Over recent days there has been much said about the tragedy of Hillsborough nearly 30 years ago,  indeed in my eyes and with hindsight, it was a tragedy waiting to happen

Many times over the years when NUFC had played at Sheffield Wednesday we had often taken in excess of ten thousand fans, on at least a couple of occasions this tragedy could indeed have been us, 1980 and 1984 Spring to mind.

However, I am not going to talk about visits to Sheffield Wednesday and the over zealous South Yorkshire Police, instead I am going to talk a Tottenham v Newcastle game on 21 February 1987, a game where for a little while I actually thought my own life was in danger. A lot of fans of NUFC have mentioned it when referring to Hillsborough.

Back in the 80s going to football was different, in those days you could be out in town on a Friday night in your best ‘pulling’ gear, yet somehow end up on an overnight train to London, or indeed further afield.

It has to be said however that the Policing at football games in those days was at times ‘brutal’, yes I will use that word. Football fans were no angels but the Police at times were no better, except they got overtime for it!

Setting the scene…five of us got a train down to Kings Cross on the Friday afternoon, planning to stay over a couple of nights. Two of us planned to hook up with a mate in Greenwich on the Saturday night and stay with him.

Arriving at Kings Cross mid-afternoon, we sought a cheap hotel or B & B close by, and indeed we did. For the princely sum of £10 I was in a broom cupboard just off the main road and behind some of the more grand hotels in the vicinity.

After a quick Italian shower it was out and we ended up somewhere near Covent Garden for what was a pretty uneventful, and as was the norm, an ‘unable to pull’ night.

Indeed as two of us had to be up early to travel to Greenwich to drop our bags, it was probably an early night. Before the days of mobile phones it was indeed quite a challenge to meet up with people and our plan was flawed, given that the underground to us was just a picture of spaghetti bolognese.

Nevertheless, somehow or other we made it to Greenwich and indeed still got back to meet the other three in the St James Hotel just off Piccadilly at midday – over the years Piccadilly became a regular haunt for away games!

What was noticeable was the amount of travellers about, for sure we had the best away following in the country, but the numbers seemed higher than I expected!

Now I’m not going to paint the picture that all fans of NUFC were angels, quite the contrary, but it was different times and in the 80s our lot were, lets just say, excitable to say the least.

After a few beers the Met appeared and in their efficient ‘lets hit anyone with a truncheon’ method of moving people on, decided the pubs had to be cleared. So that normal jolly Londoners could carry on with their daily Saturday afternoon rituals of doing the same as we were, namely having a drink.

One unfortunate soul, having had a curry a the night before, found his toilet door forced open and a snarling Police dog shoved in his face while emptying his bowels, he never did get the chance to wash his hands!

Why the Police descended on the area is anybody’s guess but it was still early and there had been no trouble at all. At this point we sloped off from the crowd, found another quieter pub, and decided after a further couple of beers to get a black cab up to White Hart Lane.

Again, a nothing out of the ordinary cab ride until we got to Seven Sisters Road, where it was obvious there were huge numbers of Newcastle fans about. I won’t lie, the police had a job on their hands now as there were little skirmishes all the way up, our taxi driver announced ‘ I’m not going any further, the ground is just up there’, so out we jumped ( yes we did pay), to end the journey on foot?

Now Spurs, like most London clubs, was not the friendliest of places to go, and today was no different, but the numbers were with those from NE1. Indeed the skirmishes we had seen before died away as Seven Sisters Road was clearly mainly Newcastle, the nearer you got to the ground.

Indeed we heard stories about one group of fans who had walked through the notorious Broadwater Farm estate and had been confronted by the locals but had simply continued their walk and came out unmolested!

Entry to the ground I remember was by two methods, ticket or pay on the gate, but both into the same end. It was an old terrace behind the goal with seats up above. It was sectioned half by locked gates, if memory serves me correctly  we had about half of it, maybe a bit more, while the rest remained empty. The main body of Spurs fan were in the stand to our right in what was called the Shelf, a quite odd terrace on the second tier of a stand with three levels.

The stand to our left was seemingly for the more sedate of Spurs fans!

The numbers (of Newcastle fans) outside the ground were large and indeed there was already a crush, the disorderly queue for fans with tickets was fortunately shorter. The police did their best to keep order by again using the tested method of hitting anyone with a truncheon who ‘misbehaved’, this created quite a hostile atmosphere as fans’ tolerance ran thin. I remember clearly fathers sheltering small children from the blows, I am absolutely not exaggerating in any way, shape or form, this was the norm for the Met!

I will also point out that the Spurs fans were not in any way to blame, just the sheer numbers of Newcastle fans meant the turnstiles were engulfed.

The Police plan was obvious, get everyone into the CAGES inside so they can be managed more efficiently, indeed I entered the ground at about 2.30pm. The entry took you into the corner where you could freely move along behind the goal and as far as the first gated fence, it was obviously already very busy, but nevertheless we made our way to virtually behind the goal until we could go no further.

As I look back I estimate that this terrace held no more than six to seven thousand, possibly less, the next 45 minutes were possibly the most scared I have ever been at a football match!

There was still huge numbers outside and the terrace was already very full, what started out as a tight squeeze pretty soon became an uncomfortable crush. Of course there was the normal singing that you always get and occasionally the crush would ease as the swaying crowd pushed back the other way, however each time it got worse, and very soon I found myself pushed up against the metal fence at the front with my arms across my chest as a barrier.

I vividly remember looking down and seeing a very young girl next to my legs with her panicking father to my right, I remember saying to him please move her. I’m not sure how long my arms and chest could take the strain of the crush, somehow he did but I don’t  know how and I don’t know where they went.

By this time the match had kicked off but little attention was paid from where we were, my concentration was on breathing, panic set in a little bit and fans started to climb the  fences only to have their fingers stung by police batons, still the crush got worse.

I remember hearing a man scream through the fence  ‘open the gates or people will die in here’, the next few minutes are a blur, until eventually someone saw sense and opened the gates onto the pitch, initially more panic ensued as people fought to get through them. I really can’t recall if the gates were opened to my right but the terraces there were soon filling up with an over spill of this mass of football fans (see video below), and eventually toward half time the pressure eased a little.

I won’t lie, I was frightened beyond comprehension at my inability to breath freely for those seemingly endless minutes.

I’m not sure how many turned up that day, but the general consensus is that somewhere in the region of thirteen thousand made the trip south, with most penned into a terrace that held half that for what seems like an age. There was no police communication, surely the ones inside could relay information back that the terrace was full, but no stupidly they just kept on forcing more in.

This crush, whilst not resulting in a tragedy like Hillsborough, is recognised by those who were there as a ‘ near miss’ , it so easily could have been us. Whichever way you look at it, football stadia and policing methods contributed to the disaster that followed.

After the game there was no real violence (which was the norm outside White Hart Lane), for me I was just happy to get away from the ground. We had lost and that was that but as time passed I have often thought long and hard about things and what might have been that day.

For the record, later as we made our way from London Bridge to Greenwich, three Newcastle fans in an adjacent train travelling somewhere into Kent were assaulted and if memory serves me right, one suffered substantial stab wounds, such was the way of the world then.

Being a football fan in the 80s was often perilous but every fan has the right to come home from a game, just as we all go to work and come home to our families now.

Please forgive me if anyone who was there has a different account of that day, it is simply how I remember it!

God bless those who perished at Hillsborough, families and friends are in our thoughts forever .

(All contributions from Newcastle fans welcome, send articles (as well as ideas/suggestions) to [email protected])

(ED: Seeing those horrible fences again makes you wonder how they ever came to be there, when you compare how crowded the Newcastle end is compared to the Spurs one (to the right) it is just crazy how the authorities back then could fail to see how there were potential problems.

Some great video footage but as a great example of just how packed in the Newcastle fans were, go to 2.25 on the video (Click ‘watch on youtube’ below and the video starts) when Paul Goddard has a run at goal.)

  • Chris N Reader

    Scarily crushes were far from unusual in the 80’s, The fences going up in the first place seems to have been brushed under the carpet, nobody ever got killed by a pitch invasion. Following Wednesday in those days with the best away support in the country, there are a few famous games, Notts County, Blackburn spring to mind as being particularly bad where crushing was a real issue and you’re right, it is very frightening. Still, decent article apart from the inaccurate biggest following bit, and of course all our thoughts stay with the people lost at Hillsborough.

    • HappyToons

      Rubbish, we filled the whole Leppings Lane end every time we went to you and more, which wasn’t that often as we were usually in different divisions. Took over Sheffield by 11.30am, same at Brammal Lane, especially an Fa Cup game in the 70’s with 12k tickets for a boring 0-0 game, but amazing support. Again Sheff U didn’t exactly come here in great numbers either. None of you in Newcastle and those arriving crapping themselves as the buses were bricked. Not many of you at our place and pretty poor. 79 or 80 when there was a mini riot in the Leppings Lane End fighting with the police, a couple of Huddersfield lads said they had never seen support like it and started following us home and away.

      Another big crush was Man U away when we lost 5-0 and had the whole end and half way up the pitch. It was afterwards with the gates locked when we were kept in and everyone was crammed into a small area with people coming down the steps to join the same area. I am 6ft 2 and my feet didn’t touch the ground for an hour, but that was fairly typical at many away games, especially Leeds, Barnsley, Rotherham etc.

  • jimmy jennings

    what was much worse and a clear indication of the problems at Hillsborough was the semi-final in ’81 when 37 spurs fans needed medical attention for exactly the same problem that caused the 96 to perish. that day someone opened a gate and for most of the first half spurs fans sat on the touchline.
    welcom back to the big boys table, good luck, after the first saturday, and do try to stick around a bit longer this time:)

    • Oooh bobbi fleckman

      It was slightly different in 1981 at Hillsborough compared to 1989. The problem with Spurs in 1981 was the same as NUFC at WHL in 1987 being sheer weight of numbers.

      One of the surprising things of 1989 was that at the time of the fans dying, the Leppings Lane was not even at capacity but take a look at the video of the time, the cetre pens were full whilst there was space in the pens either side. IIRC, for Spurs fans, they were very lucky that the separation pens were not in place in 1981 so fans could disperse and fill the whole end which helped avoid disaster. You can see your fans escaping the crush right along the fence whereas, in 1989, the crush was immediately behind the goal.

      One of the reasons for this in in the report of the most recent Hillsborough enquiry and I think is as important as the cover-up story. we all know gates were opened to get fans in when there was a big game, on the day of Hillsborough in 1989 I got in for free to Highbury with may Spurs supporting pal (just there to hope Arsenal blew the title) but we were lucky then as there were no fences. In 1989, the usual police Match commander was passed over / demoted in favour of David Duckenfield who had little knowledge of the stadium. Rather upset at being shunned, the usual commander (I’d need to revisit the report to find his name) did not brief Duckenfield as to the layout of the stadium. As I said, we know the gates were sometimes opened if there was a crush outside but the key problem was that the usual commander knoew that there needed to be police inside to direct the rush of fans into the entrance to the pens further down the stand. The other entrances were not obvious as you entered from the exit gate, the natural flow was to the centre pens.

    • Cornerpin

      Totally agree re Hillsborough. Whilst we had large numbers there at I stood at one of the sides and it was fine. The issue as I recall was that everyone were stuck or led into the middle.
      At the Newcastle game, all I remember was the fighting down the High Road and their fans jumping into the lower part of the cage. I was observing it from the cage and they were crammed in, like other games, but this is the first I’ve heard of this situation (which I’m not disputing).
      I did some stewarding later at the Lane and they seemed to learn some lessons. Fans would be channeled into a section, filling it up from the front to the back, once a section was full the next section would be opened and the fans channeled there (stewards would stop fans entering the full up sections); common sense really and one which had it been in place at Hillsborough would have averted that terrible tragedy.

  • Neil Young

    I was at the game and remember being off my feet fairly quickly before the match started. Was probably a bit further back up but had the same issues – using arms as a brace and ended up twisted round so couldn’t see the match at all. I remember people above trying to pull people out in an echo of Hillsborough 2 years later. I remember people climbing over the fence to the right and the Spurs fans kicking off as they thought they were being attacked. And I remember Alf Garnett on the pitch at half time saying ‘Calm down all yoo Geordies’. As you say, they all got it completely wrong, thinking we were kicking off when we were struggling to breathe.

    While it was scary, I don’t recall thinking I was going to die, but I think that was just youthful naivity. I’d been off my feet in the Gallowgate a few times before but nothing like this. It was only when Hillsborough happened that I realised what we had escaped.

  • imrevaradi

    Everton away in 1988 most scared I’ve been at a game.. it’s was rammed so tight couldn’t breathe. we left half time Sat outside. surprised wasn’t more disasters in 80s..

  • Richard Gray

    I remember it well 2 days before my 21st birthday and wondering if I’d see it. My ribs were bruised for weeks after from the concrete crowd barriers. I was terrified at times. I alook remember seeing those that made it into the empty cage beliow I shelf being coined relentlessly by the spurs fans above. I also had a very frightening experience at Sheffield Wednesday on a boxing day.

  • Grahame Johnson

    There is a picture on bing images which shows Newcastle fans climbing the fences at the game, Its heart breaking reading details of the, 96, their ages,jobs,schools,dreams,hopes, family tales about them and their love of LFC. Newcastle fans sang their anthem v palace last time in prem and did our self proud, imagine what 96 empty seats in the gallowgate would look like

  • 1957

    Ibrox in 1969 for me.

    A stadium that was more or less just a bowl, with 70,000 inside, around 12,000 from Newcastle. Access was terrible via a variety of crumbling concrete steps and there were less facilities than SJP had at that time. During the match you simply moved continually, I ended up tens of metres from where I started and separated from the adults I went with. Leaving the ground wasn’t a voluntary choice you were channelled into the narrower stairway and just swept along in the crush, some people were on the floor and those who tried to help were pushed over the fallen. It’s amazing there were no fatalities.

    It was a heart in the mouth time for a 13 year old and it wasn’t until a couple of years later when 66 died in a catastrophe on an exit stair, I learnt it had the worst safety record in the UK and there had been two fires in the main stand, one on the same night as the battle of St James

  • WayneClayton

    Aye. Remember it well myself. I was 17 at the time and fortunately stayed pretty much near the back but still remember feeling ‘squashed’. I remember saying to my dad that we should follow some of the lads who had started to climb the fence but then one toon fan fell with a sickening thud and dad said we should stay where we were. Shortly after they did open the gate but then stood a load of plod right in front of the fans. I also remember there was bother afterwards. The toon fans heading for the coaches (parked near the Broadwater farm estate) were met by the locals. The plod bottled it and turned on the toon fans chasing them back towards the ground with horses. One constable got trapped between a garden wall, car and two sets of toon fans after a bit of revenge.

  • Howard Linskey

    That’s pretty much how I remember that day, with the addition of some rotating spikes that stopped people being pulled up from the completely packed lower level to the slightly less packed upper level. If they’d had those at Hillsborough even more might have died. This was definitely our near miss and is the only Newcastle game I have ever left before the end. I went at half time, because I’d reached the stage where I could hardly see anything and had never experienced a crush like it before even after years of Gallowgate End standing. In retrospect, we were very lucky.

    • Jezza

      You are right we were very lucky that day but I didn’t fully realise just how lucky till two years and two months later.

  • Paul Jobes

    I remember this was meant to go with work mates but they bottled it. I was one of the ones walking through broad water farm having slabs of steak thrown at us lol. Proper scary inside ground and had to walk through broad water farm for bus home. Coppers a joke treat like us like pigs in a pen. Made a bit of money that’s the nice spurs fans decided to throw away.
    Defo this could have been the 1st hillsbourgh

  • GeordieBri

    Four of us also arrived up Seven Sisters road where it had all kicked off! We couldn’t believe how many Geordies were still outside our turnstiles and we didn’t think we’d see the kick off. However, we just made it in, we were on the terrace behind the goal but it was so packed we couldn’t get onto the terrace!
    We kept moving along to get it but by the time we did I reckon we were just inside the 18 yard box line nearest to their “shelf”. Just as I got onto the terrace the ref blew to kick the game off…. the next 45 minutes are still to this day the most frightening, certainly at any sporting event and probably of my entire life. The game became secondary as I/we quickly realised that we were in real danger of being squashed or suffocated…. I still firmly believe that if we had scored then people would have died.
    Probably for the whole 45 minutes I don’t think my feet touched the ground, I’m only 5’10”, but, back then I was a fit as fire, strong 23 year old and we’d only had a few beers before hand… luckily because I really do think that helped me think more clearly.
    As the half time whistle blew my face was virtually on the fence … we had been pushed down the entire depth of the terrace!
    Very fortunately there was a copper directly in front of me and I managed to catch his attention and pleaded with him that if the gates weren’t opened then some people were going to die… he immediately got on his radio and within minutes they had opened a fence to my right to allow Geordies into the previously empty no mans’s land empty section. They also pulled people out in front of me onto the cinders… there but for the grace of God I/we could’ve been the 96. Just writing this takes me back so vividly and I can still feel the emotions and the crush.
    Two lads I didn’t know then but do now are coppers (I’m not) we’re in the seats above us and they’ve since told me that they went to police at the time and told them that they had to do something to alleviate the crush as they’d pulled people up from below.
    As for no trouble after the game…. there was hell on, on Seven Sisters road, battling everywhere you looked, even the traffic was stopped as it spilled into the road. I spoke to friend later in A boozer in Covent Garden and he said they got on a bus to get away from the bother and a guy followed them upstairs with a machete, as you do obviously!
    For the rest of the evening all we could do was talk about what had happened and I don’t think we mentioned the game once… Oh, the joys of following the Toon!