Thursday, 5 March 2009

The Hillsborough Disaster Saturday 15th April 1989

=================================================================

I've never spoken about this before.


Perhaps I should have and maybe in some strange way, I will feel better for having told my story.

We have to start off one year earlier. It was April 1988 and Liverpool had beaten Nottingham Forest 2-1 in the semi-final of the FA Cup. The game had been played at Hillsborough, the home of Sheffield Wednesday.

That Saturday evening, I was in the Cock & Bottle Public House on Wavertree High Street, when suddenly, a gang of lads came bouncing through the door. They were very noisy and I soon realised that they were my friends and they had just returned from Hillsborough. They had rushed back to celebrate Liverpool's win and we had a great time. I swore that night that I would never miss out on big football occasion like this again.

One year later, Liverpool reached the FA Cup semi-final again and amazingly, they would play Nottingham Forest. The game would ironically take place at the Hillsborough stadium. This was my chance to make up for missing out on the previous year.

The evening before the game, I sat and stared at my ticket. I felt like Roald Dahl's Charlie Bucket, having just won the last remaining golden ticket. This ticket had cost £6, but I wouldn't have sold it for £6000! I was so lucky.

The next morning, Dad and I got up at 8am. It was glorious weather and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. This was not April weather as we knew it, but it simply was the perfect Spring day. I asked Mum what she had prepared for sandwiches and I saw the look of horror come across her face. She had forgotten and immediately ran out of the house to get something. I was a little annoyed, as I knew that this would delay us and I could not relax until we were on the road. Ten minutes later, she returned with some crusty cobs and... Peanut Butter! She could not get any chicken or turkey, so we had to settle for crunchy peanut butter. Dad and I were not impressed.

After checking the oil and water in the car, We set off at 11am, feeling that we had allowed plenty of time for any mishaps. I prayed that my old red mark 3 Ford Escort would at least get us to Sheffield. It didn't matter if the engine exploded on the way home, as long as we made it to the game.

The route was planned. M62 to Manchester and A57 through Stockport and over the Pennines. The motorway was the tricky part, as my car was not normally driven at high speed, it only had four gears and as the tracking was well out, the steering wheel would wobble violently.

It wasn't long before we hit heavy traffic on the M62 and because it was so hot, I saw that many newer cars had broken down and were strewn along the hard shoulder. Dad came up with the idea that we could release some of the engine heat, by turning the heaters on full speed and hot! The temperature was already in the mid 70's, yet we had hot air blowing in our faces - all the way to Sheffield!

The motorway traffic had been quite slow and when we joined the A57 at Stockport, it became a slow crawl. But at least we had the breathtaking mountain views across the Pennines, as we meandered up and down in a single convoy of traffic. Red scarves were hanging out of most of the cars and it felt like we were part of a huge pilgrimage, loyally following our team.

We eventually started to pick up signs for Hillsborough, but the time was flying and it had taken us over three hours, by the time we arrived at Hillsborough. It was 2:10pm and we had no time to relax and have a sandwich, but thankfully, we found somewhere to park the car and after a quick bite of peanut butter rock bread, we walked down the hill toward the stadium. It didn't take long for us to realise that we were walking alongside a large number of Nottingham Forest fans. We kept very quiet.

We arrived at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium, to be presented with a brick wall which had a couple of turnstile entrances. But where were all of the fans? There were hardly any people around this entrance and only a couple of police officers. A female police officer asked me if I had a ticket. I said yes, but I wasn't asked to show it. I reckoned that the majority of fans must already be inside the stadium, as we were quite late anyhow.

On the other side of the wall, we saw the rear of the stand and the only obvious entry point to the lower tier appeared to be a tunnel through the middle of the stand. We walked through the tunnel, only to be faced with a wall of fans and we had to fight our way onto the terraces. We were looking right through the goal area, which was actually quite obstructed by its white net.

We were very uncomfortable and we were being jostled in every possible direction. But the atmosphere was good and it was only half an hour until kick off. After a few minutes, Dad commented that the whole of the Leppings Lane terrace was split into four sections by three sets of iron railings. We were stood in one of the middle sections, but what was very obvious was that the two outer pens were pratically empty. Dad saw this and said that we should move to an outer pen, so we could relax a little. I wasn't impressed, as I wanted to stay where most of the singing was taking place, but after a heated discussion, Dad got his way and we fought our way back through the tunnel and around to a very obscure side entrance onto a corner section, next to the main stand. There was a fire escape leading from the upper tier and Dad and I agreed to meet there, in case we were split up in during the game. It was so empty that we were able to sit on the steps and Dad could roll his cigarettes more easily. As we both looked around the stadium, I'll always remember Dad saying that the one and only time he had been to Hillsborough before, was in the 1950's and other than a lick of blue and white paint, the stadium looked exactly the same as it had done almost 40 years earlier.

At 2:50 and after ten minutes of relative comfort, there was a sudden rush of people onto our terrace. Luckily, we were standing by now and we stumbled down several steps as the crowd surged into us from behind. I could tell that some of the late arrivers had been drinking, so I assumed that this was the rowdy lot that stays in the pub until the last minute and comes pushing in at the last minute. I was so angry that I pointed my elbows and ran backwards up the steps, to push those who had just pushed me. A man said to me, "There's no need for that, there's murder outside!". I realised that I was mistaken in my assumptions and maybe there had been a problem outside the stadium.

The players came onto the pitch and a massive roar came from the crowd. Suddenly, we were packed in like sardines, but it was bearable and we'd experienced worse. However, as I looked through the railings to my left I could see that things were far worse in the center pen that we had left earlier. These people were not stumbling up and down nor left or right. These people were packed together so tightly that there was no 'give' in the crowd. There was also a strange groaning noise coming from the crowd, so unlike a typical football crowd. I could also see that there were two human feet per step on steps which were only big enough to fit one set of feet.

The game kicked off and within seconds, Liverpool were on the attack. Peter Beardsley hit a rocket of a shot that smashed against the Forest crossbar. The crowd surged forward even more and we were even more tightly packed together. Little did we know that the people outside were trying even harder to get inside the stadium, as the game had kicked off.

It still hadn't dawned on us that there was anything wrong, but we soon noticed people starting to climb onto the pointed railings, as if to get onto the pitch. I thought, "Oh no, a pitch invasion, these hooligans are going to spoil the game". A police officer was stood at the fence with his baton drawn and he was hitting those climbing the fences, to stop them from making it over. Then came the realisation that something was wrong, as from the upper tier, people were hanging down and dragging fans up from the Leppings Lane terrace.

Liverpool's goalkeeper - Bruce Grobbelaar, kept turning around and looking at the crowd. He had a concerned look on his face. He seemed to be paying more attention to the crowd behind the goal, rather than the game. There were now dozens of people on top of the iron fences and many were making it onto the pitch. The Nottingham Forest fans started booing, obviously believing that this was a hooligan attempt to ruin the game. The boos soon subsided however.

The game was stopped by the referee and the players were led off the pitch. There were now many hundreds of people on the playing field and my first thought was that the game may not go ahead. We had no idea at this point how many people had been injured - let alone killed.

The seriousness of the situation became apparent when I saw people being given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I will never forget a small boy, laid on his back and a man trying to resuscitate him. Everybody seemed to zoom in on this little boy. Suddenly there was a big cheer from the Main stand, as the boy must have been saved. I looked away and a few minutes later, I looked back and saw the little boy was still lying there, with a coat over his still body. Surely this little boy wasn't dead? And if he could die, that means other people could be dead. how could this be? how can people die at a football match?

It was still a scene of chaos on the pitch. Thousands of people, and many police officers, but no sign of any medical help. Some fans started to do what they could and many were carrying the injured on advertising hoardings. I could hear the sirens of emergency vehicles from outside the stadium, but only one ambulance made it inside. It was very old and looked like something from World War II.

We were stood very close to the police box and the crowd suddenly started to shout angrily toward it. Walking up the stairs was Graham Kelly, one of the chiefs at the Football Association. He had been amongst those responsible for assigning Liverpool fans to the Leppings Lane end of the stadium.

By 3:40pm, it was quite clear that no game was going to take place and Dad and I agreed that even if there was a game, we didn't want to be there any more. There were bodies all over the pitch and there was no way that we could have helped, so we decided to leave the stadium.

Surprisingly, there were hardly any fans outside the stadium, so we must have been one of the first to leave. We made our way back to the car in total silence and I was numb from what I had just witnessed. After all of this, it never occurred to either of us to phone home to tell Mum that we were ok and remember that this was in the days before mobile phones. As we drove away, we saw many fire engines aproaching the stadium, but no ambulances.

In no time at all, we were back in the beautiful Pennines and the sun was going down right in front of us. The first radio news bulletin came through, stating that seventeen people had died in the crowd crush. Dad shouted, "Seventeen!". We couldn't believe it. the bulletins were coming through every twenty minutes or so and the next one said 27 had died. Then 45. Then 53. We couldn't believe it. I'll always remember a song that was played on the radio on our way home. It was called 'Holding back the Tears', by 'Simply Red'.

When we arrived home, we walked into the back living room, to find Mum sitting with my uncle Jock. Jock would often call in on a Saturday, but he wouldn't normally stay, but he had decided to stay with Mum, until we returned. I was surprised that they were even aware of what had happened, as they wouldn't normally follow the football, but the whole event had been shown on national television. Mum explained that all she could think of was that she had failed to get us proper sandwiches and that she had denied us our final wish!

The next few hours were spent moping around and following news bulletins. At 10:30pm, Match of the Day came on the television. That's when it started to hit us and that is when we found out that 95* people had been killed in the crowd crush. I'll never forget Dad saying, "This is the worst day of my life".

On the following Monday, our shock turned to anger and despair, when the Sun newspaper printed a front page headline of 'The Truth', stating that the whole terrible tragedy had been caused by hooligan Liverpool fans and that the fans were picking the pockets of the dead and dying. That is why so many people from Liverpool chose to never buy the Sun newspaper again.

Who was to blame? This is still an argument today and whilst I can only offer my own opinion about this, I feel that as a witness, I am qualified to offer my thoughts.

Like all disasters, there is no one cause of this tragedy. the police are the highest authority and they must be held to account for the part that they played in this disaster. The police were ultimately responsible for the opening of the main gates, which allowed thousands of fans to enter onto the Leppings Lane terraces, even without tickets. With the benefit of hindsight, this decision alone may have been the cause of the entire disaster. The police were clearly not prepared for what was to unfold and it seemed as though they did not know what to do when it happened. This maybe because of a lack of planning or even training and it seems that the overall policing of the game was to be ready for hooligan activities and not ensuring safety.

The Football Association should be held to account for the part that they played. For the second year running, Liverpool's fans were allocated to the Leppings Lane end of the stadium, which was the smaller end of the ground. This meant that Nottingham Forest would have more fans at the game than Liverpool. The tickets should have been allocated based on average 'home' attendance figures and Nottingham Forest's average was around 24,000, whereas Liverpool's average was around 40,000. Therefore, the demand for tickets at Liverpool was bound to be far greater than at Nottingham Forest. The reason why the FA would not budge on the ticket allocations, was because they had concerns about the two sets of fans passing each other - The hooligan approach again.

The stadia of English football was well behind the times. Fans were forced to bear being penned into old-fashioned terraces and many believed that they were being treated like cattle. It was obvious that revenue earned by the clubs was hardly being used to modernise stadia. The clubs themselves should be held to account here.

The hooligan element within football had seriously damaged the reputation of ALL football fans, which is why we had fences penning us in in the first place. These were designed to segragate opposing fans and stop people from encroaching onto the pitch. I can honestly say that these fences certainly did the job that they were designed to do.

I invite you to leave a comment, regardless of which club you follow. This disaster was not just about Liverpool Football Club. It was about ALL football fans. It was about ordinary people. It was about 96 families whose loved ones went to a football match and never came home.

"Some people say that football is a matter of Life & Death. I say it is more important than that"; Bill Shankly.

Saturday 15th April 1989 was the day that football became a matter of Life & Death. RIP the 96 who lost their lives and justice for the families of the 96.

*95 people did die at Hillsborough, but one victim was brain damaged in the crowd crush and he died in 1993, becoming the 96th victim of this disaster.

I have posted a video to YouTube at: YouTube Video

=================================================================
david@ewmedia.co.uk

Smarter Money Clickety Click