April 15, 1989 - 1510Hrs - Oval Stadium, Belfast. I’m in the sparsely populated, main grandstand at the reserved side of the ground, watching the early stages of a mundane Irish League encounter. Glentoran, their championship already drifting away, were keenly chasing a UEFA Cup spot over improving mid-Ulster rivals, Portadown.
But what happened in Belfast or anywhere else in the UK or Europe, on this particular day, would pale into insignificance, against horrific events, unfolding in the Yorkshire city of Sheffield.
In the days when it wasn’t unusual to see match-going fans with radios pressed to ears following football events around the country, news soon filtered through that the big FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest had been halted due to crowd trouble. Not so uncommon then, no-one unduly batted much of an eyelid. Crowd trouble? Bah! Just another game of football ...
As the scoreless, uneventful, first-half in Belfast wore on, a second thought to events in Sheffield was never cast. Broadcast stories drifted through the various transistor radio sets. Fans around me, becoming bored with the action unfolding at their game, began filtering tales of a Liverpool pitch invasion, the ref taking players off the pitch to the sanctity of changing rooms, and postponing the restart for 30 minutes.
In actual fact, 5 mins of the FA Cup semi-final had elapsed, when Liverpool’s Peter Beardsley let fly a shot which struck the Forest cross-bar, the excitement in the crowd causing a surge which resulted in a metal crush barrier giving way. Fans, tightly packed, were thrust on top of one another.
South Yorkshire Police Superintendent Greenwood (the ground commander) realized the situation and ran onto the field to gain the referee’s attention. Mr Lewis stopped the proceedings at 15:05:30 exactly.
To the rest of us in remote locations, not fully in tune with the severity of what was happening, it was still something and nothing. Then news came through of a fan crushed to death. Reactions were mixed. Either muted, or a case of, “ ... football crowds in England, well it’s just nuts!”
Hearing of the fatality, those around me were mildly shocked, thoughts would’ve turned to the young man’s family. Football fans can always identify with other football fans and what they go through to watch their team. But no-one should ever go out to a game and lose their life. This was a tragedy, borne by a pitch invasion by unruly fans. Or so we thought at the time. This would be the end of the matter. Order would be restored and the game would recommence. Or so we thought ...
News began to filter through at half-time in our game. Now there were four dead. The graveness of the situation began to dawn. Then seven, then twelve. Many more were injured. Seventeen dead, twenty-four, thirty. The death toll continued to rise.
Myself and those nearby had long since lost interest in what was going on out on the Oval pitch. Groups of people in the grandstand, sat huddled around fans with radios listening to legendary BBC broadcaster Peter Jones, painstakingly and with great emotion, describe to the nation, the tragedy unfolding before his very eyes.
I believe the death toll had risen to about 46 by the time the final whistle sounded at Glentoran. It was too much to comprehend. Simply horrible. We didn’t know it then, but 46, would be much better than it eventually became.
Sheffield Wednesday’s Leppings Lane End was entering football infamy. A total of ninety-four people died and 766 suffered injury that day. Fourteen year-old Lee Nicol took the death toll to 95, four days later, when his life support machine was switched off.
For some time prior to kick-off, a crush had been developing unnoticed, except by those affected. Bruce Grobbelaar, the Liverpool goalkeeper, reported afterwards, fans from behind his goal pleading to him for help as the situation worsened.
Some fans, the strong and the lucky, climbed the fence in an effort to escape the crush and went onto the track, some managed to escape through a small gate in the fence which had been forced open. Others were pulled to safety by fans in the West Stand above. Holes were ripped in the perimeter fencing as the able-bodied tried desperately to rescue others.
Eventually those that could, in the Leppings Lane Stand, overspilled onto the pitch, where many injured and traumatized fans had already congregated. Many more victims still trapped in the pens, died of compressive asphyxia, in the standing position.
Emergency Services were overwhelmed. The uninjured assisted those stricken, some tearing down advertising hoardings to use as stretchers. Sheffield Wednesday’s gymnasium was used as a mortuary.
It was English football’s darkest day. One that can’t ever be repeated. The enormity of the tragedy just too much to take in. Britain remained in shock for weeks.
As it happened, almost four years on, I was at Anfield in March 1993 when a minute’s silence was observed for the 96th victim, Tony Bland (then 22), whose life-support system was switched off three days previously. The reaction of Manchester United fans in the visiting section was of concern, but pleasingly the tribute was observed impeccably.
A total of 96 people aged from 10 to 67 years old died as a result of injuries incurred at Hillsborough.
Two sisters, three pairs of brothers, and a father and son were among those who never came back, as were two men about to become fathers for the first time: 25-year-old Steven Brown of Wrexham, Wales, and 30-year-old Peter Thompson of Widnes. Jon-Paul Gilhooley, aged 10, was the youngest person to die. His cousin, Steven Gerrard, then aged 8, went on to become Liverpool captain. Gerrard has gone on record saying the disaster inspired him to lead the team he supported as a boy and become a top professional player. The oldest person to die at Hillsborough was 67-year-old Gerard Baron, an older brother of the already-deceased (in 1971) Liverpool player Kevin Baron.
Stephen Whittle is considered by some to be the 97th victim of Hillsborough, as due to work commitments, he had sold his ticket to a friend (whom he and his family chose not to identify) who was killed in the disaster; the resulting feeling of survivor guilt is believed to be the main reason for Stephen’s suicide in February 2011.
The majority of victims that lost their lives were from Liverpool (37) and Greater Merseyside (20). A further 20 were from counties adjacent to Merseyside. An additional 3 victims came from Sheffield with 2 more living in counties adjacent to South Yorkshire. The remaining 14 victims lived in other parts of England.
Victims all, of the UK’s worst-ever sporting disaster. May they all rest in peace.