A ‘From Where I Was Standing’ account of being at Hillsborough on April 15th 1989, by Chris Rowland.
I could never forget the date anyway – April 15th is also my mum’s birthday, you see. Every April 15th, I’m torn. I like to call my mum and wish her happy birthday without sounding how I’m actually feeling – overwhelmingly, crushingly sad. It seems wrong to dampen her birthday every year by reminding her that’s it’s also Hillsborough day. It’s always a tough day. I don’t know whether next year’s will be any easier after the HIP report.
But at least my mum still has her son. She still says the phone call she got that day, after 6pm when we finally got far enough away from Sheffield to find a phone booth without a queue half way down the street (no mobiles then) was the best birthday prezzie she ever had. Many other mums weren’t so lucky.
Like Heysel, it was a beautiful sunny day. We drove up to Sheffield, met up with our mates from Liverpool, toured a few pubs, and headed for the ground. Usual pre-match routine. For those who later tried to blame ‘drunken fans’ for what happened (‘the tanked-up mob’, as Thatcher’s pompous, prejudiced Press Secretary Bernard Ingham called us, despite not having been within 50 miles of the stadium – looking forward to the retraction Bernard, if you’re man enough), do you really imagine there’s ever been a set of fans, at any FA Cup semi final like that one, or any match at all for that matter, who haven’t been to the pub beforehand? If having a few pints before a match was the only precursor to Hillsborough, then every stadium in Britain would have been empty years ago. When you even stop to think about it for a moment, it’s too ridiculous to contemplate how that nonsensical version of events somehow endured for over 20 years. But that’s the power of a coordinated smear campaign by the ‘trusted’, ‘reliable’ establishment, the police and the emergency services, the Government, the media. Who are people going to believe, them or a bunch of football fans? Fans who turned out to be bloody heroes as well as victims, who were reduced to ferrying out their own dead and dying on makeshift stretchers made of advertising hoardings as the authorities pretty much stood back and watched. To try and appreciate what that feels like, imagine other disaster scenarios – plane crash, train crash, multiple pile-up on the motorway, ship sinking, a major fire. Then imagine a world where the authorities, those whose job it is to respond to such emergencies – the clue’s in the name ’emergency services’ – not only didn’t give a toss but actually blamed you for it. ‘Ah serves them right for driving too fast. It’s their own fault’
I wonder whether that helps explain how let down we felt about Hillsborough?
It was about 2.30 as we approached the stadium, about a dozen of us. We walked down Leppings Lane – a name that still causes my stomach to knot to this day – and went to turn right into the enclosed area outside the turnstiles. We’d been there before of course, we knew what to expect. We’d been to games against Wednesday, to a Cup Semi final with Arsenal, and to the same stage of the same tournament 12 months earlier, at this very ground against the same opponents – Forest – with the same ends allocated to the fans, the same ticket allocations – too many for them, too few for us.
That the area outside the Leppings Lane turnstiles was enclosed is crucial to this story, because what happened there led to what happened inside. It’s a sort of triangular shape. One side is the sheer concrete wall of the stadium, with its small number of turnstiles for the Leppings Lane terraces and further to the left the turnstiles for seats above. The second side is a ball and high fence separating the enclosed area from the river down below. The third is the road itself, a wall with an opening to allow fans in and out.
I said everything was the same as 12 months earlier, but there was one crucial difference. There was a different police officer in charge. Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield. The previous year, Duckenfield’s predecessor had had a single line of fans lined up for each individual turnstile, separated by lines of police. It worked. In 1989 we turned from the street into the enclosed area and witnessed the world’s biggest freeform jazz rugby scrum. It swayed this way and that as a single living entity, like coral responding to the tide. There was no attempt to form lines towards the turnstiles, it was everyone for themselves, an insane surging free-for-all. In the midst of the madding crowd were a few mounted police, yelling orders hysterically and not in a way that reassured anyone that this situation was under control. In no time we were consumed, all becoming separated and taken in whatever direction the surging mass took us. A police horse reared up, adding to the swaying heaving chaos. My face ended up squashed against the wall of the stadium, a turnstile no more than a few feet to my left, another a similar distance to my right. For all the chance I had of getting to them, they might as well have been on Saturn. I began to feel real primal fear as the extent of the potential danger I was in became apparent; I was in trouble, deep, life-threatening trouble. Sweat trickled down my back, against the press of a thousand bodies with forward momentum. It was hard to see a way out. What felt like my body’s entire supply of adrenaline went coursing through me. I began to try and push back, using the wall as leverage, arms and legs pushing back, back arched. I managed to break out, more than happy to trade my ‘place’ near the front for the chance to breathe again.
Many of our lot did the same, gave it up, got out of it. These include some experienced boys from way back, Shankly boys. They were scared. One of the Liverpool lads suggested we try to get in to the Leppings Lane seats above instead. Our tickets were for the terraces, but these were dangerous circumstances. We headed for the stands turnstiles, and basically barged through them. ‘You can’t come in here, those are terrace tickets’ shouted the operator. ‘Well we’re not stopping out there to be squashed to death, so bollocks’ was basically our approach. That decision may have saved our lives. We’d have been in a very wrong place at a very wrong time otherwise. We’d probably have been in that tunnel, where so many lives were lost.
Meanwhile the chaos outside was getting worse, as more and more fans entered the enclosed area, many of those who travelled by coach having been delayed by long hold-ups on the M62. Remember, they couldn’t see around the corner from the road into the enclosed area outside the turnstiles to what was ahead until it was too late – by then they’d added to the swell. The police opened the big gate – and later blamed it on drunken ticketless fans – to alleviate the mayhem outside. I actually think that’s they may have got right, given they’d created the mess in the first place. I believe there would certainly have been deaths outside if they hadn’t. Tragically, by doing so they only transferred the problem inside and made an already-critical situation much worse. The chaos outside eased as thousands poured through the gate to escape the fear and the crush.
The first thing you see through that gate is a central tunnel leading to the terraces, and at the top a beguiling slice of green pitch. Not surprisingly, that’s where most headed. What they found inside is now a matter of record. We stood gazing down from our lofty perch above the terraces in disbelief at the human gridlock in the two central pens below. We’d all been to Heysel. Surely it couldn’t be happening again? We watched as bodies were carried onto the pitch, as fans desperate to escape the hell tried to clamber up to the safety of the seats above, those at the front reaching their hands down to try and grasp the clutching hands below and hoist them to safety. We watched advertising hoardings being turned into makeshift stretchers.
The game began. We had one eye on the match and the other on the unfolding disaster below. Peter Beardsley hit the bar, it caused an ‘oooh’ and a surge. For many it was the final straw. Soon after the game was halted. Just as at Heysel, we were aware that something out of the ordinary was occurring, but had absolutely no conception of the scale or the consequences.
I mentioned the phone booth we called home from. It was on the outskirts of Chesterfield. There was a pub nearby. We wanted a pint and a time-out. There were about half a dozen locals in – and about the same number of Forest fans. As we entered, one said ‘I’ve got a dead man’s scarf here lads’. Before we could attack, the landlord stepped in, astoundingly quickly. ‘Have a beer lads, I’ll deal with this, not you.’ He invited the Forest fans to leave without finishing their drinks and without a refund. They complied. Amazingly, an hour or so further south, in Ashby da la Zouch, we stopped again, and bumped into the same group of Forest fans. This time, one came over and apologised for their idiot mate, who had apparently been drinking all day (those drunken Liverpool fans eh?) and had been ‘spoken to’ by the rest of the group. We left it at at that. It’s hard to describe what mood we were in – protected in some state of euphoric post-traumatic shock, yet aware that just beyond it lay unimaginable horrors.
In a police room somewhere inside Hillsborough, a cover story was already being concocted. It was the fans’ fault, those Liverpool hooligans, those who caused Heysel less than four years ago. Football trouble was endemic in the English game at all, people would have no difficulty swallowing that version of events. The police version of events was the one adopted by the FA’s Graham Kelly in the infamous TV interview, by Thatcher’s government – hardly friends of the game of football and its followers, and hardly fans of the city of Liverpool either, the left wing politics of which (Derek Hatton and the Liverpool Parks and Gardens were in full swing by then) presented an unaccustomed opposition to the general falling over backwards in fawning admiration for Maggie that seemed to have been adopted by so much of the rest of England. Bernard Ingham’s crass comment added to the impression that was being artfully contrived. Then came Kelvin McKenzie and THAT headline, THAT article about us lot robbing and urinating on our own dead and attacking those ‘brave cops’. Quite apart from the obscene nature of the unfounded allegations, anyone who had been there would have known it would have been physically inconceivable to do any of those things because those in the two central pens were hemmed in so tightly that even moving your hands to your own pockets was quite out of the question let alone bending down to steal. At the time of the allegations, people were frightened to breathe out in case there was not enough room to allow another in-breath. In those circumstances, it seems credible to believe that pillage is the last thing on your mind.
And a word about those two obscenely overfilled central pens when the two either side were barely more than half-filled; why wasn’t there somebody – police or stewards – beyond that big gate, at the entrance to the tunnel, saying ‘left or right boys but not straight on, it’s full’? That’s all it would have taken to prevent the tragedy. When the order was given to open that gate, there was no joined-up thinking to wonder what the consequences might be. Just a panic measure, the modus operandi of the police operation that day, and another shining example of the quality of Mr Duckenfield’s work, to add to his utter failure in basic crowd control outside, his instructions to his officers to treat this as a pitch invasion, his refusal to allow the fleet of ambulances in at first, his part in concocting an alternative ‘truth’ under the chief constable Peter Wright , his involvement in changing officers’ statements and the mysterious unavailability of the CCTV footage (oh it was broken was it? So which is it, incompetence or something much worse?), and his attempt to save face by pinning the blame on those who were already the victims of his incompetence.
Just try to imagine how you’d feel if it was your husband or wife, father or mother, son or daughter, who’d been a victim of his bungling and then been expected to take the blame for it.
That’s what I told countless people in subsequent years when people said ‘when are you lot going to give it up? Just move on.’
‘If it was your child and you knew the official story wasn’t the true one, would you just give it up and move on? Or would it somehow be different then? We’ll stop when the truth is finally told and those who lied and deceived get the punishment they deserve. That’s when we’ll call it a day.’
Well now, after 23 years of anger and frustration at the enduring lie festering within, we finally have the first part of that. We finally have the truth. We all knew it was, all along. The final instalment, the justice, will come when those who deserve to be punished for their parts in the Hillsborough cover-up get theirs. Of course there’s no punishment, no sentence, that can ever come close to atoning for the suffering caused by what happened on the day, and what has happened subsequently. But it would at least allow us some closure, and enable us to ‘move on.’
Some months later, when I was working in Birmingham, reception called me to say West Midlands police were in reception and would like to talk to me. About Hillsborough. The job of investigating what happened at Hillsborough was given to West Midlands Police. Some might question whether that might be the most neutral organisation to carry out the investigation, that they might seek to cover for their colleagues in the South Yorkshire force.
I went out. two officers were there. We went into a private room. The conversation lasted barely ten minutes. It went something like this:
‘Where did you travel from?’
‘Who did you travel with?’
‘Five of us.’
‘How did you travel?’
‘What time did you set off?’
What time did you get to Sheffield?’
”That’s quite early for a 3pm kick off isn’t it? What did you do for all that time?’
‘We had something to eat and went to few pubs.’
‘For three hours? So would you say you had a lot to drink then?’
‘A few pints, nothing unusual.’ ‘
‘So you’d had quite a lot to drink before you got to the stadium, you and your friends?’
‘Oh I get it, I see where this is heading. Do you want to ask any questions about what actually happened at the stadium, or is this just an attempt to get support for the theory that drunken fans were to blame?’
They said nothing.
‘In that case I have nothing more to say.’
They were just seeking corroboration of the lie which had now taken hold and which endured for 23 years. McKenzie, Thatcher and Ingham, all perpetrators of the evil myth, weren’t there at Hillsborough. They took their ‘information’ second hand. All those who’ve taunted Liverpool fans ever since over Hillsborough, choosing to believe the ‘official’ version because it suited them to, weren’t there either.
We were there, we saw what happened. So did the Chief of Police.
I was on holiday in Turkey last week when one of the lads I was with that day called to give me the news. It felt good. At last a version of events that chimed with what I saw, what I knew. For a while I was elated. Then I started getting mad all over again. How dare they? How dare the police do that to protect their reputations? The realisation that even 96 deaths is of insufficient gravity for some people to suppress their wretched self-preservation instinct delivers a piercing jolt to your world view. And how dare McKenzie take the feelings of those who’d suffered so much so lightly? And why were so many, from leading figures in the government to the media so quick to join in the chorus of condemnation?
My analysis of the day, what happened and why, and what went wrong, is reflected almost word for word by the HIP report. I find the desire and ability of the establishment to close ranks to protect itself deeply disturbing in a so-called modern democracy. I’m mystified how it can take 23 years for the truth about an event as momentous as Hillsborough to emerge. It feels odd that what I knew to be truth all that time is now also the official version. Whether it’s also a universally accepted version time alone will tell.
I travelled to Anfield when it was opened to the public a week after the disaster, when the pitch was almost covered in bouquets. I went and stood on the Kop terracing where I’d stood so often, and the tears finally came, and kept coming, like there’d be no end. They come every April 15th. I looked at the scarves and tributes tied to the crush barriers and pillars – not just Liverpool but from virtually every club. Lots of Everton, which you might expect, and Celtic. But lots of Man Utd too – I recall one saying ‘United in Grief’.
We should try to remember that on Sunday.