April 12th 1981 is not a momentous date in the history of Liverpool Football Club. For the record it was the day we played Arsenal in the semi final of the F.A.Cup and also, for the record, we drew 0-0 and I was in the crowd that day. The match however was played at Hillsborough, I was in the Leppings Lane end and we were packed in to such an extent that it was hard to breathe.
The game itself did not live long in the memory but what I do remember was the heat, of being crushed and the front railings which went up and over the heads of us standing underneath, making it impossible to get on to the pitch. The significance of that day was to come back and haunt me eight years later when we were involved in another semi final there and the date of that was, of course, 15th April 1989.
Fortunately, as it turned out, I never went to that semi final. Unusually, I had to work overtime that day and could not arrange cover so I had reluctantly given my voucher to a lad who was a good supporter & struggling to get his hands on a ticket. Amidst the horror and anxieties of that afternoon, I naturally worried that he might have been amongst the victims and had no way of finding out if he was o.k. On the following Monday, I saw him, safe, well, very relieved but still in a mild state of shock. I remember him telling me about it and that his mates were in the chaos but were fortunate to be away from that front section. I also remember the sincerity in his eyes when he thanked me for that ticket as it turned to be in the stands behind the enclosure and therefore not in the Leppings lane end itself. Sitting above at least spared him any chance of physical injury, although the mental scars will live with him forever as he witnessed first hand, the horror unfolding before his very eyes.
In this age of comfort and satellite technology that we live in today, it may be perhaps hard for many nowadays to comprehend the conditions which we endured and even preferred to watch football then. We simply had no wish whatsoever to watch a match sitting down. It was just not even a consideration. I had stood in crowds up and down the country for years without ever really giving too much consideration to my personal safety other than the threat of being jumped outside the ground by opposition fans. Being on the kop of course was an experience all by itself. The camaraderie, the singing and the atmosphere was simply unique and just part of the whole experience of going to the game. When I was small, I was passed down over the heads to the front several times. If you were lucky, they would let you sit in front of the wall but otherwise they led you out of the ground. As you got older, you got stronger, taller and learnt a few tricks of the trade. You anticipated the surge from behind and the secret was to go down with the crush, turn round quick and get back to a speck with your back against a barrier. Amazing as it seems now, I actually chose to stand in the area of the Kop where there was the most crushing – just behind the goal slightly to the left. There was an area there with a gap in the barriers and those of you who have seen old television footage of those days will recall us all cascading down as Cally or Stevie went to the touchline to cross the ball. Many a time then we would be celebrating a goal by Tosh while running back up the steps.
Despite the numbers, there still seemed to be a built in safety factor in that throng and anyone falling or in trouble was helped out or passed over the heads. However this was not necessarily the case in other grounds and with hindsight, there were times where the heat and crushing was particularly bad and I realise now that the circumstances were ominously in place for a disaster much earlier than that at Hillsborough. Other than the game in 1981, I remember for example the night match at Wolverhampton where we won the league and the over congestion was horrendous at one end of the ground. For once, though, the police acted swiftly and let hundreds of us swap ends by walking round the pitch before the kick off. The cup game against United at Goodison Park when we were in the Gwladys Street was another where the stifling conditions were an abiding memory, with the ground so packed that you could not even lift your arms from your sides.
The dominant factor to bear in mind through all of this was that in those days, football fans were treated with almost total contempt by the authorities, certain sections of the media and in particular by the police forces on match days. We were all branded as hooligans and treated accordingly. Herded along the road on match days and into the ground regardless of whether you behaved yourself or not, verbally and physically abused, penned in like cattle and then shunted out of town at the end of the game. Now I am not saying for one second that all fans were whiter than white, far from it, but conventional wisdom would accept that the policing & treatment of fans and the lack of facilities at football grounds during the seventies and eighties, were contributory factors to what happened at Heysel, Ibrox and Bradford but it was not until Hillsborough that lessons were finally learnt and acted upon but by then, of course, many of our own had paid the ultimate price.
The aftermath of the tragedy saw Bruce Grobbelaar, amongst others, seriously considering his future in the game in those traumatic weeks of funerals when the whole city went into mourning. Along with so many others, I went to Anfield to pay my respects but even more upsetting than the mass of scarves and floral tributes covering the pitch, was the wreaths placed on the seats of the victims in the stands. Sitting there in silence, for the first time in my life I considered whether to bother going to the match ever again as football had seemed to lose all of it’s relevance. Time is a healer though and most of us did return to see us eventually triumph at Wembley and the victory was dedicated to the victims but of course 96 fans were not there to see the cup lifted that day and those who were injured or traumatised may well have never gone to another match again. Time does not heal however, when you have lost loved ones, particularly without answers as to why they perished and those friends and relatives would never ever be able to get on with their lives ever again. Especially, that is, with the attitude that still pervades to this day from successive governments towards those who still search for justice on the day we held the 21st anniversary tribute at Anfield.