Reds' ugly day changed the beautiful game

HARROWING DAY: April 15, 1989 – the deaths of Liverpool fans at Hillsborough in Sheffield eventually led to a number of changes inside and outside grounds in Britain.
HARROWING DAY: April 15, 1989 – the deaths of Liverpool fans at Hillsborough in Sheffield eventually led to a number of changes inside and outside grounds in Britain.

I'm not sure when it was that I became a Liverpool FC fan. But by the time of that fateful loss in the 1988/89 season - when Arsenal won the league with the last kick of the last game against Liverpool at Anfield - I was hooked.

I knew all the players' names in the 1980s and devoured the Reds' modern history, especially their successes from the time of the great Bill Shankly. Liverpool's trophies and league titles became my trophies and league titles.

I was 14 the year Michael Thomas scored his goal for Arsenal, which was a little more than a month after the Hillsborough disaster in Sheffield where ninety-six Liverpool fans died and scores more were injured. What occurred that day has had a lasting impact on the club and on British football.

FOREVER RED: Whitby’s Danny Fearon has Liverpool FC in his veins and like many LFC-mad dads, will be passing the baton to at least one of his kids, if the bedroom wall poster is anything to go by.
FOREVER RED: Whitby’s Danny Fearon has Liverpool FC in his veins and like many LFC-mad dads, will be passing the baton to at least one of his kids, if the bedroom wall poster is anything to go by.

I didn't understand what it was all about at the time, but as my understanding of LFC and football grew, Hillsborough was never far from the surface.

The Taylor Report, officially issued in 1990, recommended new safety standards for football stadiums in Britain, which saw many become all-seated and the removal of perimeter and lateral fencing.

I went to Anfield as part of a family trip in 1992, two years before Liverpool's Kop end became seated and was gobsmacked by the seething swarm singing and moving in time with the ebb and flow of the match.

A wide-eyed Kiwi could not imagine what it was like to be in there, with surges forcing people towards the front. It was said Anfield's Kop could suck the ball into the goal.

Danny Fearon, who lives in Whitby, Porirua, these days, remembers the days of the Kop fondly.

"My first game there, I was four years old, in 1974," he says, in his broad Scouse accent.

"I don't think I spent a second watching the match, just the people. I couldn't get over the sound, the noise of the stadium was like nothing else. I had a season ticket to Anfield from the age of five till I was 13 and I can't remember seeing them lose. What a time that was."

Up until the Hillsborough disaster, Fearon says he went to many of Liverpool's league, Cup and European matches - home and away.

"I went to Dundee . . . on a Monday night!" - as he could. He has no idea how he had the money to do it, he just did.

Going to away matches, you had to be careful, he says, because the 1980s was the era when hooliganism was rife. Being identified as a Reds fan in another city could lead to things "kicking off" and he admits to a few scrapes in his time.

From 1981 Fearon was a regular in the Kop. He says you learnt quickly how to look after yourself as the crowd surged from time to time.

"Your feet would get literally lifted off the floor and you would get carried along, you just had to put your arms by your side and try to stay upright. For us in there, it was just normal, we didn't know any better and you learnt to go with it."

Liverpool were favourites to beat Nottingham Forest in their FA Cup semi-final clash on April 15, 1989, at Hillsborough. They had beaten the same team on the same ground in 1988. A similar result was expected, but portents weren't good elsewhere - fans reported crushing at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium that year.

Fearon says he and fellow Reds supporters had no fear as the big day arrived.

"We stayed in Sheffield the night before, had a few beers on the day of the match and made our way to the ground. By the time we got there at 2.40pm or so, people were already about 15 people deep, trying to get in.

"By 2.50pm I was pinned against a wall and it was difficult to move, just to get through the turnstile. When I got in I could either go left or right or up the middle, into the two pens, so I went left."

The Leppings Lane or west side of Hillsborough was due to have 24,000 Liverpool fans, entering through 23 turnstiles. There was still a large crowd outside this part of the ground at 3pm.

As the players were being announced over loudspeakers, three large exit gates were opened to let 5000 fans in. They poured through a narrow tunnel that led to the rear of the terrace and into the already-overcrowded pens, leading to major pressure, especially at the front. Fans there were confronted with high fences that had barbed wire at the top.

"I was somewhere in the middle [of the crush]," Fearon recalls.

"I could just see the players with their tracksuits on but I couldn't hear the singing anymore. I was really aware of a scream and then shouting and then someone was passed down over my head, then someone else.

"But you can't pass a body over the top of a high fence so people had to start climbing it. The first guy was climbing it and the police were trying to stop him and all the while bodies were being passed down.

"I'll always remember seeing a guy over to my right, he must've been in his 50s and his face was swollen and purple and his spectacles were broken. I later saw him in the gutter at the front and this was an image that would wake me up at night."

At 3.06pm the referee stopped the match as the full scale of what was occurring began to be realised. Some fans were climbing the fences, others forced a gate open and some crush barriers collapsed to allow people onto Hillsborough's grass.

The police still tried to prevent some fans from entering the pitch area. Those trapped were packed so tightly that many died of compressive asphyxia.

Fearon says he knew what was happening was not violent but he was held up "in quicksand". He lost all track of time and, when he made it to the front, "shredded my knuckles" trying to knock a hole in the fence.

He was more concerned at the time that he would miss the game, unaware it had been stopped. Eventually he and another fan ripped a hole and made it onto the pitch.

"There was just fear and confusion and anger all around.

"People were trying to do CPR [only one ambulance was let into the ground, more than 40 were turned away from Hillsborough], the Forest fans were booing us because they thought we'd started something and it all began to hit me." "I sat down next to this copper who was just in floods of tears and I started crying my eyes out too, it wasn't a good thing to go through for a 19-year-old."

A friend of Fearon's found him and led him out through Hillsborough's main stand. He says he saw a policeman on horseback and got angry, but his friend dragged him away. After walking "many, many miles" into Sheffield he rang his relieved mum - his house was full of family as they thought he might have died.

In the days following, Fearon talked with police, who he said were fair. He didn't want any part of lawsuits being discussed and, to this day, refuses to blame police entirely for what occurred.

"It was awful and appalling. One of my good mates, a bloody good footballer, died, but I didn't think it was anyone's fault. It was a series of events that led to a tragedy.

"There weren't enough turnstiles, many of us arrived too late, they opened the gates and people piled in - it was just a number of things. What saved me that day was my years in the Kop."

While he attended memorials, his attendance at games fell away. He did see Liverpool's "battering" of Forest in the replayed match and then victory in the FA Cup final at a "subdued" Wembley in 1989. But he was unable to sing LFC's anthem, You'll Never Walk Alone, for many years. The first two years after the disaster, he sought solace in alcohol.

Fearon says getting rid of standing room in UK football stadiums, "was the death of atmosphere" and, with better management, it should have a place in modern grounds.

Through the years there have been inquiries, with survivors' families wanting police culpability and alleged cover-ups brought into the light. None were more damning than the Hillsborough Independent Panel, which declared in September last year that no Reds fans were culpable, that lack of control from police was to blame and that up to 41 of the 96 who died could have survived if the emergency response was better co-ordinated.

Fearon says it's only in the past few years that he's been able to talk about what happened that day. He blanked much of it from his memory but can now remember a number of tiny details. He recently opened up to his cousin in London, who was carrying out a school project on Hillsborough and found the experience cathartic.

He still does not like to see footage of the disaster but says it was the likely reason he followed the career path he did.

"It probably led to me becoming a nurse. To see people just feet away from you and not be able to do anything [like CPR], I just felt helpless."

Since moving to New Zealand in 2007, Fearon has been heavily involved in Porirua's Western Suburbs club and says football remains "a religion" for him.

A Wellington Phoenix fan as well, his biggest footballing ardour is reserved for the Reds.

He will continue to go through the ups and plenty of downs that come with supporting the mighty Liverpool FC and has even set up a Facebook page for fans - search for Wellington Liverpool FC Supporters Club - so he doesn't have to suffer alone.

April 15, 1989 is part of his makeup.

"What happened at Hillsborough will never shake my passion, it shaped who I am.

"Some of the best experiences of my life have been because of football and Liverpool."

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