Hillsborough Stadium had been constructed in 1899 to house Sheffield Wednesday.

At the time of the disaster, most English football stadiums had high steel fencing between the spectators and the playing field in response to pitch invasions. Hooliganism had affected the sport for some years, and was particularly virulent in England. From 1974, when these security standards were put in place, crushes occurred in several English stadiums.

A report by Eastwood & Partners for a safety certificate for the stadium in 1978 concluded that although it failed to meet the recommendations of the Green Guide, a guide to safety at sports grounds, the consequences were minor. It emphasised the general situation at Hillsborough was satisfactory compared with most grounds.

Hillsborough hosted five FA Cup semi-finals in the 1980s. A crush occurred at the Leppings Lane end of the ground during the 1981 semi-final between Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers after hundreds more spectators were permitted to enter the terrace than could safely be accommodated, resulting in 38 injuries, including broken arms, legs and ribs.

Liverpool and Nottingham Forest met in the semi-final at Hillsborough in 1988, and fans reported crushing at the Leppings Lane end. Liverpool lodged a complaint before the match in 1989. One supporter wrote to the Football Association and Minister for Sport complaining, "The whole area was packed solid to the point where it was impossible to move and where I, and others around me, felt considerable concern for personal safety"

Meanwhile, Hillsborough was accepted as the FA Cup semi-final venue on 20 March 1989 by the Football Association.

Police presence at the previous year's FA Cup semi-final (also between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest and also at Hillsborough Stadium) had been overseen by Chief Superintendent Brian L. Mole. Mole had supervised numerous police deployments at the stadium in the past. In October 1988 a probationary PC in Mole's F division, South Yorkshire was handcuffed, photographed, and stripped by fellow officers in a fake robbery, as a hazing prank. Four officers resigned and seven were disciplined over the incident. Chief Superintendent Mole himself was to be transferred to the Barnsley division for "career development reasons". The transfer was to be done with immediate effect on 27 March 1989.

When the gates were opened, thousands of fans entered a narrow tunnel leading from the rear of the terrace into two overcrowded central pens (pens 3 and 4), creating pressure at the front. Hundreds of people were pressed against one another and the fencing by the weight of the crowd behind them.

South Yorkshire Police Superintendent Greenwood (the ground commander) realised the situation, and ran on the field to gain referee Ray Lewis's attention. Lewis stopped the match at 3:05:30 as fans climbed the fence in an effort to escape the crush and went onto the track.

Three chartered trains transported Liverpool supporters to Sheffield for a match fixture in 1988, but only one such train ran in 1989. The 350 passengers arrived at the ground at about 2:20 pm.

Between 2:30 pm and 2:40 pm, there was a build-up of supporters outside the turnstiles facing Leppings Lane, eager to enter the stadium before the game began.

At 2:46 pm, the BBC's football commentator John Motson had already noticed the imbalance of distribution of people in the Leppings Lane pens. While rehearsing for the match off-air, he suggested a nearby cameraman look as well. "There's gaps, you know, in parts of the ground. Well, if you look at the Liverpool end, to the right of the goal, there's hardly anybody on those steps...that's it. Look down there.".

It was selected by the Football Association (FA) as a neutral venue to host the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest football clubs. Kick-off was scheduled for 3:00 pm on 15 April, and fans were advised to take up positions 15 minutes beforehand.

The match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest began as scheduled at 3:00 pm. Fans were still streaming into pens 3 and 4 from the rear entrance tunnel as the match began.

As is common at domestic matches in England, opposing supporters were segregated. Nottingham Forest supporters were allocated the South Stands and Spion Kop on the east end, with a combined capacity of 29,800, reached by 60 turnstiles spaced along two sides of the ground. Liverpool supporters were allocated the North and West ends (Leppings Lane), holding 24,256 fans, reached by 23 turnstiles from a narrow concourse. Turnstiles numbered 1 to 10, 10 in all, provided access to 9,700 seats in the North Stand; a further 6 turnstiles provided access to 4,456 seats in the upper tier of the West Stand. Finally, 7 turnstiles (lettered A to G) provided access to 10,100 standing places in the lower tier of the West Stand. Although Liverpool had more supporters, Nottingham Forest was allocated the larger area, to avoid the approach routes of rival fans crossing. As a result of the stadium layout and segregation policy, turnstiles that would normally have been used to enter the North Stand from the east were off-limits and all Liverpool supporters had to converge on a single entrance at Leppings Lane. On match day, radio and television advised fans without tickets not to attend. Rather than establishing crowd safety as the priority, clubs, local authorities and the police viewed their roles and responsibilities through the 'lens of hooliganism'.

Outside the stadium, a bottleneck developed with more fans arriving than could be safely filtered through the turnstiles before 3:00 pm.

The police at first attempted to stop fans from spilling out of the pens, some believing this to be a pitch invasion. At approximately 3:04 pm, a shot from Liverpool's Peter Beardsley hit the bar. Possibly connected to the excitement, a surge in pen 3 caused one of its metal crush barriers to give way.

The crowd in the Leppings Lane Stand overspilled onto the pitch, where the many injured and traumatised fans who had climbed to safety congregated.

Football players from both teams were ushered to their respective dressing rooms, and told that there would be a 30-minute postponement.

Those still trapped in the pens were packed so tightly that many victims died of compressive asphyxia while standing. Meanwhile, on the pitch, police, stewards and members of the St John Ambulance service were overwhelmed. Many uninjured fans assisted the injured; several attempted CPR and others tore down advertising hoardings to use as stretchers.

The agreed upon protocol for the South Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance Service (SYMAS) was that ambulances were to queue at the entrance to the gymnasium, termed the casualty reception point, or CRP.

The system of ferrying injured from any location within the stadium to the CRP required a formal declaration to be made by those in charge for it to take effect. As this declaration was not immediately performed, confusion reigned over those attempting to administer aid on the pitch. This confusion migrated to the first responders waiting in ambulances at the CRP, a location which quickly deteriorated into an ambulance parking lot. Some crews were hesitant to leave their vehicles, unsure of whether patients were coming to them, or vice versa.

A total of 42 ambulances arrived at the stadium. Out of this number, two managed of their own accord to make their way onto the pitch — while a third ambulance made its way onto the pitch at the direction of DCAO Hopkins, who felt its visibility might allay crowd concerns. The remaining 39 ambulances were collectively able to transport approximately 149 people to either Northern General Hospital, Royal Hallamshire Hospital, or Barnsley Hospital for treatment.

A total of 96 people died as a result of injuries incurred during the disaster. Ninety-four persons, aged from 10 to 67 years old, died on the day, either at the stadium, in the ambulances, or shortly after arrival at hospital. A total of 766 people were reported to have suffered injuries, although less than half required hospital treatment. The less seriously injured survivors who did not live in the Sheffield area were advised to seek treatment for their injuries at hospitals nearer to their homes.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Home Secretary Douglas Hurd visited Hillsborough the day after the disaster and met survivors.

Anfield stadium was opened on the Sunday to allow fans to pay tribute to the dead.

In the following days more than 200,000 people visited the "shrine" inside the stadium.

In May 1989, a charity version of the Gerry and the Pacemakers song "Ferry Cross the Mersey" was released in aid of those affected. The song featured Liverpool musicians Paul McCartney, Gerry Marsden (of the Pacemakers), Holly Johnson, and the Christians, and was produced by Stock Aitken Waterman. It entered the UK Singles Chart at number 1 on 20 May, remaining at the top for a total of three weeks.

A Silence–opened with an air-raid siren at three o'clock–was held in central Nottingham with the colours of Forest, Liverpool and Wednesday adorning Nottingham Council House.

The following Sunday, a link of football scarves spanning the 1.6 kilometres (0.99 mi) distance across Stanley Park from Goodison Park to Anfield was created, with the final scarf in position at 3:06 pm.

At Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, a requiem mass attended by 3,000 people was held by the Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Worlock. The first reading was read by Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar.

UEFA President Jacques Georges caused controversy by describing the Liverpool supporters as "beasts", wrongly suggesting that hooliganism was the cause of the disaster, which had occurred less than four years after the Heysel Stadium disaster. His remarks led to Liverpool F.C. calling for his resignation, but he apologized on discovering hooliganism was not the cause.

At the 1989 FA Cup Final between Liverpool and local rivals Everton, held just five weeks after the Hillsborough disaster, the players from both participating teams wore black armbands as a gesture of respect to the victims.

A disaster appeal fund was set up with donations of £500,000 from the Government, £100,000 from Liverpool F.C. and £25,000 each from the cities of Liverpool, Sheffield and Nottingham.

During the final match of the 1988–89 English Football League season, contested on 26 May 1989 between Liverpool and second-place Arsenal, the Arsenal players presented flowers to fans in different parts of Anfield in memory of those who had died in the Hillsborough disaster.

By the disaster's 10th anniversary in 1999, at least three people who survived were known to have committed suicide. Another survivor had spent eight years in psychiatric care. There were cases of alcoholism, drug abuse, and collapsed marriages involving people who had witnessed the events. The lingering effects of the disaster were seen as a cause, or contributary factor, in all of these.