I woke up at 7am as was usual on a work day, although this particular day I was more than pissed off to be working. I'd asked for the day off, it had been refused and so I found myself unlocking the shop doors at 9am. My boss had agreed I could leave at 2pm because aside from the fact it was my 19th birthday, it was also FA Cup semi final day and I'd never missed a semi (quarter or final) since the beginning of time.
I was brought up in a football family. My Dads family were originally from the Aston area of Birmingham. My great grandfather had shares in Aston Villa (these went to my great uncle upon his death with not a single one heading my grandfathers way, as was the custom back-in-the-day; the eldest son got everything, the rest of the family got bugger all). Moving down South at the age of 10 my Dad became an ardent Pompey supporter - his last ever working day was spent with the team, away to Leicester on 20th April 1991 (5 days after my 21st birthday). Gavin Maguire saved my Dad's life that day, something I will always be grateful to him for; sadly my Dad was to pass away a week shy of 2 years later (2 days before my 23rd birthday - yep, by this point I was beginning to consider not having a birthday again; when I spent my 32nd birthday at the funeral of the guy I would most likely have been married to, and buried my best friend just a few days before my 42nd I began to think maybe I was cursed in some way - my much loved Nanny had died just 4 days before my 15th birthday too). Anyway, whenever he could get to a home game my Dad would head off to Fratton Park - him and my Mum came home halfway through their honeymoon to go to a game, before heading back off to finish what they had started. I'm pretty sure when my Mum was pregnant with me he was secretly hoping I'd be a boy, someone he could take to footy with him on a Saturday afternoon. As it turned out he got the best of both worlds, because (like my Mum) I too fell in the love with game. I'd even go along to the pub games Dad would play in on a Sunday morning, yelling from the touchline to "wing it" or "pass it" and on occasion to shout at the referee; oh yes, my parents taught me well!
Back in the 70's and 80's as I was growing up, football was a big deal. Even people who didn't like the game had a team they would support. Sadly by the mid 90's it had begun to be more about money than the game and by 2010 I'd pretty much all but give up watching, although occasionally I put a game on for a bit of background noise. There's no passion like there was though; well not in the bigger leagues. Some of the lower leagues they still play for the win, rather than the massive wages packet and glory of self promotion. I'm sure a lot of players when I was younger would have been happy to take the wage packet but the glory hunting wasn't for them; they wanted to win for the team and the fans. Not to make themselves a hero. People from my era will still talk about Mark Wright, and more so Terry Butcher, running around the pitch with blood seeping through the bandages wrapped around their heads. These days you only need to blow on a player and he'll be rolling around the floor in agony. I'm pretty sure it won't be long until a player sues another one for a bruise he might end up with where the other player has gently nudged him out of the way. Don't get me wrong; a two footed tackle should never be allowed but my goodness if you put the players from today against the players of yesterday - people like Stuart Pearce (the passion that man had for the game was unrelenting) Butcher, Barnes, Beardsley, along with strikers like Keegan - up against them they would be running off the pitch crying quicker than you could shout "snowflake" at them. Whilst I never really liked him much David Pratt (or is it Platt and I just got used to calling him Pratt) would get behind defenders and give it their all to get the ball in the box. Bryan Robson in midfield was the captain every team needed. Sherringham and Walsh too and Tony Daly on the right hand wing was like whirling dervish. He'd have players giving it their all to take him down and he'd just jump right over the top of their outstretched leg before chipping the ball over into the box for whoever might be waiting for it. Football was my sport and I watched as many games as I could.
That's how I found myself on the afternoon of my birthday cursing my boss because her promise of letting me leave at 2pm never materialised and it was almost 2.30 by the time I finally left. I would have made it home in time for kick-off had I just stuck to the main roads. Instead I chose the short-cut of the back roads and got held up behind a tractor - who goes out farming on a semi-cup final afternoon? Parking my car outside the garage I practically crashed through the back gate and was halfway down the path when my next door neighbour shouted over the fence "Don't bother rushing to get in for the footy; there's been some kind of crowd trouble and they've taken the players off the pitch to deal with the trouble-makers". The relief I felt that I'd not missed anything (other than the few minutes before the match was stopped) was a wonderful feeling. I headed inside to find my Mum in the kitchen making a cup of tea. She reiterated what my neighbour had said. She was sat down watching when there was some crowd trouble so the game had been stopped. I grabbed a beer from the fridge, made my way to the lounge, sat in the chair ready and waiting for the game to restart. My money was on Forest to win and I had Pearce down to score the second goal.
Mum had muted the TV so I didn't hear what was being said but the more I looked at the screen the more I began to realise there was something more than a little crowd trouble going on. Suddenly there were people ripping off the advertising boarding from around the edge of the pitch; they were putting people on top of this boarding and running across the pitch with them. To one end of the pitch, behind the Liverpool goal, there were people being pulled from the terraces up into the stands; were the fans above pulling them up to stop them taking a beating, or was the niggling voice in the back of my head screaming at me "there's something massively wrong going on here" correct?. The people who had invaded the pitch (the trouble makers as it had first been thought) were now standing around looking dazed and confused. It was the looks on their faces (and the lack of anyone fighting) that made me turn the sound back up. This wasn't a crowd of marauding fans trying to have fisty-cuffs with opposing supporters. These weren't people running onto the pitch to make a nuisance of themselves. What they were was people in shock; people bewildered at what was going on at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium. John Motson, the BBC commentator for the game kept saying things like 'I'm not sure what's going on but I think people have been hurt'.
Like many that day I found myself glued to the TV watching scenes that were like something from a movie, yet knowing it was real life. People had been, were being, crushed to death. At a football match. You might expect a few to get caught up in a fight between rival supporters and sport a split lip and broken nose but never-in-a-million years would I have ever expected to see people being crushed to death because they'd been lucky enough to secure a ticket to a big football game. How many games had I been to with my Dad? It was unbelievable. My brain couldn't comprehend what my eyes were seeing. Just 4 years earlier I'd witnessed the Bradford fire; that was absolutely horrendous but was an accident caused by a little carelessness (not that I am making an excuse for it; the club had a responsibility to provide the supporters with a safe place to watch a game but health-and-safety was so different back then). The conditions of the stands, roofing and weather that day turned what (on any other day) may have been a small incident into an inferno. 56 people lost their lives that day. I remember watching that and thinking about the local dog racing track we'd frequented often. The wooden stands they had there. It was unimaginable to think about what would have happened had one of those caught fire. The terror of the people caught up in must have been like nothing anyone should ever have to experience.
Hillsborough though; that was different. It could have easily been avoided. It wasn't an accident by any means - in my opinion. I know a few years ago it was legally deemed to have been due to gross negligence and that those of everyone who died that day (and subsequently as a result after) were unlawfully killed; sadly nobody has ever really been held to account, and by the time you find yourself reading this the outcome of verdicts/inquests may have changed again. It took the families over a quarter of a century for someone to finally admit their loved ones deaths were avoidable. That is shocking in itself, however, even now some 33 years later there has still not been Justice for the 96 (97 now as recently another death has been attributed due to a direct result of what happened that day).
It's a day I've never forgotten which I will admit I am sure is partly down to it being my birthday; I don't think I would have ever not remembered what happened that day had it happened on another day purely because of what happened (the death of Princess Diana, the Space Shuttle Challenger blowing up and 911 are proof to me that there are some days that will never be forgotten) but it may have been pushed into a deeper part of my brain had it not been the 15th April. I remember it also for my friend coming round at 19:30 that evening and dragging me off to the pub for birthday drinks. Looking back it seems so wrong for us to have gone out and had a good time (and my goodness I really did have a good night) but as people have said to me many times in the past "Life goes on" and it does; there's no denying it. Life has carried on even though so many of my loved ones are no longer here. Life has gone on for the families of the people who died that day too, although not the life they had planned, or would have wanted.
The reason I'm talking about it now, on this freezing cold January day, is because I have just finished watching a TV show titled 'Anne'. Based on the life (post Hillsborough) of a lady called Anne Williams, who lost her son Kevin on that fateful day; he was just 15 years old. The battles she fought, alongside the families of the others who lost their lives, to bring forth justice was relentless. It's hard to watch as some of the footage is actual footage from the day, yet it's also something I think people should watch; not just to remember those who lost their lives, but because I honestly believe it could easily happen again.
I don't believe it could happen at a football game for there are no longer barriers around the edge of the pitch which is what contributed to so many lives lost (I'd also like to think that the police and stadium owners have learned from both Bradford and Hillsborough) however, I've been to many a concert/gig where people have been crushed against barriers, and other people. Thankfully nobody has ever been hurt at such an event that I've been too, but it could happen. I believe a few months ago a couple of people were killed in the same way at a rappers gig in the USA. I remember going to see U2 (don't judge) in the mid 90's on the Zooropa tour. We were right at the front of Wembley Stadium, pushed up against the barriers. Thankfully they were waist height so if needs be we would have been able to get over them, however, where would we have gone once we'd got over for there was only a pathway of around 6ft between the barriers and the stage which was above our heads. What if the crowds on the pitch in that stadium had pushed forwards, or those in the stands had decided they wanted to get in on the standing pitch action? There were 100000 people in Wembley that day. The barriers in front of us could have come down and those at the front could have been crushed.
I've been at rock gigs where the band have actively encouraged the crowd to go crazy in the mosh pit, thus encouraging people from the back to surge forwards. People have ended up on the floor being trampled on as a result of this. Just because (unlike Hillsborough) the standing area is never filled to capacity now, does not mean that having standing at such events could well be "an accident waiting to happen". I no longer book tickets for any event unless they are seated. I'd like to think nothing like Hillsborough will ever happen again, but I won't specifically put myself in the position where it might.
Those 96 people went to a football match, 94 of them on the day never went home again. The tragedy was avoidable.