Following the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report this month — which exonerated fans from blame — Martin Peach recalls his experience as a 12-year-old on that fateful day on 15 April 1989.
Growing up as a football-mad lad on the ‘wrong’ side of the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border, I should probably by rights have become a supporter of Derby County. In the early 80s, however, Derby were (like now) rubbish, and I can’t remember anyone being a Derby fan at my school back then. On the swap piles of the Swanwick Primary School playground it was the Panini stickers of the two most successful teams of the era which held most value.
Liverpool were one of those teams. The other was Nottingham Forest.
My Dad wasn’t really interested in football, so, after a brief dalliance with unfashionable Manchester United, and despite a gallant attempt by my Mum to get me to follow her home town club Chesterfield (who were, and still are, even worse than Derby), I plumped for Forest as ‘my team’ and attended my first match in 1985 against Southampton, just weeks after the Bradford and Heysel disasters and with football at its lowest ebb.
I absolutely loved it.
Sitting in the Junior Reds section next to the tunnel at the City Ground I couldn’t believe that the real life superstars of Panini ’85 — footballers of the magnitude of Jim McInally and Steve Wigley — were right there before my very eyes. Even more than that though, I was mesmerised by what was going on in the stands around me, and in particular by the relentless, rhythmic throb coming from the middle pen of the Trent End to my left and, to a lesser extent, the attempt to counter this by the Southampton fans in the open Bridgford End in the opposite corner of the ground.
I never looked back, and two years later, for the 1987/88 season I was the proud owner of my first Junior Reds season ticket. I attended my first ‘away’ match that season too – the 1988 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough between Forest and Liverpool. I remember virtually nothing about it, except that I went on the Heanor & District Supporters Club bus.
By the start of the next season, aged 11, I had graduated to proper away match attendance on board the Heanor bus and had been taken under the wing of a Forest steward called Ken, who kept his eye on me at places like Norwich and Everton. This was funded by washing cars down our street on a Sunday and doing a daily paper round for the local newsagent, who had a Liverpool season ticket, with his son, Andy.
Andy was a few years older than me and had recently passed his driving test when Forest played Liverpool at a floodlit City Ground in October ’88. He offered me a lift down with him and his mate Paul, another big Liverpool fan from the village. I was totally in awe of these lads that night – driving a car and then standing in the packed Liverpool end on the Bridgford End, whilst I sat in my usual seat in the Junior Reds. Forest won 2-1 with a late winner from Brian Rice, but I still had to endure plenty of good-natured wind-ups from the two 17-year-old Liverpool supporting mates on the journey home.
Six months later, on 15 April 1989, Forest and Liverpool met again in another FA Cup semi-final, again held at Hillsborough. Unlike the year before, I remember this day more vividly than any other day in my entire life. And for all the wrong reasons.
Ken, my steward friend from the Heanor bus, had arranged a lift for him and me with two Forest supporting blokes from a neighbouring village whom I’d never met before. We set off in glorious sunshine and my first memory from that day is of sitting in a traffic jam on the M1 hard shoulder, attempting to leave the motorway at what is now the Meadowhall turn off. I still think of that traffic jam every time I pass that junction. It seemed like we were sat there forever, listening to the same Queen tape over and over again. I’ve always hated Queen.
Eventually we arrived at Hillsborough and parked up a short walk from the ground. We stopped for a while by the river behind the South Stand, soaking up both the sunshine and the pre-match atmosphere. I ate the cheese cobs my Mum had packed for me and we made our way into the ground, a good hour before kick-off. Our seats were located a few rows from the front of the South Stand, in the corner nearest the Kop, where the bulk of the Forest contingent were beginning to gather.
Away to our left, in the Liverpool end, it looked like the two middle pens of terracing behind the goal were already full, with plenty of room in the pens on either side, and in the Hillsborough ‘Crow’s Nest’ open terrace in the corner. Having intently studied the terraces of the City Ground over the past four years, this seemed perfectly normal, but as kick-off approached, whilst the Kop had steadily filled with Forest fans until it looked absolutely rammed in there, the Liverpool terrace still looked to have exactly the same number of fans in it. The centre sections were full, but the side pens were still half empty. Where were all the Liverpool fans?
The teams came out and the match kicked off. “We’re on the march with Cloughie’s army!” roared the Kop. The Liverpool terrace still looked half empty.
Peter Beardsley smashed a shot against the Forest crossbar, right along my sightline. I glanced to my left just in time to see the surge behind the goal in the Liverpool end. An inflatable banana towards the back of the terrace followed the surge down towards the front and just stopped there. It was normal for a crowd to quickly surge down a terrace and then slowly move back up, but the fans in this surge just stayed where they were. Even with my limited experience of studying crowds I knew this wasn’t normal.
Soon after that the first Liverpool fans started coming over the fence. “You’re just a bunch of w***ers!” chanted the Kop. More and more were now coming onto the pitch. Others were being pulled up into the stand above the terrace. “Come on then!” offered the Kop. But they weren’t coming. They were collapsing. The referee took the players off, replaced by what seemed like hundreds of police, who formed a human chain across the halfway line to keep ‘us’ and ‘them’ apart.
One Liverpool fan, a heavy metal/rocker type, broke through the police line and charged towards the Kop on his own. When he reached the goalmouth he broke down on his hands and knees, screaming and shouting in obvious distress.
The severity of the situation still wasn’t clear, but what was clear was that something serious was happening. A Forest fan standing near us went down to the front of our stand and told a copper he had medical expertise – could he be of assistance? The offer was declined and he was told to stay where he was (he later went on anyway).
By now, whilst the police continued to hold their line, ordinary blokes were ripping down the advertising boards on the perimeter of the pitch and using them to stretcher casualties the full length of the pitch to the Kop end, where they were being laid out. Forest fans around us helped Liverpool fans rip down the ones near us, but they still weren’t allowed to go on to the pitch and help in any other way. The feeling of helplessness was immense.
By now the mood in the Kop had changed too, and the bearers of every single ‘stretcher’ were given rounds of applause. Applause! It seems slightly inappropriate now, but what else could those Forest fans do? They were just trying to offer some morale support to those heroes going back and forth across the pitch. They got no help from anyone ‘in charge’ – they were just doing what they could.
This to-ing and fro-ing seemed to go on for ages. Eventually, over the Tannoy, a voice rang out loud and clear. “Hello. This is Kenny Dalglish…” We were told that the match would not be going ahead, and were asked to leave quietly and orderly. As we filed out, I overheard someone with a transistor radio say that five people had died. I was absolutely stunned.
As we walked back to the car in a state of numb disbelief, sirens blaring everywhere, the number of dead grew with every few yards. Twenty confirmed dead. Thirty. Fifty. People in tears. Others just sitting on the ground, staring into space. By the time we reached the car and put the radio on they were saying that 70 people had died. We sat there in silence, while Ken joined one of the queues which led into the homes of ordinary Sheffield people who’d opened their doors so people could use their phones to call relatives and let them know they were safe. He came back about an hour later. The bloke who had driven offered me a cigarette. I was 12 years old. I declined. I can’t remember him speaking again.
I don’t remember the drive home, and I don’t remember getting home either.
The next day, as the death toll reached the nineties, it became known that a boy from the village had been among those killed. Andy and Paul, the two lads who took me to the match at the City Ground back in October, had been in the Leppings Lane End. Andy had been pulled to safety into the stand above. His best mate, Paul, hadn’t. And he was now dead. He was 18 years old.
The day after that, the Monday, my Mum was expecting a visit from her nurse, who was helping her recover from having a lump removed from her breast. The nurse had been there on the Saturday morning when I’d been waved off to Hillsborough, and having subsequently heard that a boy from the village had been killed there, she had assumed it was me.
It obviously wasn’t. But it could quite easily have been. It could have quite easily been any of us. And that’s the whole point. Ninety-six ordinary sons, daughters, fathers, husbands, brothers, sisters, etc. went to watch a football match on a sunny spring day and never came back. I’m eternally thankful I did, and not a day has gone by since when I’ve not thought about them, and how lucky I am.
God bless them all.
You can read the main findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel here: http://hillsborough.independent.gov.uk
Image: Linksfuss (CC-BY-SA-2.0), via Wikimedia Commons