Opinion: The 1981 Spurs match at Hillsborough that should have spared lives

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Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images

Ricky Villa’s goal in the 1981 FA Cup Final is perhaps the most iconic moment in the history of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club.

His winding run and stretching finish on the floodlight surface of Wembley Stadium is a collection of images that has been woven into the very fabric of the club. 

But en route to that momentous occasion on a balmy evening in May 1981 was an event that should have changed English football and, in turn, ultimately spared the lives of 96 Liverpool fans eight years later. 

Forty years ago last month, Tottenham were due to play Wolverhampton Wanderers in the semi-final of the FA Cup at Hillsborough, Sheffield.

Spurs had come through a fairly kind run of games leading up to the tie with Wolves. They had needed a replay to get past QPR in the third round, then three home victories against Hull, Coventry and Exeter set up the crunch game with the black country club. 

Excitement grew as the game against relegation-threatened Wolves, and the FA Cup run as a whole, was seen as a distraction from a league campaign that would see Spurs finish a disappointing 10th in the First Division. 

It was an opportunity for Keith Burkinshaw to elevate Tottenham once again to a place where they ought to be. After years of unrest, relegation and subsequently promotion, there was a real chance for silverware. And in winning the 100th edition of the competition, they could again argue that they were back amongst the big boys. 

The day would have begun early for most of Spurs’ travelling support. Hope, anticipation and most probably nervousness about the outcome of the game would litter the journey up north. The three and a half hour trip, prolonged by traffic jams and, no doubt, roadside toilet stops was, and still is, a staple of the typical away day. 

According to fans in attendance, however, it seemed as if little thought was given to the logistics of accomodating a large number of fans travelling up the M1 towards the northeast of Sheffield.

Mile-long queues of traffic on the outskirts of the city and poorly managed crowds around the ground meant that fans arriving in the city hours before kick-off were suddenly in a dash to make it in to see referee Clive Thomas blow his whistle to start the game. 

Once in the vicinity of Hillsborough fans made their way through the turnstiles and onto the concourse. Many supporters had opted to make their way to the stand via what would have seemed the quickest and easiest route, the central tunnel. 

Leading to a view directly behind the goal that Spurs were defending in the first half, the tunnel had begun to fill up with fans. But as more and more entered the concourse, and the urgency of finding a spot to watch the game from grew, so did the swelling of the crowd now tightly packed in. 

Roughly 300 more people than were permitted to stand in that particular area found themselves behind Milija Aleksic’s goal as Spurs went on the attack four minutes in. 

Steve Archibald tapped in a Tony Galvin cut back and Spurs were in front. But the scenes in the Leppings Lane end quickly turned from elation to panic. A surge from the back of the already overcrowded terrace, as Archibald put his team ahead, had increased the pressure towards the front of the stand. 

Penned in and at the mercy of the unpredictable sway of the crowd, 38 would be injured. 

By the time Wolves equalised a minute later fans had already begun to spill over the fence that lined the front of the Leppings Lane end. The sight of supporters, wrapped in their Tottenham scarves, sitting cross-legged on the touchline is still as haunting as it is poignant.

In spite of what would be levelled at Liverpool fans years later, alcohol had not been a factor, hooliganism had not been a factor.

It was simply a lack of organisation and an unwillingness to act vigilantly with regard to the safety of supporters that had caused this near disaster. 

Hillsborough’s layout and the inappropriate measures that were in place which lead to the incident that day in April 1981 – and again with more tragic consequences in 1989 – were indicative of a wider perception of football fans. 

As a stadium itself, it may have been the worst, but it certainly wasn’t unique at the time. The potential for similar events at stadiums up and down the country were commonplace. The surge movement of a crowded stand was simply seen as part of going to watch a football game. 

The warning signs were there prior to 1981. Lessons that should have been learned were simply not. Not until tragedy struck eight years later. At the same end of the same ground, the lives of those that should have been saved were not. The lives of those that never returned home from Sheffield were lost. 

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