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Could the Presence of Merseyside Police Football Spotters Have Prevented Tragedy at Hillsborough?

02/05/2016 15:38

Like 9/11 and 7/7, the 15th of April 1989 is a day that will be indelibly etched on my memory. I awoke from dozing in front of the television on the sofa and struggled to comprehend the scenes of horror clearly visible on my TV screen. As the extent of the Hillsborough tragedy became apparent I sat there stunned, tears streaming down my face.

The scenes in front of me were scenes that I, and other police officers, had spent much time and effort trying to prevent yet there they were unfolding in front of my disbelieving eyes.

An interest in the policing of football had evolved from the age of 12 when I spent much time on the road following my local east London team. By the age of 16 I'd visited about half the grounds in England and Wales. Later at college a largely empirical dissertation on football hooliganism resulted in a much coveted 'A' grade.

After the events at Heysel, Bradford and Birmingham (the riot involving Leeds supporters that occurred on the same day at Bradford and cost one life) I decided, as a young, lowly sergeant, to submit a report which made suggestions in respect of policing football.

Shortly after submitting that report I transferred to the training unit and because of my background, was deputed with another officer, to put together a training package in relation to football ground safety which would be distributed throughout the Met.

Amazingly and coincidentally the hierarchy of the Met went for my submitted report on policing football. One of the suggestions involved sending police 'spotters' familiar with their own fans to away matches in full uniform. To my astonishment, not only were many aspects of the report accepted, but I was asked if I would be happy to pilot the 'spotting' role with Chelsea accompanied by one of three football PC's who policed Chelsea on a regular basis. This dovetailed nicely with our work in respect of the ground safety package.

My first trip to Merseyside was in plain clothes researching our training package and we spent the evening on a match night at Anfield. A visit to the trophy room was followed by a walk down the player's tunnel before patting the 'This is Anfield' sign as had all the Liverpool greats of the past. This and other policing operations I observed on Merseyside were textbook and the officers we worked with were both totally professional and hilarious.

The next three visits to Liverpool were in full Met uniform as a spotter and this plus the visits of Liverpool and Everton to London over two seasons saw frequent contact with Liverpudlians. In common with just about every first division club, Liverpool and Everton had their hooligan elements and indeed that's still the case with most clubs in the Premier league. I, and the other officers who policed football regularly in London, always looked forward to the arrival of the overwhelmingly law abiding visitors from Merseyside simply because of their knowledge of football and humour.

Such was the success of the pilot spotter scheme, the following season all major London clubs had their own spotter PC's travelling to away games and this then became national good practice. A further suggestion by me that English police accompany England fans to away games was also adopted within months and later spotters began travelling away with British clubs in Europe. Spotters are still an essential part of policing football, albeit under various titles.

The Metropolitan Police ground safety training package duly was rolled out throughout the Met and happily was well received. Several county forces who had heard about it's existence or whom we had consulted, were also sent the packages but it was not rolled out nationally as that wasn't within our remit. As I understood it however, a copy was sent to Home Office.

Those involved in policing matches in London were now acutely aware of problems that could be caused by crushing and on several occasions at matches I attended, potentially dangerous situations were alleviated thanks to the vigilance of officers. Little wonder then that I still think back to that terrible day and wonder whether our package might have paid dividends in South Yorkshire.

After a two year involvement with policing football, I returned to Special Branch. Sometime after returning, I received a telephone call from a Met 'spotter.' He said that the Chief Constable of Merseyside had decreed that spotters would no longer be welcome on Merseyside and Merseyside police would not travel with Liverpool and Everton fans to away games.

As I was no longer involved with football I didn't attempt to verify this although I thought the decision was both foolish and potentially counter-productive.

'Spotters' should be, were and are extremely knowledgeable in respect of their own fans as indeed would be expected by virtue of policing them week in, week out. They are often able to forge extremely positive relationships with fans and would always meet the ground commander before the match to provide him with an up to date briefing. They would be given a local police radio or be accompanied by a local officer in possession of a radio. Their role would be to closely monitor their own fans, give advice and bring to the attention of the ground commander any potential or emerging problems.

I can clearly remember on the day of the Hillsborough disaster, seeing Nottingham police spotters, distinguishable by their spiked helmets, running across the pitch from the Forest end where they then played a part in assisting injured fans.

Recently, as the inquest jury were deliberating, I searched through the publically available inquest documents and through the Liverpool Echo to find any reference at all to Merseyside spotters. The only reference, recently pointed out to me by a police online magazine, made it clear that the information provided in that phone call all those years ago was correct. There were no Merseyside spotters present.

We will of course never know whether the presence of experienced Merseyside football spotters would have resulted in those officers being able to alert the match commander of potential impending disaster. In any event their contribution to any subsequent enquiry or inquest would have been invaluable.

Interestingly, on the Monday after Hillsborough, myself together with my former training unit Inspector were summoned to New Scotland Yard see the Chief Superintendent of the Met Public Order Unit who I had never seen or heard off before. He was bristling with hostility and using a variety of expletives demanded to know whether we had sent our package to South Yorkshire. His only concern was whether the Met could be culpable.

We pointed out we hadn't and suggested that our knowledge might be of use to the subsequent investigation. We were told in no uncertain terms that the Met intended to keep out of it. His attitude was perhaps a foretaste of what we could expect from some senior officers in the months and years to come.

The ramifications of the inquest are set to continue for years. It's clear that rank and file police officers involved on the day were resentful of being compelled to change statements which effectively struck out their criticisms of senior officers. Despite their anger there was, however, no-where for them to turn with their concerns.

'Cover up' and 'shooting the messenger' still remains very much part of UK law enforcement culture and sadly shop floor police jargon that refers to senior police managers 'doing the legs' of or 'shafting' an individual officer who breaks ranks and tells it how it is or whistleblows, is as applicable to police forces today as it was in 1989.

Meanwhile, as the justifiable delight of the tenacious families continues to resonate into a rightful demand that any officer responsible for a cover up be prosecuted, serving officers, especially those who weren't even born in 1989, will be somewhat bewildered as to how these verdicts have turned into a tidal wave of vitriol against all police officers.

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