Victims of a football tragedy: I raised my binoculars, then wished I hadn't

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The Independent Online
I CAN'T remember who won the toss, kicked off, or even which strip Forest wore - I think it was white - but I do remember Beardsley, in a matter of seconds, hitting the bar at our end. The goal kick, quickly taken, was fed through to Nigel Clough, who won a corner at the other.

Suddenly the Forest fans were howling abuse at the Liverpool crowd: near where the corner kick was being taken, their supporters were coming over the fence; the six- foot, Wednesday-blue pens built to prevent a pitch invasion. Memories of Heysel flashed through my mind. A pitch invasion? It went on and on; at six minutes past three, in response to Bruce Grobbelaar waving wildly from the goal mouth, the referee took the players off the pitch.

The rage of the Forest supporters was infectious; we couldn't understand why they were coming over the fence. I remembered my binoculars and put them up: I wish I hadn't.

A sort of stunned disbelief took hold. I was looking at the body of a man, laid out in the goal mouth at the Liverpool end. He was quite still. Other bodies were brought on to the pitch, some motionless, some receiving frantic attention from those around them. We began to think there had been a riot, but it made no sense. Why would they fight among themselves? Some people who had escaped from what seemed like a wall of humanity behind the pens came towards the Forest end, shouting inaudibly at us. One young man with a scarf knotted around his wrist was screaming at us and jabbing his finger behind him. An old man in a suit and raincoat staggered towards us, then dropped to his knees near our penalty spot and opened his arms. He was crying. A section of our crowd began to chant and jeer, and I felt ashamed. It was 3.30pm.

This was lunacy. What the hell was going on? As more people were laid on the pitch and the frantic activity increased, a dozen or so Liverpool fans began to run towards our end. They veered off to our right and began to tear down the pitch-side advertising hoardings. What was happening?

Archie Gemmill, Graham Kelly and some others came on to the pitch, approaching the Kop, mouthing soundless words and making calm-down gestures. Surely it was the other side that should calm down? Archie Gemmill threw down his plastic cup in disgust and went back up the tunnel: 3.40pm.

The Liverpool half of the pitch was filling up with bodies and crowds escaping from the terraces. Incredibly, with hindsight, it took until 40 minutes after the players left the pitch for most of the Forest crowd to comprehend that there had been serious injuries, even deaths. There had been no public address messages. There must have been hundreds of off-duty nurses, doctors and paramedics in the crowd. But we couldn't get to the pitch to help.

At 4pm the mood was sullen. We were a captive audience of 10,000 on the Kop watching the horror unfold. The Liverpool fans were still tearing down the hoardings with their bare hands and using them as stretchers to carry off the casualties. A disorganised gaggle of uniformed police officers formed a loose cordon across the halfway line in an attempt to prevent the Liverpool fans from straying too close to where we were. An ageing ambulance bearing the St John insignia appeared from behind the Kop, trundling and jolting along the pitch side track to where the casualties lay.

4.20pm, and the public address system, for the first time since just before kick-off, crackled into life. Kenny Dalglish told us of the tragedy, called for calm and order, and asked us to leave the ground quietly. You could hear the strain in his voice.

We weren't talking much: neutral things, practical stuff. Our crowd started to ease itself out towards the gates at either end of the Kop. Our path took us behind the goal mouth, where a man's body had been laid. There was a blue jacket over his face.

We shuffled over the terraces, down the steps and out into Hillsborough Road, quite unprepared for the next sight. Hillsborough Road is a long, straight, wide dual-carriageway. For maybe a quarter of a mile, or as far as the eye could see, there were rows and rows of ambulances, blue lights flashing, engines off, waiting. It was surreal. What was shocking was that we'd heard no sirens, hadn't heard them arrive.

The journey back was a nightmare: cars were going too fast or too slow. My friend drove; how he managed to concentrate I don't know. When I got home I told my wife I thought there were around 60 dead now; she looked at me gently and told me there were more than 90. I just went to pieces for a while.

The following Saturday I went to Nottingham's Old Market Square to observe the silence at six minutes past three. The square was packed with people, many wearing football colours of the local and other clubs. There was a lot of grief. Later still, I went to the Forest ground with my family, and left my favourite Celtic scarf on the stadium gates with the hundreds of other club scarves and flowers.

Some weeks afterwards, many found it helpful to attend the memorial service held at St Mary's; I certainly did. The quiet and dignified procession of Forest players, club officials, and the manager and his wife somehow brought a small point of reference after the chaos.

After writing this piece, I went up to Sheffield to revisit the ground. A club official wasn't inclined to let me spend any time on the Kop, but directed me to the memorial outside the ground. On the way, I passed the Leppings Lane turnstiles, saw the notice on the forecourt, 'Ball games are forbidden in this area', and noticed the crowd crush barriers stacked neatly for match days round the corner.

I found a gate open near the Sports Hall, and went into the ground anyway. It looked smaller and tattier than I remembered. The main stand and its clock have been replaced. The Kop seemed much smaller; all- seater now. And the Leppings Lane end seemed much closer to where we'd been standing: too close for me, and I left.

The Taylor recommendations have made for some very pretty football stadiums, and I watched with pleasure as Forest and Notts rebuilt their grounds. We still buy our season tickets, and get excited during cup runs, but it really is just a 'beautiful game': that's all it is, and not worth dying for.