'You have to separate rivalry from tragedy'

Sunday 14 April 2024 12:04

Monday marks the 35th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 – a day which led to the deaths of 97 football supporters, more than a third of which were under 20 years old.

The date of 15 April is a day of mourning for Liverpool Football Club and all its followers, but it should also be a time of reflection for United fans too.
Because the uncomfortable truth for all English football supporters is that it could have been any fan base that suffered at Hillsborough all those years ago.
And if you don't believe me, maybe you'll believe two Reds who stood on the Leppings Lane end again and again and again during the decades leading up to 1989.

United and Liverpool work to combat tragedy abuse


The two clubs' Foundations have jointly delivered an education programme on why tragedy chanting must stop.

Home-and-away United follower Nigel Appleton was one of them, and says plainly:

“It was an accident waiting to happen. We played there in the semi-finals in ’76 and ’77. I would have been 17 in ’76 and I went with my dad and stood on the Leppings Lane. It was bad; it was ridiculously crushed. And it wasn’t any better in ’77 when we played Leeds. 
“When Wolves and Tottenham played at Hillsborough in ’81, there was another big crush, and I think they actually stopped the game for a few minutes while they sorted it out. When it [the disaster] actually happened in 1989, it wasn’t exactly unexpected or surprising, really.”
The miserable reality was that football supporters had simply become accustomed to sub-par stadiums and disparaging treatment from many of the police forces that were responsible for managing fixtures.
Remarkably, 32 long years before Hillsborough, as far back as the pre-Munich Busby Babes era, United fans had been involved in a terrifying crush at the 1957 FA Cup semi-final with Birmingham City, where disaster was narrowly avoided at the very same ground.

But the lessons of 1957, 1976, 1977, 1981 and more were not heeded.
Hundreds of Spurs fans spilled onto the pitch during the 1981 FA Cup semi-final, as a crush at the Leppings Lane end caused 38 injuries.
United season-ticket holder Andrew Edwards was in a unique position to assess Hillsborough and its aftermath, due to his job as a reporter on the Liverpool Echo newspaper. But like, Appleton, he was chilled by his own dangerous experiences from years of following the Reds away from home.
“United were playing Derby on the day of the tragedy, and I left the ground at half-time, knowing that I was going to be working,” he remembers, grimly. “I spent weeks working on the Echo's Hillsborough coverage afterwards. In fact, it turned out to to be years, because of the campaign with the Hillsborough Family Support Group, and others.
“As I covered the story, I kept recalling times in matches that I’d been to, and the treatment that supporters got – United included. I kept thinking to myself: ‘This could have happened to anybody.’ 
“At the time, supporters were second-class citizens. The police immediately assumed that people travelling to away games were looking for trouble, and the number of times that you were sort of herded into a crushed mob outside turnstiles… I'm six foot two and, on at least half a dozen occasions, I found myself with my feet lifted off the ground in the melee. And the approach to the turnstiles at the Leppings Lane end... it was always dicey there.”
Tackling tragedy chanting together Video

Tackling tragedy chanting together

United and Liverpool collaborated to educate young people on why tragedy chanting has to stop...

Many United fans that were present at Old Trafford when the news began to seep through from Yorkshire were also confronted with another flashing, haunting thought: that it could easily have been us actually facing Liverpool in the FA Cup that day.
Alex Ferguson's Reds had been knocked out of the cup by Nottingham Forest – Liverpool's opponents on the fateful day – in the preceding round. But according to Nigel, it could all have played out differently, if not for a controversial refereeing decision.
“I still blame the referee in the quarter-final, Brian Hill, when we played Forest at Old Trafford,” he explains. “I was in K Stand normally, but I got moved because that was full of Forest fans, so I was sat right in line with the goal line at the Stretford End. Brian McClair scored a legitimate goal – it was a good two foot over the line, if not a yard – and the referee didn’t give it. 
“If that had gone in, we could have ended up playing Liverpool in the semi-final, but it would have been at either Maine Road or Goodison, I suspect. But all that would have done was push the can down the road for another year. Because I’m sure Hillsborough was an accident waiting to happen; it just happened to them.”
Had McClair's effort in the quarters been ruled a goal, disaster at Hillsborough might have been averted – but for how long?
Mercifully, conditions for supporters are much improved 35 years on. But both Nigel and Andrew suggest that some modern-day fans might need educating, or at least reminding, of the context around attending football matches back in the 1970s and 1980s.
“As time’s gone on, the sense of unity that football had in the immediate aftermath of Hillsborough – particularly United and Liverpool supporters – evaporated,” says the former journalist. 
“Unfortunately, we’ve got a generation now that haven’t got a clue about what it was actually like at Hillsborough, so chanting songs is born out of ignorance and a lack of knowledge about the actual tragedy itself. At the time, every football supporter that went – particularly to away matches – could identify with what had happened, and empathised with Liverpool supporters.”
Appleton agrees: “The majority of people were sympathetic at the time. In my mind, it’s only in the last 20 years that it [the 'tragedy chanting'] has escalated... I remember being on the concourse under K Stand when I first heard the news.

“Somebody shouted out ‘People have died’ and whatever. Yes, a few people were almost revelling in it, because it was Liverpool, but that was the first we became really aware of it. It wasn’t until later in the evening, when we got home, that things became more apparent. I was shocked, horrified. It was difficult to express [how you felt] really. Just shock and horror. It was just so extreme. So it was very difficult to get your head around, really.”
Nigel lays a United scarf on the Anfield pitch a week after the Hillsborough tragedy.
Decades on, amid the rise in hostility, it's also worth remembering the simple, no-nonsense solidarity shown between the two sets of supporters in the days after the disaster: the following weekend, more than 200 United fans from all around the country made the trip to Anfield to pay their respects.
Andrew reported on the gesture, which was warmly received by Liverpool fans, for the Echo, while Nigel was also present as a representative of our Chester and North Wales supporters' club.

Both men would like to see our fierce rivalry with the Merseyside club endure, but alongside an awareness that some issues should unite every single match-going football fan, whatever their allegiances.
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the intense rivalry,” says Edwards, “and it couldn’t have been better illustrated by the recent league match, where the two teams were slugging it out, giving it absolutely everything, and the supporters were giving it absolutely everything. But I didn’t hear a single offensive chant this time out. 
“You have to separate the rivalry from the tragedy; you have to understand that the tragedy was a terrible event in football’s history that should never repeat itself. And we should be united in that attitude.”
“A lot of people just go with the flow, because their mates are doing it, and it’s peer pressure, to a degree,” suggests Nigel. “But learn your history and take a moment to think before you speak... 
“The animosity will never disappear, and there are many reasons for that – historical as well as football-wise. But, ultimately, it could have been us.”