Prime Minister David Cameron, on behalf of the nation and successive governments, apologised; South Yorkshire Police apologised; The Sun apologised; even Kelvin MacKenzie apologised. All within hours of the victims’ families learning the truth they had always known and demanded and dreaded.
But the body which held overall responsibility for the 1989 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough; the body which allocated the venue, despite crowd problems at previous semis; the body which, presumably, approved the match organisation?
The Football Association took until 24 hours after Cameron’s dramatic statement accelerated all the responses to the emotions of yesterday.
Of course, the FA’s reticence could be comprehended as the need for an organisation – one which commanded such a pivotal role in the events of April 15, 1989 – deciding on the imperative of studying the paperwork (as much as possible) before coming up with a balanced, reasoned and informed reactive statement.
Even then, an apology was notable by its absence from the FA’s eventual words: “Having thoroughly reviewed yesterday’s report in full, The Football Association would like to commend the Hillsborough Independent Panel for their exhaustive and professional work.
“It is also important that The FA recognises the tireless commitment shown by so many, particularly the Hillsborough Family Support Group.
“We welcome the publication of the report and the subsequent comments of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.
“The FA reiterates its deep and ongoing sadness at the dreadful events that unfolded on 15 April 1989.
“The organisation’s thoughts at this time remains with the families of all those who lost their lives in such terrible circumstances, as well as everyone connected with the City of Liverpool.
“For 23 years the families have suffered unbearable pain, and we have profound sympathy for this.
“The FA has cooperated fully with the Panel throughout this process and has released all documentation in line with their request.
“The FA and English football has changed immeasurably, and has learnt many lessons in the last 23 years. Through advancements in safety and investment in facilities English football is now a much safer, more welcoming environment for supporters.”
Only several hours later – and after families’ chairman Trevor Hicks had made note in a radio interview – did FA chairman David Bernstein follow up which the words which, surely, should have come first.
“We are deeply sorry this tragedy occurred at a stadium the FA selected,” he said. “On behalf of the FA I offer a full and unreserved apology and express sincere condolences to all of the families of those who lost their lives and to everyone connected to the City of Liverpool and Liverpool Football Club.
“This should never have happened. Nobody should lose their lives when setting out to attend a football match and it is a matter of extreme regret and sadness that it has taken so long for these findings to be published. For 23 years the families have suffered unbearable pain and we have profound sympathy for them.
“I would like to commend the professional work of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, while also recognising the tireless commitment shown by so many people in maintaining the fight for justice, particularly the family support groups.
“The FA has cooperated fully with the Independent Panel throughout this process and has released all documentation in line with their requests. I would also like to make clear that we will of course fully cooperate with any further inquiry.
“The FA and English football has changed immeasurably, and learnt many lessons in the last 23 years. Through advancements in safety and investment in facilities English football is now a much safer, more welcoming environment for supporters.”
Bernstein thus came to the rescue after the FA’s initial statement suggested a sudden reversion to the bad old days when England’s governing body was perceived as having little or no comprehension of the football-watching experience of the ordinary fan, woman and child.
A day earlier FIFA president Sepp Blatter, in a personal letter to Cameron within hours, had picked up on the way in which the Taylor Report enforced the changes which provided the foundation for the runaway public, sporting and commercial success which is today’s Premier League.
“No football fan should go to a game and not return home,” said Blatter. “Their safety should always be of paramount importance, something which the British football authorities have recognised in the wake of this tragedy in building all-seater stadiums and establishing safety standards that are an example to the world.”
Actions speak louder than words; but over the last days the volume of the words has been important as well.
*This article has been updated to reflect the belated apology made by the Football Association.