Luton 1985 and the inaction that ended in Hillsborough
Imagine the headlines that night back in 1985, of the story that for Millwall supporters fortunately didn’t happen…”96 Millwall Supporters Crushed to Death at Luton”. The less fortunate supporters were those from Liverpool some four years later, the 96 killed through the now proven negligence of the police and of the football authorities in general, for allowing the herding of football supporters into enclosed and dangerously overcrowded pens for many years.
Death by crushing was nothing new in the British game before Hillsborough. On 2nd January 1971, 66 were killed and a further 200 injured at Ibrox in Glasgow, crushed to death on a stairway, and there had been other “smaller” incidents when crush barriers had collapsed. 1971 was the year when Millwall played a night match against Charlton. Many arrived late, and the crushing outside the ground was serious, before gates were broken through and many thousands surged in. The ground was unevenly packed that night, and the paltry 18,588 declared attendance was many thousands wide of the mark. Fortunately there were only minor injuries and a few squealing children, but such event were more than commonplace before the onset of all ticket matches and some semblance of advanced planning…none of which was in evidence at Luton in 1985!
At the end of the 1971-72 season there were amazing scenes at Leyton Orient when about 15,000 Millwall fans turned up to support the home team against Birmingham City. In a declared attendance of well over 30,000, and with the gates again broken in, this was perhaps the most potentially explosive match of all. Brummies matched the Millwall support in numbers, and there were about 5,000 Orient fans for good measure, all without segregation. Had Orient won that night then Millwall would have been promoted to the top flight…they didn’t, and by the grace of god most people were able to return home virtually unscathed!
Luton was so nearly the Millwall Hillsborough! Visiting supporters were directed to an open terrace which would have safely accommodated perhaps 6,000 supporters. Elsewhere inside Kenilworth Road there was ample space, including a seated area to the right of the Millwall terrace, which was virtually empty…yes those were the same seats that were later used as weapons and thrown at the police…but that is another story!
As kick off approached, there were still thousands outside, and eventually, as with the Charlton match some 14 years earlier, the gates were forced open, and in flooded the hordes! Soon there were over 8,000 crammed onto the terrace, and at the front people were being crushed. Fortunately there were open access points to the pitch, and the first of that night’s pitch invasions was in fact nothing of the sort…it was people trying to save themselves from being crushed to death. Some of the invaders went to sit in the empty seats, whilst police attempted to remove them and pack them back into the terrace…there was more than one reason for the riot at Luton that night!
When people such as myself end up on a football pitch then there is good reason, and with feelings running high things got out of hand. The ineffective planning, policing and stewarding that night needed exposing, but it was all hidden behind the “hooligan” tag, and it was not long before others paid the price for authorities that didn’t have a clue! When the attendance figure of 17,470 was announced, it became clear that at least another 5,000 had entered for free.
A little over two months later on 29th May 1985, 39 supporters were killed by crushing as they tried to escape fighting between Liverpool and Juventus fans at Heysel…but still the football authorities failed to take heed.
Later, in 1988, Millwall drew Arsenal at Highbury in the FA Cup. The away support was given just over half of the Clock End terrace. Again Millwall supporters turned up in their thousands, again the ground was unevenly packed, and my feet barely touched the ground throughout the entirety of the match. Had a barrier given way there would have been many fatalities! The declared attendance was 42,083!
So in the lead up to Hillsborough there had been many warnings, but none had been heeded, and inept policing was about to get its comeuppance, tragically at the expense of 96 innocent lives. Earlier in their cup run, Liverpool had played Millwall at a Den packed far beyond the 23,615 declared attendance…football supporters were still being just allowed to turn up on the day and were still being packed in…health and safety…what health and safety? Then on 15th April 1989, for the FA Cup Semi-Final, ironically an all ticket match, Liverpool fans were being crushed outside the Leppings Lane end of the ground…but they did not force the gates open Millwall-style, the police opened them, and the rest as they say is history. Along with the 96 fatalities, 766 were injured…men, women and children.
For years there were cover-ups about the failings of the police and authorities at Hillsborough. Sectors of the disgraceful media had supported cover-ups, blaming Liverpool supporters for the situation that killed 96 of them. Other supporters across the country showed limited sympathy, some labelling Liverpool “Victimpool”, whilst the families of the victims never gave up their pursuit of the truth. Recent events have finally exposed the situation, the inept policing, the pathetic matchday management regime, and worst still, the lies and corrupt attempts to conceal the truth from the families of the bereaved.
The families of those supporters killed at Hillsborough deserve the respect and admiration of all. Because of them, the police and authorities will now be held to account. Hillsborough was a tragedy waiting to happen…it could so easily have been us or the supporters of many other clubs. May the victims rest in peace, and may the perpetrators feel the wrath of both the law and public opinion.