I remember queueing up to get my tickets. My mum and dad had let me take the day off school to go to Anfield as I had a chance to go to an FA Cup semi-final. I was 15 in the midst of GCSE coursework but my parents were happy to let me make the four hour round trip as they knew how important football was to me. There was no online buying from the comfort of your own home back then. If you wanted a ticket you had to turn up and stand in line to see if you could get that precious bit of paper. It seems daft now that people would go to such lengths but it was exciting then, when football meant everything.
I remember one bloke had bought a ticket, left and then came back round the corner saying he’d been mugged. When I got to the counter and got my hands on my tickets – one for me and one for my sister’s boyfriend – I tucked them down my boxer shorts, got my head down and headed home at speed.
When the big day came, we boarded the coach from Liverpool for the long trip to Sheffield: it was a beautiful sunny day and everyone was feeling really happy. This was the era of Liverpool’s dominance of football and you could sense the expectation as the songs started up.
There was some anger that Liverpool had been given the smaller end of the ground despite being a larger club with bigger average crowds than Nottingham Forest. The police had requested it this way because of the directions the fans arrived from: they didn’t want any mingling or any fighting. It was all about crowd control back then and making sure the risk of hooliganism was as small as possible. This was their main concern and has to be seen in the context of the time. The Heysel stadium disaster was only four years previous and although football violence was on the decline but was still a frequent problem. However I’d never seen any trouble at a Liverpool match despite being a season ticket holder for four years.
This was to be my first and only trip to Sheffield and I still remember how hilly it was. We arrived about one o’clock and after the coach had parked, me, my best friend Jay and my sister’s boyfriend of the time Eddy set off to the ground. We wanted to get in early to get a good spot – little did we know at the time that this decision would probably save our lives. We walked down Penistone road to Hillsborough, which caused a few adolescent laughs for me and Jay. He he he, it says: ‘penis’. We were still just children then.
There wasn’t a queue and there weren’t too many people around as we went through the gates. On the other side was an open area and our eyes were drawn to a big tunnel at the far end. This is the infamous tunnel where the crush developed and a lot of people died a few hours later.
We bought a programme and then moved to the terraces. The other end of the tunnel was split with the choice to go into a pen on the left or the right. We went right. I hadn’t been to too many away grounds before and The Kop at Anfield was very open: this felt very different and I remember thinking that we were fenced in all around. Football was very much a working class game and football fans weren’t held in high regard by anyone, even their own clubs.
We moved down to about the middle of pen four and it started to fill up almost straight away. Jay didn’t like being packed in, as you generally were at football grounds then, so he moved to the front. I enjoyed the atmosphere of the terrace with its swaying and signing so I stayed with Eddy where we were. I’d had plenty of experience of being squashed against crush barriers at matches at Anfield, so I knew to move in front of the one near us. This was another decision that saved my life.
There was a lot of singing but then as kick-off drew near, it started to get very full. The singing stopped. Everyone one was trying to make space for themselves but no one thought this was unusual or different from any other big game. There was a lot of shouting. Then the players came out and the game kicked-off. ‘Come on Reds’, ‘Liverpool, Liverpool’. Then people were moaning and making noises like they were in pain but most eyes were on the match. It quickly became obvious this wasn’t normal. This was a big match and everyone expected a big crowd but things weren’t right. ‘Help me, help me, ow, ow, help me’ a guy was shouting near us. Eddy said ‘Calm down mate it’s the same for everyone’. I remember having to really push people to be able to breathe. I was quite tall so I could point my head upwards to get some cold air into my lungs: when I put my head down it was between three guys’ backs. It was very tight and very hot but I was lucky to be in front of the crush barrier. The people behind it were screaming in agony. I’ll never forget that sound. No one could do anything.
Then I saw people trying to climb over the fence. The police who had been facing the pitch turned around and started beating them back into the pens. People were shouting, screaming. Then some fans started to be be lifted out by other Liverpool fans onto the stand above. More and more scrambled over the fence onto the pitch and it seemed only then that the police realised something was up. Someone ran up to Bruce Grobbelaar the Liverpool goalkeeper, he turned round and realised too. There were loads of people on the edge of the pitch and then the referee called the players off. I don’t really remember much of what happened after that.
The next thing I do remember was being on the pitch. I think a gate had been opened or the fence had been cut and once the crush had gone down we must have been able to get out somehow. I don’t remember perhaps because it is just too horrible to remember. There were still lots of people trapped and squashed against the fence. Photographers were taking pictures right up against their faces with the metal fencing distorting their features. The photographers were chased off by other fans shouting ‘Fucking vultures’. People were pleading with the police to do something but they just looked frightened and didn’t know what to do. I saw a few crying. Lots of Liverpool fans were sat on the pitch with their heads in their hands. Others looked bewildered.
I was in a daze. Where was Jay? I hadn’t seen him for ages. Eddy told me to help so I picked up an edge of hoarding to carry someone to the far end of the pitch with some other fans. There was a makeshift field hospital in the gym there. As we reached the Forrest supporters they asked to be let out to help. Someone tried but the police quickly closed the gate. Then I remember the Forrest fans started singing something that upset the Liverpool fans a lot. I can’t remember what it was but they obviously didn’t know what was going on. The police set-up a cordon on the half-way line to stop any trouble.
I was still on the pitch when Jay walked up to me. I gave him a hug and burst out crying. I felt a bit silly as hugging is not something 15 year old boys do much but I was full of emotion.
It was chaos and no one really knew what was happening or how bad things were. Then the managers Kenny Dalgleish and Brian Clough came out onto the pitch. The game was being called off.
We walked back to the terrace to see crush barriers bent over like they were pipe cleaners. The force needed to do that must have been unbelievable. The fencing had been cut and was bent back. In the tunnel there were dead bodies, people with purple faces. Other people, including police officers were bent over giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to men laying on the floor. Someone next to them was crying and saying: ‘Please help him’. Others were shouting out their friend’s names like they were trying wake them up.
Then we were back outside. Eddy said we should call home but every phone box had massive queues around them. I had no thought for what my mum and dad must have been going through: I was numb. We headed back to the coach. It was a dark, sombre mood. We waited. With hindsight I can only assume everyone on our bus returned as we set off back over the Pennines. The driver put the radio on and every few minutes it said ‘20 dead’, ‘25 dead’, ‘40 dead’. I don’t remember hearing after 65.
We all sat in absolute silence on the long journey home.