Belfast Telegraph

Declan Bogue: Fans’ safety the top priority

Just to take you back to the tenth minute of last Sunday's All-Ireland hurling final. Galway's James Regan managed to rise the sliotar at the second attempt, holding off the challenge of Brian Hogan.

He handpassed to Joe Canning who immediately clattered into Paul Murphy, before taking off from right to left across the face of the goal and rifling a shot past David Herity.

In normal circumstance, those in the press box of Croke Park are an austere bunch. When a score occurs, they make their notes and mark the matchday programmes, working as diligently and unobtrusively as accountants coming up to the end of the tax year.

On this occasion, reality was suspended. the air was punched, cheers and primal screams everywhere. The roof was lifted for a millisecond, but landed in the same place.

In three of the following day's national newspapers, it was suggested that the reaction to Canning's wonderful goal was as loud as anything ever heard in Croke Park.

The following day, an inter-county hurler gave his thoughts on the matter. Yes, the crowd were hailing a balletic flow of actions under the pressure of 13-stone muscled athletes chasing him with hurls, he said, but there was another level to it.

It was thought that Kilkenny would exact a terrible revenge on Galway for their mauling in the Leinster final. Joe's goal was a signal that this would not happen, that we were in a game, and — HALLELUJAH! — there was 60 more minutes of it to follow.

A scream of both delight and relief; that makes sense.

From that moment, the game took off and reached the stratosphere. Twenty minutes after the drama, the streets outside Croke Park were deserted, all that remained was the buzz of energy that 82,000 excited fans generate.

Leaving Croke Park with a sense of wonderment, there was almost a feeling of how, in the absence of a definitive result, it all felt so matter-of-fact. Normally, there is a cup to cheer and some kind of attempt at gaining access to the field, if not a full-blown, on-pitch gathering of the clans.

Our mood even stretches into smugness when we heard of GAA president Liam O'Neill on the radio talking about showing off the stadium over the weekend to representatives of the German Bundesliga. They had one question for him: “Where do you keep the dogs?”

And by dogs, they meant Alsatians.

Twenty-four hours later, watching the documentary on the tragic events of Hillsborough on April 15, 1989 was a sobering experience. How thousands of people attended a match with the same aspirations of those in Dublin on Sunday, only to be leaving it having bore witness to such a wreckage of human lives and spirit.

Not to mention the 96 victims.

There’s an almost casual assumption we now take for granted that we go to the game, chat and socialise and trade banter with opposing fans and all get home safe and sound.

But we can never take the safety of fans for granted. Back in the 1990s, the now-defunct Sunday Tribune brought the renowned academic Dr Phil Scraton, the author of Hillsborough: The Truth and a renowned expert on stadium security, over to Croke Park to spend a day on Hill 16.

In his subsequent article, he noted that he was disturbed by many things, including the precarious grass bank at the back of the Hill that fans slid down in order to hurry their exit.

The Hill was torn down and built back up again. Today, it is a safe section of terracing, though it is not for everyone.

The more you think of it, on-pitch celebrations, or invasions depending on your point of view, are not really the issue. What does worry the minds of those concerned with safety is the sheer unpredictability of a situation once thousands prepare to leave a stadium all at the same time. Say after a trophy presentation for example.

The tunnel underneath the Hogan Stand then becomes clogged, being as it is the main exit point. Eyewitness reports from spectators stationed across the road at the Croke Park Hotel after the 2009 football final, recounted the squeeze of fans all coming through that tunnel.

On that occasion, the Garda policed the situation with professionalism and alacrity. Therefore, we never got to hear of it. That's how news work, see.

As the relatives of the victims of Hillsborough prepare themselves today for the findings of another inquest, it is inherent upon every sports fan and sporting body to learn from what happened that day at the Leppings Lane End and never take safety for granted.

That's the greatest tribute we can pay to them.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph