Inside a disaster
The 15th April 1989 was FA Cup semi-final day and as the spring sunshine flooded the streets of Liverpool no one could have predicted what the next 24 hours would bring. Today it’s a beautiful sunny day, which bears a remarkable similarity to that Cup semifinal day. A clear sunny day to travel across the Pennines to Sheffield was certainly a rarity; usually driving conditions ranged from blizzards to dense fog. So that day God (if you are a believer) was smiling on the travelling faithful and it was going to be a great day.
I am writing this on the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster and today Sheffield Wednesday have delayed kick off by 15 minutes as a mark of respect. The disaster is always marked by the time that the referee stopped the game, 3.06pm. From the press reports, the minute silence is immaculately observed, which always seems to be the case, as the fans understand that it really could have been them. Speaking from experience, it really could have been me or any of my travelling companions, friends or even work colleagues.
For seventeen years I have carried a myriad of emotions that have surfaced at different times in my life.
I have been angry, grieving, relieved and appreciative of what life gives. As I look to my right, I see pictures of Steven Gerrard with the Champions League trophy in Istanbul, and me and Zil sharing that glorious night. In front of me I see pictures of my beautiful wife who gave me the best day of my life on the day she married me.
I see pictures of my nephews Daniel and Joshua (Our Kev’s boys) and Daniel complete with his cheeky smile, is in his Liverpool kit. You may be thinking ‘so what? That is just normal life’. That’s the point; I am really grateful for my normal life and that of my younger brother. Two yards the other way and one of us may not have come home. This is why I feel guilty, relieved and angry in no particular order. Another 96 people should be sharing my views, but they would be views of their own lives, whatever life held for them. Unfortunately they had no choice as their lives were stolen away in a wholly avoidable tragedy.
I can remember it like it was yesterday. My memory just needs a touch of prompting nowadays as I have put it away in my brain in order to ensure that it doesn’t consume my life and make me a victim too. Little did I know that this day was going to change my life forever and affect many of the relationships that I held dear at that time. People changed and some changed forever and silently drifted away. There were more than 96 victims, 96 families and friends of the deceased were affected forever. All in such a public domain, full of lies and mistruths which tainted their thoughts of their loved ones’ final moments. Some people have a lot to answer for and how they sleep at night is really beyond me.
As we were seasoned travellers, this was just a normalday out for us. Tickets were sorted out with no problem and I had a car full of the usual suspects. It was going to be a great day out with the company I kept. We never saw trouble, always had a great laugh and looked forward to our away trips more than our home games. Today’s travelling companions were Our Kev, Zil, Brian and Big Chris. Picking Kev up was easy as we still shared a bedroom in my mum and dad’s house in north Liverpool.
You have to remember I was still only 23 and Our Kev only 20 years old. Girls were not really on the scene at that point. Our consuming passion was for the Mighty Red Men and most of our money was spent following them around England. The other boys lived just outside the City of Liverpool; Brian in the upmarket area of Maghull, where we aspired to live, and Zil and Big Chris in the leafy countryside of Aughton, just outside the market town of Ormskirk. By the time I got to Aughton in my Ford Escort (1.6 GLX by the way- as that was really important then), it was a beautiful day more akin to summer than spring. By eleven o’clock we were on the road to Sheffield with our music blasting and a carload of chatter and as always the craic was mighty. How many conversations can go on between five people? Well today it seemed unending as we all had the Milwall game to buzz about from the previous Wednesday night (as discussed in the Cultural experiences chapter).
We had been to Sheffield on numerous occasions, so I knew the roads like the back of my hand and we planned on being in Sheffield by one o’clock. We had plenty of time. We could get a pint if we could but drink was never my priority as I was driving. M62 to M6 over the Thelwall viaduct on to the M56 through Stockport and on towards Glossop and the Pennines. Funny how on that day, considering the amount of traffic due, someone in their wisdom decided to place road works at the natural bottleneck in the route, bypassing Glossop to go over the Woodhead pass. On the busiest traffic day of the year no one let the travelling supporters know about it. I remember it taking an hour to travel approximately five miles, and by then we were starting to push it time-wise. We were, so it seemed, ahead of most of the match traffic.
This was one of the catalysts from the problems that would build later on. When you hear that people arrived late, traffic was one of the major reasons – we were not all in the pub as you may have been led to believe. As you drive down off the Pennines you head through the steel town of Stocksbridge, this was the marker for Hillsborough, the home of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club. It was a regular venue for Cup semi-finals due to its capacity and the geographical nature of the competing clubs. From Stocksbridge it took about ten minutes until we parked and another ten minute to walk to the ground. That would be okay for us as it was just getting on for two o’clock; we would be there in time for kick off.
As we neared Hillsborough, on the left hand side was the base of a valley and on the right hand side were the steep sides of the valley, with rows of houses climbing up the side to a road at the top. From past experience, parking spaces would be available and as long as we had our crampons with us, the climb up would be easy after our forthcoming victory. It was like parking in San Francisco, wheels locked against the kerb so the car didn’t fall backwards. Definitely no more than second gear, especially with a car full of lads. A parking space duly found, it always paid to make sure that everybody knew exactly where we were by memorising the street name, as all the streets look the same. For a quick get away I wanted everyone together at the car quickly, as often we got split up at matches when we were standing on the terraces.
The meeting and greeting after the game was always fun though, it could keep us going for quite a while on long journeys home, regaling individual stories and thoughts on what we had seen and heard.
As we walked past a pub I noticed that as it was full they weren’t allowing any more people in, which suited me on a day like to day. So that kills the myth that no one drank at all or that we were all rolling drunk. That’s for the West Midlands Police, who following the disaster interviewed me and thousands of others. They were only interested in the behaviour of the fans and how much they had drank, not the actions of some of their own kind. This was Thatcher’s Britain and we were classed as scum, we were guilty until proved innocent. It was just a normal day, some people drank and some didn’t – nothing unusual there. We headed down towards the ground past the dodgy car showrooms and past the slowest chip shop in the world. This was a place where 30 minutes before any game the chips were never ready – not like the chippies behind the Kop where they must feed hundreds if not thousands in the hour up to kick off. I can see it now, as we neared the ground we took a sharp left and we were in Leppings Lane. Ahead of us and to the right was a set of old brick turnstiles.
This is where it started to go wrong. The amount of people trying to get in was far greater than I expected, and there was very little evidence of crowd control outside the ground. The Police horses marshalling the crowd were actually from Merseyside police and outside of the horses there seemed to be little police presence. The crowd was already a heaving mass but there was an opportunity to marshal people back up the hill alongside a wall. The problem was that access to the other stands also seemed to be through the same area. It looked like the whole of Liverpool’s travelling support had to enter this way and we were all there at the same time. Whilst accessing the Leppings Lane terrace you also had access to the West Stand, which was directly behind the terraced area. It turned out that 10,000 fans had to enter the ground through just seven turnstiles, that’s over 1,400 through each turnstile and the majority in the hour leading up to kick off at 3 o’clock. Simple calculations show that it works out at a minimum of 23 people per minute, which is just impossible to do. From my perspective it looked as if the crowd had not been controlled earlier and as a result the sheer weight of numbers arriving meant there was little chance to gain any element of control.
Everyone has their own view as to what then happened and this is mine and mine alone. The following is an account of how I felt and what I still feel seventeen years after the event. Even now I am starting to bring pictures back I have buried for such a long time, I don’t know if I really want to do it.
No; I do want to do it. I don’t need to do it because I found my way forward around it years ago, but when confronting the thoughts again, I have raised the visions I didn’t ever want to see again. I can now see myself penned against the wall linking the turnstiles, just inches from getting to the turnstile and into the ground. Then, as the body of the crowd moves, I am spinning back into the crowd behind me. I am already losing sight of all my mates and this has really become ‘look after number one’. There is no control of the situation at all now and the pressure on my body is unbelievable. I have been in crushes before but never anything as intense as this.
People are pleading for a release from the situation but those joining the crowd from the back cannot see what is happening ahead of them. As kick-off nears, the pressure becomes more intense and people are more desperate than ever. Some, to avoid the pressure, are climbing on to the walls surrounding the turnstiles, with ticket in hand and are being beaten back by police. A horse enters into the seething mass of bodies and only adds to the chaos. The people at the front become more at risk as the crush intensifies. I am now pinned next to a big blue wooden gate that is usually an exit gate and I am next to a girl who I work with, who says she is struggling to breathe properly now and she is terrified in the crush.
I think that someone is going to die outside the turnstiles.
People are pleading for the gate to be opened to relieve the pressure. After what seems like an eternity the gate is opened and the effect is like uncorking a champagne bottle and the bubbles flooding out, forcing people in to the ground. I can see many people still showing theirtickets to police and stewards. That’s how badly behaved we are.
I still have my full ticket after all these years. Complaints about the management of the crowd outside were met by the normal response of South Yorkshire’s finest (Police if you need to ask): ‘Shut up or you will be arrested’. It’s normally not that nice actually: ‘get in before you’re nicked’, in other words.
Was it the right decision to open the gate? For me it certainly was, otherwise I might not be writing this now. Take it from me, people would certainly have died outside. As it turned out 36 people actually sustained injuries outside in the crush. What I don’t understand is what happened next or how it happened.
This moving chapter continues in ‘We Had Dreams And Songs To Sing’.
For more information and how to buy the book, please visit www.wehaddreamsandsongstosing.co.uk.