Hillsborough: how the Liverpool v Nottingham Forest tragedy epitomised a rotten era

It seems appropriate to make this the briefest of introductions and let Pete Sixsmith speak for himself and for a generation of football supporters treated shamefully by authority …

I can’t imagine how the relatives of the 96 really felt yesterday as a jury made it perfectly clear that those responsible for their loved ones deaths were the 80s establishment and not those who had gone to Sheffield to watch their football team in a FA Cup semi final.

It must, I suppose, have been a mixture of satisfaction that someone has been brought to task for the events of that dreadful day and profound sadness and heartbreak that it ever happened at all.

Going over it in my amateurish and probably clumsy way will not serve those who died so unnecessarily on that awful day and I would refer you to The Guardian’s David Conn for a definitive piece in this morning’s paper (Wednesday April 27) that leaves you upset and angry in equal proportions.

Since the disaster took place, the culture around football stadiums and within the police has changed for the better. No longer are supporters treated as scum as they were in that Thatcher decade where anyone who challenged the perceived wisdom of a Tory party convinced that it would rule for ever and ever, were dismissed as “the enemy within”.

Miners, steelworkers, the poor, football fans, were all dismissed as failures and those from the declining cities of the North even more so.

Street sign, 25 years after Hillsborough
Street sign, 25 years after Hillsborough

Two anecdotes from that period may help younger readers understand why, in so many ways, the era of Monty and Rupert, clappers and half and half scarves, are an improvement on that dismal decade – one of Thatcher, Wham and Jimmy Saville.

In 1988 we were in the old Third Division and, under Dennis Smith, were heading back to Division Two. We had been top from the October 20, when a Gary Owers goal saw us triumph over Bristol City at Ashton Gate, until the end of February, when we lost at Aldershot, thanks to a winner from Steve Berry, probably the most anonymous midfielder in our history and a man who made Steve Doyle resemble Zinedine Zidane.

On the March 26, we visited Smith’s old club, York City the week after a 1-1 draw with promotion rivals Notts County. It was an important game for both; York were struggling in the relegation zone and for Smith, his assistant Viv Busby (he of the two Norwich goals 10 years previously), John Mc Phail (he of the hitched up shorts) and Marco Gabbiadini (he of the stupendous thighs) it was a return to a club where they were seen as heroes.

There was a large away following. York was no distance away, it had fine pubs and a win was in the offing that would put us firmly back on top. Bootham Crescent’s capacity was around 8,000 and in this day and age, it would be a certain all-ticket game. It wasn’t in 1988.

Located in the open end of the ground, the away turnstiles were besieged by Sunderland fans, some of whom had purchased advance tickets and some who had not. By 2.45 the crush on the terracing was intense and supporters asked that a gate leading to a paddock next to the small Main Stand be open to allow people in, thereby avoiding a crush. Police and stewards said no and the mood turned ugly and, for some being squeezed against the high fence at the front of the terracing, distinctly unpleasant.

Pleas continued to be made, refusals continued to be given and more people came in through the turnstiles, exceeding the capacity of the terrace. Clearly, the police did not want disaffected Wearsiders roaming around the city and terrorising the occupants of Betty’s Tea Rooms.

Eventually some took it into their own hands to force the gate and allow the crush to ease itself as people spread out in order to watch the game. By this time, the police were so worried that they allowed those who were where they shouldn’t be to stay where they were. A mini Hillsborough was avoided but no thanks to the culture of policing that existed then.

We lost the game 2-1, with a Scots winger called Dougie McGuire making his only appearance for Sunderland. Whatever happened to him?

Pete Sixsmith: often loud, never a threat (except in the imaginations of Greater Manchester police

The other anecdote is a personal one and took place six months later at Maine Road. Back in Division Two, we had started reasonably well and took a big following to promotion seeking Manchester City.

A group of us travelled by train and met others in Manchester and ended up taking refreshments in The Eagle in Greengates, close to Victoria Station.

Taxis were summonsed for the ride to Moss Side and we were separated on arrival at the ground. One group was dropped off at the Platt Lane End where visiting fans were housed on wooden benches with a huge fence in front of them, while the other was dropped off on the club car park in front of the huge Main Stand.

I was part of the second group and we went into the main stand as there were no queues. We paid our money and sat two thirds of the way back and had a splendid view of Gordon Armstrong ramming home an equaliser.

I jumped up to salute this, sat down and was immediately grabbed by a police officer who said: “Come on, let’s have you out of here now and in with your own lot.”

There was no “Excuse me sir, I think you might be more comfortable with your fellow Sunderland fans” just a hostile approach and one which annoyed me.

To cut a long story short, I had words with him, he had words with me and I ended up being ejected from the ground, placed in a police van and driven to Hyde police station where I was charged with causing “Alarm, Harassment and Distress”. I was eventually released in order to catch a train home.

The newly formed Crown Prosecution Service decided to pursue the case which, had I been found guilty, would have ended my teaching career. I appeared in front of Manchester Magistrates and, thanks to an excellent solicitor (a Mag, but never mind) and a pack of lies told by the two arresting officers, I was found Not Guilty.

Both officers, one an experienced sergeant, the other a callow constable, had clearly collaborated on their contemporaneous notes and my solicitor was able to pick them up on this. Clearly, the prosecution of a noisy but not aggressive football fan was meat and drink to the Greater Manchester Police, whose Chief Constable at the time, James Anderton, was a strict moralist with hard-line views on crime and policing.

The Chief Constable of South Yorkshire, Peter Wright, was from the same mould; officers’ accounts at the time of Hillsborough were co-ordinated; pleas for help from people inside and outside the stadiums went unheeded. I had witnessed all of this a year prior to Hillsborough. The culture of the period was that football fans were scum and should be treated as such and that the police were always right.

Incidentally, in my capacity as a newspaper delivery operative, I looked at the front pages of all the national dailies this morning. The Guardian, Mirror and Star all led with Hillsborough. The Telegraph, Mail and Express all flagged it up and pointed readers to detailed pieces. The Sun and its stable mate The Times had nothing.

* A second item, written by Mick Goulding, an occasional Salut! Sunderland contributor, who was present at the ill-fated Liverpool game, will appear shortly.

Street sign, 25 years after Hillsborough
Street sign, 25 years after Hillsborough

12 thoughts on “Hillsborough: how the Liverpool v Nottingham Forest tragedy epitomised a rotten era”

  1. I remember York City away well. Only time in over 50 years when I have genuinely felt scared in a football ground. How the wall at the rear of the Sunderland end remained intact is a miracle. Small, decrepit ground plus huge away following is a recipe for disaster.

    • Ken, you may have got responses if you had followed the word elaborate with “compensation,””early retirement,” or “trauma,” then they might have understood.

  2. I shudder every time you mention Aldershot Pete! Even nearly 30 years on.

    OAPs playing bowls behind the far goal. 2-0 up after 15 minutes and managed to lose, and mistaking the army sports facility for the Aldershot ground.

  3. Good article. One perhaps minor comment re your mention of The Times. The London edition had a large picture of the relatives on the front page, two pages of news and a major editorial in support of the victims.

  4. The police were terrible with football fans in the 1980’s. The West Midlands police had a terrible reputation too. Fanzines were always writing about them.

    Orgreave and Rotherham too. The police acted pretty much with impunity.

  5. Pete knows that I follow Queen’s Park in the Scottish second division. We were playing away at east fife and had all of sixty supporters there! The police and stewards ensured by threats of expulsion that all had to stay seated in case of a riot!! Yes, the Scottish police follow your English lead in policing !!
    Well done to the jury!!!

  6. Spot on Sixer. You might like to include the ‘Battle of Orgreave’ where miners were treated abominably by the police ,the culture of which found further expression at Hillsborough. A full Public Inquiry into those events needs to be made. I would urge everyone who can to access http://www.otjc.org.uk and furthermore to write to the Home Secretary so that the disgraceful behaviour of the South Yorkshire police can be fully exposed once and for all.

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