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The Other Semi-Final

[Note: Written in 2009, 3 years before the Hillsborough Independent Panel published its report that prompted the quashing of the verdicts of the original inquest, and 7 years before the new inquests found that the 96 people had been unlawfully killed - see bottom for findings]

20 years ago today I was at the semi-final of the FA Cup. Taking place at the same time was the other semi-final, the one that cost 96 people their lives.

Semi-final Saturdays were so special.

In 1989 I lived in Birmingham. Even though our semi-final was at Villa Park in Birmingham, I travelled up to Liverpool after work the evening before - so I could be part of the build up to the game with fellow Everton fans.

A season-ticket holder at Goodison, I didn’t want to get the local West Midlands bus across Birmingham; I wanted to travel to the game with my family and friends, as I always did, from Liverpool itself. Because semi-final Saturdays were so special.

On the Friday night we went out with the Liverpool fans. Even though they were friends, brothers, and fathers, we didn’t usually go out with them in a football context. We went out all the time socially of course, where we tried to avoid talking football, but this night was different. We both wanted each other to win. That was rare.

It was 3 years since the first all-Merseyside final, the first in the then 105 final history of the cup. All of us had been at Wembley for that Cup final. And now here we were again on the verge of another possible all-Merseyside final. We wanted them to win their semi so we could cheer on Everton beating them in the final. Unlike the last time. They presumably wanted us to win our semi so Everton would again be a scalp on their way to another double.

We made plans to meet up back in Liverpool after our games, win or lose. Everton’s game was 100 miles south in Villa Park, and Liverpool’s 85 miles away to the east in Sheffield. The plan of course was that Everton and Liverpool would both win, and we’d then celebrate together as we anticipated the final. This was ambitious because the course of a game can easily leave you with no desire to meet up with anybody afterwards, least of all your closest rivals.

The Saturday morning was sunny. With both teams in semi-finals, the whole city was buzzing. Every programme on the radio was in party mode. Special.

It would be years before I could listen again to the songs played on the radio that morning.

The Liverpool fans booked a bus for their game. We went in a group of cars to ours. All I remember is the usual approach to a huge game. Stories, jokes, laughs, and smiles. It reminded me of 2 years earlier when we had travelled to Norwich hoping to win the league on the same day that Liverpool fans were at home also hoping to win the league. A neutral ground this time, but again the opposition for Everton was Norwich City.

From cold dull November evenings I can recall parts of awful games, meaningless league games, even Simod Cup games. I’ve been to hundreds, maybe thousands, of football matches, in England and Ireland, but I can’t recall a second of the FA Cup semi-final I watched 20 years ago today.

We were in the north end of Villa Park, opposite the huge Holt End where the Norwich fans were. There was someone about 10 feet away from me with a radio. I know Everton scored and won the game, but my memory is of the faces around me. Standing on a terrace, crammed into a tight confined space with complete strangers gave you a closer view of people’s faces than you get in most situations.

There were murmurs of problems at the other semi-final. A delayed kick-off wasn’t unusual, especially if fans had been delayed on the road, but then a death was mentioned. When reports were passed on - by shouting out what those clutching radios were hearing - that there were multiple deaths, there were shouts back, motivated by the disbelief that we all felt and the desire to quell upsetting rumours, to shut up.

But the rumours grew. Over the course of our game the faces all around me went from confusion to concern and ultimately to shock and horror. Seven? How could seven people die at a football match? Then the mad scramble began, and it went on for hours.

Instead of celebrations on the pitch my memory of the end of the game is of thousands of Everton fans turning immediately to our right and making our way out of the terrace. The figure 50 was mentioned by somebody. It was unthinkable. The sun was still shining.

What happened next was like what adults experience when a child goes missing, the panic as efforts progress to establish the safety of the child. Only this was the era before mobile phones, and it wasn’t a child we were worried about; it was 25,000 people.

Seeking information, people ran all directions to public phones, scattering across grass patches to houses nearby to ask to use phones, and to their cars to drive to wherever they might find a phone. On the M6 people raced to the service stations just to get to phones. I recall going past a service station where there were already queues of Everton fans at phones. We stopped at the next one.

Even from phones information was very limited, because calls were going home to Liverpool and in most cases the Liverpool fans in Sheffield hadn’t yet managed to phone home. Some never would.

When we got back to Liverpool we were still waiting for news of our friends. Eventually we got word that all on their bus were safely accounted for. Except one who was missing. It was his first time to go to the game with our friends.

We were sitting in the club waiting for them - one of the city’s countless social and working men’s clubs, the one where we suffered in our best clothes through bingo and glittery singers on Sunday nights. And argued about football on Friday nights. I think it was 1:30am when their bus finally arrived back in Liverpool. Minus one, one who would never come home.

Late into the night I listened to stories from people who had survived, stories of bodies underneath their feet, bodies of people they were powerless to help. Of people who died, from going to a football match. I’d never seen any of these men cry before. I’d never held any of them before.

In the morning I didn’t know what to do with a lifetime’s worth of memories of going to games. So I took them for a walk by the canal and bumped into 2 Everton friends doing the same thing. Our tears and questions continued throughout the day. More news of more friends, and of friends of friends. More news of death.

I knew the Liverpool fans at Hillsborough. I studied and worked with them, had been to their weddings, gone to christenings and funerals with them. I’d welcomed in New Years with them, and turned 21 with them. I’d been in their homes on Christmas Days, and, whisper it, I’d even gone to a few games with them - because I just liked football. I have no need to defend them, and won’t patronise them by saying they were good people. Because, quite simply, they were us.

I hated leaving Liverpool and returning to Birmingham on the Monday. The papers had gone with sickening lies about the behaviour of the fans, and an office away from Liverpool and away from football was not a place of sympathy, or even where people know how intertwined the lives of so many Evertonians and Liverpudlians were.

Quickly the tabloids, bar one infamous case of course, retracted and apologised for their lies though the Sunday Times a week later repeated them due to printing deadlines being before the retractions. The other tabloid took 15 years to apologise, and even then made a mess of it.

There were a lot of people I knew at the other semi-final, and until I read the list I didn’t know if they were still alive. Sometimes you aren’t close enough to people to phone them, their parents, their spouses, directly to see if they’re ok; you just have to wait. When the list of the dead was published I was back in Birmingham. Waiting until I was alone I took a deep breath and then slowly read the names on teletext. Pages and pages of teletext.

I was lucky. Nobody I knew directly was on the list. But there were 9 friends of friends who were.

Just to be with friends I returned to Liverpool the following weekend. I bought the memorial issue of the Liverpool Echo. In the 20 years since I’ve never opened it.

Football was put on hold and fixtures were postponed, but eventually the footballing world decided to carry on.

The first competitive game Liverpool played after Hillsborough was a midweek league game against Everton of all teams. I travelled up to Liverpool again, as I always did, to sit in my seat at Goodison in a game of football that wasn’t about football. Cathartic for so many it was wonderful, and it was horrible. I’ve never been at a game like it, and I never want to be at a game like it ever again.

Liverpool won their re-arranged semi-final and so we got our all-Merseyside final when it didn’t matter anymore, and yet if a final had to be played that year it was best that it was played by these 2 teams. Like 3 years earlier Everton again lost to Liverpool, except it wasn’t like 3 years earlier. There was extra time, there were no fences, and it was the only game of football I ever cried at.

Today is about memory. Some people say it shouldn’t involve blame. Whatever it involves it should be about truth. The families of the 96 deserve that.

In the 20 years since, I’ve heard people in Ireland and in America, and in England away from Liverpool, talk about Hillsborough as if it was a case of hooliganism, or that the fans were in some way to blame. They haven’t read the Taylor Report.

  • They don’t know that the [original] inquest wouldn’t look at any events that took place after 3:15pm on the day with the judge stating that all injuries leading to deaths had happened prior to that time.
  • They don’t know that there are statements by witnesses of people still being alive after 3:15pm who could have been saved.
  • They don’t know that there were 40 ambulances unused outside because the tragedy was being treated as crowd disturbance rather than as overcrowding.
  • They don’t know that the agreed Major Incident plan was not put into operation.
  • They don’t know that the police officer in charge, David Duckenfield, was inexperienced in handling games like that.
  • They don’t know that Duckenfield gave the order to open the exit Gate C to let crowds in.
  • They don’t know that Duckenfield lied in the aftermath and claimed ticketless Liverpool fans had forced open the exit gate.
  • They don’t know that, at the Inquiry by Lord Justice Taylor, Duckenfield admitted he lied about the fans.
  • They don’t know what the safety status of Hillsborough was.
  • They don’t know that the tunnel into the Leppings Lane end wasn’t closed when the pens it led into were already full.
  • They don’t know that the capacity for those pens was overstated to begin with.
  • They don’t know that the tunnel leading into those overcrowded pens had a 1 in 6 gradient.
  • They don’t know about the identification process that took place in the gymnasium that acted as a mortuary.
  • They don’t know how many years it took for the families of the victims to gain access to the body files.
  • They don’t know that, against their training, police officers were instructed not to record the events of the day as facts in their pocket books but to submit handwritten recollections not subject to disclosure.
  • They don’t know that police officers statements were changed, with criticisms of the police deleted and blame deflected towards the fans.
  • They don’t know that the Taylor Report exonerated the fans.

In watching Everton I’ve been to football games all over England and experienced good policing (most notably in the northwest metropolitan counties) and bad policing - usually where police forces weren’t used to the dynamics of large crowds and how to marshall and filter them.

At Everton’s previous semi-final I had complained repeatedly to friends at how badly we were treated as customers considering how much money we spent, that we deserved to be treated with the same respect as those who went to operas. I know that standing and pens and fences were the culture of the day, but it was more than the culture of the time that caused 96 people to die.

According to the Taylor Report (interim) overcrowding was the main reason for the disaster, and the main reason for the overcrowding was lack of police control. Ask any fan who had ever been in the Leppings Lane terrace and they’ll tell you the overcrowding was foreseeable. And with police control and proper actions by the FA and by Sheffield Wednesday FC, that overcrowding was preventable.

My closest friend in Liverpool at that time was a Liverpool fan who always went the game with one of his closest friends. I had enjoyed their stories of attending the previous year’s final where they lost to Wimbledon but were tickled to get to chat at Wembley with Frank Bruno at the peak of his fame. My friend didn’t get a ticket for the semi-final in 1989. So his friend went to Hillsborough without him. And never came back.

Everton are in their first semi-final for 14 years this coming weekend, and I’ll watch it and want them to win, but the desire to attend isn’t that strong any more. Although I still go to the odd game, football hasn’t been the same for me since Hillsborough. Semi-finals aren’t that special any more

Today my thoughts are with the families and friends of the 96. Today my thoughts are of the truth.

26 April, 2016 Update: 27 years after the disaster, and over 2 years after the new Hillsborough inquests began, making it by far the longest case heard by a jury in the British legal system, the jury gave their decision on the following 14 questions:

  1. Do you agree with the following statement which is intended to summarise the basic facts of the disaster: “On 15 April, 1989, 96 people died in the disaster at Hillsborough stadium as a result of crushing in the central pens of the Leppings Lane terrace, following the admission of a large number of supporters to the stadium through exit gates.”

    Jury’s answer: Yes.

  2. Was there any error or omission in the police planning and preparation for the semi-final match on 15 April, 1989 which caused or contributed to the dangerous situation that developed on the day of the match?

    Jury’s answer: Yes.

  3. Was there any error or omission in policing on the day of the match which caused or contributed to a dangerous situation developing at the Leppings Lane turnstiles?

    Jury’s answer: Yes.

  4. Was there any error or omission by commanding officers which caused or contributed to the crush on the terrace?

    Jury’s answer: Yes.

  5. When the order was given to open the exit gates at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium, was there any error or omission by the commanding officers in the control box which caused or contributed to the crush on the terrace?

    Jury’s answer: Yes.

  6. Are you satisfied, so that you are sure, that those who died in the disaster were unlawfully killed?

    Jury’s answer: Yes.

  7. Was there any behaviour on the part of football supporters which caused or contributed to the dangerous situation at the Leppings Lane turnstiles?

    Jury’s answer: No.

    If your answer to the question above is “no”, then was there any behaviour on the part of football supporters which may have caused or contributed to the dangerous situation at the Leppings Lane turnstiles?

    Jury’s answer: No.

  8. Were there any features of the design, construction and layout of the stadium which you consider were dangerous or defective and which caused or contributed to the disaster?

    Jury’s answer: Yes.

  9. Was there any error or omission in the safety certification and oversight of Hillsborough stadium that caused or contributed to the disaster?

    Jury’s answer: Yes.

  10. Was there any error or omission by Sheffield Wednesday FC (and its staff) in the management of the stadium and/or preparation for the semi-final match on 15 April, 1989 which caused or contributed to the dangerous situation that developed on the day of the match?

    Jury’s answer: Yes.

  11. Was there any error or omission by Sheffield Wednesday FC (and its staff) on 15 April, 1989 which caused or contributed to the dangerous situation that developed on the day of the match?

    Jury’s answer: Yes.

  12. Should Eastwood & Partners [the club’s consultant engineers] have done more to detect and advise on any unsafe or unsatisfactory features of Hillsborough stadium which caused or contributed to the disaster?

    Jury’s answer: Yes.

  13. After the crush in the west terrace had begun to develop, was there any error or omission by the police which caused or contributed to the loss of lives in the disaster?

    Jury’s answer: Yes.

  14. After the crush in the west terrace had begun to develop, was there any error or omission by South Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance Service (SYMAS) which caused or contributed to the loss of lives in the disaster?

    Jury’s answer: Yes.

27 Comments

  1. It hurt you to write this. I know that. I did a similar post once … and vowed never again. But it is worth it - for cleansing, remembering and honouring.

    Mo cheol thú.

  2. [...] Click here for an explanation. [...]

  3. manuel says:

    I am a United fan……and I have no love for LFC. But there does need to be justice for the families of the dead and injured. There needs to be an end for these people. I have to admire the campaign they have fought but it needs to be brought to an end, for the families but also simply for justice…

    I don’t go to Old Trafford any more…not since Glazer and his despicable clan took over. So my only match day football now is FC UNITED, the breakaway club set up by fans for fans. Fans have a say in every aspect of the running of the club. We vote for the board, or against it…….We vote on the price of tickets, the colour of the shirts, the badge on the shirt! As a match day experience it is simply superb…….if you ever wanna go to match and experience football as it should be, let me know…..

    Justice for the 96……

  4. Sharon says:

    Thanks for writing this, hard though it must have been.

    I watched the news stories about the disaster when I was a teenager and remember the shock and grief on people’s faces. It’s terrible that the suffering was made worse by the newspaper’s lies and the attempted cover ups.

  5. John Keyes says:

    Great post. I’m still hoping for justice for the 96.

  6. [...] coverage of Stallone’s movie The Expendables.Button injured in horrific F1 smash (joke BTW).Bicyclistic has a great post about that tragic weekend in 1989.I’d never heard of the deadliest explosion [...]

  7. [...] was at the Other Semi-Final that day, a stirring blog post accounting his [...]

  8. E gan F says:

    Thanks all. I had intended to write more but found myself unable to when it came to it.

  9. Scott Jones says:

    Found this article vie twitter.

    Thank you for writing and sharing it with us.
    Justice for the 96.RIP

    Scott
    (QPR fan)

  10. elly parker says:

    I read this a year ago and cried. I read it again today and the tears flowed. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have felt like waiting for that bus to come back or paging through the names on teletext. Bravo for writing this.

  11. [via Twitter]

    Great stuff, beautifully done.

  12. [via Twitter]

    Please read and RT

  13. [via Twitter]

    That’s a really powerful post - beautifully
    and sensitively written

  14. [via Twitter]

    Poignant stuff, very nice piece…

  15. [via twitter]

    excellent post. That cannot have been easy
    to write.

  16. [via Twitter]

    Just read your blog post about the Hillsborough
    disaster. It’s truly shocking what happened that day. Great post

  17. [via twitter]

    I was at a concert once where the same failings resulted in the loss of one life. I can’t imagine the scale of horror at Hillsborough

  18. [via twitter]

    Late to this but just wanted to say thanks for writing such an incredibly moving piece.

  19. [via Twitter]

    amazing post. I know the toughest
    ones to write are often the ones that matter most

  20. [via Twitter]

    I meant to say, I read your post on
    hillsborough on the BB last night, and was very moved. Fantastic piece of writing

  21. [...] Memories:     You Travel by Train in Ireland, Don’t You?     The Other Semi-Final     A Night In London Comment (RSS) [...]

  22. F. Gautreaux says:

    Great read, nicely done.

  23. Siobhan says:

    I found this through a friend of mine on facebook. I just had to say thank you for writing this both fantastic and utterly moving piece.

  24. Lia Scior says:

    Touching and heart wrenching piece, I’m glad I read this, I remember this and it was big news in Australia and like many I made wrong assumptions about what happened. It’s good to know the truth. But you also made me think of those people as real souls rather than numbers and to those of us that weren’t there and weren’t close to them that makes this a wonderful tribute.

  25. [via Twitter]

    That made me cry. Thoughts are with those left behind too.

  26. Steve says:

    I watched the game live on TV and couldn’t comprehend what was happening. I remember one station, RTE I think, switching over to the Everton game but couldn’t do that.
    I had the radio on, BBC on and just couldn’t believe what i was seeing and hearing. I was only 14 at the time & it hit me hard. My cousin-in-law was in the top tier, helping people up. It took him the over 6 years to go back to Anfield and that was because of his two sons.

    Thank you for sharing this. Thank you for taking the time to write this. Today will very much be a day of tears.

  27. [via Twitter]

    just read this (been away) - incredibly moving

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