April 15 1989 is a day that will never be forgotten by followers of English football, Iron manager Brian Laws tells us what it was like to witness the Hillsborough disaster first hand.
Ninety-six Liverpool fans were crushed to death in the Leppings Lane end of the ground ahead of the FA Cup semi-final with Nottingham Forest. Form Iron player and manager Brian Laws, who was right-back for Forest on that day tells Luke Thornhill, how it made a massive impact on him and he will never forget the day when dozens went to watch him play football and never came back.
Before the match how important did you think the match was to your season?
Well at the time that was the one cup that eluded Brian Clough, he had won everything else in his managerial career apart from the FA Cup. The players knew it, the supporters everybody and the whole country wanted him to win. The players wanted to win. Going into the game against Liverpool at Hillsborough we felt very confident, we had been playing really well, and thought it was the best chance we were going to have of getting through. We went into that game full of confidence and really the problems that occurred on the day meant that after that it was going to be very difficult to win because the nation turned full circle and wanted Liverpool to win. The only people that wanted us to win was ourselves and the Nottingham people. The fact that had we have won the game it would have been an excuse of `Liverpool weren’t ready` or `Liverpool weren’t mentally prepared` so it would have been a major sympathy thing. In a way I suppose the writing was on the wall from the day the Hillsborough disaster happened.
When did you first realise that something was wrong?
I remember being on the pitch towards the Lepping Lane end, it was literally ten minutes into the game and I had a throw-in near the corner flag. I was just going to throw the ball in to Nigel Clough when a spectator ran past me followed by three, four, five others. My first initial thoughts were that these are running on to the pitch trying to spoil it, so obviously you say one or two things and at the time all our thoughts were that we’ve got hooligans running on to the pitch – not the travesty that was behind it. Once we heard the screams of supporters running past you, screaming their heads off, the referee realised there was a problem and ushered us off the pitch. But we still didn’t know exactly what was going on, we just felt it was a pitch invasion due to an overspill.
When you were back in the dressing rooms what were you being told?
Back in the dressing room we were told by the referee that there might be a ten minute break before we were going to go back out and restart the game – to be prepared for that. Brian Clough told the players to be prepared, take your boots off but be prepared to go back out and just relax and have a drink. I think it was a few minutes later the chief inspector walked into the dressing room and said there was a death and that was the time Brian Clough turned round and said if there is a death the game’s off. Although the chief inspector did say you can’t do that Mr Clough he said do you want to bet cos my lads aren’t going on that park. And really we still didn’t know to the extent of what it was until news got filtered back to say that casualties were getting high towards 10-12 and it was escalating. And all our thoughts were thinking well where is our family? Again we didn’t know the reasons for the deaths, we thought it was still hooligans or fighting that something’s happened. It was in the Leppings Lane end and our families were near the Leppings Lane end so we all got changed and got out there as quickly as we could.
What was the scene like out on the pitch?
It was like watching a movie in slow motion, there was a deadly silence with people lying on their backs, on boards, scattered everywhere across the park and over the pitch. I was in disbelief, it was crazy. People were getting stretchered off on boards with lifeless limbs and wanting to know reasons why. And obviously you were looking for your family in a panic, and the relief to see it wasn’t your own family. But even hours later we were still not knowing the full extent until after we left the ground and watched it on TV like everybody else. It sunk in, it was awful watching it happen, unfold. When you have actually taken part in an episode like that you will never forget, and watching it on TV unfold was very saddening and sickening you know. I suppose it just brought reality back to it, it is only a game of football and yet why should there be a fatality from kicking a ball of wind around. You start realising that life is too short, you should be enjoying this and not ending up with a disaster like that. I think to this day every player that took part in that has thought about it and never forgot it. The day they did a reconstruction of it I watched it and cried my eyes out because I felt ever so sorry for the families.
Have you ever met any relatives of the victims?
No, no I haven’t. Obviously they were Liverpool supporters and we sent our condolences and would be prepared to go and help but Liverpool felt it unnecessary. They did their own things with the players and their supporters.
How did it affect the team for the rest of the season?
Well being part of that, everything seems to pale into insignificance. The season dipped, it lost a bit of spark and again it took a while to recover from that it really did. And to have to play the game again was very hard.
What was the atmosphere like at the replayed game?
It was a full house but the euphoria for Liverpool to win the game was just absolutely immense. There was a lot of pressure on Forest and to be fair I think the Liverpool players were just so inspired by it and they put in a really good performance and we just couldn’t stop it. And I was the unfortunate one that scored and own goal, which I don’t like to be remembered for but it’s one of those things.
Did it have an effect on friends and family?
It had an effect on everybody, they have seen things as well that I wasn’t privy too – bodies being carried out, it’s very distressing for everybody concerned in the ground. Some more than most. But it is a picture in my mind that you’ll never forget ever.
This interview was first published on Iron-Bru.net on April 15 2004, it is reproduced with full permission of the author.