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Review of ESPN’s Explosive ‘Hillsborough’ Documentary

Twenty five years after the Hillsborough Disaster, there are still people who question who was to blame for the tragedy that killed 96 fans. With Tuesday’s premiere of ‘Hillsborough,’ a brand new documentary that will air on ESPN at 8pm ET, the myth that Liverpool fans were to blame can unequivocally be ruled out.

In a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking, Hillsborough finally puts all of the key evidence into one emotionally charged and powerful film that explains what happened before, during and after the Hillsborough Disaster, and puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of the police and authorities who made a calculated decision to enact a massive cover-up to blame Liverpool supporters for the tragedy that killed 96 innocent soccer fans.

Despite glaring evidence from The Lord Justice Taylor report and the Hillsborough Independent Panel, there still remains the urban myth that drunken, ticketless Liverpool supporters – pushing their way into the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest – were the reason for the crush that killed the Liverpool supporters in the Leppings Lane stand. That myth was propagated by the South Yorkshire Police, which was then taken verbatim by the tabloid newspapers and spun into “the truth” despite considerable evidence to suggest the opposite. To make matters worse, especially in the United States, a shock-jock radio show host went on a crusade to spin the lies on an impressionable audience, many of whom didn’t know any better.

Thankfully, ESPN and director Daniel Gordon have produced an incredible film that is, in my opinion, THE most important soccer film ever made. The film features plenty of never seen before footage as well as candid interviews with soccer fans who were there that fateful day. The film is an emotional roller coaster that will make you angry, cry and carry on in disbelief that it took the UK government 25 years to come to understand what really happened on April 15 and in the aftermath.

The film painstakingly pieces together CCTV footage with photographs as well as radio and TV commentary plus reenactments to present a convincing amount of evidence to paint the police and government as inept organizations that were focused on covering up what really happened to protect their own careers as well as to prevent the key figures from being prosecuted for the crimes they committed.

A new inquest is currently ongoing in England to examine the case, so the film won’t be shown in the UK. But I must admit that while the documentary is a must-see film that every soccer fan needs to watch, some of the subject matter in Hillsborough will be unfit for children to watch due to the emotional distress the film may cause.

Full credit must go to ESPN for having the fortitude to show this on its flagship network during prime-time on US television. Once you watch this film, it’s one that you will never forget.

The film is so powerful that for the first time in my life, I felt embarrassed to be British. The level of corruption and lack of human decency displayed by the police authorities in this film is staggering.

To me, the most memorable scene in the film is when author and scholar Phil Scraton enters the Parliamentary Archives in the House of Commons to go through the boxes and boxes of reports from the police officers who worked that day at Hillsborough (see photo below). The scene of Scraton piecing together the evidence of how the police authorities removed all criticism and negativity about how the police authorities handled the crowds is sobering to watch. The police authorities covered up the entire investigation and fed the lies to everyone who would listen.

Hillsborough is the first documentary in ESPN’s 30 for 30: Soccer Stories series.

Beginning on the fateful day in 1989, Hillsborough explores what happened and why. It offers a detailed examination not only of the horrific loss of life, but also of key developments in the preceding years, months, weeks, days, hours and minutes leading to the disaster. Featuring first-hand accounts of fans in attendance as well as police officers—many speaking on camera for the first time—the film also explores the tragedy through the experiences of families who lost their loved ones and undertook a painstaking journey in a quest for justice that is still ongoing.

“Hillsborough is the most important soccer story of my generation,” said director Daniel Gordon. “What began as a day of expectancy turned into a quite unimaginable tragedy, the horror and pain of which have not diminished with time, as families and survivors have sought – and been denied – justice. As we approach the 25th anniversary of the disaster, I felt that now was the right time to look at the whole story, from the day, through the immediate aftermath and the now quarter century of the fight for justice. As a soccer fan who followed his team home and away in the era, I know that could easily have been me on that day and I hope I’ve done the story justice.”

30 for 30: Soccer Stories will include a mix of feature-length and 30-minute-long documentary films from an award winning group of filmmakers telling compelling narratives from around the international soccer landscape. The series will air leading up to the 2014 FIFA World Cup on ESPN. 

30 for 30: Soccer Stories will air on ESPN as follows (all times Eastern):

Tuesday, April 15, 8 p.m. – “Hillsborough”
Tuesday, April 22, 7 p.m. – “Maradona ’86” followed by “The Opposition”
Tuesday, April 29, 7p.m. – “The Myth of Garrincha” followed by “Ceasefire Massacre”
Tuesday, May 6, 7 p.m. – “Mysteries of the Rimet Trophy” followed by “Barbosa: The Man Who Made Brazil Cry”
Tuesday, July 1, 8 p.m. – “White, Blue and White”

Mark your calendars to watch Hillsborough on Tuesday, April 15 at 8pm ET on ESPN in the United States.

It’s the most important soccer film you’ll ever watch.

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  1. TomL

    May 9, 2016 at 6:47 am

    The film was very well produced, and added a lot to the previous coverage. The police cover-up is gone into, and this was very shocking. There should be follow-up actions to prevent this happening again, although it should have been addressed at the time. The UK was not that corrupt in the 1980s. Also, one of course has great sympathy for the relatives.

    However a film like this owes it to the audience to be balanced. Contrary to what was stated, the film did not show that the fans behaviour ‘played no role in the disaster’ – the Professor at the end asserted this, as though I am supposed to go – ‘Ok, because you are an important Professor I accept that’. In the 80s (and even today), football crowds were badly-behaved, and it is an insult to the intelligence to not even discuss and reconcile what their role might have been – the conclusions must be supported by the evidence shown. The CCTV footage showed quite a bit a pushing and shoving from fans outside the ground as the game got underway, with fans disobeying police requests to not push, and there was a surge into the terrace at the time the goal was attempted. What were these fans doing trying to push their way into full pens?

    There is also a conflation of the ‘myths’ – the Sun’s stories about fans appalling behaviour after the event were always treated as suspicious and implausible, but that obviously says nothing about what some badly-behaved fans might have done previously.

    • Christopher Harris

      May 9, 2016 at 8:53 am

      Your remarks are in line with the conspiracy theorists who initially blamed the Liverpool fans for this disaster.

      On the day of the tragedy, there was no violence. Yes there were fans trying to push their way in to see the game, but they weren’t drunken. Plus they had tickets.

      Don’t blame the supporters for failure of police control.

  2. Andrew Dainoff

    June 8, 2014 at 9:26 am

    I loved the film and found it powerful. However, I felt like quite a bit of context was missing. To talk about football in the 80’s and not mention holliganism or Heysel as the pretext for the decisions (however inept) the police made both in the planning and cover up, does a disservice to the audience. Trust us to understand. We’ll figure it out. For a successful example of this, check out Paul Greengrass’s film “Bloody Sunday.” A complicated issue, one clear agressor, stories on both sides told with sympathy and delicacy.

  3. whydidntfansleave

    June 5, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    Just wondering why did the fans in the back not walk out when there was clearly people screaming? Any info would be appreciated.

    • stephen potter

      February 29, 2016 at 9:48 pm

      i was at the game, and can tell you the sheer noise generated by a crowd of that size means it is impossible to hear what is happening only 20 feet away. witness other incidents of crowd deaths like in mecca or at some music festivals, crowds do not behave in a rational way, and that is why good planning is needed for their safety, planning that had been executed perfectly the year before, but that the police did not do in 89, and then lied to cover up for years later

  4. Ed

    April 15, 2014 at 6:06 am

    It is amazing that after all these years Liverpool still uses this to try and be a victim.

    Guess what Liverpool, ur not a victim let it go.

    I have never seen a team milk more sympathy over something bad. It’s so lame…

    • petrolhead1991

      April 15, 2014 at 11:45 pm

      Next time you have a thought, please feel free to keep that thought to yourself.

    • Shane

      April 16, 2014 at 2:31 am

      Rather than be a victim, Liverpool stood up against the gross misconduct of both the mass media and the police forces. In a time of need, two rival clubs, Liverpool and Everton, united and held firm with the belief that the truth will eventually see the light.

      If you don’t believe so, go down to the graves of the 96 and tell them that they died due to drunks. Tell Jon-Paul Gilhooley, a 10 year old boy, that it was his fault for being in the wrong place and the wrong time.

      This is not a story about being a victim, but instead one of disbelief, courage, and hopefully when the inquest is finished , redemption.

    • Clampdown

      April 16, 2014 at 9:06 am

      You are an awful human being. I hope you watched the documentary last night. If that didn’t enlighten you, then you have serious problems.

  5. ThompsonLives

    April 15, 2014 at 2:28 am


    Please tell me the film doesn’t let Thatcher off the hook for her role in the cover-up.

  6. CH

    April 14, 2014 at 11:28 pm

    As a fan of all sports and 30 for 30. I believe that the two escobars was the best 30 for 30 so far. Im eager to see if this is really better or if you have a epl bias.

    Question tho as someone born in 1990 with only basic knowledge of these tragedies you say that the film embarrassed you because of how the government acted, but as a British soccer fan did Haysel not embarrass you, did the countless drunks rioting in other countries not embarrass you. Im not blaming the liverpool fans for Hillsborough because people with greater knowledge of the situation have said otherwise. However sadly from what i have read there were some pretty embarrassing events in the past from british fans.


    April 14, 2014 at 9:36 pm

    Chris: Very much looking forward to the film. Hopefully a non- UK examination of the event can shed some light on the tragedy that still is unresolved and is still an open wound for so many. I am almost afraid to comment one way or another on the subject. No matter what is said one risks stirring up passions. For my part I was moved and respected greatly all those remembrance events over the weekend in England and the NBC programming here in the US. One must admire the Liverpool fans who will not let the victims be forgotten and continue to demand justice.

    One comment on the US side of things is the shock jock reference that you made is something best omitted. At most it is a small sideshow in the story and the person involved is best forgotten.

  8. goisles01

    April 14, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    Chris, what is the running time on the film? I hope an hour at least since the history channel did something a few years back

    • Christopher Harris

      April 14, 2014 at 2:39 pm

      It’s 1 hour and 45 minutes without commercials.

      • goisles01

        April 14, 2014 at 2:46 pm

        Wow! I will definitely watch to see if there are new things to learn about

  9. Paul

    April 14, 2014 at 2:11 pm

    If anybody knows of a link to this when/if it appears on line, please share as I’d love to have a watch of this.

    • Christopher Harris

      April 14, 2014 at 2:26 pm

      Hi Paul, as much as we want to world to see this film, we’re not going to post any links to it or allow others to post it. Reason being is that the inquest is still ongoing, so we don’t want the jury having access to the documentary before the inquest is completed.

  10. Grayson

    April 14, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    I was let down by the Rise Up series that Fox is doing, as they are only 30 min docs that play more like low budget clip shows with pundits talking out the story instead of strong narration. 30 for 30 has been an awesome series, and I was stoked to find out they are doing the Soccer Stories editions. I’ve watched all the 30 for 30 series, even if it was about sports I don’t watch or know anything about. I even like the IX for IX series they’re doing about women’s sports.

  11. Patrick

    April 14, 2014 at 12:45 pm

    I’m excited for this, ESPN normally does amazing jobs with their 30 for 30 series. They don’t only do “American sports” well as they did an excellent piece on ‘The two Escobars’.

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