5Live have just said that Hillsborough did not have a safety certificate in 1981.
On April 11th 1981 I caught the football special from London to Sheffield. The warmth of companionship between Spurs fans almost made up for the lack of heat in these ancient carriages, pulled out of mothballs just for us. This wasn’t football, it was part of history. These carriages had been pulled by a steam train. Narrow your eyes and there’s the buffet, Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson sharing a can of Special Brew at 8.30 am.
The complaints were raucous but good-natured. It wouldn’t have been tolerated in any other circumstances but this was how football fans expected to be treated in those days. Many of us traveled and anyway, who cares? This was a big game at a suitably historic ground, our first semi-final since the cup-winning year of 1967 and my first ever. After a fallow decade, Spurs were on the up.
We reached the city and were herded via the goods entrance into a long column. The police escorted us to the ground with anyone who had the nerve to break ranks and make a break for a shop selling food or drink being forced back into line. Again, par for the course and at least it was a safe route, shielded from any Wolves, United or Wednesday fans keen to get stuck into the cocky lads from the south. And no one could stop us singing. For a few minutes it felt like we were taking over the town. A short wait at the Leppings Lane turnstiles, including the usual unnecessary pushing towards the wall – why bother, we all had tickets and were early – and in.
First impressions were unfavourable. Peeling blue and white paint, shabby toilets, cracked stone steps. Normal, in other words. Although the ground was filling up I had the space to pick a spot halfway up and well to the right of the goal. The central areas were always jam-packed and the atmosphere would be electric across the entire end. It turned out to be a sound decision.
As kick-off approached a series of crowd surges forced me, disgruntled but accepting, away from my vantage point and closer to the pitch. I assumed that latecomers were carving out some room at the top of the banking and the effect had rippled through to me. I couldn’t see what was happening because I had long since lost the chance to turn round but despite being packed together, it felt safe. There was no room to fall, after all. Lots of grumbling about why Wolves had been given the larger kop terrace opposite.
The game got under way and I was totally focused on the match, as ever. By this time, the pressure was such that I could not move my arms, which I had managed to lift in front of me to offer some protection during the last surge before movement became impossible. I spent the rest of the match less than ten yards from the front, my feet lower than pitch level because of the way the terrace was built.
Fans began streaming onto the pitch perimeter and looked back at the lads with arms raised in support. They sang a quick song before squatting on the shale. This signaled trouble and my heart sank. Looked like people had made a break for it. Bound to be bad for the club. More calls for grounds to be closed, for the hooligans to be punished. Worse was to come -the Spurs invaded the pitch when we scored.
In fact, the fans behaved very well. Five or six deep, they remained seated for most of the time. Some moved, under escort, to other parts of the stadium. Spurs everywhere!
And that was how I watched the rest of the semi-final. The biggest crush I have ever experienced, rooted to a single spot even when we scored a second. I vividly recall the tension as the match went on, 2-1 up with Wembley so close, the duel between two mighty warriors of the penalty box, Max Miller and Andy Gray, sparks flying as their heads clashed, both equally desperate to reach the crosses. The penalty that never was. Miles away at the other end or so it seemed, yet Hoddle won the ball clear as day. Hibbet tumbled and Clive Thomas pointed theatrically to the spot. How he loved the glory.
The final whistle, the march back to the station. I confess that despite the conditions, at the time I recall the thrills and passion of being part of something, the heated tension that only semi-finals can generate. Stories to tell of the day I went to the Hillsborough semi-final. I was there stories.
Plenty of time to contemplate the injustice of it all as the train took the long way home, as all football specials did. That was my suffering and of course I would not be without it, because without the pain there cannot be joy. I didn’t see any fans with broken limbs or any who needed medical treatment, i thought had been in a scrap. That’s what it was like in those days. Oddly, although I must have gone to the game with a couple of friends, I don’t recall them at all. Intensely packed yet I felt isolated and alone.
On April 15th 1989, I played football on a sunny Saturday afternoon in southeast London. It was a friendly and shambolic 5-a-side between my lot, a mixture of council employees from social services and housing, versus a side from the local community. Lots of kids – I brought along my two – and a lovely atmosphere, in a small but significant way the healing power of this wonderful game. For some time we had sought ways of getting closer to the community in which we worked and who were suspicious of us. Only football could bring us together.
I arrived home in the late afternoon and turned on the television. Pictures were being relayed from Hillsborough and I was initially pleased – the game must have started late so I could catch up with it. Then it dawned that there had been trouble and I switched over before the kids saw too much, although at the time the extent of the disaster was not apparent.
Now we know. Spurs fans of my generation will always have an extra bond with the Liverpool families, because it could have been us. Me. Standing near the front, feet below pitch level. Me. My heart goes out to the suffering relatives. An open gate at the back and the front. An open gate. All this talk of closure is so much hot air. The way it’s used in connection with trauma is not what it means. I’ve experienced loss of children, knowledge helps to understand but the pain doesn’t go away.
The families have been treated abominably, by the police and by the Sun who chose to sell papers regardless of the truth. I hope you find both comfort and justice.