Tony Hill, who last year wrote us an article about the retirement of Alex Ferguson, witnessed the Hillsborough disaster and has a view of it seen from a different perspective to being at the Liverpool end of the ground. It became a chapter in his critically well received book If the Kids are United which he’s kindly letting us reproduce today, on the disaster’s 25th anniversary.
Friday April 14th 1989
Last year on the retirement of Alex Ferguson Tony Hill wrote an article for us describing going to match at United back in Fergie’s early days, when the knives were out for him, and Madchester was happening in the city.
Friday afternoon and I was sat at home excitedly looking forward to the next day, the sort of day I loved. Saturday out with the lads, drinking a few beers, going to a big football match. This time, an FA Cup semi-final.
I took two football books – which I had bought earlier that year – down off a shelf. I opened up Simon Inglis’s The Football Grounds of Great Britain to read the section on Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough Stadium, where the following day’s semi-final was to be held: ‘Hillsborough is a stadium with all the grand connotations the term implies…To the left is the West Stand, with 4465 seats in an upper tier, and open terraces in front. Next to the other two stands it looks ordinary, but the view it provides is excellent, as are its facilities….a visit to Hillsborough on a crisp autumn afternoon remains one of the quintessential joys of English sport.’
I put the book down, and picked up Back Page Football by Stephen F. Kelly, a book about newspaper coverage of football from 1900 to 1988. I was up to 1970, and Brazil’s victory in the World Cup Final. I turned the page, 1971, and there was a photocopy of a newspaper headline printed on the page: SOCCER DISASTER…66 die in big match panic.’
The headline was from the Ibrox Stadium disaster. I read about how there had been a crush on stairway 13 near the end of a match between Glasgow Rangers and Celtic. Hundreds of fans fell down the steps, leaving sixty-six people suffocated or trampled to death. It was ‘the worst soccer disaster.’
Saturday April 15th 1989
Saturday morning, a car horn pips outside the house – my mates picking me up for the drive to Sheffield. There were five of us in the car: Paul, Mark and Byrnie, who were Forest supporters, and Dave, a Liverpool fan. I was a Manchester United supporter, a Stretford Ender who jumped at the chance when Paul said he had a spare ticket, addicted to the buzz, excitement and atmosphere that was generated at a big football match. I was also hoping to see my hated rivals, the all-conquering Liverpool turned over of course. The Forest lads were full of confidence that this year they would beat Liverpool and reach the F A Cup Final. I’d been with them to the same fixture at the same ground (with both sets of supporters allocated the same sections of the stadium) the year before and that had been a great occasion, even though Liverpool won 2-1 I had to admit they were brilliant, as had the whole day out.
The Sun was shining from a clear blue sky: it was a warm, beautiful spring day. With the car parked up in Sheffield city centre we headed for the nearest pub.
Paul, who had all our match tickets in his wallet, started handing them out to each of us.
‘You’d better save mine, I’ll only lose it,’ I told him.
About two o’clock we left the pub to catch a bus to the stadium. Walking to the bus stop, me, Byrnie, Dave and me decided it was too early to go to the ground – we wanted another drink. Paul and Mark caught the bus to Hillsborough. We bought our drinks and sat down at a table. Then I remembered Paul had my ticket in his wallet. There was nothing I could do now he’d gone to the stadium – I’d have to hope to meet him there.
I struck up a conversation with a Liverpool fan in the pub and mentioned what had happened with my ticket…
‘I haven’t got a ticket either,’ he replied.
‘Are you still going to the ground?’ I asked.
‘Do you think you’ll get in?’
‘Yeah, no problem, I have done before.’
There was no reason for him believing he wouldn’t get in without a ticket. A £5 note slipped to the write person could get you into any football ground. And at Hillsborough that day there would be no police cordon in the streets near the ground stopping anyone without tickets reaching the turnstiles (as there had been the year before). There would be no effective stewarding at Hillsborough; crowd control would be left in the hands of incompetent police. The FA’s running of the game was a joke, they’d mismanaged the game for years. Crumbling old English football stadiums were a joke, even at the bigger so called glamorous clubs, chairmen and directors didn’t want to fork out for improving facilities and making loyal supporters more comfortable when a new centre-forward could be bought.
So, OK, some football supporters hadn’t been angels over the years, but I’m not going to have a go at fellow supporters – too many other people have done that, people who had never stood on a football terrace.
I’m not Lord Justice Taylor or a Sun newspaper reporter or Brian Clough; I’m just an average football fan who’d stood on many terraces. And the events I was about to witness that day, I’d unwittingly seen coming for years.
‘I’ve just remembered from last year, the bus drops us off at the Liverpool end of the ground,’ said Byrnie.
The bus down to the stadium turned onto Leppings Lane and the Liverpool end of the ground were we’d have to get off. From the top deck I looked down at the masses of Liverpool supporters converging behind the stand.
‘Fucking hell! Look at the crowds,’ I remarked.
We left the bus and made our way around the back of the Liverpool supporters, then walked down the road behind the main stand. We had tickets for Hillsborough’s Spion Kop, a massive stand that allowed for 22,000 standing.
I did have ticket, but as we stood at the back of the Spion Kop, it was obvious my friend had entered the stadium with it.
The scenes behind the Forest end of the stadium were a big contrast to Leppings Lane. It was 2.50 p.m. now and the queues of Forest fans weren’t even very long. The stand was so big that supporters were moving easily into the stadium.
I stood next to a turnstile talking to a policeman, I explained my ticket situation and he suggested I get a message to my mate on the stadium tannoy.
Following his advice I went back down the main stand and into the ticket office. They told me a pre-match DJ was behind a blue gate further down the stand and if I knocked on that he would open it up so I could give him my message.
The noise from inside the stadium told me the match must have got underway. I knocked on the blue gate. Nothing? I tried again.
‘Oi what are you trying to do?’ Shouted a police officer as he came striding up to me.
Again I told him about my ticket and that I was told to knock on this gate.
‘Do you think they’re going to open this just for you?’ He firmly told me.
‘What do I do now then?’
‘That’s your problem. Now move on,’ he ordered.
A huge roar went up from inside the stadium. Had someone scored I wondered? No the roar subsided to quickly. Back behind the Spion Kop just a few hundred Forest fans without tickets were hanging about. I saw the policeman I’d been talking to earlier and went over talking to him again. Then he received a message on his radio and ran off around the back of the stand, all the other police in the area did the same.
All the stewards seemed to have gone. I was stood right next to a turnstile, two Forest fans – without tickets – rushed up, pulling fivers out of their pockets, they thrust them into the hand of the turnstile operator and shouted ‘Let us through.’
I followed them, I had a fiver ready as well, but the turnstile was still rotating so I followed the youth in front of me through and got in without paying. At that moment all the turnstile doors slammed shut. I was the last one in.
I was sure I was going to get arrested, so ran fast as I could up the steps leading to the terracing, expecting any moment to be grabbed by the arm by a policeman or steward. Reaching the terracing I disappeared deep into the middle of the crowd. Then I noticed there were no players on the pitch. At the other end of the ground several hundred Liverpool supporters were congregating on the pitch, more were climbing over the barriers.
‘What’s happening?’ I asked the man at the side of me.
‘Some sort of pitch invasion,’ he replied.
Sections of Forest fans – believing this to be the case – were chanting, ‘You scouse bastards.’
I don’t recall how long had passed before a man was carried by Liverpool supporters into the Forest half of the pitch and placed on the ground, and one of the men who had been carrying him started to give him the kiss of life and heart massage. He tried repeatedly for five minutes to relieve the stricken man, but there was no movement.
‘He’s dead,’ said someone nearby me in the stand.
The Forest fans were now silent. Everyone was becoming aware that something had gone seriously wrong. Access to emergency vehicles at Hillsborough was in the bottom right-hand corner, in front of the Forest supporters on the Spion Kop. It seemed to take a long time for the first ambulance to arrive; by then Liverpool supporters had already begun tearing down advertising boards to use as makeshift stretchers.
From the confused masses of supporters on the pitch in front of the Leppings Lane stand, emerged Liverpool supporters carrying the injured, dying and dead. They had to carry them the full length of the pitch to the corner down below us, where rows of ambulances were beginning to converge. Each time the Liverpool supporters carried a body across the pitch, the Forest supporters applauded them. What else could they do? They’d come to watch a football match, but were now witnessing a disaster unfold.
Soon there was a row of bodies, their faces covered with coats, lying on the pitch in front of us.
‘I’ve seen enough of this,’ I told the guy standing at my side.
I left the stand and walked slowly down the steps I’d raced up earlier. I waited at the bottom of these for my mates to emerge from the stadium. Someone passed by with a transistor radio: ‘Nine people are now confirmed dead,’ announced BBC radio’s Peter Jones, who should have been into the second half commentary of a football match.
My mates emerged from the stadium. We began to walk back to the city centre. As we did, ambulances, police cars and police on motorbikes passed by at high speed, their sirens sounding.
The sun was shining. I saw a red balloon drifting up into the clear blue sky.
Halfway from Hillsborough to the city centre, we heard on a radio that at least twenty-seven people were feared dead. By the time we reached the city centre the number had risen to over fifty.
It just didn’t sink in to any of us what we had just seen. That night I sat at home and turned on the television for Match of the Day. They showed pictures of the scenes in the Leppings Lane stand; there were interviews with Liverpool supporters who had been in the crush and had seen people die in front of them. Women and children had died along with the men.
Tears rolled down my cheeks. For the first time since my granddad died of cancer I cried.
Ninety-six people died at Hillsborough.
From the book – If the Kids are United by Tony Hill – which can be bought from Amazon.