Damning tale of unheeded lessons from Leeds United’s FA Cup semi-final with Coventry in 1987

The Leppings Lane terrace at Hillsborough packed with Leeds United fans during the FA Cup semi-final with Coventry in 1987.
The Leppings Lane terrace at Hillsborough packed with Leeds United fans during the FA Cup semi-final with Coventry in 1987.
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Luck more than any other word has been used by Leeds fans to describe how, in 1987, they escaped the same or similar fate as Liverpool supporters at Hillsborough two years later. Phil Hay reports.

One of many damning revelations at the Hillsborough inquests was the story of how Peter Wright, the chief constable of South Yorkshire Police, unilaterally replaced his matchday commander, chief superintendent Brian Mole, just 19 days before the stadium disaster in 1989.

Mole’s duties passed overnight to David Duckenfield, the officer whose failings were adjudged by a jury at the inquests in Warrington to have directly contributed to the death of 96 Liverpool fans in Sheffield 27 years ago. The jury, which on Tuesday decided that those fans had been unlawfully killed, heard how Duckenfield’s inexperience and lack of knowledge of Hillsborough – culminating in a fateful decision to open a gate outside the Leppings Lane end – was a fundamental cause of the tragedy.

Two years earlier, Mole had been the matchday commander in charge of Leeds United’s FA Cup semi-final against Coventry City at the same ground. Supporters who attended that game, during which United’s crowd were housed in the same pens where almost 100 Liverpool fans died, tell tales of severe crushing and inadequate crowd management and find themselves using the same word: lucky. It might be that some of Mole’s involvement, not least his decision to delay kick-off as congestion built up outside the stadium, averted the events of 1989.

The 1987 semi-final, played on Sunday, April 12, was the first to be staged at Hillsborough in fully six years. The Football Association had opted for other venues after an incident in 1981 where 38 Tottenham Hotspur fans were injured on the Leppings Lane terrace during a last-four tie against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Supporters complained of chaos outside the ground as they tried to get through a limited number of turnstiles in time for the start of the match. During the game, some suffered broken arms and another a broken leg.

South Yorkshire Police claimed the six-year gap between semi-finals at Hillsborough was down to two reasons: the fact that clubs involved at that stage of the FA Cup were not located close to Sheffield and complaints from local residents about those matches. The Hillsborough Independent Panel, however, concluded in 2012 that “clearly the 1981 incident and the disputes that followed had a bearing on this decision.”

In 1981, the lower tier of Leppings Lane was an open terrace. By the time of Leeds’ visit in 1987, and as a result of changes supposedly intended to improve the handling of crowds, fences had been installed, separating the terrace into separate pens. Leeds were allocated that area of the stadium while Coventry took the Kop and the Football Association suspended its all-ticket policy on United’s away fixtures to allow for open sale. The ground opened at 9.30am for a 12.15pm kick-off but, as happened in 1981, the start was delayed by Mole for 15 minutes with thousands of fans still to clear the turnstiles.

Steve Lawrence, a Leeds fan and civil servant who was in his late teens, told the YEP: “I went with a mate and we arrived about about 11 o’clock. I wanted to make sure I had a good spot on the Leppings Lane terrace, directly behind the goal. I’d stood there in 1985 to watch Everton play Sheffield Wednesday in a league match so I knew it was a good position to see the game.

“It wasn’t overly busy at first but as the next hour passed the pen became increasingly full – to the point where I literally couldn’t move. I remember the hot sun shining on me and being unable to lift my arm to shield the glare form my eyes.

“There were crowd surges as people from behind tried to get into the pens, forcing their way in. The intensity wasn’t something I’d experienced before. I was lifted off my feet and basically went wherever the crowd surge took me. I’d been used to standing on the Kop at Elland Road and I enjoyed the crowd surges that terrace football brought – but this was something else, really scary.”

Fans who made the journey to Sheffield remember ticket inspections at checkpoints as they left the motorway and entered the city but few, if any, at the ground itself. In a warning of events to come in 1989, the mass of supporters coming through the turnstiles instinctively headed for the tunnel leading to the central pens in the lower tier of the Leppings Lane end. There was little or nothing in the way of signs or staff directing them into the outer pens.

Paul Dews, Leeds’ former press officer, told the YEP in 2012 that United’s crowd were drawn automatically to pens three and four. “I was in one of the middle pens but not with the correct ticket,” he said. “There was so much interest in the game that there were roadblocks coming into Sheffield and I had my ticket checked a few times but not inside the ground, or not that I remember. We filed down the tunnel and everyone gravitated towards the middle of the terraces. It’s what you did.”

Another supporter, Ferenc Morath, was quoted by the Hillsborough Independent Panel as remembering “a mass of people outside, with no orderly queues being formed.” “There was no direction being given by police officers or stewards inside the ground,” he said. “Everyone like myself headed for the tunnel.”

According to the panel, South Yorkshire Police – while accepting a degree of operational failing – held the view that the delayed kick-off was caused by fans arriving late. A document submitted to the Lord Justice Taylor’s inquiry in 1989, written in 1987, said that it was becoming “increasingly apparent that large numbers of spectators are arriving extremely late at the ground, this may be related to the restricted access to alcohol in grounds and the prohibition on taking alcohol into grounds.”

Mole agreed to delay kick-off but the document stated that “this pressure should not be acceded to in future, the police should not be dictated to by supporters.”

As the semi-final played out, fans in the central pens experienced some of what Liverpool’s fans would suffer in 1989: surges, crushing and little chance of escape; of “everyone squeezing the life out of each other” and of “nowhere to go – unless you were willing to climb over the fences.”

According to accounts of the day, fans who tried to scale the fencing were shouted down by police. John Murtagh, who was 17 at the time, told the YEP how a supporter next to him fainted and was lifted to safety by officers at pitchside.

“They did him a big favour,” he said. “But I believed then and I still hold this opinion that the police wanted us like that: fenced in and too packed to cause any trouble. To me it seemed like their idea of effective crowd control.”

Lawrence was stuck in the central pens while others tried to get away. “I remember looking at the pen to my right and thinking how less busy it was,” he said. “Other fans in the central pens, near to the dividing fences, were clambering up and over into the emptier pens. Where I was stood there literally was nowhere to go.”

The tie ran into extra-time after Keith Edwards kept Billy Bremner’s side in the competition with an equaliser seven minutes from the end of normal time, bringing the score back to 2-2. It was FA Cup football at its best and an opportunity for Leeds to reach the final for the first time in more than 10 years but Murtagh talked of being “pretty gutted” by Edwards’ goal.

“I thought ‘Jesus, I’ve got another 40 minutes in here.’ I don’t know if I felt afraid as such but there was no way out of the middle pens.”

South Yorkshire Police’s debrief at the end of the match, which Leeds lost 3-2 at the end of extra-time, made no mention of overcrowding in the Leppings Lane end. The Hillsborough Independent Panel found that while plans were in place for monitoring congestion in the stadium’s Spion Kop, there was no equivalent strategy for keeping track of numbers entering at the other end of the ground.

Lawrence speaks about supporters at the back of the pens “taking the option to climb up into the seating (in the Leppings Lane upper tier), helped by supporters who could see the mass below.”

It is very much a description of the scenes at Hillsborough in 1989, when Liverpool fans tried desperately to escape the crushing by clambering into the stand behind them.

“I often look back and wonder what the difference was between Leeds in ’87 and Liverpool in ’89,” Lawrence said. “A very fine margin. Maybe the delayed kick-off was the factor. Otherwise it was a tragedy waiting to happen.”

In its overview of the disaster, the Hillsborough Independent Panel described the years between 1981 and 1989 as a period of ‘unheeded warnings, the seeds of disaster’. In Leeds they are quietly grateful that tragedy at Hillsborough did not befall them.