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Finding their own level



Hillsborough used to be one of my favourite away games. Partly as it was close to home but mainly as United always seemed to take a large, boisterous following. 11th February 1989 was no exception. A run of the mill mid-table fixture deep into the “three years of excuses and it’s still crap”. Yet, more than 15,000 United fans made the journey to Hillsborough that day, one of the last huge Red Army style invasions of an away ground.

“Fergie’s fledglings” had taken wing in an FA Cup third round replay at Loftus Road a month earlier and had generated a fevered anticipation not seen for a few years. We clung desperately to any glimmer of hope in those days. Maybe, just maybe, the youthful zest of the likes of Russell Beardsmore, Lee Martin, Tony Gill and Deiniol Graham could lead us to glory.

Anyone who travelled to Hillsborough in the 1980s as an away fan and stood on the Leppings Lane end would have recognised the potential for serious injuries or something far worse. Indeed, there had been a few hairy moments there watching United in previous seasons (the match that marked the end of the unbeaten run at the start of 1985-86 springs to mind). And years before, my dad had been on a packed Leppings Lane end to see Matt Busby’s United and recalls a crowd surge early in the match that transported him, feet not touching the ground, from the back of the terrace to three steps from the front.

But there was a sense that this was all part of the match day experience. As a young Red still cutting my teeth at away games I didn’t know any better. Despite the military style policing, the escorts to and from the ground, the pens, the fencing and the decrepit, piss-soaked terraces I buzzed off the camaraderie of being on the terraces in a big, noisy, swaying crowd like nothing else in my life. To the new face-painted Soccer AM set sat in their all-seater stadia some of the television footage of 1980s football must look like it’s from a different planet.

Once in through the turnstiles at the Leppings Lane end the only way onto the terraces appeared to be through the tunnel into the central pens behind the goal. From earlier visits I knew that you could either go right and enter the terrace from the far right hand side by the main stand or take a left and go into the steep banked section of terracing in the north-west corner of the ground. My usual instinct was to go behind the goal but having tried to squeeze in at the end of the tunnel to no avail, I made my way round to the north-west corner and took up a decent spot overlooking the Leppings Lane terrace. Reds were everywhere and in fine voice.

From this vantage point it was possible to see that the middle two sections of the terrace looked full but either side there seemed to be some space. I vaguely remember some United fans being brought round the track at the side of the pitch and allowed into the front of the Leppings Lane end via a gate in the perimeter fence. There was simply no room to get onto the terrace through the tunnel at the back.

Among the 450,000 documents on the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s impressive website there is a transcript of an interview with Superintendent Bernard Murray who was second in command on the day of the Hillsborough disaster. Murray is questioned about the policing of the United game a few weeks before and explains that some United fans were escorted round to the front of the Leppings Lane terrace as the back of the central pens at the end of the tunnel was very crowded. This begs the question of why this couldn’t have been done, nine weeks later at the semi final, when it became clear that the central pens were full.

According to the interview with Bernard Murray this was because Sheffield Wednesday Football Club “were not in favour of the tactic that had been employed”. The preferred option was that the police made people move down the terrace to make room at the back rather than use the pitchside track. Interestingly the issue was seen not as one about capacity but one of “packing”. A bit like when you’ve accidently squashed a loaf of bread in your shopping bag by placing a four pack of baked beans on top of it. This was how football supporters were viewed in the 1980s.

It was Bernard Murray’s view that “people find their own level on the terraces”. But did this happen on 11th February 1989? “I think it was unexpected that the numbers of people who attended on that occasion were far more than the intelligence suggested”.

The South Yorkshire Police Operational Order for the Sheffield Wednesday v Manchester United match on 11th February 1989 can also be viewed on the website. It provides an interesting glimpse into the approach to policing football matches at the time and shows how much the South Yorkshire force’s “intelligence” seriously underestimated the away support. It refers to an anticipated attendance of 25,000 (the actual attendance was more than 34,000) and an away support of 7-10,000. They clearly hadn’t legislated for the pulling power of Russell Beardsmore et al. Officers were informed that United play in “red, white and black” and that “Manchester United have supporters throughout the country who may attend”. “Those arriving early from whatever location should be brought to the ground where police arrangements are in hand to receive them from 11am”.

The document lists the various phases of policing the match. Pre-match, the police are instructed to “maintain order. Ensure pens are filled in accordance with instructions from control”. During the match they are asked to “maintain order” with “attention to refreshment bar at half time”. And post-match the focus is again on maintaining order and ensuring that away supporters are escorted onto “SYT buses”. Not a word about the safety or comfort of supporters. Indeed the language used is very similar to that used when referring to animals with talk of “pens”, “packing”, “herding” and “escorting”. A newspaper match report the following day referred to the “travelling hordes” from Manchester.

The mindset that all football supporters should be herded around like cattle came from much higher up than the South Yorkshire Police and the football authorities. Following a number of high profile incidents involving English football fans in the mid-1980s, the government viewed all football supporters with the same level of contempt shown to the miners and print workers earlier in the decade. They were a menace. Luton Town, with Tory MP David Evans as chairman, banned away supporters from their ground. The Football Spectators Act of 1989 originally intended to make ID cards compulsory for all football supporters. The Sunday Times referred to the game as a “slum sport” watched by “slum people”. It’s easy to forget now, when all MPs and celebrities seem to be lifelong supporters of one team or another, that ordinary, match going football fans were much maligned in the late 1980s. So much so that Chelsea chairman Ken Bates felt able to suggest electrifying perimeter fences to hold back the hooligans.

Nine weeks after the trip to Hillsborough, on a lovely spring morning, I was sat on a bus heading through the Peak District to Manchester. I was on my way to watch United at home to Derby County and passed several groups of Liverpool and Forest supporters gathered at bus stops waiting for transport to Sheffield. I envied them their trip to an FA Cup semi-final whilst I was heading to another meaningless league game in a season that seemed to be full of them. “It could have been us” I kept thinking if only the referee had allowed Brian McClair’s “goal” to stand in the quarter final against Forest. The ball was so far over the line that it almost hit the back of the Stretford End.

And I was thinking “it could have been us” later in the day, but this time in different circumstances. It could have been United fans on numerous occasions at Hillsborough. It could have been Spurs fans at the 1981 FA Cup semi-final on the same ground. And I’m sure fans of many other clubs could recount times when they didn’t feel particularly safe on a crowded terrace.   

I felt a strong sense of solidarity with the Hillsborough families at the time of the disaster and that has grown over the last 23 years. Well done to all the families and campaigners, it’s been one heck of a fight. At last they have been vindicated. Now let’s hope they find some justice as well.


From → Politics, Sport

  1. drake permalink

    Excellent well informed piece. Thanks for the support

  2. Peter permalink

    Excellent piece of writing, so so true about syp and probably hits the mark on every level. Just about remember terracing, with standing on the not as packed kop in the early 90s before it was pulled down. As far as fan issues in football go utd and lfc fans should always lead the way, seeing as we have we have been, seen and wore the t-shirt! All the best for 2013.

  3. Paul permalink

    Excellent, thoughtful, though-provoking and well-written piece (from an LFC fan!).

  4. Thank you, an excellent piece. I’m a Sheffielder, and a Forest supporter, but never attended a match at Hillsborough until years after the disaster, and most of the matches I attended were in the mid-70s and before perimeter fencing added the final fatal component to this disaster in waiting. I know that the problems were not unique to that ground (though it sounds as though they were particularly bad there) but indicative of the contempt in which football supporters were held. I still find it difficult to understand, even so, why the accusations against the victims were so widely believed and so difficult to quash – they never seemed to me remotely credible. My blogs about Hillsborough may be of interest:

    • Thanks very much your comments. This piece on Hillsborough was printed in FC United of Manchester’s programme in October to show solidarity with the Hillsborough families and campaigners.

  5. Liam Rider. permalink

    Top read this. Kudos to you.

    As a survivor of the Hillsborough Disaster it’s heartening to hear support from a lot of United supporters, and supporters of other clubs in general.

    Even after the recent revelations on police/The S**/Tory government lies about Hillsborough, it amazes me just how partisan people can be just because the disaster affected Liverpool supporters that day. Some are so bigoted that they refuse to accept, even in light of recent disclosures, that the supporters were not responsible for their own deaths.

    And so it’s nice to hear supporters of other clubs documenting experiences which they had at Hillsborough prior to 15/4/1989. It’s quite clear from this article that The Leppings Lane of the ground wasn’t designed to hold that many people.

    Thanks again

  6. Howard Cover permalink

    Excellent piece – particularly the poignant recognition that it could have been Man U supporters but for the defeat to Forest, or it could have been Evertonians but for the way the balls came out of the bag when the semi-final draw was made, could’ve been Spurs in 81 – could’ve been any of us who followed football in the 70s and 80s. Sitting at Anfield now with my young son seems a million miles away now….
    I know there are idiots amongst some fans who still blame the Liverpool supporters because it suits their club loyalties, or because they have a political or social view of football fans or Scousers, or maybe because they’re just dim and can’t comprehend so damning a set of reports that present the real Truth. But there are many of us, ordinary fans in all clubs, who know the Truth, and excellent pieces of writing such as this are really welcome as a reminder of that. JFT96

  7. i was also there that day and this piece says a lot of what happend that day was unjust and as you so well put it could of been any club that day ,great read especially being a united fan who knows his football top marks lad jft96.

  8. This quote below caught my eye

    “This begs the question of why this couldn’t have been done, nine weeks later at the semi final, when it became clear that the central pens were full. According to the interview with Bernard Murray this was because Sheffield Wednesday Football Club “were not in favour of the tactic that had been employed”

    Is he seriously saying that the Police backed off from implementing a control/safety measure because the host club didn’t like it? I’d like to know what legal authority a football club has to overrule a police directive. Failing that, there is just the slightest possibility that Superintendent Murray might be acting just a little disingenuous. Not that I would ever commit an act of Contempt of Court by saying so

  9. derek johnstone permalink

    Excellent writing,and spot on regarding treatment of football fans back then.As a Celtic fan I remember an overcrowding issue at a game at Forest’s City Ground,and also the senseless calvary charge at Celtic Park’s Janefield street,in which the consequent inquiry became a whitewash.I look forward to the day the Hillsborough family’s finally achieve the justice they deserve JFT96

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