This is really just a note to myself – I have seen some of the reaction to the recent Hillsborough verdict – I do not wish to make any me-too comment, nor falsely claim any personal involvement, but Liverpool was my home town, and I am well aware of the depth of feeling that has prevailed there for the 27 years since the tragedy.
Cold shadows that come down the years from 1989 are the extent of the government paranoia about civil unrest, urban terrorism and potential class war, and the growth in crowd trouble and neo-fascist hooliganism which marred soccer in those days. The cages behind the goals at Hillsborough where the fatal crush took place were designed as animal pens, quite simply because football crowds were viewed as exactly that – animals. Especially, I need hardly add, northern football crowds, where the proportion of Tory voters might safely be assumed to be very low indeed.
|Maximum-wage heroes - Liverpool FC, season 1961-62 - Big Tam Leishman,|
in the middle of the front row, still looks like something from Frankenstein's lab
I am even less qualified to comment on this than I usually am – which may be saying something. The last time I went to watch an away league game of my beloved Liverpool FC predates Hillsborough by many years – it was on Saturday, 18th November 1961 (I checked), when I was a schoolboy – my mate Ken Bartlett got us tickets for the Huddersfield Town vs Liverpool match, in the old English League Division Two (in which Liverpool were staging, I think, a remarkable five-year run of 3rd place finishes, in the days when only the top two clubs were promoted at the season’s end!). Football crowds were not the high-profile violent menace which they had become by Thatcher’s time, but my 1961 memories of our day out involve very little of the match we went to see – all I can remember is the misery of the journey, the squalor and the sense of worthlessness which the police and the logistical arrangements instilled in the travelling fan.
|Leeds Road, Huddersfield - pre-war photo|
Ken and I were experienced visitors to Anfield, Liverpool’s home ground, though my parents insisted that I never went in the Kop end, which was famous for its passion and the surges on the terracing – as a small chap, I used to go to the Anfield Road end, which at times was scary enough.
Our trip to Huddersfield started quite early, queuing to board one of the old Football Special trains from Lime Street station. We were late getting on the train – we waited for our friend Tony Potter, but he didn’t show up, though we had a ticket for him, and we eventually gave up on him and squeezed on board. I was shaken by the police presence – I don’t know what the size of the travelling support was in those days; records show that the crowd at that game was 23,000-odd, which is not bad considering Huddersfield were having a poor season, and I guess the visitors might have brought 5,000 or so with them. In 1961 a good proportion of these would have been on the trains. There was a hefty contingent of Liverpool Police and Transport Police at Lime Street – including a good number of senior officers – the police were aggressive and profane throughout, even though there was no trouble at that time of the morning. I was upset that the police were so abusive, when it did not seem to be necessary.
It was a tradition that British Rail would use old or obsolete rolling stock for these trains – the fans, after all, were barely human, so it was probably deemed adequate. There was no heating, the toilets did not work, in some carriages there was no lighting, and only some of the carriage doors were unlocked – for security. We were also crammed in – 4-a-side in a filthy compartment designed to hold six. People standing or squatting in the corridors. Much shoving and swearing to get us all in.
The journey was cold and it took ages – the Football Specials, of course, had to work around the normal timetables of sensible trains for decent people, so the routing may have been odd, and we spent lots of time waiting at signals. We arrived in Huddersfield on a cold, soaking wet afternoon – it was already very dark at 2pm, when we got off the train. That was the first shock. We were not in a station – we were unloaded – had to jump down – in a siding somewhere, and were herded along what appeared to be a disused railway line, past derelict factories and rubbish dumps, accompanied by a lot of policemen – some of these had come on the train, some were local and met us there.
|Industrial heartland - Huddersfield in the Old Days|
The idea was to keep this horde off the streets of the town as completely as possible – it was a long, wet, muddy walk to the old Leeds Road ground, and only the later part of the walk was along paved streets. We got into the ground without incident, always with the watching constables, and the game itself was almost an unreal interlude (we won 2-1, Melia and Hunt scored the goals, though I don’t remember a great deal about it), and then it was time to get us all out of the town again.
The return march seems to have been more direct – we actually walked through central Huddersfield – I recall being surprised that they had trolley-buses – but you could not stop – certainly no chance of going into a pub or buying food. Prodded and abused, we were at least taken to a station this time. The train, however, was the same as before, and we reached Liverpool many hours late, frozen stiff, and I was seriously traumatised by the experience. I was never allowed to go to an away game again – in fact the home games were off limits for a few weeks as well.
The point of this insignificant tale, if there is one, is that there was no trouble – maybe that is a vindication of the methods, I really don’t know. It was a competely routine transport exercise, to move PAYING CUSTOMERS (I capitalise that to remind myself that we were not, in fact, convicts or prisoners of war) to a public sporting event in a town that really was not so far away. It must have happened, just like that, many, many times, every weekend, all over the country. The police, famously, did not relish football duty on the weekend, and it was very obvious that the fans were uniformly regarded as vermin. Again, maybe we were – I certainly felt degraded and distressed by the experience – Ken and I were just naïve young boys from a decent school, and being shouted and sworn at on a routine basis was upsetting.
Of course, it was all right really – just a growing experience, something to toughen us up, but if you wanted to radicalize the working classes that was one way of going about it. My grandmother use to say that if you expect the worst of people, that’s just what you will get. It doesn’t seem particularly sensible that league football matches should become a long-running war between the police and the public, especially if they didn’t have to, but that was certainly the tradition.