HILLSBOROUGH: I’m not going to add to the emotive welter of words today. Anyone who follows me on twitter will know I’ve been soap-boxing for days about the scandal of the failings on the day, the institutional hostility to fans from the police, the systematic cover-up that followed and the wilful ignorance who supporters who swallowed the black propaganda and used the bodies to score points against Liverpool fans and smear the Justice campaign.
But to illustrate just how routinely supporters were treated like cattle here’s another chance to read a flashback I did a few years back to (one of) Ayresome’s near misses.
FOR A few dark minutes in December 1989 Boro fans dreaded that they may be witnessing a football tragedy unfold at Ayresome Park.
Just six months after the 96 deaths at Hillsborough had left the game in a state of shock, they were confronted with the sight of ordinary supporters – not ‘yobs’ ‘ hooligans’ or even ‘the lads’ but mundane everyday fans including women and kids – being crushed right up against spiked fences while the gates remained locked. There was genuine icy fear that someone would get killed in the away pen.
Half an hour into the high-stakes Second Division showdown, Boro supporters stood transfixed in apprehensive silence as scores of terrified Leeds fans in the heaving Clive Road corner away enclosure were forced to risk the vicious rotating spikes and scramble over onto the pitch.
Screaming children were hoisted over the vicious spikes and stretcher bearers raced over to help the injured. Others climbed over the segregation fences into adjacent home areas to escape the growing crush at the front of the pen while stewards and police hesitated and stood looking at the unfolding crisis.
Boro fans, more atuned to crowd dynamics than the police after having often been in very similar circumstances – an occupational hazard for travelling supporters in those dark days of crumbling grounds dotted with lethal cages – started to chant an accusatory insistent chorus of: “you don’t know what you’re doing”.
Angry Leeds fans later claimed it was five minutes before gates in the fence were opened to relieve the pressure. It felt a lot longer. A long, powerless era of waiting and hoping.
Title-chasing Leeds had sold all their ticket allocation so the game kicked off with the 2,108 capacity away pen already a tight squeeze. But the problems were soon deepened as Carl Shutt took advantage of some sloppy defending in the Boro box to fire Leeds ahead after just 10 minutes and it quickly became obvious that there were scores, if not hundreds, of visiting fans mingling in the crowd on the Holgate.
It was easily done, pay on the gate, no tell-tale alien accents if you had only travelled from Thirsk or Whitby or Northallerton as many had. And there were plenty of ‘Teesside Whites’ dotted around, people who didn’t want to go in the ‘away’ end in case they were detained or marched off and put on a train to Leeds after the game.
Police were quickly into the Holgate end to take out the pockets of celebrating Leeds fans and to avoid potential flashpoints. They did that bit well. It was routine. Then with the game still in progress, they marched the problem down the touchline and past a baying Chicken Run paddock then – with the old unused Boys End empty and an obvious temporary overflow area – the Leeds fans were poured into the already heaving away pen.
Another good Leeds effort on the half-hour sparked a surge among the now sardined Leeds fans in the away end and led to dozens at the front being rammed up against the fence, crushed by the weight of their fellow supporters moving forward and struggling to escape as the pressure of the crowd built behind them.
With the problems quickly becoming obvious – after Hillsborough people seeped in football culture were more aware of the dangers in what was commonplace on the terrace – Leeds boss Howard Wilkinson was one of the first to react as he dashed over.
With the anxious Leeds bench, subs, the police and medical staff quickly congregating among the walking wounded, the referee called a halt to the game and players stood in huddles waiting for almost 15 minutes before the restart.
There were 19 Leeds fans who needed treatment, with five taken to hospital and one, a ten-year-old boy, detained overnight. It had been a lucky escape.
Then, again, as was the norm, the game went on. The incident barely made a paragraph in the match report in the Sports Gazette. On the pitch Boro were stung by a defeat that dropped them into the bottom three. After a bright start Leeds quickly took control and on six minutes a Sterland header was hooked off the line by Stuart Ripley before Shutt got the opener. Gordon Strachan – for yes, it was he – and Vinny Jones went close before Leeds got their second, unmarked Chris Fairclough heading in from a corner.
In the second half Leeds sat back and Boro beavered away to create some half-chances as Bernie Slaven headed just wide, then Trevor Putney broke into the box but fired straight at keeper Day – but there was no way back.
BORO: Poole, Parkinson, Mowbray, Simon Coleman, Cooper, Ripley, Proctor, Putney, Davenport, Kernaghan (Brennan 65), Slaven. Subs: McGee
LEEDS: Day, Sterland, Blake, Fairclough, Williams, Whitlow, Batty, Jones, Strachan, Pearson, Shutt. Subs: Haddock, Speed.
THANKS to the wonderful archive being slowly built up at miniboro.com, here’s how the crush was covered in Fly Me To The Moon back then. Scroll down to the FSA news article on Ayresome’s near miss. I have to declare an interest and say I probably wrote most of that article at the time.
It was a problem that fans were well aware of. Almost everyone who regularly travelled to games will have been in situations that were seen as completely normal but which looking back were in fact highly dangerous. The amazing thing is that more deaths did not occur.
I remember a night game at Sunderland when Boro fans were held back after the whistle because home fans were gathered outside preparing a reception. Fans who had already made their way down the steps from the Roker End were funnelled into a pitch black concourse under the stand, more and more forced in by police horses and jumpy baton wielding foot-soldiers, stumbling in the dark and jammed up against metal and concrete struts. If anyone had gone over it doesn’t bare thinking what may have happened.
I remember other crushes at Goodison. Elland Road. Derby. Norwich. And Ayresome, especially at night, in the small quadrangle outside the Holgate turnstiles as fans from the alley were piled in from behind. Incredible really. Incredible that police and clubs thought it was an appropriate form of crowd control and equally incredible we put up with it.