On the 15th of April 1989 I was at a football match in Glasgow. It was one of hundreds of matches I’d attended by then, I was 18 and going to ‘the football’ was something I’d done since I was at primary school. Unusually for me I was in the ‘The Jungle’ at Parkhead that day, it was the first time I’d ever been in that famous stand. It was a Scottish Cup Semi Final against St Johnstone, in those days they didn’t play 2 matches on consecutive days at Hampden so Parkhead was chosen as the neutral venue. I don’t remember much about the match itself, a nothing each draw that went to a replay, but I’ll never forget the day. The ‘Jungle’ was like a lot of terraces I visited in those days. Big, open, barely stewarded and poorly policed built in the Victorian era and upgraded in the 60s it was still controlled by men who Dickens would have thought twice of creating for believing their avarice might have been a fiction too far.
There was of course no mobile phones, no Facebook or Twitter, but there were ‘tranny men’ guys who had small transistors with them and would be constantly pestered for scores from other matches during the game. From them word started spreading that there had been some sort of incident at a match in Sheffield. Over-crowding, people being crushed, even talk of deaths, although no one was sure, was being passed around like macabre Chinese whispers. What did seem clear was the match in England being played at the same time as the one I was at had been held up.
The official attendance at Parkhead that day was given as 47,374 although as anyone who attended matches in those days knows it was always a good few thousand more. A blind eye was turned by everyone to this type of fraud, indeed it was the subject of comedy, everyone knew and no one really cared how many people were actually squashed in, as long as they’d paid.
After all, we were only football fans.
Leaving Parkhead after the match is all I really remember of the match. I’m not even sure who I was with although I could guess, it was a social event and I went with the same four or five people every week. As always happened at the end of a match thousands of people turned as one and headed for the poorly marked and criminally small exits. A crush ensued, being literally carried off your feet was commonplace and it happened that day. Most if not all the Rangers supporters around me had never been in the Jungle before, we didn’t know the layout, where the exits were or how steep it would be. No one in authority cared; there were no police or stewards around anyway.
The exit involved funnelling thousands of people through a small passage, with a wall on one side and a fence on the other. It was bedlam, it was frightening but it wasn’t unusual, it was the same when you went to Tynecastle or Easter Road or Tannadice. I remember hearing a girl break her leg in a crush at East End Park in Dunfermline during a match once. The sound will live with me forever, she had to be passed down over people’s heads because medics couldn’t get through the mass of bodies in front of her.
That’s just how it was, more fool us for accepting it I suppose. Ibrox of course wasn’t like that, but it took the deaths of 66 people in the early 1970s for that to happen.
As everyone now knows that day in Sheffield, 96 men, women and children were killed at a football match, crushed to death in an open terrace. Ninety six people, think about that number for a minute. That’s more people than were killed in the Charlie Hebdo or recent Brussels terrorist attacks. These were people who went to see a football match and never came home.
On Tuesday, something that most of us have long suspected and a few have always known, the law finally accepted that they were unlawfully killed. It took this time because those responsible covered it up, there is no other way to describe what happened. People made mistakes or were criminally negligent and rather than accept that they covered their tracks and blamed the dead. They were abetted in this by large numbers of the media and politicians.
The victims were only football fans after all. The victims were demonised and the survivors were blamed for their deaths. Football wasn’t the omnipresent, class-bridging, super Sunday, bet in-play commercial love-in it is now, in those days football fans were regularly described as animals, and worse.
So the next time you hear someone describe the supporter of another football team as ‘scum’ or ‘sub-human’ or ‘Neanderthal’ pull them up as that language eventually leads to people being treated that way. And the next time you hear a politician or a policeman asking for your trust, particularly when it involves your life, check who is going to hold them responsible, and how, first. People in power will lie rather than face an unpalatable truth, people in power will blame those without power and it usually takes a generation before that can eventually be proved.
Stadiums have improved, stewarding is much better and policing too, but the attitudes of the authorities towards football supporters still leaves a lot to be desired. Football supporters are still treated differently from the rest of society, never forget where that road has led in the past.
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