When news of the Hillsborough disaster began to reach me, I was still living in Ottawa, Canada—only two weeks before returning to take up an academic position in England. A phone call from a Canadian relative giving the bare outline of the events was followed by ever more detailed reports on cbc radio and television, and gradually the realization dawned on me, a lifelong supporter of Sheffield Wednesday, that ninety-five people had met terrifying deaths on ‘my’ ground, and—to render the tragedy even more graphic for me—that they had died, crushed and asphyxiated, at my own ‘end’, the Leppings End, where I had spent so many hours of my childhood and teenage years. For me, this was not a tragedy like Bradford City, Heysel, Zeebrugge or even the Kings Cross Underground fire (though I had been to that place during many a visit to London): it was absolutely tangible, real and personal. I felt as if I knew every step and every crush barrier at the Leppings Lane End. And I was mortified, like every Wednesday supporter, by the thought that Hillsborough, so often described in Sheffield as the ‘Wembley of the North’,footnote1 had now joined Burnden Park in Bolton; Ibrox Park in Glasgow; Valley Parade in Bradford and, of course, the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, on the list of post-war graveyards on European or, more particularly, on English soccer grounds.

To the North American press, the fact that ninety-five people could have died attempting to enter a spectator sport was beyond comprehension. The very concept of a standing terrace packed to capacity is, in itself, almost unheard of in a culture in which spectator sport is either played before relatively small, all-seated audiences in enclosed buildings built to withstand the weather (ice hockey), or, in the summer months, in massive seated baseball or football stadia. These particular stadia are designed in order to house paying audiences for very long hours, thus enabling the club owners to exact considerable sums from each spectator in the form of drinks, hotdogs and other consumables. Many of these purchases take place during the frequent breaks in the game that are timed to allow for television and also radio advertisements (baseball, American and Canadian football). Given the dominance of this modernized and highly rationalized version of spectator sport everywhere in North America, the only explanation offered of the Hillsborough tragedy—at least in the Canadian press—was that soccer in Britain continues to be played in stadia that are ‘old’. The Globe and Mail, which describes itself as ‘Canada’s National Newspaper’, offered the generalization that all of England’s ninety-two Football League Clubs existed on grounds built before 1900.footnote2 It chose not to discuss the enormous sums of money that have been spent on the modernization of many senior grounds in the twentieth century—in particular, the very considerable sums of money spent on Hillsborough during the run-up to the World Cup of 1966, and in subsequent years (most notably, the modernization and covering of the Spion Kop end during the close season 1987–8). Even more disingenuously, the Canadian Financial Post, some two weeks later, carried an analytical piece culled directly from the Financial Times in Britain, in which the tragedy at Hillsborough was attributed to the ‘lack of money’ circulating in British soccer:footnote3 this piece may or may not have attracted much reflective thought in a country where one of the three major national spectator sports (Canadian football), with its nine teams averaging only about fifteen thousand in attendances (the tenth ‘franchise’—in Montreal—having folded) is widely thought to be in its death throes.

It is important for me personally to write about Hillsborough, and only one commentator in the national press, Jeremy Seabrook, has even approached what I want to say.footnote4 North American sports journalists, it seems fair to say, will never be able to understand the meaning of Hillsborough, if all that they can say is that the football grounds of England are old and that there is less money in spectator sport than in the States.footnote5 England is old and, for the time being at least, there probably is less money in many parts of Britain than in North America (in sports or in any other area of human endeavour). But that lack of modernity—a penalty of England’s leading role in the industrial revolution—does not explain our present troubles.

I want here to offer six connected ‘contemplations’ about Hillsborough. Together they make an argument of sorts, and they are at least an expression of my need to say something serious and complex, rather than merely reactive or trivial, about what happened at ‘my’ ground on Saturday, 15 April.

I want, first, to recognize the ways in which supporters of Sheffield Wednesday, Liverpool and Everton (and according to many accounts, supporters of Liverpool’s semi-final rivals, Nottingham Forest) responded to the deaths of the ninety-five fans. The ‘reconstruction’ and decoration of the goalmouths at Hillsborough and Anfield with flowers, wreaths, and other memorabilia of soccer, including, apparently, scarves of the Juventus club, on Saturday evening and Sunday morning, 16 April, by supporters of all these clubs, was nothing if not a mass popular religious rite, largely without parallel, to my knowledge, in Britain this century. Nothing similar followed the Kings Cross fire or even the London Underground and Southern Region disasters, though certainly there were reports of the traditional maritime ceremonials marking the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise—the throwing of wreaths onto the waters at Zeebrugge Harbour. The decoration of Anfield and Hillsborough had no such formal quality, however. Mourners carried with them to the ground, and left behind in the goals, the most basic, personal and apparently trivial of memorabilia. One cbc television clip showed a quite elderly Sheffield Wednesday supporter depositing what was presumably his only personal copy of the 1966 Cup Final programme (played between Sheffield Wednesday and Everton); the only close connection he could make ‘affectively’ with Liverpool. The only parallel to this simple offering of minimalist but intensely personal belongings that I have ever witnessed was at the Shrine of Guadaloupe, in Mexico City. During my visit there in 1970, I saw poor peasants and others, all with desperate physical illnesses or crippling disabilities, crawl across the forecourt of the church to make their humble offerings to their God. But I was also reminded, when looking at the Anfield and Hillsborough shrines, of the much more formalized annual rituals in Derbyshire, the ‘welldressings’, where flowers are fashioned into what are also known as shrines, dedicated usually to particular saints, or, in some villages, to pagan godheads.

The pictures of the shrines shown on television, and later, the repeated photographs carried in the daily press and in specialist soccer magazines, also reminded me that soccer stadia have historically for long periods been the objects of what we might call popular sanctification.footnote6 Certainly the description of Hillsborough used in the 1950s by my father as we got off the tram at Parkside Road, and walked along Penistone Road to spend a few minutes outside the Players’ Entrance (hoping for a glimpse, perhaps, of Albert Quixall, the ‘Golden Boy’ of the Hillsborough faithful) was that we had come to ‘the shrine’. When pitch invasions began, in 1962, and continued over subsequent years, I was insistently told, by both my father and my uncle, that this never happened ‘in their day’—because, in their day, they said, the pitch was sacred. In several newspaper reports written about Hillsborough, especially those emphasizing the way in which the magnitude of the disaster had occasioned an enormous show of solidarity between soccer supporters, and a suspension of the aggravation and enmity that has characterized football rivalry, there was a heartfelt sense that the creation of these shrines at Anfield and Hillsborough might mark a cleansing of a sport bespoilt by a history of divisiveness and violence ever since the 1960s. Such hopes were given further sustenance, and an ironic, symbolic significance, by the sight on television of Liverpool and Everton fans reverently parading around Goodison Park with ninety-five red and blue scarves knotted together in a continuous line, before the start of the Everton–Liverpool league game on 10 May, some twenty-five days after the disaster.footnote7

The reconstruction of the ground as a shrine is a natural extension of existing relationships of the club to the fan: football grounds across the country have always had an almost religious hold on football fans and, indeed, on the families and kin on whom these, mainly male, fans have imposed their weekend and mid-week-evening obsession. In different parts of the country, however, these shrines have taken on a particularly important additional significance as an emblem of locality, often quite widely shared, irrespective of gender position. Sheffield itself, unlike Liverpool (with its inimitable waterfront and its Victorian and Georgian arcades), and Manchester (with its venerable Victorian insurance buildings and St Peter’s and Albert Squares) is a Northern industrial city with no really outstanding architectural or other features (although lovers of the city, like myself, will always speak fondly of the Crucible Theatre, right in the city centre, and then fervently of the Peak District, on the city’s doorstep, as unsurpassable features of the place). For many working Sheffielders, however, the symbol of the city’s local pride (particularly since the closure of Bramall Lane as a Yorkshire cricket ground) has been Hillsborough itself, which has been remodelled and upgraded consistently over the years, and, in the football community itself and beyond, is widely regarded as one of the best and most modern of stadia for spectator sport in Britain. In the recently re-released and quite marvellous survey of Football Grounds of Great Britain, Simon Inglis observes about Hillsborough that it: