BLOG: “Events last Saturday could have turned to tragedy” – Director of Public Health Matt Ashton’s on his Champions League final experience

Liverpool’s Director of Public Health, Professor Matt Ashton, was in Paris on Saturday and witnessed the chaotic scenes before the Champions League final.

He reflects on what happened, and how it echoed his experience at Hillsborough in 1989.

As a season ticket holder of over 30 years, I try to follow LFC whenever possible, and following on closely from our Carabao Cup and FA Cup victories, and the narrow finish to the Premier League season, I was hoping we would be able to complete the treble.  And, with Covid rates having fallen significantly over the last couple of months, I felt I was safe to travel.

I went over to France with two of my cousins and a wider group of football mates, and met my brother over there, and we had a lovely time exploring Paris, visiting a few of the bars, and seeing the sights.  The atmosphere at all times was fantastic, with Liverpool fans well used to travelling Europe and experiencing success. 

However the experience at the Stade de France was very different.  We arrived in plenty of time for the match – more than 2.5 hours before kick off.  Progress from the St Denis Station to the stadium was extremely slow, held up by local police on a number of occasions, before reaching the subway under the main road.  It was there that there the queues really started, with no obvious reason for the delays and no communication. 

Eventually we reached the edge of the stadium, but it was very uncomfortable, with people very closely packed together – old, young, and everyone in between all together. I am six foot tall and my brother is 6’6, so we are big and can handle ourselves in a crowd. Many others were a lot smaller than us so I can’t imagine how they found it.

Having experienced the Hillsborough disaster first hand, I know of the danger of crowds of people in a confined space. It is what put me off travelling to Europe with Liverpool until Madrid in 2019. I remember commenting to my brother that my dad, former North West Director of Public Health John Ashton, wouldn’t have liked it at all. The fans were growing frustrated, but were impeccably behaved at all times, calling out for people to create space so people didn’t get crushed. The police and stewards looked on but didn’t intervene at any point – they caused the problem by bottlenecking people, but were seemingly not interested in finding a solution. 

When we finally reached the turnstiles, I was stunned to see several of them out of action, and a distinct lack of urgency in getting people into the stadium. We finally got to our seats after 90 minutes, around an hour before kick off. It was clear that lots of fans were going to be delayed getting in, and we were desperately hoping that everybody outside was going to be OK. Some people had to have their ticket scanned a number of times before gaining admission, which perhaps could mean the scanning system was temperamental.

At the end of the match, we and many Liverpool supporters wanted to leave quickly.  We again experienced chaotic scenes, with all the gates surrounding the stadium closed.  We were pointed in the direction of one small door, inside a metal barrier, at the end of our section.  Ironically we were now being kept inside the stadium rather than outside of it.  Bottlenecks were created, with crowds shouting at the stewards to open the gates and let us out.  This was another scary point for me, thinking I would be crushed against the gates in the rush.  One steward tried to open a gate but the gate swung in towards us, so actually created more of a problem.

In the immediate aftermath, the rush to blame and deflection by UEFA and the French authorities, had all the hallmarks of the Hillsborough disaster about it. Institutions rushing to protect their own reputations and trash those of innocent people. Fortunately, we are now in an age of ‘citizen journalists’ who can capture the reality of the situation and post footage and photos on social media, to crush the false narrative.

Since the game I have been spending a huge amount of time thinking about what went wrong, speaking to colleagues in emergency planning at the council, and to Lucy Easthope, a leading authority on emergency planning.

She had previously raised concerns about deskilling around major events management due to the Covid pandemic and has been urging the major footballing bodies to look again at the arrangements, and working with training providers to adapt their stewarding plans. She told me that if police resort to tear gas, pepper spray and batons and the narrative turns to blaming fans, their plan has failed.

I know something about this from my time working on the Events Research Programme (ERP) when we tested the impact of major events in Liverpool during the pandemic.

Good emergency planning is an essential part of the process: you make plans, you stress test them for a range of scenarios and have a back up plan for changing situations. And you communicate accurately at all times.

It’s something that Liverpool has vast experience of over the last 20 years, from 2008 to the Giants and the LFC homecoming parade on Sunday which attracted a crowd of half a million people and saw no trouble or arrests. It could not have been a starker contrast to events in Paris, where what was meant to be a celebration of the best of European football saw fans being treated like cattle.

It is essential a thorough investigation takes place, and learning is cascaded through all those involved so this situation can never happen again.

Please, if you have been affected by the events in Paris and it has stirred some difficult memories, do reach out. If you or a family member need support, there are programmes that can help: https://www.liveyourlifewell.info/kindtoyourmind/

I would also ask people to respond to LFC’s appeal for feedback about their experience, which can be found here:  https://www.liverpoolfc.com/fans/cl-final-feedback

As for me, if Liverpool FC make it to another Champions League final, I am sad to say that I am not sure I will be there. I know from personal experience how easily events last Saturday could have turned to tragedy.

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