Crammed into the central areas, unable to reach the less-populated outer terraces, they know all about the design flaw of the Leppings Lane End. They lived to watch another match. Tragically, there was to be no escape for 96 Liverpool fans 32 years later.
So any United supporter heading to Anfield on Sunday thinking of mocking the Hillsborough dead should think again. It could have been United fans perishing at Hillsborough but for the grace of God and the common-sense of a policeman, making the right call in 1957 so fatally ignored in 1989.
It could have been fans like John and Colin, schoolboy Manchester friends, ardent Reds, merrily boarding a United supporters’ coach that set off across the Pennines for the game with Birmingham City that would decide who reached the FA Cup final.
You can picture the scene: all that excitement rolling up and down the aisle, all those confided hopes and loud songs about Wembley. The emotions that all fans share whatever their club affiliations.
The voyage from Manchester to Sheffield was complicated, though. Easy for a crow, tricky for a coach. These were the days before motorways, necessitating a switchback ride through hills and villages, the journey delayed by faulty traffic lights at one intersection. Most clutching tickets for the Leppings Lane, United fans were running late.
So much fearful symmetry can be found from generation to terrace-dwelling generation. Fast forward 32 years and Liverpool fans also heading for the Leppings Lane were also finding their passage to Sheffield held up by events on the road, in their case contraflows on the M62.
It mystified and distressed the Anfield board in 1989 that the police at Hillsborough were not made sufficiently aware of this bottleneck, meaning a rush for the ground as kick-off loomed.
Talk to any stadium controller and they crave a steady flow of arrivals, not a
sudden wave of humanity rolling towards them as the teams walk out. This
happened in 1989 and certain craven police officers made appalling,
unthinking decisions which ultimately cost the lives of 96
The same scenario was unfolding in 1957 but calmer, more fan-savvy officers made the correct call. Such judgements by the match-day authorities can mean the difference between a small crush and the slaughter of the innocents.
Back to John and Colin. Echoing the match-day rituals of millions before and
since, their plan had been for a quick pint before the 3pm kick-off.
These were the days of no segregation. The post-war generation of fans mixed together, happy simply to be able to attend a match after such conflict. John’s ticket was on the Kop, joining in with many of the Birmingham throng, so he took off at a pace towards the far end of Hillsborough, running down that slight slope, shouting back to Colin: “See you after the game.’’ Sooner than that.
Colin had tried to get in the Leppings Lane but the police barred the way, saying it was full, even though he had a ticket. So Colin took off after John, rushing towards the Kop to make kick-off. Stewards let the breathless pair in, even though that end was heaving too. They managed to squeeze in, swelling the crowd to 65,107.
Settled amongst the swaying mass, Colin and John looked down the pitch, past the familiar figures of Bobby Charlton and Duncan Edwards, towards the Leppings Lane, noting the uneven distribution of fans that was to prove so catastrophic in 1989.
“The central pens were jam-packed but the end pens appeared only sparsely occupied,’’ John recalled yesterday. “Colin felt he should have been allowed in but clearly there were no stewards ensuring the terrace was evenly covered. People entering the turnstiles at that end were faced with a tunnel straight ahead and they went straight down it.’’
The tunnel of death that claimed so many Liverpool fans in 1989 was already threatening supporters 32 years earlier. Observers talk, eloquently and understandably, of the problems that scarred the 1981 Hillsborough semi between Wolves and Spurs but the roots of the 1989 carnage stretch even deeper into the soil of the English footballing landscape.
The Hillsborough near-miss of 1957 was scandalously overlooked by the authorities.
John and Colin had friends back in the Leppings Lane who told them later of their painful experience.
“They said that by the time they reached the terraces and realised they were packed solid already they could not escape back down the tunnel as more people poured in,’’ added John. “They could see the ‘wing pens’ were a better bet but could not get through.’’
Hillsborough’s unsuitability made the FA’s willingness to use it as a semi-final venue, even without a safety licence, even more shocking.
United fans were caught in the tunnel, unable to move, rescued from a more dangerous crush by the police decision to direct latecomers like Colin away.
“Police action to stop more people entering the ground at that end was commendable,’’ continued John, “even though they merely transferred the problem to the Kop, which however was a vast open terrace with no in-built problems.
"The main difference in my opinion between 1957 and the tragedy was the 1957 police stopped fans coming in. In 1989, they let thousands in.’’
A trawl through the British Pathe News archive yesterday revealed alarming footage from 1957. “By half-time the excitement is too much for some fans,’’ intoned the clipped-vowelled commentator, describing stricken supporters being tended to by the side of the pitch. This was 32 years before the Hillsborough disaster.
It beggars belief that the experience of 1957, let alone 1981, was not learned by South Yorkshire Police.
Be aware of traffic problems. Order the referee to delay kick-off. Tell radio stations to relay information. Get stewards to ensure fans spread out from the central areas into the more open terraces out wide.
And do not open the gates if there’s a late rush. Contain the situation outside or accommodate fans in other stands.
Above, all, be aware of the perilous configuration of the Leppings Lane End. Just ask fans.