Let us never forget. On 11th April 1981 Tottenham met Wolves in the FA Cup semi final at Hillsborough, the home of Sheffield Wednesday, which was regularly used for big games. It is my intention to mark the event without comment. The Tottenham fans had been allocated the (smaller) Leppings Lane end despite having a larger average gate than the Wolves.
I will start with a couple of accounts from people present that day. One fan later wrote to the Minister of Sport saying that when he arrived at 2.15pm they were ‘herded into the corner of an enclosure. It was uncomfortable then but stewards and police kept pushing more and more supporters in from the back and by kick off the situation was terrifying.’ The kick off had been delayed fifteen minutes, with both sets of fans approaching from the south which had caused delays. He continued ‘Women and children were being crushed. I felt my ribs cracking. Not until 3.10pm did the police become aware of the dangerous situation and began letting people on to the touchline.’
Another fan present told the Daily Mirror, he had taken up a position behind one of the barriers but the pressure from the crowd was so intense that he became pinned against it. He managed to pull himself slightly higher as he was having trouble breathing and remained with his feet off the floor for most of the afternoon.
Almost as soon as the game had started some fans were climbing up the fencing and over into the playing area. The police said that the situation had been compounded by two goals being scored in the first eleven minutes and the crowd pressing forward.
The film of the game shows the referee, Clive Thomas, stopping the game after ten minutes to talk to ground officials. Shortly after this the gates were opened to allow more fans to spill onto the cinder track. The 2012 report into the latter disaster however states that it was the inspector positioned in that area who radioed for permission to open the gates, when he failed to get a reply he took it upon himself to order them opened.
The rest of the game was played out with an estimated five hundred Spurs fans sitting around the edge of the ground. At half time the police encouraged them to squeeze into the Wolves end of the ground but most declined. Thirty eight Spurs fans required treatment that day, several having suffered fractures. There were reports that people were ‘passing out’ standing up and that others became hysterical. Some year’s later one person who was present that day told me he had come through unharmed but he had been able to move and it was the scariest moment of his life.
After the incident Spurs fans wrote to THFC, Wednesday and the FA seeking an investigation. A FA Spokesman said they would ask Wednesday and the police for their comments and added ‘there may be a simple reason such as 5,000 forged tickets or a printing error.’ I won’t comment except I have never seen any evidence to support either of these points.
The TV footage was shown to the jury at The Hillsborough inquest when that happened eight years later. The 1981 incident was referred to in the 2012 independent panel report on the later 1989 disaster. It stated that at 2.10pm the congestion had become severe and the chief steward had ordered an exit opened and fans were admitted via this route (all tickets were checked).
The report continues that Sheffield Wednesday were latter critical of the police in permitting fans to climb over the fence, the police felt they had acted in the interests of public safety. The club also were critical of the police in allowing fans to sit on the cinder track. The police reported these fans were well behaved. The club however felt it made the ground look untidy. The police had said they felt there had been a real chance of fatalities.’ To which the club spokesman replied ‘Bollocks, no one would have been killed.’
The turnstile records showed that 435 people had been admitted over the official capacity. In addition some Spurs fans in the Wolves end had also been moved, thought to be in the range of 400.
As I stated I set out to simply mark the event and not find any fault. It is extremely hard not to experience a range of emotions re-reading the evidence. As someone who has been swept along on the terraces by the wave of people more than once I can say I was never so pleased to miss a game. This account is drawn from the press reports based on fans recollections and the later 2012 independent panel report into the 1989 disaster. If anyone feels this evidence isn’t complete then you’re invited to comment.
As we all know on 15th April 1989 the same Leppins Lane end was the scene of the disaster that cost 96 lives and ruined many others. I’d like to dedicate this article to Andrew Sefton, a 23 year old Spurs fan who died that day.
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note - There are several photos of fans climbing the fencing that day but after deliberation I didn't not to use them.
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