It was just another semi-final for me. I’d been there for the defeat in the replay at Elland Road in 1980 (Frank Lampard’s dad and the corner flag), but also for the three wins in 1984 (Inchy Heath at Highbury), 1985 (Sheedy and Mountfield at the Villa) and 1986 (Harper and Sharp, again at the Villa). I wasn’t quite complacent, but I expected a win. I also expected to be going to semi-finals and standing in a swaying, seething sea of humanity into the 90s and beyond.
The scoreboard opposite the Holte End flashed up Liverpool vs Nottingham Forest – Match Suspended. Less than three years after the Heysel Disaster and with its causes not fully established, there were plenty of curses around me for our cross-park brethren whom everyone assumed were “at it again”. Then we forgot about it and concentrated on the game, celebrating Pat Nevin’s scrambled winner in a largely colourless match.
We still knew nothing – nobody had a mobile phone, nobody brought a radio to a semi-final and nobody really cared what was happening elsewhere – leaving the ground. Until we saw heads craned into car windows and men looking ashen-faced at what they heard, heads now bowed. Where was the singing, where was the urgent planning for Wembley, where was the joy? We soon found out why.
Car had doors open now and people gathering around shushing those who walked past. I heard Peter Jones of Radio Two say that nine (I think) were confirmed dead after the Leppings Lane gates were rushed by Liverpool fans – for that was the story at the time. I heard a man in the eerie stillness in which crackly car radios were the only sounds, shout “It’s Dalglish” and people craned necks better to hear the Glaswegian voice that spoke for half a city begin to outline the horror.
Soon hushed voices could be overheard, saying things like, “My cousins are there”, “My girlfriend is there” and “My lads are there”. There was no panic, but there was a sense that this was bad, really bad, and random – people wanted to get home and know that others would be home too. 96, of course, wouldn’t make it.
I sat in a pub near New Street with my father and my two brothers, as the television pictures showed the now familiar scenes of fans carrying the dead and injured on makeshift stretchers and the one, pathetic, ambulance with people dying in front of it. After a train journey back to London, my brother and I went into a pub opposite Euston and watched again as the death count rose. We didn’t say much.
Nearly a quarter century on, I’m back at Villa Park. Nearly a quarter century on, the 96 await justice.