Tottenham On This Day: Hillsborough – It Could Have Been Spurs!


This day is remembered as the day Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers met in an FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough. It could so easily have ended in a tragedy similar to the semi-final match at that ground in 1989.

Tottenham on this Day

11th April, 1981

Leppings Lane, Hillsborough, Sheffield – April, 1981

Eight years before the Hillsborough dusaster, Tottenham supporters who attended the FA Cup semi-final against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground on 11th April, 1981 reported events in the Leppings Lane end of the Hillsborough stadium which could have led to Tottenham fans being caught up in a similar disaster.

With the subsequent events in 1989, the Football Association obviously, didn’t take notice of the warnings from the Tottenham match. In 1981, there was a problem because Spurs who had a larger average gate than Wolves were allocated the much smaller Leppings Lane end. Supporters who were present, including some who were schoolchildren at the time, remember it being a very unpleasant experience and being scared with people having to climb over fencing and spilling onto the pitch to avoid the crush in the Leppings Lane end. Many fans realise that they were fortunate to avoid serious injury but 38 Tottenham fans were injured, including some with broken legs. The action of the police in 1981 probably saved the situation escalating as they opened the gates in the fences and allowed fans onto the the pitch perimeter.

The trouble started as early as the ninth minute with the referee, Clive Thomas, aware of the problem and speaking to officials about the situation. Last year, on Talksport, Andy Gray who was in the Wolverhampton team spoke of Wolves fans speaking to the players afterwards about experiencing similar problems with the crush.

Supporters made the Football Association and the club aware of what had happened that afternoon and the FA launched an investigation into the crowd control at the match. A newspaper report tells of one fan’s situation. He and a number of season ticket holders had arrived at the ground at 2.15pm and were ‘herded into the corner of an enclosure’. It was uncomfortable then but stewards and police kept pushing more and more supporters in from the back and by kick-off at three o’clock ‘the situation was terrifying’.

"‘Women and children were being crushed. I am tall and able to take care of myself, but I felt my ribs cracking. Not until 3.10 did the police become aware of the dangerous situation and begin letting people on to the touch-line.’"

He eventually forced his way to the back, where hundreds of people were unable to enter the terracing and with no hope of seeing the game.

A match report talks of:

‘Drama on and off the pitch as two goals arrived in the first eleven minutes but the tragedy was that fans missed the start. In scenes of unprecedented confusion, hundreds of Spurs fans arrived late, packed their way in and caused unbearable congestion in one corner of the Leppings Lane end. The police eventually allowed 500 of them on to the running track and they sat five deep round the goal, with dozens of them running on the pitch when Glenn Hoddle nudged Spurs ahead shortly before half-time.

At half-time police attempted to persuade Spurs fans to join the Wolves supporters on the Kop – but most refused. The second half began more or less on time but hundreds of Spurs fans still ringed the touchline behind the Leppings Lane goal.’

From such reports that are available and the video footage of the crowd problems, it is clear that there was a serious problem with crowd control affecting the Tottenham supporters at the Leppings Lane end of Hillsborough in 1981. That, nine years later, a similar problem should lead to the death of 96 Liverpool supporters suggests that the authorities did not take the earlier warning seriously and were remiss in not following up on the problems reported in 1981 and taking appropriate action to prevent it happening again.

As many who were present in 1981, sympathise with the Liverpool families who lost loved ones eight years later, they are so aware that it could so easily have been them involved in such a terrible tragedy.