For me, the day started with huge excitement. My first away game. It had been planned for a while, and finally it was here. A Saturday game, a relatively easy trip to the footballing Mecca of Boundary Park to see Denis Smith’s lads take on Oldham.
Me and my Dad travelled down in the car, BBC Radio 2 (there was no Radio 5 yet) providing the build up to the day’s two pivotal games – the FA Cup Semi Finals.
This was a point in time when football was under huge scrutiny in England. Clubs were banned from Europe after Heysel, and while there was talk of English clubs being admitted back into European competition in the not too distant future, nothing was yet confirmed.
The FA Cup was the big competition, particularly given the absence from Europe. In my young mind, it had equal, if not perhaps greater, importance than the league title. It was the competition everyone wanted to win, and everyone in the country stopped to watch.
Everton were taking on Norwich City at Villa Park, while Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool were facing Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough.
Meanwhile, at Boundary Park the crowd gathered, in cages, behind the goal. From memory it was a beautiful day – that’s probably inaccurate, although it certainly wasn’t snowing – and Oldham’s famed plastic pitch looked resplendent.
The groundsman had obviously done a good job that week.
After a decent start to the 88/89 season, we’d ground to something resembling a halt. Prior to kick-off we’d won only three of the previous 14 games – due in part to Marco Gabbiadini’s newly acquired violent streak.
While he’d always been a player who played ‘on the edge; and had a temper, he’d kept it in check until the past few months. First, he’d seen red for chinning Oxford’s Richard Hill - yes, that Richard Hill – and a couple of games after returning from a ban had seen red after deploying the unusual goal celebration of punching a defender after completing a hat-trick against Ipswich.
So, he was sidelined again today, as the lads lined up with Eric Gates and Thomas Hauser upfront, and Tommy Lynch on the left wing. Interesting.
We were treated to an early flurry of goals at Boundary Park. John MacPhail put the lads in front right in front of the away end with a cracking header on two minutes, while Tommy Wright, son of the Sunderland player of the same name, and often a thorn in Sunderland’s side, equalised four minutes later.
Within moments, Sunderland were ahead again. Hauser, who Smith likened to ‘Bambi on ice’ after the game, beating keeper Hallworth at the second attempt. In celebration of his first Sunderland goal, he tried to jump over the fence into the Sunderland contingent.
He almost made it.
Of course, word began to reach those in the crowd who had brought radios with them, that something was seriously amiss at Hillsborough.
It’s a curiosity of a bygone era now, but the ‘fella with the radio’ in the crowd held god-like status – responsible for passing on scores, updates and, indeed, news.
And, of course, the rumours start. Word spreads like wildfire, and I distinctly remember hearing the game at Hillsborough had been held up because of hooliganism. Fans were on the pitch.
With the game continuing, more information came through and by half time we had a clearer picture. It wasn’t hooliganism, it was something far more serious. I have recollections of a half-time tannoy announcement telling the crowd what had happened, but that could be a trick of the fading years.
The game ended 2-2, typical Sunderland, conceding a late equaliser, but it was only when we got back to the car to begin the journey back home did the full magnitude of what had happened at Hillsborough begin to really hit home.
People had died. Football supporters. People like me and my dad. People who’d just gone to watch their team play football.
People like us.
It was hard to comprehend as we listened to the reaction, the analysis, the outrage. I remember getting home and being hugged by my Mam, who’d watched it all unfold while we were out at my first away game. She knew.
People like us. We came home. Some football supporters that day hadn’t.
We don’t need to go into the disgraceful reporting and police and establishment coverups that have gone on in the subsequent years, anyone reading this will know about all of that only too well.
But it could have been any of us that day. Any club. Any group supporters.
Ninety-seven people lost their lives as a result of supporting their team at Hillsborough that day, something that should never have happened and will never, ever be forgotten.
Rest in peace.