Hillsborough

In April 1989 I went to Hillsborough for a football match, an FA Cup semi final between Nottingham Forest and  Liverpool. I was commentating on the game for BBC Radio Nottingham.  96 Liverpool fans lost their lives in a dreadful crush on the terracing behind the goal.  20 years on here’s my  account of the day for The Times newspaper.

Witness: We went to report on a football match  and ended up reporting on a tragedy

Jeremy Nicholas worked as match commentator for BBC Radio Nottingham at Hillsborough. Now 46, he is an after-dinner speaker and author

It didn’t seem any different to any other day. I drove from Nottingham to Sheffield, it took just over an hour. To do a radio show, you get there really early, to do your preparatory work. That day, we were presenting the show from the ground, with me commentating and Mark Shardlow doing the presenting.

Just before kick-off, I noticed that it seemed very busy at the Leppings Lane End. Already, I could see people in the upper tier hauling up those below them. It wasn’t right, something was badly wrong. It all unfolded very quickly.

I remember a policeman running, then walking, on to the pitch. He sort of stuttered, as if he was worried about what he was doing. I just thought: “What a brave man.” He got to the ref [Ray Lewis] and told him to stop the game. Some fans booed; they had no idea what was happening.

We had hooliganism in those days. People were climbing up the fences, as if they were causing trouble, but they were pushed back. I still thought it was just a bit of a squash. At 3.25, we were saying that people could be seriously injured. I saw a little boy carried out. Then we were saying some people may have died.

Mark carried on talking, I went off to get the information, to find out what was going on. We crossed on air to other matches: what was happening at the other semi-final [Everton v Norwich City]? How were Notts County getting on?

I kept repeating that no Forest fans were involved because I was conscious that I was only broadcasting to the Nottingham area and I wanted to reassure people with friends at the game. It was like saying: “People have lost their lives but it’s not your people.” I felt very heartless but, in the following weeks, I had so many thank me for letting them know that.

I went on to the pitch to interview Kenny Dalglish [the Liverpool manager]. I asked him a question, which he answered. He then paused for ages. So I said: “Do you think the match should be replayed?” He replied: “I haven’t finished yet.” I felt so small. I spoke with Graham Kelly [the FA chief executive]. I can’t remember what he said.

The police took a party of journalists to the Leppings Lane End. We saw the crush barriers, so thick but all mangled. What force could have done that? Then into the tunnel, where people had died. It was silent. No one said anything. Not until we came out did people start talking again.

When it was happening, the Forest fans had been restless. They didn’t know. I saw a guy carried out and put down in front of them. He was given the kiss of life. He sat up, he was OK. The fans applauded.

I went to a press conference at the police headquarters in Sheffield. They were saying 50 had died, maybe 60. I’d thought it was about ten. Returning to the newsroom at Radio Nottingham in the evening, a colleague said to me: “Well done, that was brilliant. It sounded really good.”

I remember thinking how it had been anything but brilliant. It had been the worst day of my life. I dropped off my equipment, handed over the tapes, then went home. I felt emotionally drained.

We won a New York radio academy award for live coverage of a breaking story but we didn’t go to collect it. It’s not the sort of thing you want to win an award for. What were we going to do? Hold it above our heads and celebrate?

I’d not listened to the commentary again until last week. We went to report on a football match and ended up reporting on a tragedy.

Jeremy Nicholas was talking to Russell Kempson

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