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Finding their own level

Submitted by on September 27, 2012 – 5:08 pmOne Comment

By  Jonathan Allsopp

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.

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 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 11 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 11 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”.

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 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 Trevor Hicks, Anne Williams, Margaret Aspinall, Phil Hammond and the rest, it’s been one heck of a fight. At last they have been vindicated. Now let’s hope they find some justice as well.

One Comment »

  • chopper says:

    I agree entirely with you Jonathan, and was at the same game and stood in exactly the same section as you in the corner. I went to many United games throughout the 80′s & 90′s but this is one of those games I’ve never forgot about, and when the Hillsborough disaster is mentioned always think back to this game. I remember saying to another guy stood next to me that day ‘this ground is dangerous’, and as we later found out it definitely was! The steep terrace in that corner would have caused havoc if a crush had occurred. There were United fans all over the place that day and I also recall them being escorted around the pitch to the leppings lane end. You were right, there was no way through the tunnel behind the goal as it was packed even 30 minutes before kick off, so you had to go around the sides of the away stand as there was no other way in. The policing was pathetic as always, both the South Yorkshire & Nottinghamshire policing of away fans in those days was disgusting. I suppose in a way we have to thank the referee of that fa cup quarter final for not allowing that ‘goal’ or it could have easily been us, but the warning signs were clearly there for the South Yorkshire Police to see the day United visited Hillsborough just a few months before the disaster. From a true United Fan.

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