Peter Hooton was the lead singer of The Farm and also edited influential Liverpool fanzine The End.
It started like any other morning. A bright crisp spring morning, the beauty of the Snake Pass in the Peak District was breathtaking, as we travelled to the FA Cup semi-final being held at Hillsborough, Sheffield between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Little did we know that the coming day would forever change our lives and the game we loved.
After an uneventful journey, we arrived at the ground at about 2pm as we had done the previous year, at the same venue against the same team. Only this year things were different, outside the Leppings Lane it was absolute chaos.
The year before the police had appeared organised with a cordon checking tickets at the end of the road. This year things seemed to have gone badly wrong, with one or two mounted policemen in the middle of a massed motionless crowd. It was the sight no football fan wanted to see outside a ground: non-existent queues, no obvious police presence and no stewards. I had been in these situations many times before outside the Kop during the 70s prior to all-ticket games, and outside many away grounds – most notably Wolves in 1976 and of course Wembley, especially against Everton in 1986.
I knew the futility of getting into a crowd and trying to get to a turnstile! You panic, you sweat, you struggle to breathe and just as you get to within touching distance of the entrance you are sure to hit by a sway that takes you back to where you started. So I decided to go and get something to eat from a nearby shop and wait for the police to get their act together.
By 2.30pm it became obvious the situation wasn’t going to get any better. So I reluctantly entered the crowd. It must be emphasised these were Liverpool fans with tickets, the touts I talked to that day were struggling, business was as they say “on the floor” compared to the same lucrative match the year before. This was not a ticketless crowd trying to bunk in or force the authorities to open the gates, this was a good-humoured crowd who deserved proper organisation, who wanted it, who were demanding it. Alas it was not forthcoming!
After ten to fifteen minutes of movement, invariably sideways and getting no nearer to the turnstiles, I saw fans climbing onto the turnstiles screaming at the police inside the ground to do something. Nothing happened. By 2.55pm, a sway took me to within inches of the turnstile. This was it; I was in, relief, emotion, I could hear the teams coming out onto the pitch, the roar of the crowd, another few agonising steps and I had made it.
Once inside, I was met by a jovial group of policemen, I told them in no uncertain terms that somebody was going to die outside the ground unless they did something quickly. They had to open the gates, I pleaded. I wasn’t the only one. Most people, who staggered through the turnstiles due to sheer exhaustion, were also telling the police to get their act together. The common consensus was that they had to do something otherwise there would be a fatality or serious injuries outside the ground.
Either side of the Leppings Lane end were stairs into the side sections (which we now know were nearly empty). The gaping black hole of the Leppings Lane tunnel lead directly into the middle of the already packed terracing. No-one could have imagined the consequences of heading into that tunnel. The simple solution to such congestion would have been for club stewards and/or police to block off the central tunnel and funnel fans to the side sections. I had a ticket for the North stand so I went left but if I had had a ticket for the terraces I would have certainly gone into that tunnel.
Once inside I think I saw Liverpool hit the bar as I certainly know the game had already started before I found my seat. After a couple more minutes, a fan appeared on the pitch. He seemed unsteady on his feet, nobody had the faintest idea of what was happening and then more and more people spilled out onto the pitch.
The referee took the players off. I didn’t think trouble, I immediately thought overcrowding. The Leppings Lane had been uncomfortable the year before and was well known in football circles for being a crap end. More and more people started to fill the pitch and Forest fans began to sing “You Scouse bastards” thinking that this was indeed a pitch invasion.
It soon became obvious that something more serious was happening but still the enormity of the tragedy could not have been imagined. After 20 minutes or so, an ambulance appeared at the opposite end of Leppings Lane and drove along the edge of the pitch. Around about the same time the police inexplicably set up a cordon across the halfway line. About 50 or so policemen stood there throughout the duration as the tragedy unfolded, making jovial smalltalk and passing the time of day. Presumably, some of these people would have had first-aid skills but were under orders to stay on the halfway line. I know this because at 3.30pm I went onto the pitch and asked them why they were standing there and what was happening. It soon became obvious as the injured, dying and deceased were carried on the advertising hoardings, the vivid image we now know so well.
Most people on the pitch that day were bewildered, feeling either hopeless, confused or inadequate. I saw heroes that day and the majority were not in uniform. The real heroes that day were the ordinary Liverpool fans who seemed to take control of the operation, taking casualties to the opposite end of the pitch and laying the fans in the penalty area, in front of the Hillsborough Kop.
As the Liverpool fans tried to revive lifeless bodies, I felt totally inadequate. I tried to convince myself that these people had simply lost consciousness but in my heart of hearts I think I knew they were dead. The line of police looked on. Some people refused to give up pumping chests of complete strangers or maybe loved ones, giving the kiss of life to fellow Liverpool fans as the line of the police looked on.
The heroes of April 15 1989 were the ordinary Liverpool fans. Whoever you were; I salute you, your role in the tragedy unbelievably tarnished by the gutter press cover-up the following week.
That day, that night, that week, that year, that decade, I was inconsolable. But I was also proud to be a Liverpudlian. I had witnessed the selflessness, courage and dignity you afforded the dead and dying before they were handed over to the authorities. 96 RIP.