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.)