23 years of struggle, cover ups and deception.

Their courage and determination is an example to all of us, not only those that love the game but anyone that has ever seen the images from 15 April 1989 – football’s darkest day.

That supporters were tragically killed trying to watch their beloved Liverpool Football Club play, and subsequently blamed for the disaster is an injustice that can never be corrected.

R.I.P. to the 96, You’ll Never Walk Alone.]

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