Where There’s Blame; There’s A Claim

April 16, 2009

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster at which 95 football fans lost their lives (with Tony Bland becoming the 96th some time later after his life support system was switched off by his parents).

In the immediate aftermath of the event the blame was laid fairly and squarely on ‘ticketless and drunken’ fans arriving late to the game and forcing open the gates to the Leppings Lane end of the stadium and flooding onto the terraces crushing those at the front against the barriers. Who made these claims? South Yorkshire Police and the FA. Who added fuel to the fire? Kelvin Mackenzie and his ‘news’ paper – The Sun – with their bold headline 2 days after “The Truth” which told of Liverpool fans picking the pockets of the dead and urinating on them.

I was at Hillsborough that day – as I had been the year before against the same opponents in the same stage of the FA Cup. My mate and I had set out at 11 o’clock and parked the car on an industrial estate a couple of miles from the ground. We got to the ground early (around 2:10 for a 3pm kick off) because the tickets had said that there was pre-match entertainment and we wanted to make sure we got a good spec. It was a lovely warm day as I remember. The atmosphere was easy going – we’d beaten Forest the year before and could see no reason why we wouldn’t do so again. We were top of the league and looking good for another ‘double’.

I can’t honestly remember when I started to think things weren’t quite right … Mike and I had positioned ourselves in front of a crush barrier – always the safest place to be – in Pen C of Leppings Lane. We’d had a choice when we got to the ground – you went through the turnstiles and, straight ahead of you, was a tunnel through which you could see the pitch. There were no stewards although that didn’t bother us as we’d been the year before and knew where we were going. Go through the tunnel and turn either left or right. Right put you in Pen B; left took you to Pen C. We chose left. We had a cracking spot, half way up the terracing, directly behind the goal in front of a barrier. Perfect.

It was a bit squashed as the game kicked off, but nothing too unusual, it was an FA Cup semi after all. But it soon became clear that there was a real problem. Despite being in front of a barrier Mike and I were being slowly pushed forward. We had a decision to make. Mike wanted to move to the side, I wanted to get to the front where I thought there would be more room. We decided to try and move to the side. I didn’t make it, as soon as I moved away from in front of the barrier the pressure of the crowd buffeted me towards the front. I could see Bruce Grobbelaar looking nervously behind him – the match was still going on (although it was only 4 minutes since kick off) and I was still doing my best to watch it.

The next few minutes are a bit of a blur. I’d lost sight of Mike and was being pushed relentlessly down towards the front. It was difficult to breath and there was a real feeling of claustrophobia – not a sensation I had ever felt. Before I knew it I was up against the railings at the pitch side. The game had been stopped (although that didn’t register) and I could see that there were people on the pitch in front of me. Police were trying to push back people, kids, who were trying to climb up onto the pitch. In the blink of an eye these same police were suddenly pulling people out. I had no idea what was going on behind me, I couldn’t turn around. My only two thoughts were ‘I’ve got to get out’ and ‘’I mustn’t lose my specs’. I knew I was in trouble. I couldn’t breathe at all so, as if in an avalanche. I just raised my hands high and hoped to get pulled out. I was. A police officer (all I can remember was that he was bald!) and some fans grabbed my arms and heaved. I fell onto the pitch where the next thing I remember was having a St John Ambulance man beating on my chest and pushing a tube down my throat (which resulted in 2 broken ribs and a ruptured trachea). I was carried to the sports hall underneath the Kop at the other end of the ground. When I came round I was lying on the floor of the sports hall. Around me were rows and rows of people. some were badly injured, some were like me but some had had their faces covered with black bin bags. No blankets, bin bags. I think that is the thing which most sticks in my memory. As I sat up a steward came over and asked if I was ok – I didn’t answer him, I just got up and ran out. I came out near the Nott’m Forest fans – some of whom were crying – they could see into the sports hall from where they were standing.

The big gates were open just in front of me onto the street. I was still having difficulty breathing – it was later confirmed that 2 broken ribs was the issue. I had no idea where Mike was and so made my way down to the other end of the ground (where the terraces gates were) and tried to see him. I couldn’t find him. I knocked on a door in the street and a middle-aged guy answered the door. He was as white as a sheet. I asked if he had a phone I could use – he led me into the back room and just closed the door behind me. I tried to ring my wife, my mum and my elder sister – all were engaged. I tried my wife again and got through. She was relieved that I was ok and asked about Mike. I didn’t know. I told her I was going to look for him again. As I left the house, the owner came out with me and shouted to the crowds of people in the street that if anyone wanted to use a phone they could come into his house. I dread to think what his phone bill must’ve been like that month.

There was no point looking for Mike, the streets were crowded and we could have easily passed each other without knowing it. So I decided the best thing to do was to head back to where I’d parked my car and wait for him there. It was a slow walk. My head wasn’t working right and I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to find the place where we’d parked. But I did – and Mike was already there, desperately waiting for me to turn up. He’d managed to get to the side and had climbed over the fence into Pen D from where he’d watched everything.

So that was my day out. Started as a football game and ended in a hospital visit.

But, as the ’story’ unfolded, it seemed that I, and my friends, were to blame. That’s what we were told by the police, the FA and the media. We had got drunk, we had stormed the gates to get in without tickets. We had killed our fellow supporters and then nicked stuff from the bodies and pissed on them. So it was all OUR fault – nothing to do with the Police or the FA. So they could not be blamed. oh, no. not them. They were not going to be held responsible. let’s face it, if they accepted responsibility, they would be sued. Where there’s blame; there’s a claim.

So, let me make it clear here and now. I have no interest in compensation. I made no claim at the time, although I was entitled to. I have no intention of making a claim now. But I DO want someone to blame. I DO want to know that it was not all my fault.

So, what is the truth? Well, I can’t tell you that – I can only tell you what I know. I know that the FA gave Liverpool FC  a ticket allocation of 24000 and the smaller end of the ground. I know that  Forest were given a larger ticket allocation and the bigger end of the ground. I know that Liverpool’s average attendance was nearly TWICE that of Forest. But, according to the FA and Police, it was more sensible to allocate tickets and ends the way they did (because of the direction of fan traffic)

I know that the FA chose this ground despite it not having a valid safety certificate and that there had been previous problems with over-crowding.

I know that, unlike the previous year, access to the ground was much easier. There was a much smaller police presence. I now know that Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield lied when he said that fans had ‘stormed the gates’ – he had ordered them to be opened.

I know that there was totally inadequate stewarding – that, once you were through the turnstiles onto Leppings Lane, there were no signs telling you were to go, but there WAS a tunnel straight ahead of you through which you could see the pitch – where would you go?

I know that, when you die, your bladder empties. That explains the urine on the terraces. I know that Police did not come onto the terraces straight away so fans tried to find evidence of who the bodies were.

I am sure that the Police, the FA and the Thatcher government were delighted to be able to blame people from Liverpool and were happy to use their influence with the media (particularly The Sun) to divert people away from the truth.

I know that there are people who are to blame. I know that maybe that includes some Liverpool fans who DID get to the game late, but that still happens now. They weren’t desperately late – and it wasn’t all their fault –  there were unexpected roadworks which delayed traffic to the game, there was an antiquated turnstile system that kept blocking up making entry very slow, and there was no more drinking that day than at any other football game. But I want the people in authority who made stupid decisions and told lies about me, to accept that they were at fault – and admit it.

But, more than anything, I want someone else to share the blame for what happened. I don’t want to feel guilty for the rest of my life. Guilty for being there. Guilty for surviving.

Justice for the 96. And for me.