Hillsborough; 1981 Spurs disaster narrowly avoided.

Most people know that in 1989, 96 Liverpool supporters lost their lives in a terrible human crush at the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield during an F.A. Cup semi-final match versus Nottingham Forest. You can read more about the 1989 disaster here.

What many people don’t know however is that disaster nearly struck eight years earlier, at the same ground, in the same round, of the same cup competition. That year it was Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers who travelled to the Hillsborough stadium, and it was the Spurs fans who were allocated the smaller, problematic Leppings lane end of the ground. There were broken limbs and other injuries sustained that day in 1981, but thankfully no fatalities largely due to the fact that the police opened up pitch-side gates as the crushing became apparent. If only they had done that in 1989.

As a part of the filming of my Hillsborough Disaster documentary, I met with a Spurs fan who was at Hillsborough that day in 1981, and he told me his story, You can also see the video he put together here which shows the Spurs fans spilling onto the pitch as play continues.

Here is a short clip taken from my longer interview with Neil Irving that will appear in the documentary:

Had the South Yorkshire Police not opened the perimeter gates that day, and let over 500 Spurs fans escape onto the pitch (click to watch video) then there could well have been a Hillsborough disaster eight years before the one in 1989.

I am due to meet with other fans from other teams who also had a terrible experience of the Leppings Lane terracing, and more details on that will follow.

So why was it OK to open the gates in 1981, but not in 1989?

If you are a Spurs fan, and you were at Hillsborough for this match in 1981, please leave a reply with your recollections below.

39 thoughts on “Hillsborough; 1981 Spurs disaster narrowly avoided.

  1. Yes I personal first hand recollections of this as well and have, over the years, often said there could have been a disaster in 1981. I was in the press box, but my brother-in-law was in the Leppings Lane end and when we met up after the match he said he felt lucky to be alive.
    Mike Collett, Soccer Editor at Reuters

  2. Hi Mike, thanks very much for your comments.

    It’s such a terrible shame that the lessons of 1981 were not learnt, and acted upon, and that it took 96 deaths to spur people into action.

    If you would be prepared to give an interview to be used in my documentary please drop me a note at mike_nicholson@hotmail.co.uk – I would be very grateful, but totally I totally understand if you would prefer not to.

    Thanks again for sharing.

  3. Mike, Neil led me here, we’ve been friends since 79. Anyway I’m also a member of the forum Spurs Odyssey, and I’ve asked folks who were there in 81 to post their testimonies. I think some segments are worth reposting for this blog. Would like me to e-mail them to you or post them in this reply box? Of course I’ll first clear it with the folks who posted their testimonies.

    1. Hi Simon, this is an open forum, so I have no problem at all with Spurs ans posting their 1981 recollections directly onto this blog.

      Thanks for posting. Simon, were you at the ’81 semi-final as well?

  4. I was at the 81 semi-final. Travelled up in the old football specials, trains that had been put out of service years ago, brown livery. Herded into the ground as usual.

    We got there fairly early and decided to stand to the right of the goal because of the expected crush directly behind the net. It filled up and was packed by kick-off but that’s what you expected in those days at big games.

    I remember sensing that a lot of people were massing behind me. Turning round, there appeared to be a lot of swaying and a crush near the entrances at the top of the terrace, people arriving late and pushing down, but again this wasn’t unusual. The occasional surge meant the latecomers had been successful in filling space. Were there announcements to get fans to either side, rather than behind the goal? I think so but can’t swear to it.

    As the match went on, the pressure increased. There was no room to move and the crowd ebbed and swayed in time with the match. By the second half, I had been forced near the front. I think it was one of those grounds where at the bottom of the terrace, your feet were below the level of the pitch. The crush was the worst I have ever experienced – I’ve watched Spurs regularly since the late 60s. My chest was hurting and I was lifted involuntarily from the concrete on a few occasions but in those days I was young, fit and strong so I coped. I tried not to get pushed to the very front because I didn’t want to end up against the wall there but frankly I had no control over that.

    In truth, it was unpleasant at times but I had no sense of being in danger. Leaving the ground, my thoughts were all about a ridiculous late penalty award against us rather than my personal safety. These crushes were a familiar part of terrace culture in those days, not so much at Spurs where we didn’t have a big kop-style end but at big games and certainly at other grounds. But no one seemed to be badly hurt (this was pre-Heysel, pre-Bradford and other disasters seemed part of history) and so you accepted this as part of the thrill of the big games. No one made a fuss.

    On the afternoon of the Hillsboro disaster, I was playing in a community charity football match, parents and kids together in the sunshine. I got home, switched on the TV and my first thought was that I could catch the end of the game on the radio because it had been delayed. Then the news filtered through as to why. The contrast between my experience and those of the Liverpool fans could not have been more stark.

    It was only in the days that followed, as information came out about what had happened, that I made the link with ’81. You have to remember that the early news coverage blamed the fans, I didn’t think about our experience in the Leppings Lane end.

    Part of my work in the late 80s was as a counsellor in the disaster response team of a local authority. Our training was given by someone who had worked in the aftermath of the Bradford and Hillsboro disasters. He had access to information and video that was not in the public domain at that point. It was then that it really hit me – it could have been me.



  5. Read this with real interest. I was there and we were on the pitch just as you describe. Believe me we have never stopped talking about this event. Sad to say we told the police that day that someone would get killed on day in that ground. How sad it had to come true. I will look at your clips with interest .

  6. Yes no problem, have just spoken to the two guys who were with me Bob and Colin we remember it so vividly and as I have said we are always talking about it.Truth is,we were young then and sadly had we made more of an issue of it then who knows , we could have changed things.Would be glad to help in any way.

  7. I remember the game very well. I was in one of the small ‘pit’ type enclosures down by the fence with my mate. The pressure just built and built – we couldn’t see why. After a while we started getting lifted off the floor and smaller kids were beginning to panic. We had to kind of lock arms against each other to just breath – it was genuinely terrifying. I had been to hundreds of games before and never anything like this.

    At first some people trying to climb out were beaten back by the South Yorkshire Police – who had been casually brutal all day – lettings dogs loose – calling us cockney scum. But eventually someone opened a gate and slowly the pressure eased.

  8. Here is a reminder of the warnings that were flagged up in ’81, but sadly never taken on board. http://www.ohwhenthespurs.co.uk/#/hillsborough-1981/4535126148

    Read this testimony of a father who lost a son in 1989, and once you have composed yourself, ask yourself why the lessons were not learnt.

    Eddie Spearitt was at the front of the Leppings Lane terrace in 1989 with his son Adam.

    This is his testimony …

    “The crush came … it wasn’t a surge. It was like a vice getting tighter and tighter and tighter. I turned Adam round to me. He was obviously in distress. There was a police officer, about five or six feet away and I started screaming. Adam had fainted and my words were ‘my lovely son is dying’ and begged him to help me and he didn’t do anything. I grabbed hold of Adam’s lapels and tried to lift him over the fence. It was ten feet or thereabouts with spikes coming in. I couldn’t lift him. So I started punching the fence in the hope I could knock it down. Right at the beginning, when I was begging that officer to open the gate I know I could have got Adam out. I know that because I was there’.

    Adam Spearitt died. Eddie Spearitt passed out and, woke up in hospital to hear the news that his son had died. This is just one story from the 96 to be told.

    A ‘duty of care’ was what was expected. Once that duty of care wasn’t delivered, the least the victims and their families deserved was not to have Duckenfield and his cowardly cohorts to fucking lie about it, and to move the blame from where it actually belonged along to the people dying in front of his lying eyes.


  9. i was there in 1981, luckily for me, my next door neighbour was also there and knowing the ground, told me and my mates to get into the corner section of the terrace, the police fought the fans who tried to escape the crush, the police were driven back by spurs fans in the seats above and to the side pelting them as they attacked our fans, i had a very good view of this and the crush behind the goal, if the pen fencing had been up, it would have been us and not liverpool fans dead. on that fateful day, we were away at wimbledon, as news filtered through, everyone sais the same thing, we all knew exactly where the deaths occured. this still makes me angry, the filthy lying afterwards defies belief. RIP96

  10. I went to the game with my girlfriend and some friends. We only got there just at kick off time due to traffic congestion. We stood at the back of leppings lane end with wall of people in front of us and Spurs scored in about 3 minutes. Everyone started leaping around, my girlfriend was swept away from me and I couldn’t get back with her until the end of the game. Remember fans sitting at pitchside and Spurs players trying to get them off the pitch when they celebrated our 2nd goal. Fans very well behaved in circumstances but in those days as fans we were used to being treated like that. It took the Liverpool tragedy to highlight terrace conditions.

    1. Alan I was Spurs fan at the game in 81′. We had traveled up in a lorry because we had decided to go last minute…without a ticket. Owing to heavy traffic we got there late and ended up running the last few miles to the ground. There would have been about a thousand of us outside….failing to get tickets….some paid cash to get in but we were too late. The crowd outside was trying everything to get in…climbing fences….pushing on gates….we were unaware of what was going on at the Lepping end. Then as 90 minutes was up the stewards opened the gates and the crowd surged on past the police and stewards. Some tried to get in the end but were pushed away by police….others…me included ran up into the stands and sat down in spare seats…some of us were thrown out but I kept my head down and stayed to watch extra time…..we got home on Spurs supporter coaches that were half empty because some the fans didn’t come back to them. I suppose in all this we were lucky not to be inside but many actually got in by paying cash at the gate…something we’d done many times all over the country. The authorities had no idea who was in the end because of this. Incidently the only other occasion I had been locked out of a game was the Spurs v Liverpool Cup FA Cup replay in March 71′ @WHL……also a very scary occasion with allegedly 56,000 supporters….that night I saw supporters of both teams scaling fences over barbed wire and shimmying up 10 yard high posts to get into the ground.
      Steve Quilty 56
      Sydney Australia

  11. I was also at that 1981 semi-final. Fortunately (?) I was in the upper tier of the standing section by the corner flag to the left of the goal at the Leppings Lane End. I could see the situation develop as described by the others and although myself and hundreds of others were yelling and screaming at the police and stewards we were impotent in trying to avert what could have been a similar disaster to 1989.

    We said at the time it could happen again. Unfortunately it did. R.I.P. to all that lost their lives that day and to their families and loved ones.

  12. Has this video been sent to the Hillsborough Families or the committee set up to investigate the events of April 15th ’89

  13. I was at the Leppings Lane End in 1981. We drove up from North London, arrived in Sheffield at 1pm and because of traffic snarl ups, we eventually dumped the car and ran about 4 miles to the ground. We arrived late at about 3.10 and couldn’t get through the crush on the entrance to the terrace. We stood at the back and could see half the width of the pitch. All the time guys were forcing their way back off the terrace saying they couldn’t stand the crush anymore. When we left the ground I said to my friends “THE GREEDY BASTARDS OF SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY HAVE OVERSOLD THE GROUND. I BET THEY DO IT EVERY YEAR”. I would like to see the tickets sales of that year and the subsequent years including 1989 investigated. If indeed they were oversold then the officials of Sheffield Wednesday and the FA should be accountable. We only missed a game, my heart goes out to those affected in 1989. Barry

  14. Remember it well and still have the thought what if. As a serving Police officer at the time I was amazed by the truculant attitude of the Police on duty at the stadium, they were just rude and obnoxious, very embarrassing. Much later as I gained seniority in the ‘Met’, I Policed many high profile games, never forgetting the near disasterous day in Sheffield. My recollection was of a steward opening the peripheral gate onto the pitch and PC’s trying to shut it as the crowd spilled onto the pitch, but I could be wrong. I was in the Lepping Lane end but in an elevated position by the corner flag. I remember watching the crush get worse and worse and getting agitated as it appeared the Police were doing nothing to stop the continuous crush of people into the middle sections. I was on crutches that day, had I not been I would have poked my nose in, still see the scene to this day and when the Liverpool fans were crushed I just felt it could have been avoided. So sad and so avoidable

  15. hi i was at the match in 1981 and watched the match from the side of the pitch.I have been following spurs all my life but never been so scared at as match as i was at that game.Hundreds of people without tickets were bunging the the gatemen a fiver and jumping the turnstiles.As for plod trying to get the fans in the wolves end at half time what a joke, a fight broke out straight away.They really dont have a clue up there.

  16. Have got quite a long story to tell about 81 and also an earlier incident at hillsbrough in 1975. Would be glad to tell it offline. Cheers john

    1. The story of the 1981 semi final has sent a shudder down my spine, particularly as I remember listening to the game on the radio that day (I’m a West Ham fan). It reminds me of just how badly football supporters were regarded and treated in those days by the authorities – and in particular the police. I remember vividly as a 10-year-old watching West Ham play Arsenal at Highbury in 1982 when, after the match finished, the away fans walked down the stairwells to the exits only to find the police refusing to open the gates to the street. Not knowing the situation, more and more West Ham fans started walking down the steps and trapping those of us near the barriers until we were in a diabolical crush. I can remember the alarmed look on my Dad’s face as he tried in vain to put his considerable frame in between myself and my brother and the hordes of fans coming down the stairs. It worked on the South Bank at Upton Park during surges, but was useless that day. I was terrified – and I’m sure he was too. I’m pretty sure I remember people shouting to the police to open the barriers and the police smiling and ignoring us. Eventually they relented – after about 10 minutes which seemed like hours. That day, presumably like many others that happened in those years, could have been another Hillsborough.

  17. I’m a Wednesday fan and was on the Kop at Hillsborough in 1987 for the cup quarter final between Wednesday and Coventry City..There were reportedly just over 42k inside Hillsborough but it seemed like much more. The Lep end was full to the max with Coventry supporters, as was the Kop end. I was 14 at the time and have never felt as close to death as i did that day…The crush on the Kop was beyond belief. The Kop was supposed to hold 21k back then but there was way more.
    Can’t believe they used to fill grounds like they did.

  18. FROM TONY HAMPSHIRE: tony.hampshire@mail.com

    I wrote to the HSE in October 2012 under Freedom of Information Legislation (FOI) seeking access to their file/s on Hillsborough prior to the 1989 disaster. I reprint below the answer I received.

    “Although enforcement responsibility under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 would have fallen to HSE at the time, I can find no record of any contact with Hillsborough Football Ground prior to the Disaster in 1989. This does not mean that contact was never made or the information never held, but it may have been destroyed in line with HSE’s information retention schedule”.

    As part of HSE’s work to present all information it held in relation to the Hillsborough Disaster to the Independent Panel, all staff was asked to search their records for any relevant material. This was then published by the Panel. I can find no mention in those documents of any previous HSE involvement in inspecting the Hillsborough ground”.

    “The principal legislation relating to spectator safety in sports grounds at the time of the disaster was the Safety at Sports Grounds Act 1975, enforced by Local Authorities, in this case Sheffield City Council, and the Fire Precautions Act 1971, enforced by the Fire Service. Under the 1975 Act, Local Authorities are required to issue safety certificates for grounds designated by the Secretary of State. This certificate contains such terms and conditions as the Local Authority considers necessary or expedient to secure public safety at the stadium”.

    “HSE policy is that the most appropriate and specific legislation that is in place to secure public safety is enforced. In the case of the Hillsborough ground, this would have been the Safety at Sports Grounds Act 1975, rather than the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974”. QUOTE ENDS.

    Three incidents of crushing within 8 years and the HSE archives are devoid of any Hillsborough files existing prior to 1989. In the course of my enquiries I came across a web site containing duplicated files referring to Hillsborough prior to the disaster. These files originated from the HSE archive now deemed empty. I regret I have been unable to locate this web site again.



    Tony Hampshire.

  19. I really hope someone could help me.

    My Dad remembers this incident very well as he was in attendance for the game and was lucky enough that his dad could get him to safety quick enough.

    Ive been a season ticket holder at Tottenham for a very long time with my dad who has been going a long time before me too and theres a video (compilation of different games and goals) played at White Hart Lane while the fans are coming in where there is a single shot of my dad sitting on the pitch as a kid watching the game during the Tottenham V’s Wolves 1981 game.

    Ive been and still am, contacting Tottenham’s marketing to track this image down so i can put it on a canvas or something for his birthday, ( a real one off ), and haven’t had any luck. Even a finger pointing to where the video itself can be has been impossible to find.

    I’d happily help with research in regard to my dad having been involved in the incident, if you know of any way i could get this image.


    Samuel Partner.


  20. I was at this game with my wife to be, my brother and two friends, we got in the ground about bang on kick off time and had to push from the back just to get onto the terraces, we found some space and made our way about half way down level with the left hand post.

    Spurs scored early and there was a surge from behind, we expected it as when we got in there were at least a thousand with tickets still outside. From that moment and for some time it was a constant moving mass and my friends and my girlfriend were struggling to get their feet on the ground, I was 21 at the time and 6’3″ tall so I was constantly grabbing them and pulling them back to their feet, but in the end I had to concentrate on keeping my girlfriend upright and got separated from the others, my brother tried to stay with them.

    This continued for a while but the fans in the seats behind could see what was going on and started pulling people up into the stands, mostly kids and parents I think. I remember thinking it was vital not to get too far forward as the concrete wall would be waist high and if you were pushed against this that would be very dangerous, people at the front were pleading to be let out but the police, as was normal in those days were just calling them cockney ***** and telling them to shut up. I seem to remember that they eventually let several hundred out onto the pitch, cleared an area in the Wolves end, which was massive and very loosely packed, and put them in there with a police barrier to protect them.

    As a fan that had been going to every game since 1976 this didn’t seem so dramatic at the time, away ends were always jammed solid due to no ticketing, and we used to slip the turnstile operator a couple of quid to let one of us jump over the old style turnstile, I know for a fact many in the Leppings Land end in 81 didn’t have tickets.

    At the time it was just another episode in being a regular football fan, the police and authorities took our money but treated us like cattle.

    Martin Cooke

  21. My brother and I were there in 81 in the Leppings Lane end. We could feel the pressure building up behind us as more and more Spurs supporters packed in. We started to get nervous as the crush began to pin us against a barrier in front of us. We were both beginning to panic. Don’t ask me how but we managed get under the barrier so we were in front of it. We didn’t stay there long as the crowd was like a swaying seething mass and we got moved away from the barrier. We spent the next five minutes or so trying to fight our way to an area where we could get away from the crush we were lucky enough to get to an area where there seemed to be less crush but getting to that area was an absolute nightmare as we both fell down at different times. When he fell I managed to drag him up and when I fell he pulled me up. It was horrific and I’ll never forget the feeling of being crushed. Once the police opened the gates to let people on the pitch the crush ended. We were lucky that day. RIP the 96.

  22. Hi, I do not know where you get the idea that the police let us Spurs fans out on to the pitch to relieve the crush.
    About ten of us were at the game, we got in early and were near the fence gate. The pressure started to build, you could lift your feet off of the ground and not move an inch. My mates girlfriend was having a bad time of it. We started at first to ask the young police officer on gate duty to let us out. After a while we were shouting at him, I think he was contemplating opening the gate when a police sergeant came over and told him “do not open that f#####g gate”. The sergeant then walked away, within a couple of minutes two officers approached from the opposite direction. They wanted to gain access through the gate, so the officer on gate duty opened the gate. With the gate now open, about four of us grabbed that gate and would not let go and people started to pour through it. Loads of police rushed round to try and keep us in, but they had no chance. If those two officers had walked past most of us would probably not be here.
    So to say that the police opened that gate is a complete fabrication.

  23. On that day I travelled with a coach full of Spurs fans from Romford, Essex, entered the Lepings Lane End and very soon lost sight of my mates and I was gradually getting closer to the fence. Now like a number of people around me were shouting at the police to open the gate because of the crush, I don’t recall who or how the gate was opened, but I was very relieved to get through and onto the track behind the goal, where I stayed for the rest of the game. A number of Spurs fans were taken by the police alongside the main stand towards the Wolves end.
    The police quite rightly were blamed for their ineptitude at this match and sadly the game eight years later, but I have always felt the F.A. are the ones who should be in the dock for the way the tickets are distributed for these occasions and their careless attitude towards the people who make the game THE FANS.

  24. Was there, was lifted by the sway of the crowds, I’m not a small bloke but carried several yards.
    One lad I remember complained to a nearby police officer, and was slapped in the face and called a ‘ cockney c..t.
    Never been so frightened in my life.

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