12 Sep 2012

The man who ‘saved my life’ at Hillsborough

What could be better for a fan? Short of having cup final tickets sorted, not much beats an FA Cup semi-final played – as so many think they should be – away from Wembley: Villa Park, Old Trafford and Hillsborough.

So Kenny Derbyshire was in great form that sunny April morning.

Off out, good and early to Anfield – where else? To the Kop end. To be precise, to the Park, the pub opposite Anfield where the pick-up was arranged.

Over the Pennines in the minibus all the usual banter of course, the mickey-taking, the singing – even a sweepstake, 22 -year-old Kenny had Peter Beardsley to score first.

Sure, there was some mild chat, wonder, about why Liverpool had the smaller Leppings Lane end rather than Hillsborough’s vast Kop, once capable of holding 25,000 standing spectators.

But it was no big deal – Leppings Lane flashed across the chat, then faded. After all, there was the match…

They got pretty near to Hillsborough to park up:

“Hey lads – how many fans can you get in a minibus?”

The first words Kenny heard in Sheffield as he got out the bus, from a smiling, joking South Yorkshire police officer.

There were fifteen of them on that minibus from Anfield.

By now there wasn’t a lot of time. It was 2.45 as Kenny and the lads approached the Leppings Lane end. All those feelings and emotions fans know so well – the buzz, the first chanting outside the ground, the way you can’t help walking faster, the ticket-stub, turnstile numbers, programme-sellers, hot-dog smell … anticipation surging up as your own team’s fans colour and songs gather for a big game.

Through the turnstile and funneled to the Leppings Lane tunnel leading to pens three and four, bang in there behind Bruce Grobbelaar’s first-half goal.

All fans know the crush, it was all a part of it in the days of terracing. It was fun, exciting, up to a point. Into the tunnel and Kenny found himself pressed against others as they went into the dark.

Fine – at first. Pretty normal. You could hear the noise coming off the bowl of Hillsborough. But hang on … there was shouting, screaming – and this crowd was tight, really packed, and suddenly they weren’t even moving.

“Suddenly you couldn’t go forward or back. You couldn’t raise your arms even. It was terrifying. I must have been in there for up to 15 minutes.”

Then, he clearly remembers a huge surge, he was pulled forward, feet hardly on the ground, suddenly into brilliant sunshine. He now thinks that was a steel crush barrier giving way on the terrace allowing fans to spill out of the tunnel on to the Leppings Lane terrace.

Roaring and chanting all around in the distance. Somewhere a football match was going on.

“I’d forgotten the match. And me mates. Sounds hard to say it but I just needed to get out. It was every man for himself. All this chanting away off in the distance but up close everyone shrieking, shouting, screaming to get out. I’ll never forget it. Never.”

Somehow he saw a wall: “I had to get there. All around there was shouting and screaming that had nothing to do with football.”

He goes on: “I made that wall and just put my arms up. There was this bloke – he just grabbed me wrists and I was hauled out. I was saved. That man, I don’t know his name. I’ve never seen him before or since but I want to thank him. He saved my life.”

From the front of the seated upper tier he now turned and pulled out several more people: “It was like water somehow. You’d see a head just sink in that crowd down there. Sometimes a head would come back up. Sometimes they didn’t.”

Fans were screaming at the Liverpool keeper just through the fence: “Stop the game! Stop the game! There are people dying in here!”

Which of course happened in the end. Forest fans still chanting away on the Kop, understandably oblivious to the horror unfolding at the Leppings Lane end for some time.

Kenny made his way home by train. All the way he remembers a policeman on that train back to Liverpool: “Sorry lads – they’re saying there’s several people been killed now.”

No Twitter, email or smartphones back in ’89. The number would grow all the way back to Liverpool. The policeman kept on coming back.

The  call-boxes in Lime Street station were hopeless – huge queues of people telling their families they were alive. Or asking. Everyone just asking everyone. Do you know? Have you seen?

Hundreds of anxious relatives about to drive to Sheffield – Kenny’s parents among them. How else could you know? How else to find out?

Ahead, in the next few hours, the wait back in the Park bar where this day of days so innocently began.  Numbed, disbelieving, the wait for the other 14.

Fifteen lads from Liverpool had gone to Leppings Lane. Fifteen, by some miracle, got back to the Park that night.

And there the questions began. How come they were guided to already full terracing? How? Who? Why?

That night, stunned by the ever-growing death toll, Kenny knew he had to find answers. The relatives had to. Liverpool had to. Football had to.

Twenty-three years on, he was again at the Park this morning. This time giving interviews as part of the long campaign for justice.

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