The Man who Changed Football

The Leppings Lane terrace after the Hillsborough Stadium disaster, 1989. Lest we ever forget …

Few people have changed an entire sport for the better. Peter Murray Taylor, Baron Taylor of Gosforth Kt PC QC, did this – for British football.

Peter Taylor was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1930. He came from a Jewish family which had emigrated from Lithuania to the UK – the original family name was Teiger or Teicher. His father Louis, a doctor, was born in Leeds, to where the family had emigrated. Peter Taylor passed the 11-plus and attended the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle. During the Second War, the city was subject to bombing raids and Taylor was evacuated to Penrith. In 1951 Taylor won an exhibition to Pembroke College, Cambridge, to study law. He graduated in 1953 with an upper second class degree and then read for the Bar, being called in 1954. He chose to practise on the north-eastern circuit around Newcastle. A highly successful career followed. He became a High Court Judge in 1980 and in 1988 was promoted to the Court of Appeal. Became Lord Chief Justice in 1992, at the same time being created a life peer as Baron Taylor of Gosforth. He died in 1997 at the age of 66.

Taylor has a very distinguished career of public service. But perhaps his greatest service was the way in which his work led to the complete transformation of British football for the better, in terms of crowd safety and stadia. In the 1980s football was in decline, with falling gates and crumbling stadia. As a direct consequence of the ‘Taylor Report’ of 1990, the game has been rescued and transformed. 

15th April 1989. Liverpool versus Nottingham Forest in the semi-final of the FA Cup, being played at a neutral venue, Hillsborough Stadium, the ground of Sheffield Wednesday FC. 3.06pm. The game is halted. Liverpool fans are being crushed behind the fences at the Leppings Lane end of the Stadium. This is the Hillsborough disaster, the worst ever disaster at a British football ground, the worst in British sporting history. 96 Liverpool fans are killed in a crush, 766 are injured.

On 17 April 1989 Taylor was commissioned by the government to undertake an inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster. The Taylor Inquiry sat for a total of 31 days and published two reports: an interim report which laid out the events of the day and immediate conclusions, and the final report which outlined general recommendations on football ground safety. This became known as the Taylor Report.

Taylor concluded that “policing on 15 April broke down” and that “although there were other causes, the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control.” Sheffield Wednesday was criticised for the inadequate number of turnstiles at the Leppings Lane end and the poor quality of the crush barriers on the terraces, “respects in which failure by the Club contributed to this disaster.” Crucially, Taylor did not blame the Liverpool fans: “I do not consider choice of ends was causative of the disaster. Had it been reversed, the disaster could well have occurred in a similar manner but to Nottingham supporters”. Taylor concluded his criticism of South Yorkshire Police by describing senior officers in command as “defensive and evasive witnesses” who refused to accept any responsibility for their errors.

Front cover of the ‘Taylor report’, 1990

As we now know, however, there was a cover up by South Yorkshire Police, which meant that the Hillsborough families and their supporters have had to campaign for decades to obtain justice. In 2016, the second inquest into the deaths of the fans came to conclusions which Taylor had anticipated in 1990. Taylor was proven to have been right in his judgements. Football fans speak very positively about Taylor. Yet it took 26 years for the legal system to reach the same conclusion that he had.

While the Hillsborough families are still fighting for justice, the Taylor Report was largely implemented, and transformed the game for the better. It is arguably the most important document in the history of English Association football, after the handwritten first laws of the game from 1863. Taylor’s recommendations changed the safety at stadia immeasurably for the better, and changed the nature of the stadia, as modern, all-seater grounds became the norm, not the exception.

At the National Football in Manchester there is a section of the displays on stadia. At the heart of this is a film about Hillsborough and previous crowd disasters in British football and stadia safety.  Along with the images and film, there is no voice over, only the words on screen of Taylor. We decided that no one could explain this subject matter better than he. This is the complete text of the film:

 “It is a depressing and chastening fact that mine is the ninth official report covering crowd safety and control at football grounds.  Why were these other recommendations not followed?  I suggest two main reasons.  First, insufficient concern and vigilance for the safety and well-being of spectators.  Secondly, complacency, which led all parties to think that since disaster had not occurred on previous occasions it would not happen this time.  The safety and comfort of those on the terraces has not been regarded as a priority.  Club managements do not feel obliged to put their grounds into a state considered by the Police to be necessary for crowd control.  The problem of crowd control and safety, as it was said, suddenly arises.  Does there have to be a disaster or near-disaster at each ground to trigger radical action?  The combination of numbers, excitement and partisanship, even leaving aside misbehaviour, has a potential for danger.  Football requires higher standards both in bricks and mortar and in human relationships.  Police officers and stewards should be fully briefed and trained.  Standardisation in stadium design and construction is required.  Prison-type fences with spikes and overhanging sections should go.  The aim should be to provide more modern and comfortable accommodation. I am satisfied that seating does more to achieve those objectives than any other single measure.  Almost all the solutions I have proposed have been previously considered in detail by many distinguished inquiries over a period of sixty years.  Complacency is the enemy of safety.”

This was Taylor’s blueprint for the transformation of the game. Such was the power of his conclusions, this has been achieved. But as Taylor has warned us, we must never become complacent. Lest a tragedy like Hillsborough happens again….