Thursday 21 November 2019

'Like others, I was pleading with police to open the gates'

Peter Hooton

There was the tragedy and there was the smear , writes Peter Hooton who was at Hillsborough that fateful day

"Justice is truth in action"

Benjamin Disraeli

Leppings Lane was known among football fans as a bad end. It wasn't a place to stand on a good day. April 15, 1989 wasn't a good day.

When I turned up at Hillsborough on that Saturday afternoon, it was chaos. There were no orderly queues, no sense of the crowd being filtered as they had been the year before when the same two sides had met.

In the Eighties, you were used to being crushed or your feet being lifted off the ground, yet I never liked it. I hung back, waiting for the crowd to clear but with 20 minutes to go, it was even worse. Somehow in the crush, I was lifted into a gap in front of a turnstile. When we got into the ground we were all exhausted from what had happened outside.

Once inside the turnstiles, like many others, I was pleading with the police to open the gates. I've had to live with this for 23 years. The police, as everyone now knows, opened a gate but allowed the fans to head for the tunnel which led to the central pens. The year before they had stopped fans going into the tunnel.

I was in the stand along the far touchline. I got to my seat as Peter Beardsley hit the bar at 3.04pm. This led to a surge that broke crush barriers. Two minutes later at 3.06, the game was abandoned.

I was close to the Nottingham Forest fans. They were chanting "You Scouse bastards", thinking it was crowd trouble. The police formed a line across the pitch to prevent rioting. It quickly became clear that there was no rioting but the police line stayed.

The police seemed frozen. On the pitch, fans were giving other fans the kiss of life, yet I didn't think people had died. I just thought I was at a football match and maybe they had fainted.

But when I walked on to the pitch, I knew. I met a fan I knew from Liverpool who you wouldn't expect to cry. He was crying; he said that people were dead.

It was horrific but if the police froze, the supporters were incredible. I expected to see stories about the 'Heroes of Hillsborough' but instead by that night, it was being reported that ticketless, drunken fans had broken down a gate.

I knew there were very few fans without tickets because I knew a tout from the music scene and he told me beforehand, "It's absolutely on the floor." The Leppings Lane capacity was 10,100 and it's estimated that there were 9,700 inside that day.

There was the tragedy and there was the smear and one affected the other. When I saw The Sun headline I thought people will know that it's a smear because it's so outrageous. Instead, Liverpool fans have had to spend 23 years defending ourselves.

Over the years, the campaign has had its ups and downs. Before the 20th anniversary, there was a sense of fatigue.

I was involved in recording a version of The Fields of Anfield Road, the version of the Fields of Athenry sung by Liverpool fans, with John Power from Cast, Mick Head of Shack, Kenny Dalglish and other players from 1989 as well as families of the victims.

The single did phenomenally well and more than 30,000 turned up for the memorial service at Anfield for the 20th anniversary. When Andy Burnham, who did so much to get the truth out, spoke that day, he was being listened to until he mentioned the prime minister. Suddenly the cry went up, "Justice for the 96". It was cry that showed how much anger there still was. Over the last year, I've been part of the Justice Tonight Band, playing a series of gigs with Mick Jones of the Clash and a series of special guests, to raise awareness of the cause.

When we played in Lyon, Eric Cantona got up on stage. His wife is a friend of Mick Jones so I wanted to be sure he knew what the cause was. I talked to him and he said to me: "I know about the miscarriage of justice and I fully support the campaign." For the icon of Manchester United to be supporting a campaign for Liverpool people was, I felt, a hugely symbolic moment.

I was in the cathedral in Liverpool last Wednesday with the families and survivors. It was like being in a courtroom waiting for a verdict. For a long time, there was complete silence. Then there were tears.

Last week, I think everybody realised that this wasn't a football tragedy, it was a human tragedy. The truth is out, now there needs to be some action.

Peter Hooton is lead singer of The Farm and a founder member of the Spirit of Shankly.

Sunday Independent

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