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'Trapped like fish in a trawler net' - Norfolk man recalls the horror of Hillsborough 30 years on

PUBLISHED: 08:11 13 April 2019 | UPDATED: 13:30 13 April 2019

Dereham based Liverpool Fan Paul Williams

Dereham based Liverpool Fan Paul Williams

Archant © 2009

Norfolk-based Liverpool fan Paul Williams was 18 when he travelled to Hillsborough 30 years ago this Monday. Today he recounts the day that changed his life forever

Paul Williams, 18, from North Elmham, who escaped from the Leppings Lane end of Hillsborough pictured two days after the disasterPaul Williams, 18, from North Elmham, who escaped from the Leppings Lane end of Hillsborough pictured two days after the disaster

April 15, 1989 was supposed to be a day of football and joy. An FA Cup semi-final between two of the giants of the game, at the time, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. It should have been a match to decide who would go to the final, at Wembley. It was back in the days when the FA Cup really meant something. 
It was a gorgeous Spring day as we arrived at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium. The winners of this semi would meet the winners of the other tie, between Everton and Norwich City, who played their match, simultaneously at Villa Park.

What started as a day of hope and excitement, would end in horror, which affects me and many others, to this day, 30 years on.

I’ve been asked to write a piece for this paper about my experiences of the day and the impact it has had since. It is something I am very willing to do, as I feel education about what really happened at Hillsborough, is something I am very keen to get across. Living locally, one pertinent point is that if the balls had come out a bit differently in that semi-final draw, it could have been Norwich supporters at the Leppings Lane end and it could have happened to them.

It could have happened to any set of fans.

Back in 1989, I was 18 years old. Invincible but naive, like so many lads at that age. I had a wonderful girlfriend, Jackie, who I worshipped and everything in life was good. My football team, Liverpool, were the best in the land at the time and a source of immense pride for me. It was Jackie’s 19th birthday on the day of Hillsborough but this was a match I could not miss, so off I went.

Pre-match

I travelled to Hillsborough with my good friend Martin Jones, a Scouser, who moved down to Norfolk, after his dad was posted here in the police. My dad too, was posted from the police in Liverpool to Norfolk, hence me having an affiliation to Liverpool and their football club. My brother is an Evertonian.

Martin and I were regular match goers, back in the 1980s. I loved standing on the Kop at Anfield. I would always head for the centre, behind the goal, where we would sing and shout and support our beloved team.

And so it was, at Hillsborough. Martin and I arrived at about 2pm for the 3pm kick-off. We had seated tickets but as I preferred standing, I swapped my seated ticket, for one on the ill-fated Leppings Lane terrace.

Fans are pulled from the Leppings Lane terrace to a seated area above during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final at HillsboroughFans are pulled from the Leppings Lane terrace to a seated area above during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough

I headed for my normal ‘spec’; about halfway down the terrace, directly behind the goal. The Leppings Lane terrace was divided into pens with lateral fencing coming down the terrace. This meant that you couldn’t spread out like you could on the Kop or on Norwich’s Barclay End terrace.

This inability to disperse would prove fatal.

The crush

Around kick-off time, there was a surge down the terrace and I was forced down towards the front. A large exit gate had been opened behind the terrace to alleviate congestion outside the ground, allowing around 2,000 extra people to walk in ‘blind’ down a dimly lit tunnel, onto an already crowded terrace. The lateral fencing meant we were unable to disperse sideways. An eight foot, spiked fence at the front meant we couldn’t escape onto the pitch. We were trapped.

Like fish in a trawler net.

My arms were pinned against my sides and I was unable to move them. We were pleading with the police, who were just a matter of feet away, on the other side of the fencing, to let us out. Our pleas were largely ignored. A crush barrier collapsed under the immense pressure. That was the end for many people.

By the end of the day, 94 men, women and children were dead. Another two succumbed to their injuries later, bringing the death toll to 96. Nearly 40 were merely teenagers. Thousands more, including myself were left traumatised, for life. It was the worst sporting disaster in British history. It left a death toll, unsurpassed in any British disaster, to this day.

I had eventually escaped onto the pitch through a small safety gate in the fencing in front of us. A rescue effort had begun by the fans who had managed to escape. Advertising hoardings were ripped down to use as makeshift stretchers, to carry the dead and injured to a gymnasium, at the other end of the ground, which was being used as a temporary mortuary.

A Liverpool fan sitting on the terraces at Hillsborough after the stadium disaster on April 15, 1989A Liverpool fan sitting on the terraces at Hillsborough after the stadium disaster on April 15, 1989

I eventually met up with Martin at our designated meeting point, outside the ground. The look of relief on his face was palpable. The lovely people of Sheffield opened their doors, for us to use their telephones, to let loved ones know we were safe. These were the days before mobile phones and there were cues of traumatised Liverpool fans queuing patiently at these people’s doors, The telephone network was jammed, so we were unable to let people know we were OK.

The drive home

It was a very sombre drive back to Norfolk. With every report on the car radio, the death toll seemed to rise. We were about halfway home before we spotted a phone box. We stopped to call our parents. My parents’ phone was continuously engaged so I rang Jackie. Her dad, Tony answered. I could hear the relief in his voice, too. Jackie had been round at my mum’s, watching events unfold on Grandstand, the Saturday afternoon sports TV show, of the 1980s. They were both worried sick, powerless to find out if I was OK, as the emergency telephone number, set up for worried relatives was also jammed. My dad was at Dereham police station, where he worked, trying to get information, using his police connections.

The allegations

Hillsborough was a disaster like no other, in that it was broadcast live on television. What happened on the Wednesday of that week, came as a massive body blow. The Sun ‘newspaper’ ran a story, famously headlined ‘THE TRUTH’, in which allegations had been made that Liverpool fans had caused the disaster, ‘urinated on brave cops giving the kiss of life’ among other things. This is what I call the second disaster of Hillsborough. I was devastated. The very people who were the ones that led the emergency effort, were now being castigated by a newspaper, who had been cleverly briefed to deflect blame onto the very people who saved countless lives and were already traumatised enough. We had just gone through hell on earth and were now being blamed for causing it!

Those headlines had been absorbed by many people as ‘fact’ and the suspicion that Liverpool fans had caused or contributed to the disaster remained until the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) report of 2012 found masses of evidence in long held survivor’s knowledge, that these allegations were 100 per cent false. The HIP report led to the new inquests, which after more than two years of hearing evidence, found that those who died in the disaster were ‘unlawfully killed’ and that supporters at the ground were in no way to blame.

In NO way to blame.

I had known the truth for 27 years and for it to finally be proved in a court, came as a massive relief. It was a big, big day for me personally and for my friends; fellow survivors who I’d met in recent years.

How it changed me

Personally, Hillsborough has taken a toll on me. For over 25 years, I only really had Martin to talk to about it. I hadn’t sought any professional help. It wasn’t the sought of thing you dropped into conversation up there either, such was the sensitivity surrounding Hillsborough. Martin wasn’t actually with me, in the ‘pens’ but we remain good friends. We are no longer regular match goers.

Eventually, my relationship with Jackie came to an end. We remain good friends too but it was only recently that we discussed the matter and she confirmed what I’d suspected; Hillsborough had ‘changed’ me. I regret that bitterly. She was a wonderful human being and still is. She supported me after Hillsborough as best she could. In the end though, it had taken its toll on me, Jackie and our relationship. I wasn’t treating her the way she deserved to be treated. I was devastated, once more.

I’ve suffered bouts of depression. I’ve never really been good with relationships. Early on, keeping them. Latterly, choosing them. Every day since that day, I’ve had little ‘triggers’ which remind me. Simple things like clocks saying 3:06, which is the time the match was halted on that horrific day. I don’t get all maudlin about it anymore. I’ve just accepted that it is part of me. I had big memory ‘blanks’, particularly early on. I barely remember the last year and a half of my relationship with Jackie. Or much of my twenties, for that matter. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is what they call it nowadays.

The return

Since the HIP report was published in 2012, I’ve met up with a number of other survivors from the day. We’ve forged good friendships and out of it was born the Hillsborough Survivor’s Association. It’s aim is to support one another and gain acknowledgement that the survivors were actually THE emergency response.

We weren’t the ‘tanked up’, ticketless mob, reported in that publication. Recognition of this fact, is something which wasn’t necessarily there until we were officially exonerated by the HIP report and inquests.

A group of around 30 of us are going back to Hillsborough today. For me and some of the others, it will be our first time back there, since 1989.

It’s not something I am particularly looking forward to but hopefully, being with other people who went through the same thing, will make it that bit easier. Monday is the 30th anniversary and a small group of us will gather on The Kop for reflection.

I often wonder how my life would have turned out, were it not for Hillsborough. I guess I will never know. It remains a constant in my life.

Thirty years on.

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