Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Sgt. Pepper Taught The Band To Play

Twenty years ago today, I headed off to Selhurst Park, hoping to see Crystal Palace pick up an important three points in their match against Portsmouth. Palace were third in the old Division Two, and hoping to catch Manchester City for that second automatic promotion spot. Chelsea had already locked up the first.

A couple of hundred miles north, and other football fans were headed to Hillsborough, Sheffield, where Liverpool were playing Nottingham Forest in an FA Cup Semi-Final.

I returned home after the Palace game, and life went on as normal. For 95 Liverpool fans, that afternoon was the last one of their lives.

My memories of that day are that at some point during the first half, word started filtering through the stand at Palace that there had been some problems at Hillsborough. I made my way up to the players lounge and watched the chaotic scenes unfolding live on TV. As with most disasters, the death toll started with a low number of unconfirmed deaths, followed by higher and higher numbers of confirmed deaths, before the final toll of 95 was reached. The death toll rose to 96 many months later when the last victim passed away.

I think that for all football fans of that era, this tragedy felt particularly close to home. Most of us had probably been in crowds where more people than was safe were crammed into enclosed areas. Certainly, following Palace, one had to expect big crowds at every game. It was all a bit of a laugh back then, surging back and forth with ones feet barely touching the ground, and in my youthful naiveté, I for one never seriously thought that I was in any danger.

The Ibrox Disaster of 1971 (66 dead) happened when I was too young to really understand it, and I certainly don’t recall the one of 1902 (26 dead). Nor indeed the one of 1946 at Burnden Park, although a former girlfriend’s mother was at that game and told me that the thing she remembered about it was all the shoes lying on the ground. The bodies of 33 dead had been removed, but the shoes remained.

Back to 1989 and the following day, I remember the TV showing clubs pulling down the fences that surrounded the pitches in those days. I don’t miss those, but I do miss the standing areas at football grounds which were lost as a result of the inquiry into the disaster. I rarely attend games these days, but it still doesn’t seem right to be sitting down.

Life goes on, and a year later, and Liverpool were again in an FA Cup Semi-Final, this time against my own Crystal Palace. Standing on the Holte End watching Palace win an extra-time thriller 4-3 was probably the zenith of my Palace supporting days, - we lost the final, although we did win the Zenith Data Systems Cup Final at Wembley a year later. (Never before, in the history of blogging, has the word ‘zenith’ been used so many times in one sentence).


PhilipH said...

Yes, football has some tragic episodes etched into the history of the game: Hillsborough, Ibrox and, of course, the Man U plane crash disaster.

I used to go to Palace home games at Selhurst Park way back when and apart from the Millwall derbys I do not recall any overcrowding in the late 1940s and 1950s. However, I went to a London match in the early 1950s, 'Spurs v Arsenal and that was quite a scary event. I was literally crushed between my mate and others on the terraces behind one of the goals. It was impossible to move! Jammed shoulder to shoulder unable to even drag an arm above one's head at times.

There were times when the crowd behind sort of craned forwards as the ball came towards our goal end and the whole mass of people were forced forwards, like a tsunami wave pushing down on us. Then we would ease upright again as the moment passed.

I never again went to a 1st Division London match again!


Cassini said...

I guess the big crowds started at Palace in the 1960s then... We have the record attendance for a fourth division game (v Millwall) and over 51,000 attended our inauguration as "Team of the 80s" v Burnley in May 1979.