Last weekend’s crush in the FA Cup tie between Sheffield Wednesday and Newcastle United evoked chilling memories and urgent questions, writes MARTIN HARDY.
It was 5.51pm. I know it was 5.51pm because I looked at my phone, and then my watch and then the time on the picture the moment I’d taken it. History has shown us the importance of recording time in regards to matters and evidence in the case of the Leppings Lane end of Hillsborough.
There were nine minutes to go before last Saturday’s kick-off in the FA Cup tie between Sheffield Wednesday and Newcastle United when I took that picture. I took it because there was what looked like a crush of supporters in the lower tier of the Leppings Lane end of Hillsborough, directly around the tunnel area of the stand.
I took the picture because I could not believe what I was seeing. Thirty-four years after the worst crowd disaster in an English football ground, in the exact same end, in the exact same lower concourse, there was overcrowding and a crush.
Above the picture of the overcrowding, I tweeted: “Hillsborough 2023. Newcastle fans trying to get through the tunnel at the Leppings Lane end with more or less no stewarding ten minutes before kick-off. Unbelievable.” I thought carefully about that wording, and I stand by it right now.
I watched that end of the ground up until kick-off. Two stewards at the front of the stand did not move during that period. There was one steward near the tunnel, and two more standing on stairways leading to the upper tier. They did not move either. Look carefully at the picture, at the lower tier, and count the stewards in high-vis jackets. You will not need both hands.
I wanted to check with fans in that end about what was going on but I received replies from people in the upper tier who said the concourse at that point was a “nightmare”, because it was so full and claustrophobic.
The tweet was posted at 6.58pm, during half-time. The traction was initially slow and it was a late kick-off (6pm) so there were tight deadlines for the match report to be hit. It was a proper old-fashioned cup tie. Wednesday won, and after the player and manager interviews, done pitchside in the rain, there was a rewrite to be done at pace, and then a drive back to the North East.
It was only on stopping for food close to home that I became aware that the tweet – and that simmering sense of outrage, which I had tried to temper in my post – had now been felt widely. By late on Saturday night the post had been seen by more than four million people, and that was rising quickly (at time of publication, more than seven million). Among those who had shared their shock were Jamie Carragher and Kelly Cates, both well-schooled in the history of Liverpool Football Club and the tragic events of April 15, 1989 at the ground I had left two hours earlier.
Sir Kenny Dalglish, Cates’s father, had shown considerable bravery to attend endless funerals in the weeks that followed the 1989 disaster and the deaths that would eventually total 97. She was 13 then. “Please read the replies to this,” she tweeted.
In the week since, I have spoken to Newcastle fans who were in the Leppings Lane end. A woman with her 15-year-old son, who has watched Newcastle away from home since the Eighties, told me: “I’ve been in crushes before and this stuff doesn’t usually bother me but this is the first time I’ve said to my son, ‘If anyone else comes through get your elbows up.’ We ended up four seats along from where we should have been because of the amount of people who were on the stairways coming into the seats.
“There were two stewards stood at the front and neither of them made any effort to check people’s tickets or to direct them into the empty areas.”
I asked another why he had pulled the safety nettings off seats near to the overcrowded entrance to the tunnel. “Because we had nowhere to go,” he replied. “There were loads of people where we were who had tickets for the top section and the stewards on the stairs wouldn’t let them up. That was a big part of the issue. That was causing the crush down at the bottom.” Another said: “I was going to bring my eight-year-old son, I’m glad I didn’t.”
I have been staggered this week by the vitriol that has come the way of those of us who have recorded what happened last Saturday from some Wednesday fans. Ian Byrne, the MP for Liverpool West Derby, said: “As a Hillsborough survivor, my breath was taken away when I saw the pictures. You never thought in 2023 you would be seeing those images again.”
That the Leppings Lane end stands at all in 2023 feels abhorrent. It is macabre.
The Hillsborough memorial at the ground is near to the main stand, over a small bridge. I went there on Saturday before the game and was surprised to see it does not name those who died. Their names were clipped to a railing in an A4 picture frame that looked damaged by rain.
The FA will liaise with Wednesday and Newcastle about last Saturday. Wednesday took the best part of four days to respond to the events of last Saturday, eventually releasing a statement that felt hollow. “The stewarding numbers within the visitors’ section exceeded the requirements of the safety certificate,” it read. “There were no reports of injuries or medical assistance required on the West Stand logged.”
Nobody said anyone was hurt. It was reported that people were frightened. Nobody said there were not enough stewards on duty. It was reported that there was inconsistency in their deployment and then inactivity when they were needed.
Eight days on, the question is this: why were so many Newcastle fans overcrowded to such an extent at the front of the Leppings Lane end – of all places – that they felt concerned for their safety?
Just as it was at 5.51pm last week.
Fan reaction to the crush
I got crushed in the Leppings Lane End for the Spurs v Wolves semi-final in 1981. The whole set-up is wrong and this stand should have been demolished. I have never returned to the ground — and never will. Jon Smith
The Leppings Lane end remains a disgrace. A huge crush at both the entrance and the concourse in the top tier for Newcastle fans. Aman Sehgal
– The Sunday Times
Originally published as Why is Hillsborough’s Leppings Lane end, a football monument to death, still standing?
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