On a bitterly cold November night in 1983 Celtic travelled to Nottingham to face Brian Clough’s excellent Forest side in the UEFA cup. Forest had been European Champions twice in the previous few seasons and there was no doubting the magnitude of the task facing David Hay’s side. The Celtic support was allocated 11,500 tickets of the 32,000 on sale but it was clear that many more had made the trip to England. Forest’s ground was archaic in places and the bulk of the Celtic support was crammed onto a terrace which had been sub divided into pens using railings. This was no doubt an anti-hooligan measure designed to keep visiting fans apart from the locals. The early 80s was a time when hooliganism was endemic and Policing had yet to evolve the strategies to deal with it. There was also a high fence at the front of this antiquated terrace to prevent access to the pitch. That being said the Celtic supporters packed into those pens were not there for trouble but to bring their usual colour and noise to the game.
As the game kicked off it was clear that the pens behind the goal were full to capacity and that all was not well. Some fans were climbing the floodlight to escape an increasingly uncomfortable situation. Simultaneously, the Police were dealing with the crowd still waiting to get into the ground in the narrow street behind the away terrace. In a chilling echo of what was to come six years later at Hillsborough they decided to ease congestion outside by opening one of the big exit gates. Fans, many without tickets, surged into the already crowded away end making an already uncomfortable situation dangerous. Fans spoke of being completely unable to move and packed in like sardines. Inevitably some were fainting. Relief of a sort came when ambulance service opened a gate at the corner of the terrace to treat a person who had fainted. However, such was the pressure from behind that hundreds of fans were forced out of the gate and onto the track and playing area.
One Forest fan wrote later of Celtic fans ‘exploding out of the gate’ and even from the opposite end of the field knew that it wasn’t hooliganism but sheer weight of numbers which forced them onto the track. As fans lay on the grass, Celtic’s Doctor Fitzsimmons, physio Brian Scott and other staff raced across to help the overwhelmed ambulance staff. Dr Fitzsimmons gave mouth to mouth resuscitation to several fans and certainly saved lives that night. Other fans had crush injuries such as broken bones and breathing problems. The response of the Police was fairly ineffective but they soon realised that forcing fans back onto the packed terrace wasn’t an option and relocated them to other parts of the ground. The Referee had by this point stopped the game and players on both sides watched the unfolding drama no doubt hoping things would settle down and they could get on with the game. Few realised the danger of the situation at the time but the overcrowding on the terrace was plain to see. Eventually the injured were dealt with, the walking wounded led off for treatment and the supporters forced out of the gate resettled elsewhere. The game resumed and Celtic, after a shaky start, played very well and were unlucky to return to Glasgow with just a 0-0 draw to show for their efforts.
Many on the buses back north though were not talking of the football but of the near escapes they had that night. Nottingham Police force seemed unprepared for the numbers of Celtic supporters travelling to the game. According to some Celtic fans at the game they were also unfriendly and even aggressive at times. The decision to open the exit gate and allow a surge of fans into already packed terraces shows a complete lack of communication between officers inside and outside the ground. Only the timely opening of the pitch-side gate at the front of the terrace allowed for an easing of pressure which stopped a dangerous situation becoming a deadly one.
These lessons were not being heeded in British football in the 1980s and a few years after the near miss at Nottingham we saw Celtic’s league clinching game with Dundee in 1988 attended by a crowd later admitted to being over 72,000 in a ground with a stated capacity of 67,000. Only the lack of perimeter fences at Celtic Park allowed for the swift relocation of fans from the packed Celtic end to other areas. Just a year later we saw the tragedy of Hillsborough unfold and the despicable web of deceit which was woven to blame supporters and protect those chiefly culpable.
Those of us old enough to recall the old terraces at football stadiums will all have experienced dangerous situations. Leaving the ground after big games could be a daunting prospect and many wiser heads chose to wait until the crowd had dispersed. I can recall exiting Celtic Park after a Celtic v Rangers game as a teenager and my feet literally didn’t touch the ground for 10 or 20 metres as I was swept along such was the press of bodies around me.
Some complained initially about the atmosphere the new generation of all-seater stadiums but if that is the price of safety then so be it. Celtic have shown that safe standing areas can be built into modern stadiums to lift the atmosphere and Celtic Park is currently a noisy, vibrant arena in which to watch football. We can have the best of both worlds and be safe as we watch the sport we love as well as enjoying the unique atmosphere Celtic supporters generate.
Nottingham in 1983 was a warning which sadly fell on deaf ears. Our fellow supporters on Merseyside were to reap the bitter harvest of that inaction. It remains shocking that supporters were treated like cattle in those times and that it took such a tragedy to make the various authorities wake up to the dangers people were in at football matches.
There but for the grace of God could have been any of us in those days.