A day out at Hillsborough
For us it was revenge time against our old 1970’s rivals Liverpool a repeat of last year’s FA Cup Semi Final. We couldn’t seem to overtake the Scousers in the League these days, but this side we young and talented and we stood a good chance as regards ‘one off’ cup ties. In public I would never have admitted that Liverpool were the better side.
Tickets bought well in advance we decided to go in the South Stand again even if the Forest fans had the giant Spion Kop end with its large roof to enhance the chants and songs. Well Pete, Keith and me sat together at the City Ground and made the trip like many Reds fans and hanger-ons for cup glory. The FA Cup has evaded us in the reign of Cloughie and after the semis last year where we got so close but failed it has got to be our turn. The Law of Averages (I wished it was true) says we are going to Wembley for an FA Cup Final. Why not this year?
A good football fan’s breakfast consisting of bacon sandwiches with brown sauce and mug of coffee and no interest in the days League match fixtures only the 90 minutes away from Wembley game ahead. I packed some cheese sandwiches and a couple of packs of salted crisps which is a part of my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder brought on by being a Forest fan in what is really the greatest era so far. Meanwhile Keith had his wife Evelyn bake the FA Cup Run Official Cheese Pasty. Yes we had a cheese pasty as a half time snack in last season’s FA Cup run and then put the onus on Evelyn to keep us in the cup. Nice tactic and nice pasty for halt time to boot.
I hated my present work situation and football was the thing that lifted me out of the doldrums and a semi final got my adrenalin pistons firing on all cylinders. I was clock watching until Pete and Keith pulled up outside our house, then a quick kiss from Julie and we were off. Scarf waving outside the window then M1 motorway bound. We set off in good time as the motorway would be busy, we intended to go the direct way and not the so called quick trafficless way of last time around where we ended up on the main drag to Sheffield and missed out on a pre-match pint. So the motorway traffic was busy with red and white decked cars, Transits and coaches. The feeling was great: we’re 90 minutes away from an FA Cup Final. If that went through my mind once it went through it a thousand times. Any defeats or bad performances during that season were well in the back of my mind and we had already beat Liverpool in the League earlier.
Finding a parking spot was a task with a sell out crowd today and we kept in the vicinity of our ‘end’ (The Spion Kop) so we wouldn’t have to pass through the Scousers at the end of the game when we had beaten them. We parked what seemed miles away from the Hillsborough Stadium and took our time passing pub after pub which we full forcing us to go without a pre match pint again!
Still we were a bit intoxicated by the atmosphere and on the way to the ground we saw faces from Nottingham and stopped for the odd chat with old acquaintances. Since Newstead Colliery had closed we had not seen some ex workmates for a while and you always had to have a few quick words to catch up on their welfare and whereabouts these days. Keith and Pete had moved on the Thoresby pit and me at Bilsthorpe; we all wished we still had the camaraderie lost initially by the 1984 Miners Strike and then the closing of most of South Nottinghamshire’s local pits. So friends old and new were spotted here and there along the way and at least we had some of the camaraderie through supporting our team, Nottingham Forest.
Lingering outside the grounds main entrance we hoped to see the team coach arrive but we only got a glimpse of the towering Laurie McMennemy the ex-Southampton manager. Man, he was fearsome sight close up. He said hello to the fans that had the nerve to speak to him as if he were an old mate; at least he acknowledged them like an old mate. After all he had been around for so long and football people are truly football people whether club player, managers or fans. Yes I suppose another sort of comradeship.
Time now to soak up the atmosphere, that is what we always quoted as a joke for lesser games on cold Wednesday nights. The ground was filling up and the fans began to sing and chant, it was subdued in the stands and it is not well known for seated fans to chant like the standing fans shoulder to shoulder on the terraces or in their respective ‘Ends’. Today the same as the last meeting our lot had the Kop but there was enough noise from both ends to judge the most vocal. The insults were flowing from behind the goal. “I’d rather be a Muppet than a Scouse” was a particular favourite of mine.
About five minutes to kick off we watched as some of the standing Liverpool supporters were being hoisted up into the upper tier of the Leppings Lane end. From the safety of the South Stand we shouted, “idiots, tossers” and worse. There are always some idiots at football matches, went through my mind. They have bought a ticket to stand up so why not stay where they are? The fans who were climbing up into the seats increased right up to the kick off and my attention now was for the players who had come onto the pitch.
As a Forest fan we hated Liverpool and we hated their manager Dalglish but it wasn’t personal as we hated Derby, Leeds, Scousers, Geordies, Cockneys and Brummies as far as that theme goes. Well didn’t every set of fans in the country start the common song of “We hate Nottingham For-est…….”? That’s what being a football fan entailed a lot of the time, call it banter if you want to put it in a category.
The stadium, full to the brim, a great atmosphere, a sunny day and a trip to Wembley up for grabs. The match soon got underway with Liverpool fans still climbing up into the stands but now I realised how packed it looked in the standing area. There was some space at the flanks but the fences in between which were put up to make it safer were blocking the swell from the centre. The fence at the front to stop pitch invasions was also now an obstruction. Usually the crowd sorts itself out and they would eventually leave the section and return in another section I guessed. This is an all ticket game and the same allocations as last year’s game so there should be room for all.
Then a few minutes into the game some fans had got onto the pitch. Now why would they want to start a pitch invasion when both teams are level and no doubt they were the favourites to win again? After about five minutes the police bolstered their numbers at the Leppings Lane End but some fans appeared to be aggravating the situation and of course the Forest fans at the other end saw it has a threat and invited the Scousers to, well basically, Come and have a go.
More fans got onto the pitch and then the ref stopped play. We stood and looked at the goings on and then at each other as if to say ‘that’s all we bloody want’. We still looked at the spill onto the pitch as idiots or hooligans. The players then left the field and it seemed as if a panic had started. Was it the fans or was it the police? As more fans tried to climb the fences the police stopped trying to force them back and let the overflow happen. Some fans ran toward the Forest end but most seemed to be in a state of panic walking around in aimless circles with nowhere in mind to go. I wondered how long it would take to get the fans all back in their allocated ends of the ground and then restart the game; I am still bemused why they wanted the game stopping.
The First Aid attendants came to the Leppings Lane End but it appeared there might be a few more injuries than expected, maybe some had got crushed in the rush of people trying to get over the fences. A few more minutes and someone near us said a radio report announced a death among the Liverpool fans.
What’s going to happen now? They surely would abandon the game as a life was lost. The crowd and police eventually started getting the injured out of terraces, then fans used advertising boards as stretchers for the injured as they took them away from the crowd still fighting to get on the pitch. The police then tried to keep the two sets of fans apart as it wasn’t clear at the Kop end that fans were getting injured by the crush. The Forest fans saw a pitch invasion and threat until the injured were being treated around the half way line. We saw at least three fans getting mouth to mouth resuscitation by police or First Aiders.
I lit another cigarette and on a visit to the toilets the news spread that three fans were now dead. I related the news back in the seats and we all concurred this tie was over, but three deaths, what would happen now? This didn’t seem real, three fans dying at the game. I suppose we expected a lot of injuries to fans but not fatalities. It seemed a bit surreal as the now disaster was unfolding. A policewoman and a fan had started mouth to mouth on a fan on our side of the pitch and he started breathing again as we saw a thumbs up from his mate. A round of applause nearly broke out at the relief of this incident.
Where we were in the South Stand it was as if we weren’t actually there as reports of more deaths came over the radio. The match was declared abandoned now and pleas over the PA system told fans to wait 15 minutes then slowly leave the stadium. I assumed they didn’t want a mad rush on all the exits to block any of the emergency services now arriving. I looked around me and at least a hundred fans headed straight for the stairs and tried to leave en bloc. I shouted in the direction of the exits
“They said wait 15 minutes before you leave fucking idiots” and shook my head in disgust of the everyman for himself attitude. By the time we decided to make a move the stand was half empty so we looked on helplessly as a stretcher carried by firemen contained a body of a man of my stature whose face was grey with death. I lit another cigarette to calm my nerves at this sight and couldn’t help thinking that could have been us. I deeply inhaled and looked at my mates and none of us spoke a word at this sight, we all knew what had happened to this poor fan and if a six foot heavily built man had suffered, what about the women and kids in that end? By now some of the fencing had broken to free the crowds and fans were all over the pitch, searching wives, husbands, mates and children. Some were sat as if exhausted some probably in shock and as walking wounded they were not attended to due to the priority of the less fortunate.
We left the ground with the news of at least four deaths we knew of and expected a few more which was a tragedy. Outside the ground where thousands of fans departed the area was silent but for the sirens of the emergency services. Back in the car the radio news reported 25 deaths as we were diverted around Hillsborough and eventually on the road home. Way out of town we stopped at a public phone box and in turn called home to say we were safe and homeward bound. I couldn’t get through but Julie would know we would not have been in the Liverpool end anyway. By the time we were near Annesley the death toll had gone up to 55 and it was reported some deaths were actually in the tunnels to the terracing. In silence I think we tried to picture the carnage unseen from the stands but it was still an unreal situation, 55 fans gone.
At home I watched the TV footage and described the day’s happenings to my wife and then the figure of 95 was announced. I cast my mind back once when I left the City Ground’s old East Stand and we got in a bit of a crush going down the steps. I nearly passed out until the crowding eased just at the right time; so what was it like for them today… I struggled to imagine. It was still a surreal situation for the rest of the night. Pictures in the newspapers the next day brought it home to me. I cringed at the faces squashed against the fencing. Some of those were dead they looked so helpless it made me want to sob for their pain. It was real now and oh if we could turn back the clock and the fences weren’t there, it’s all helpless pathetic ‘ifs and ands’.
I had to look again at the front page then it hit me. Here are my equivalent only wearing different colours. Normal football loving folk who enjoy their Saturdays supporting their favourite teams, then returning home ot their families or going for a beer or two to talk about it again with friends and relations. These are just working class folk, my brethren, my comrades . Youngsters we tell of past glories, old uns relate to us of their baggy shorts and real leather ball experiences, generations of football fans loyal to their teams through good times and bad. They are my kind of people and they didn’t deserve to die like that. I dread to think how it was for those who were expecting their loved ones to come home but didn’t. Twenty four hours that went from expected elation to horrifying reality.
But long may the game continue and the banter, mickey-taking, boasting and pride. When we say ‘We Hate……’ in a football chant it is not hate any more for me.