Hillsborough Across Form: An Essay on The Alternative Tactics of Historical Reference

Hillsborough Across Form is an essay I recently wrote for a history class at my university. The task was to research the different forms of history that recount an iconic event. Seeing an opportunity, I decided to choose Hillsborough as, along with being a fascinating and tragic event, it would provide an opportunity to take a detailed look at one of football’s defining moments.

Thirty years ago this April, ninety-six soccer fans died at Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield, England in the worst stadium disaster in British history. Aged between ten and sixty-seven, these men, women, and boys, descended upon the neutral stadium in Sheffield from Liverpool to watch Liverpool Football Club play Nottingham Forrest Football Club in the FA Cup Semi-Final. As the referee blew his whistle to begin the match, the standing-room pens behind the goal swelled with hundreds of Liverpool supporters whom police had herded into the confined space. Ultimately, a massive crush took place and led to the tragic death of nearly a hundred fans. Due to the scale of the event, the role of soccer in British culture, and the decades of injustice suffered by families of the victims, “Hillsborough” has become a defining moment in British history since the Second World War. Thirty years later, legal battles remain open over the responsibility for the tragedy. Officials originally attributed the events at Hillsborough to an accident caused by drunkenness and hooliganism from Liverpool fans, though recent reports have revealed incompetent policing as the true cause of the disaster. The short film Saturday, the documentary 30 for 30: Hillsborough, and Rob Heyward’s article “Hillsborough: Legal Culpability,” provide varying depictions of the tragic event. Though each form references Hillsborough, their emphasis on emotion, narrative strategy, and evidence-based claims construct different perceptions of the iconic event. The dependence on emotion and fact exposes holes in the effectiveness of some of these sources while benefiting others – substantiating them as reliable confirmations of the truth. 

Saturday, a fictional short-film, steeps historical claims about Hillsborough’s social impact in deeply emotional and jarring imagery. This tactic bluntly reveals the cultural crater of Hillsborough and the horror that took place, yet the reliance on emotion removes its effectiveness as a historical reference point. The short-film presents Hillsborough through the perspective of a young Liverpool supporter who experiences the events of the tragedy through the emotions and actions of the adults around him. This framing allows the film to present the emotional ripples of the disaster in a tangible manner. Though the narrative takes place in Liverpool, at multiple points, Saturday presents the young boy experiencing similar feelings and visions of the disaster. At one point the kids he plays soccer with crush him as they fight for the ball. Another time, he sees two boys pulling another boy over a wall. Finally, he enters a pub expecting to find his father, only to see a fence with multiple faces squeezed against the bars. These tableaus directly reference iconic images from the disaster. The use of such imagery allows the film to portray the horror and tragedy that affected the thousands of lives connected to the incident. The film, however, roots none of its plot in evidence of the actual event. No, the film did not intend to document the events of Hillsborough – that is the job of a documentary – however the narrative style removes the potential for using Saturday as a source of historical fact. Instead, Saturday’s objective is to trigger a visceral response in an audience twenty-five years after the disaster. Saturday, therefore, deserves credit for its presentation of the emotive-side of Hillsborough. The film, however, remains a narrative depiction that roots few of its facts in the particular events of the day, thus removing any potential for its use as an object of historical reference.  

The documentary 30 for 30: Hillsborough provides the most complete and diverse perspective on Hillsborough out of all three forms. Not only does the documentary cover the incident in the most depth, it also includes the origin and aftermath of the tragedy. The potential for historians to revere this film as a prominent source of clarity and detail stems from the scale and scope of its interviews and evidence. Unlike Saturday30 for 30: Hillsborough does not root its thesis in solely the emotional impact on the families of victims. The documentary also features detailed interviews with police officers who presided over the event and a historian - Phil Scraton – who wrote a book on Hillsborough and subsequently served on the Hillsborough Independent Panel – a government appointed body that oversaw the reopening of the Hillsborough case files. These broad perspectives fill in potential holes in the retelling of the event. The possible flaws of the documentary, though narrow, lie in the lack of context for the reputation of “hooliganism” – the violent, tribal, and often nationalistic tendencies of football supporters – that received serious scorn in the years before Hillsborough. Four years before Hillsborough, Liverpool supporters were involved in a riot against supporters of the Turin club, Juventus, that led to the death of thirty-nine Italians in a massive crush as they tried to escape violence. As a result, English clubs were banned from European competition for five years. Though “Hooliganism” played no role in the Hillsborough disaster, the prejudices against soccer supporters held by police and government officials did. This context would have offered insight into the root of police negligence and subsequent cover-up. Instead, 30 for 30: Hillsborough focuses primarily on the absurdities of police accusations and nearly three decades of injustice that followed the disaster. Ultimately, the documentary provides a comprehensive perspective on the tragic incident, leaving smaller articles and journals the opportunity to explain and uncover the details of particular instances and repercussions of Hillsborough. 

Rob Heywood’s article, “Hillsborough: Legal Culpability in the Aftermath of the Findings of the Independent Panel,” presents an extremely detailed review of the most recent legal outcome of Hillsborough. Published in the Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly in 2014, the article focuses on the implications of the findings of the “Hillsborough Independent Panel” that uncovered the initial police cover-up following the disaster. As a historical source, the benefits of this document are rooted in the scale of its detail. Along with referencing organizations and individuals that the findings will affect, Heywood cites specific acts and legal proceedings that detail the process of issuing accountability for the disaster. Using Heywood as a source, therefore, grants the historian the detail and credibility that both Saturday and 30 for 30: Hillsborough lack. Focusing in such detail on one specific outcome of the event, however, negates the document’s ability to chronicle the events of the tragedy itself or the cultural and social impacts that Hillsborough had on the population. Published twenty-five years after the event, this article utilizes a distant and academic tone that that does not provide the same emotional impact. The use of Heywood’s source, therefore, would benefit specific documentation of the British judicial system’s response to disasters rather than an all-encompassing revisit of a historical event. 

The viability for each of these forms of historical reference to be utilized as sources stems from the extent to which they depend on a single emotion or factor. For instance, Saturday completely invests in the emotional repercussions of Hillsborough. Effectively, the short-film presents a jarring look at the social impact that occurred after nearly 100 soccer supporters died. Compared with the particular and detailed findings of Rob Heywood, however, Saturday seems almost ahistorical in its lack of evidence or detail. 30 for 30: Hillsborough provides the most sufficient retelling of the event and its many repercussions through the sheer scale of its production. Compared with a fifteen minute short and an eighteen-page article, this two-hour documentary appears massive. The different forms, therefore, morph Hillsborough into the favorable representations that match the intentions of the form itself. Saturday portrays the disaster in its most tragic and chilling context while Heywood’s article uses Hillsborough as a backdrop for an intense legal article written twenty-five years later. Though neither tactic is necessarily wrong, the extreme polarization of the two forms reveals the ability for historical documents to navigate potential holes of evidence or explanation through their reliance on emotion and cultural appeal. Rob Heywood notes towards the end of his article, “deficiencies in all the historical investigations feed into bigger questions about the whole system of British justice and accountability, a system which has failed the families of the victims over the years and which, in many ways, is left severely wanting” (119). Heywood is correct. So often, historical investigations fail to acknowledge the emotional crater left by disaster. Fortunately, each of these three forms acknowledges the scale of the Hillsborough tragedy, utilizing potent details and emotive imagery to construct a route to achieving justice for the ninety-six.