Ahead of our FA Cup 5th Round trip to the capital, Paul Harley follows up his piece on the Basque refugees, with his reflections on the Hillsborough tragedy and three Norwich away games in the 1980s

I went to Villa Park on April 15th 1989 to watch Norwich play Everton in the forgotten FA Cup semi-final. It was a strange day. Kevin, Steve, Adam and I, all Barclay regulars, arrived at Thorpe Station to take the Football Special. When we arrived it was surprisingly quiet and we soon learned why ... the news was that Robert Fleck’s father had died and Flecky wouldn’t be in the team. The Norwich fans were lining up. There were no rousing cries of “Wemberley - Wemberley” or choruses of “On the Ball City” - there was an almost funereal air as we contemplated the absence of one of our favourites and thought about his sadness and loss.

The atmosphere had been very different the last time I had travelled on a Football Special. In 1982 I went to Hillsborough to see the last game of the season against Sheffield Wednesday. It was to decide whether we’d be promoted back to the First Division. Then there had been a happy atmosphere from the start. People milled around singing in anticipation of a great day out. The immense presence of Duncan Forbes, standing on a soapbox, voice booming out  in his Scottish brogue brought us respectfully to order as he personally organised who went on which train. At Hillsborough Station the charmless and aggressive West Yorkshire police had escorted us from the station to the Leppings Lane End. They had not allowed us to enter local shops and the only drink we could buy at the ground on that sweltering hot day was hot Bovril. Despite our 2-1 defeat we were promoted, and in our joy we did the conga on the train on the journey back. It had been a fantastic day out and we knew were back up.

Seven years later the journey to Villa Park was excellent - we found ourselves a first class compartment; we were well equipped with a huge picnic lunch, wine in a plastic bottle (to defeat the alcohol ban),  and a couple of hip flasks. We passed the twin towers of Wembley, and speculated on whether it would be the closest we got to seeing it this season. We were optimistic. We reached Birmingham ninety minutes before kick off.

We were met by the police and when a few of us started singing two or three of them - living up to a stereotype by looking no more than eighteen - told people to shut up. It wasn’t as though we were in a residential area, terrifying little old ladies. The chants were certainly not offensive. We were just an ordinary expectant group of fans going to a cup semi-final . But no singing! They escorted us to the ground in bad humour.

We entered the ground and were quickly frisked. We stood at the Holte Road End - a massive terrace that holds 22,000 (11,000 Norwich, a fence and 11,000 Everton). There were two entrances to our part of the terrace and not a steward or policeman in sight. People squeezed up and down the one main gangway. We eventually settled in, squashed, and enjoyed the atmosphere.

Not long after the kick off news flashed up that the start to the other FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough (Liverpool v Forest ) had been delayed. To our disappointment City went a goal down against the run of play. I caught something from a nearby radio - 4 dead at Hillsborough but it didn’t really register. I was watching the game, though now I remember little about it. We lost 1-0. We’d not created much, but neither had Everton. Southall had done so much time-wasting .“You cheating Scouser bastards”, I remember us chanting at one stage.

We flooded out of the ground. Kevin had his radio on. The news was still unclear but it was dawning on us - 5 o’clock sports report, 74 dead at Hillsborough. Quietly we returned to the station. We didn’t have much to cheer about, but this as well.- far more important…plus the sobering thought “There but for the grace of God...”

I had experienced something similar to what had happened at Hillsborough only a few weeks before. Certainly no-one died, but the potential for disaster was, in retrospect, definitely present. I went to see City in the FA Cup quarter-final at Upton Park in March 1989.  It had been a good day up until 2.45pm. We’d gone by car, picked up a hitch hiker, and had a drink in a pub about a mile from the ground. There were a few fans from both sides in there. A friendly old boy had played “Bubbles” on the organ in a corner and followed it with a song about carrot crunchers (Norwich bumpkins and all that) and then offered to accompany a song for one of a group of City supporters. Someone performed a brilliant comic song about a tube of Evo stick. He made weird and incredible sounds with his mouth - the pub clientele were in stitches and gave him an ovation.

We reached Upton Park at 2.45, fifteen minutes before kick-off. There was a huge scrum of people. The mass developed into a crush as we approached the ground. There were no lines and no police or stewards in sight. Our group of four was separated as we were squeezed by the pressure of the people behind us through the turnstiles and into the bowels of the stand. The delays were rumoured to be because the police were metal detecting each fan. There was one tunnel and we struggled out of it blinking in the light like frightened rabbits, dazzled by headlights. The game was already underway. I had to duck under the first crush barrier and, with massive difficulty and discomfort, sidled and edged towards a part of the ground where there was more space.

I suppose any rational being would ask, “why do people put up with this?” I don’t want to go into all the arguments - but clearly the stereotyping of all standing fans as potential trouble-makers had lead to us getting a worse and worse deal. Standing fans are treated like cattle even to the extent of being caged in - to final and tragic effect at Hillsborough. Of course there is an element among some fans whose behaviour at matches is mindless and moronic, but only a tiny one. After the match at West Ham many of us complained to the police about what happened. We told them about our concerns and worries. They were not interested. I was angry about their response. I had felt very frightened, powerless, swept along, my feet barely touching the ground.

At least this year [1989] fans are finding their voice. There are the fanzines, the Football Supporters Association and the inflatables - inflatable canaries, inflatable bananas, inflatable bloaters (Grimsby Town) and inflatable hammers. What could be less threatening than a crowd waving inflatable canaries? (I never got mine - they’d sold out). And yet football is run by grey suits with no vision. They seem to think they can treat fans like animals because, in the end we will put up with just about anything to see our team.

When I got home that fateful semi-final day, I watched the video of the Road to Wembley. As I saw the pictures for the first time on television I began to understand the enormity of what happened at Hillsborough. I gazed blankly at the screen in complete silence as the tragedy unfolded and seeped into me, until I could watch no more. I went to bed numbed by the chaos and death, thankful that I had been at the forgotten semi final.

This was written shortly after the FA Cup semi finals of April 1989, the day of the Hillsborough disaster. The following week all the fences which prevented fans from going onto the pitch were removed from football grounds. During the 1990s, following the Taylor Report, all-seater stadia were introduced in the top two divisions, despite resistance from many supporters who still wanted to stand (including me). The spontaneity of deciding to go to a game about an hour before kick off and stand on the terraces with your friends had gone.


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