English Premiership

Hillsborough, 20 years on

2009-04-10 06:39
A Liverpool fan pays tribute to the 96 people who died on April 15, 1989. (AFP)

Paris - It would be remembered as one of the blackest days in British sport, but Saturday April 15, 1989, began as a perfect day for a game of football.

Bright blue skies greeted fans of Liverpool and Nottingham Forest who had travelled to the northern industrial city of Sheffield for an FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough, home of Sheffield Wednesday.

Mingled with the anticipation was a sense of deja vu.

The sides had met at the same ground at the same stage of the previous season's competition, Liverpool winning 2-1.

Despite bringing far more supporters, Liverpool were given the small Leppings Lane stand to the west of the stadium, with the larger Spion Kop behind the opposite goal taken over by Forest fans who had journeyed to the ground from the south.

The terraces behind the goal at the Leppings Lane end were split into pens, and by 2.30pm pens three and four, directly behind the goal, were already heaving with supporters.

"Looking around, I could see that fans older and clearly more seasoned than me were getting edgy," Liverpool fan and survivor Adrian Tempany told The Observer newspaper.

Roadworks had held up some Liverpool fans en route to the game, and with kick-off fast approaching thousands of supporters were stuck outside the turnstiles, pressing to get in.

This created a bottleneck effect and when it became clear that fans were in real danger of being hurt, police Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield made the fateful call to open Gate C in the security wall and release the pressure on those stuck outside.

The fans poured in, sweeping through the concourse that led to the terraces and straight into the already crowded pens behind the goal.

The result was catastrophic.

Penned in by the perimeter fencing at the front of the stand, 96 people in pens three and four were crushed to death.

"Within feet of me people were standing dead, bolt upright," Tempany said.

"The only comfort I could find was that thousands of people who were still alive were now shouting for help, screaming, 'There are people dead in here!'"

Oblivious to the unfolding tragedy, police allowed the game to kick off as scheduled at three o'clock.

"Four minutes into the game I had a shot that hit the crossbar," remembered Liverpool striker Peter Beardsley.

"Naturally, at the time I was disappointed. In hindsight, it was good that I didn't score, because people outside the ground heard the roar when I hit the bar and tried even harder to get into the terraces."

Very quickly, though, it became apparent that something had gone tragically wrong, as fans desperately sought to haul themselves over the fence or clamber into the tier above.

At six minutes past three the match was brought to a halt by the referee.

Finally police opened a gate in the perimeter fence, which separated the spectators from the pitch, and the pressure in the pens was eased.

Breathless fans spilled onto the grass and were soon ferrying their gravely injured friends across the pitch on makeshift stretchers fashioned from advertising hoardings.

Only one ambulance was allowed onto the pitch by the police, who were heavily criticised by Lord Justice Taylor in his report into the disaster for their failure to react to the situation.

The legacy of the Taylor Report would be the all-seater stadia that would one day make England the envy of the footballing world, but for those touched by the tragedy, the wounds would take much longer to heal.

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