FAN'S EYE VIEW; No 145 Hillsborough: I wanted to be with other supporters sharing a common prayer

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The Independent Online
Saturday 15th April, 1989 is a date that sticks in the memory. Liverpool versus Nottingham Forest, FA Cup semi-final, Hillsborough, Sheffield. The memory sticks in the throat.

Some seven years on, the very mention of the name Hillsborough still instantly conjures up in the mind those nightmarish television images of panic; of tears of hopelessness; of sideways-turned faces squeezed against cage fencing; of advertising hoardings being used as stretchers for the injured, dead and dying; of sorrowful comforting; of tragedy.

All week Liverpool, Sheffield and Nottingham mourned as one, united by their shared experience. All week England mourned as one, united by the thought that there but for the grace of God go I. How I would have liked to have been supporting my team, Chelsea, in that semi-final. How grateful I now was that yet again they weren't good enough.

All through the week the people of Liverpool turned Anfield into a shrine. But for most football fans across the nation, the following Saturday was the first opportunity to show their grief, their shock, their horror and their support for the scarred and grieving.

I was staying away that weekend, and just as Remembrance Sunday draws me to church, I found myself drawn to a football match. I wanted to be with other supporters, showing respect, sharing a common prayer. So I went to watch Hereford United play Doncaster Rovers in a Fourth Division match that had no significance whatsoever, both having settled into positions just below half-way in the table. It is one of the most memorable events of my life. Hereford fielded a young Darren Peacock and Doncaster a not- so-young Gerry Daly.

Since I hadn't come to support either team I went through the first turnstile I came to. This was a mistake. Inside, I found a cage custom-designed for either orang-utangs or travelling supporters. There was plenty of space but, for the first time, I felt uneasy being behind bars in a football ground.

Beyond this chilly, shady area was sunshine and fence-free terracing and I managed to negotiate a transfer to a sunny spot among the home supporters. It was announced that the game would kick off at six minutes past three, the time the Liverpool v Forest match was stopped. The players and match officials stopped their warm-up exercises and gathered around the centre circle. A local vicar stood with them, a microphone in his hand, and the Salvation Army lined up on the touchline.

The service began to a congregation of 1,800 brethren of the family of football lovers. It was clear to all that this service was so much more important, so much more necessary than the football we'd paid to watch.

The vicar began, "Last Saturday football supporters gathered together, just as we are gathered here today, to watch a football match. They were ordinary people like you and me..."

I don't recall what he said next, my thoughts were already with those killed, maimed and mentally scarred on Leppings Lane. As he spoke, people in the seats began to stand up like a slow-motion Mexican wave. It was a deliberate, if unconscious, act of grief.

The vicar led the prayer. In Hereford Cathedral they would have knelt: at Hereford United they stood. It seemed right to stand, just as football fans had stood for over a century, just as those who had died had stood. We stood, we prayed, we remembered.

As we were asked to observe the silence, a young boy in front of me propped his inflatable skeleton against the crash barrier so that it was standing too, a chap near me stopped eating his pasty, another switched off the small radio that had seemingly been glued to his ear.

I looked around the ground. Heads were hung. I thought of the thousands around the country doing the same thing. Those dreadful images flashed across my mind again making me squirm. I thought of the times I'd been in a crush situation: at Stamford Bridge, Upton Park, Old Trafford, Roker Park, Loftus Road and Wembley, I recalled struggling for breath in the urgency to get in to see Chelsea v New York Cosmos. This led me, perhaps irreverently, to thoughts of the display Johan Cruyff put on and Butch Wilkins' brilliant late equaliser. But somehow such footballing memories seemed appropriate: the dead of Hillsborough loved their football too.

When the vicar spoke again, he invited us to sing "Abide With Me". Apparently song sheets had been handed out at the turnstiles, but I had missed out. The Sally Army struck up and the vicar led the singing. He sang from his heart. The crowd sang from theirs.

When the band stopped playing there was a further 10 second silence. In Hereford Cathedral they would have then sat down in silence: at Hereford United they started applauding. The ground reverberated to the kind of handclapping more likely to be heard in the theatre. But it seemed fitting and was uplifting.

The match was a regular enough affair. Hereford went 2-0 up before Doncaster pulled one back. Their fans celebrated by shaking their inflatable bananas and by climbing up the zoo cage. We all knew the fences had to come down.