The Hillsborough Disaster: One fan's story

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Anthony Teasdale was 17 when he made the trip from Liverpool to Sheffield for the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest...

The thing I remember most is the look on people’s faces as we arrived back in the city that hazy Saturday evening.

One group of teenagers in particular stood out, five or six of them perched on a wall smoking either joints or roll-ups. As our coach trundled past they just stared at us, unable to avert their eyes.

What could they say? What could we say?

Yet we were the lucky ones, the survivors. We were going home that night, and for all the terrible things we had seen that day, for all the anguish that our loved ones had suffered in that agonising period before the phone call home, we had come through it unscathed – physically at least.

For those who’d been in the wrong place at the very worst of times, there would be no phone call, no life-affirming hug in the womb of the living room with relieved relatives.

There would be no more trips away to watch the Reds, no more cosy nights in with loved ones, no new jobs, no children, no grandchildren, no nothing.

All this because they went to a football match on a gloriously sunny April day in 1989.

Despite the fact that Liverpool were playing in an FA Cup semi-final, Saturday, April 15 1989 started in much the same way as countless other match days.

I met up with my mate Nicky and another lad, Lace, and took the Merseyrail down to Kirkdale where fleets of coaches were waiting to take us Reds over the Pennines to Hillsborough.

Like a lot of 17-year-olds, I didn’t just go to away matches for the football, it was the whole experience: the early starts, the ritual of buying papers, butties and crisps from the newsagent, the laughs you’d have on the coach with rough-as-f*ck lads from places like Kirkby, Skem and Bootle.

And best of all the moment when you arrived at your destination – an invasion force of thousands under the banner of Liverpool FC, the greatest club in the land.

Of course, the football was second to none too – with players like Rush, Aldridge, Beardsley and Barnes how could it be anything else?

The team of 1989, though not quite up to the immense standards of the year before, was still miles ahead of everybody else and the semi-final against Nottingham Forest was, we were sure, a mere formality on the way to Wembley and hopefully a match against Everton, who were involved in the other semi-final that day against Norwich.

We’d been here before, of course. The year previously, in fact, when we’d faced Cloughie’s men at Hillsborough in the FA Cup semi of 1988, dispatching Forest on the way to that monumental defeat against Wimbledon.

Despite our victory, the day had been spoilt by the crushing I’d had to endure in the central pen of the Leppings Lane terrace. The problem was that once the terrace filled up, it was impossible to get out of the middle section – there was simply no escape.

The crushing was so bad that after the game, gates in the perimeter fence were opened just so Liverpool fans could walk around a bit on the pitch to get our breath back.

It seemed ridiculous that Liverpool, with far more fans than Forest, were in such cramped conditions, when over on the other side of the ground was one of the biggest terraces in British football, the Sheffield Wednesday Kop.

The FA claimed it was because Liverpool fans would be arriving from the north, meaning the first end they’d encounter was Leppings Lane. Actually, most Liverpool traffic came the easy way over the Snake and Woodhead Passes, arriving in Sheffield right outside the Hillsborough Kop.

And throughout the 1988-89 season there had been incidents when congestion endangered fans.

At Carlisle in the third round, Liverpool supporters had pleaded with police, clearly out of their depth, to open another section of terracing after heavy crushing in the away end.

At Villa in the league the situation in the sectioned Witton End had been so severe that the police were forced to open a perimeter gate and put us into another, less crowded pen.

Yet, nothing about this struck any of us as unusual. This is how it was then, what going to a football match was like. You turned up, paid your money, watched the match and f*cked off – and if you got your ribcage crushed in the process then tough shit, you knew the score.

Despite the twin disasters of Bradford and Heysel, for the police and the football authorities the main concerns of the day were hooliganism and crowd control, not crowd safety.

Ignoring the lessons of the year before, Liverpool’s fans were yet again going to have to put up with the pens of Leppings Lane. But no way was I getting stuck in that central pen this time.

There’s always a real buzz when you approach a different ground, that first sight of the stands or floodlights peeping from behind a row of terraced houses is truly something to savour.

After our arrival via the Snake Pass, the three of us – me, Nicky and Lace – walked toward the stadium, following the crowds, looking for mates, though as most of them supported Everton we didn’t hold out too much hope.

There was talk of maybe trying to get into a pub for a bevvie, but as (a) we were 17 and looked it and (b) we were skint, the plan was shelved. F*ck all to do except go into the ground itself.

One Liverpool fan, Nick, remembers one significant difference from the 1988 encounter.

“The most noticeable thing was there was no police checkpoint. There was no control over who was going where. I remember the first year (1988) when we passed the Spion Kop there was load of bizzies (police) around – you were channelled, stopped and searched: ‘Do you have a ticket’?”

At the turnstile, Nicky went into the West Stand above the Leppings Lane terrace, which is where Lace and I had tickets. Just like the year before we walked down the tunnel toward the central pen, but instead of going straight on we made a detour to the section on the right via the step-wide walkway at the very back of the terrace.

For the next hour or so the pair of us discussed the usual things – sex, football and music – to pass the time.

By 2.15 the ground was rapidly filling up, with chants and songs bouncing around the ground, Liverpool’s support providing far more of a backing here than at our often-subdued home stadium.

The FA Cup was always my favourite competition and the semi-final the best match of all, a real make-or-break tie. Losing wasn’t even worth thinking about.

What I didn’t know then, what I could not have known, was that outside the ground, both the police and the inadequate Leppings Lane turnstiles were unable to cope with the number of fans arriving for the game.

A huge crush was developing and if something was not done quickly people were going start getting hurt. Finally, an order was given by the most senior policeman at the ground, Chief Superintendent Duckenfield, to open one of the exit gates and relieve the pressure outside.

It was not forced open by Liverpool fans, though this is what the FA’s Graham Kelly was told by Mr Duckenfield, who later repeated this allegation to the press.

It was also insinuated by various parties later on that Liverpool fans had arrived with insufficient time to spare. “All that stuff about us turning up late, that was another myth,” says Peter, a Liverpool fan who was there.

“We turned up the year before at exactly the same time, 2.15-2.30, and it was totally orderly, people checking your tickets at the end of Leppings Lane, where there was a cordon of police. Someone should have said, ‘Let’s stop this now and delay the match.’”

Getting their breath back after the trauma of the crush outside, fans moved from the courtyard in between the turnstile and stand, toward the terrace down the central tunnel and straight into the middle pen, unaware that they would be unable to leave it.

Despite the fact that this pen was already full, nobody – stewards or police – directed them to the other entrances at either side of the stand.

Peter again: “The person who ordered the gates to be opened should have realised, knowing the stadium, that you had to cut off that tunnel area otherwise it was a disaster waiting to happen.”

Another Liverpool fan, Jim, arrived at 2.15 and was immediately caught up in the crush outside Leppings Lane. He entered the ground through the open gate near the turnstile, his ticket remained unseen.

“We had tickets for that pen (B – which all standing tickets were marked with). When we got in everyone rushed toward the middle one and because I had my brother with me who was small at the time and I remembered the year before that it was packed, I thought we better go down the side, because it looked a bit full in there.”

By kick-off, our section to the right of the central pen was barely half full. We were comfortable, enough people to create an atmosphere but no so many that you were struggling to get your breath.

I knew full well that the situation in the middle section would be hellish, people crammed up against each other, huge chasms suddenly appearing in front of a barrier with everyone petrified about filling it.

I’d gladly sacrifice a bit of atmosphere for a decent view and a chance not to have my ribs squashed against a yard of Sheffield steel. Little did I realise just how bad the situation was.

Dan, who took his place in the central pen at around 2pm, describes the terrible congestion inside: “We made our way through the tunnel. It felt very full to start with. It got more and more full, more and more uncomfortable.

"I said to my mate should we get down the front – traditionally there was more space down the front. We tried, thought about it, realised we couldn’t actually move, there was no way we could go anywhere.

“The game kicked off. By that stage my coat had been removed from my back through the force of people around me and I was holding onto it by a cuff.”

On the pitch, Liverpool were showing their class, knocking the ball about in the assured, methodical way that made the team such a force.

Suddenly, the ball came to Peter Beardsley, but his effort ricocheted off the crossbar. That’s when I saw the first fans trying to climb over the perimeter fence from the central section of terracing.

At first I thought it was some sort of pitch invasion, but that made no sense. Were there Forest fans in our end? Again, no – there was no fighting, the aggressive roar that accompanied gang violence was conspicuous by its absence.

It was far, far worse than anyone could comprehend, as Dan in the central pen recalls:

“When Beardsley hit the bar, Liverpool were attacking the other end. Because it was far away, everyone tried to get up and see what was going on. Because they couldn’t, there were no arms involved, everyone’s arms were trapped where they were, people surged forward.

"When they surged forward, more people came in from the tunnel behind us and there was no room for us to surge back into an upright position, so everyone was kept in that 45 degree angle, like the position ski jumpers are in when they actually leave the top of the slope.

"At that stage, I was very aware that everyone was holding on to everyone else and people were starting to faint. I remember vividly people shouting at one policeman who was right near the gate that was locked, shrieking blue murder at him to open the gate. But he wasn’t having it, he didn’t move.”

Then the photographers appeared. What seemed like hundreds of them suddenly descended on the Leppings Lane end from around the ground, clicking desperately at the fans in the pen next to ours.

Word went round – people were getting crushed, fans were hurt, this was f*cking serious. Supporters were screaming at the police, at the horror of the situation, at their powerlessness – something was going very badly wrong and all the while those photographers kept clicking away, seemingly unmoved by the tragedy unfolding before them.

I screamed at them to forget their job, to get in there and do something, but my words were lost amongst a thousand desperate calls for help. The referee took the players off the pitch. It was just gone five past three.

Fans in the West Stand above us started dragging people to safety from the back of the terrace – big, tough men saving countless lives with their determination to do something to help out their fellow human beings.

Someone near me turned a radio on – we listened, finding it ironic that in order to get information on what was happening a few feet away from us we had to tune in to a station based 200 miles away in London.

Then we heard: people were dead, fans had died at a Liverpool match again. What had we done to deserve this?

After an eternity the police opened the gates in the perimeter fence and fans got on to the turf, some walking about in shock, others crowding around those who lay prostrate on the ground, using whatever first aid skills they had to try and revive those who had slipped into unconsciousness.

The Forest fans, unaware of what was really happening, began chanting at the Liverpool supporters and for one horrible moment it looked like it might kick off.

But sense prevailed – this was no day for fighting. A long line of policemen, unaware of what was really happening behind them, was placed across the halfway line in case fans clashed on the pitch.

As it became increasingly clear that the authorities weren’t going to be much help, Liverpool supporters took it upon themselves to make the best of the situation. Advertising hoardings were ripped down, converted into stretchers and taken by fans into the far corner where it was assumed medical help would be waiting.

So often derided, Liverpudlians showed compassion and initiative in the face of overwhelming odds, saving countless lives with their efforts on the terrace, above in the stand and on the pitch. These people were heroes.

As efforts continued on the pitch and nearby radios updated the horrific tally, thoughts turned to friends, to people who Lace and I knew could be in the central pen.

We scanned the West Stand for our mate Nicky at exactly the same time he was looking for us. He saw us, shouted, “Are you alright? Are you alright?” and moved to a spot exactly above where we were standing.

He was helped over the edge of the stand and dropped down into our section, the three of us vowing not to let one another out of each other’s sight again.

Up in the stand, Nicky had seen the disaster unfold, the crush, the dead and injured lifted above the crowd in the hope that they would find medical help. But we three could do nothing for the fans who lay by the side of the pitch or in the ambulances that were finally starting to appear.

Part of me wanted to get on the grass myself, but I was aware that my presence was not needed, that others were doing the job. I would never be a hero at Hillsborough, merely another survivor, a bystander fortunate to escape with my life.

Dan remembers the horror of the situation: “The worst scene for me was when that end was empty, there was left literally a pile of people four or five deep – probably 50 or 60 people piled up next to that bent crash barrier.”

My mum was backing out of Sainsbury’s in Crosby when she first heard muddled news of a disaster, though at first she thought they were talking about the Heysel stadium tragedy.

Only when the announcer revealed that the disaster was at one of the FA Cup semi-finals was she gripped by the dread we all feel when we sense loved ones in danger.

It got worse – the problems were in the Leppings Lane end, where she knew I was. And then the first reports of casualties started to come through. People were dying and I could be one of them. Horrified, she immediately drove to my dad’s house, where events were being broadcast live on TV.

I often think that, apart from the dead, those who suffered the most at Hillsborough were many miles away at homes scattered throughout Merseyside and beyond.

Saturday afternoons shopping or gardening were ripped apart by events at a football ground in South Yorkshire that they could do nothing about. All they could do was wait for news.

I can’t remember how long we stayed in the ground, probably another two hours. There was an announcement from Kenny Dalglish, but I have no recollection of what he said – all that was certain was that there would be no more football today.

Gradually, the ground began to empty, though the three of us stayed until we were virtually the last people left on the terrace. As I walked toward the tunnel that had funnelled people toward their death I was struck by the sight of a crush barrier on the terrace, steel mangled beyond recognition.

The pressure on this barrier to buckle and snap so catastrophically must have been enormous and yet it was the weight of people’s bodies that had broken it. The effect on those fans pressed against this barrier is too terrible to even think about.

Already some had placed scarves on it as a tribute, so I put my little Liverpool badge on one of them and we left the ground, bumping into some lads from school who, waving their tickets – complete with stubs – told me about the gate being opened outside.

Emerging into the sun, we scanned the area for a house we could phone our parents from. Already, queues were appearing out of houses as Scousers were offered the use of phones by local residents.

We came upon a funeral parlour with its doors open and waited for our turn on their phone. Even though money was not asked for, every Liverpudlian there left upwards of 50p for their call, a token of our appreciation.

With many fans waiting behind us, we made one call to Nicky’s mum to tell her we were alright and left it at that. She would call my parents and tell them I was OK, that I’d be coming home.

On our way to the coach I saw a radio reporter who was looking for fans to interview. Incensed, I ran over to him and told him to f*ck off, to leave us alone, that we’d suffered enough in the past from the lies and prejudices of journalists like him.

“I’m just after a story,” he pleaded. I didn’t want to know.

Normally the atmosphere on the coach back from a match was very different from that going to it, the songs and banter of the outward journey replaced by sleep, quiet chats and maybe even a video if you were lucky.

On April 15, it was different again. The relaxation of a normal journey home was replaced by anxiety and concern for mates yet unaccounted for.

Before mobile phones, there was no way of knowing what had happened to people. Going home, this time via the motorway, we were passed by the Liverpool team coach.

Normally, the sight of the lads would have been a real boost, but each and every one them looked desolate. I nodded at Ian Rush and he gave a muted little wave, pain etched all over his face.

Over the next few weeks and months the press would come out with the most hurtful, insulting lies about Liverpool fans – how it was our fault, how we brought death upon ourselves, what we did to the dead and to our rescuers.

Eventually, Chief Justice Taylor’s report on the tragedy exonerated us of any blame, but the full-page apologies, the donations to the relatives of the bereaved in atonement, never materialised.

That has not been forgotten. But neither has the kindness shown to us by Evertonians and supporters from all over the land who came to Anfield to pay tribute to our dead.

They knew all too well that but for the grace of God it could have been them, that as football fans, every time we went to a match we would be treated as stupidly loyal cattle with disposable incomes.

The Hillsborough disaster could have easily been prevented, but nobody in authority took the rap for failing to do their job or trying to cover up that failure by blaming the fans for their dreadful fate.

“The authorities just lost control,” says Peter, still angry about what happened. “If you’re supposed to be in control of a building, presumably your jurisdiction is to look after that building and maintain the safety of the public in it. Well, if you end up with 96 dead, then surely you’re culpable.”

Football used to be my be-all and end-all. But Hillsborough changed that.

When Arsenal won the league that year I was disappointed, but that’s all. Other things, like house music, clubs and politics, started to take the place of the game that had formed such a huge part of my growing up.

With me off to university the year after I would have given up my season ticket anyway, but I did so without regret, feeling that I could no longer dedicate myself to football in a way I once had.

I see my old friend Nicky regularly – we sometimes go to the match together – while Lace is married and currently working for the prison service in the north of England.

I still love the game, still go to matches, both here and abroad, but I see football for what it is – a wonderful sport that allows me to keep in touch with my old friends and my home town.

When I see grown men crying because their team has gone down or lost a big match I just cannot take them seriously. Enough tears were shed that hot spring day in 1989.

This article appeared in FourFourTwo in 2003 but in the intervening years little has changed and the fight for justice continues.

To find out more, visit the Hillsborough Justice Campaign website and the Official Hillsborough Family Support Group website.

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