There are few dates that are more entrenched on the British footballing psyche than 15 April, 1989. The events of that horrible day would have an impact on all football supporters. It was a definitive date that would have a lasting impact on the game as a whole, not to mention the city of Liverpool and 96 families.
Like so many that day I headed out to support my team, who were playing in a Scottish Cup semi-final – a competition they had not won in eight years. I was sixteen, was about to leave school and, for the first time in a long time, benefiting from a period of relative financial prosperity after a few years of hardship under Thatcher’s brutal leadership.
By 1989 both my parents had found work. This had not always been the case during the 80s, and there had been long periods of financial hardship. The first sign that a corner had been turned was the fact that we managed holiday to Blackpool in 1988 – although even that was part-subsidised by my dad getting a fairly decent win on the Rangers Pools. So even if it wasn’t quite champagne and skittles, things had definitely started to look a bit brighter.
By the age of 15/16 my parents had agreed that I should receive a tenner a week from each of them in pocket money. Not bad going. This money would see me attend more and more Rangers games. Having reached a certain age where I no longer relied on my dad to take me to games, and having a decent disposable income for a boy my age meant I was in a position to follow my team more. So I joined the supporter’s bus in Camelon and made my way to most games home and away. My increased disposable income would also go on clothes, trainers and music – but football was my first love.
So I woke up on the morning of 15 April, 1989 in a jovial mood. As mentioned earlier Rangers had struggled badly in the Scottish Cup since winning it in 1981, and even the arrival of Graeme Souness and his expensive signings had not improved things, with embarrassing defeats to Hamilton and Dunfermline representing his efforts in the tournament to date
This season had been different, however, and getting past Dundee Utd at the quarter-final stage – at the second attempt – and being handed a semi-final draw against St Johnstone, who were at that time in the old First Division, had led to many feeling that a final berth was inevitable and that once there we would do the business and bring the cup back to Ibrox.
The morning of 15 April was a gorgeous one and I made my way to the Mariner Bar in Camelon from my home – a three mile trek – by foot, only stopping at a shop on the way to pick up a can of juice, some carbohydrate (most probably a packet of Monster Munch) and a paper for the journey. Once at the Mariner Bar, and with my ticket secured, I boarded the bus and set off for my first Scottish Cup semi-final – ironically being played at Celtic Park.
The journey to Glasgow was more interesting than usual, as we took a different route in order to come in at the east-end of the city – a part of the city I had little knowledge of at that time. This being the case, little things like passing Glasgow Zoo provided the odd “ooh” moment on the road in to Celtic Park. Apart from that it was a case of the usual stuff; the banter, the songs, Radio Clyde blaring in the background and cans of lager etc being passed about. All good natured, all as you would expect.
On arrival at Celtic Park I made my way to the old West Terracing – the opposite end from where the Rangers support would usually be located. But given we had almost all of the ground that day it made little odds. This felt like it was going to be a good day – our day. It was all set for up for us; virtually a home tie, lower league opposition, a feeling of underachievement in the competition in the last few years…we couldn’t fail
As this was my first game at Celtic Park – and I was in the traditional Celtic end – I had decided to take along a thick permanent marker in order to scribe “Rangers 5 Celtic 1” on as many of the crush barriers on the terracing as possible. I thought I was being quite daring until I went to the toilet and saw the serious guys in there with their cans of spray paint giving it a bit more than reminding the usual patrons of this privy of the 5-1 game!
The sunshine was splitting the sky as both teams took to the park just before 3pm, with Rangers looking extra resplendent in their Monaco style away top. The game kicked off and we were away.
Football in the 80s had a breed of fan that you don’t see so much of nowadays; the guy standing with their tranny radio listening to results coming in from around the country. I suppose the advent of smart phones etc has rendered this type of fan redundant. Nobody needs to look to these guys for updates now, so they have been cruelly consigned to the annals of footballing history. But on this day it was one of these guys who very early on in proceedings informed all who were prepared to listen that there was an issue at the Liverpool game.
But that was it. Nothing more was said and we continued to watch the game – a game that Rangers were making severe heavy weather of.
By about the 30 minute mark murmurs started amongst the crowd that what had happened at the Liverpool was serious. The first reports around us suggested Liverpool fans had caused bother similar to what had happened at Heysel and the game had been called off. By half-time, the first mutterings were being raised that people had died.
As the teams came out for the second-half the mood in the crowd had obviously changed. Yes, we were all supporting our team as normal – but more and more there were conversations about events in Sheffield. The sun was shining, but there was definitely a feeling of a cloud hanging over proceedings.
The second-half came and went; Rangers were abysmal, St Johnstone fans celebrated – quite rightly – their team’s achievement in securing a replay and we left the ground and headed back to the bus despondent, but with the feeling that there were bigger issues going on elsewhere.
On arriving back at the bus it became obvious that events in Sheffield were extremely serious. Stern faces, little, if any conversation about the game, the radio playing louder than usual bringing live updates on proceedings and a feeling that the guy who organised the bus just wanted everyone on it ASAP and get it on its return journey.
As we travelled back along the road the confirmed number of deaths at Hillsborough went up about three or four times – every time drawing groans and an exasperated “for fuck sake” from more than one. The usual laughter, banter, songs…all that stuff you associate with travelling on a supporter’s bus was gone. Instead it was silence, despondency and feeling of wanting to get home to loved ones.
When the bus dropped us off I walked the three miles home, getting the occasional nod from people who, noticing my shirt and scarf, realised I had attended a football match on the most horrible of days.
When I got home I found my mum sitting in the living-room in tears, having watched events unfold live on Grandstand. She had returned from work just after 3pm to hear a reporter on the radio announce there had been a major incident at “footballing stadium in Britain”. Knowing where I was she had got into a panic.
But even on realising that Celtic Park was free of a major incident, the pictures and images coming out from Hillsborough were enough to remind her of the events of 2 January, 1971 – when 66 Rangers fans had died on stairway 13 after the traditional Ner’day Old Firm derby.
She had three brothers – and a brother-in-law – at Ibrox that day, and they had been caught up in the crush. Managing to get out of it relatively unscathed, and not realising that people were dying in the crush, they had followed their usual post-match ritual and had gone for a pint. In an age prior to 24 hour news and mobile phones, many left Ibrox that night unaware that there was any issue – and therefore many families watching and listening to updates at home had a long wait to find out if their loved ones were ok.
The events of Hillsborough had brought all those memories back and I was welcomed back home as if I returned from a tour of duty in some god-awful warzone.
Over the following days the events at Hillsborough would dominate the papers. I would make my way to the replay against St Johnstone on the following Tuesday night where Rangers would ease past their opponents 4-0 and reach the final. But there was an eerie feeling to proceedings, the events in Sheffield the previous Saturday hung heavy in the air. Rangers supporters chanted Liverpool’s name in a show of solidarity with a club that was facing something similar to what our own club had faced 18 years previously, and all-in-all it felt particularly low-key for a Scottish Cup semi-final – and one that we had won. Even Gary Steven’s peach of a goal that put Rangers 2-0 up couldn’t raise spirits to the levels you would expect of such an occasion.
All in all it was a strange and uncomfortable time to be a football supporter attending games that week. All those things I done on the day of the game; walked the three miles to get my bus, stopped at the shop for refreshment and a paper to read the latest football news, bantered away on the bus – things that football fans do up and down the country whilst following their team. Well 96 Liverpool fans done similar things to me on that day but never made it home, and I think the overall feeling at the time from most of us standing on the terraces that week was one of “there but for the grace of God”.
That disaster happened at Hillsborough but it could have been any ground in the country. It could have been any one of us. Indeed there was an incident at the first game that involved overcrowding – with fans spilling on to the trackside and paramedics attending the scene in scenes not too dissimilar to what happened at Hillsborough. But taking that aside, all of us at that time had been in situations on the terraces where we had felt the swaying was getting out of hand, that there were too many in the part of the ground we were standing. I even remember leaving Hampden after the Skol Cup Final in 1987 and for a short period literally being carried along with crowd – to the extent of my feet not touching the ground. I’m sure all fans who stood on the terraces have had similar moments – moments where they didn’t feel in control of the situation. That they were at the mercy of a greater power.
Luckily, I never had to face what the supporters in the Leppings Lane end that day had to face. But there is every chance it could have been me. That’s what made that day scary and that’s why I will always remember where I was on 15 April, 1989.