Yesterday was yet another ‘biggest day in our history’ for Dagenham & Redbridge FC.
After the previous ‘biggest day’- winning the League 2 play off final at Wembley back in May, our first game in League 1 was against the team which had been relegated from the Championship, Sheffield Wednesday, at their home ground of Hillsborough. I had already planned to take one of my favourite Daggers scarves and leave it on the Hillsborough memorial for the 96 football fans that died on 15 April 1989 but I don’t think I was ever prepared for such an emotional and eerie journey.
When I bought my ticket two days before the game it was printed ‘Carling Stand’ and I thought ‘Hey, we’ve got a Carling Stand too, should be a home from home’. Then on the supporters coach, as we were given instructions for drop off and pick up, we were told we would be in the Leppings Lane End. ‘Okay, it is all fine, things will be completely different – that was 21 years ago.’ First thing was to walk around the ground and find the memorial. As pledged, I left one of my favourite Dagger scarves there. To me, it has to be something that is loved and which you will miss that you need to leave as a tribute. It was the Daggers scarf I have worn the most, as it has no club name, only our red and blue stripes.
Then off into the ground!
I collected a cup of tea and was directed through a tunnel by a steward. I was told not to worry about the number on my ticket, I could go either left or right. Halfway through the tunnel it hit me. This was where it happened, where so many perished. Then I thought I must be mistaken, surely 21 years on the stand at the Leppings Lane End would have changed? I took a seat to the right and sat down, excited about the football but looking around me all the time. I looked at the floor, all new concrete, and obviously the seats were new.
Then I looked back at the tunnel, and realised, yes, it was the one. I even looked at the exposed brickwork, which was old, and it confirmed all of this. Then I looked up, at the upper tier, which was closed off to us for the day. All that kept repeating in my head was the television footage of 15 April 1989, when people were helped up into the upper tier. The game kicked off, yes I was still excited, still shouting for my beloved Daggers, but it is fair to say that my thoughts were never far away from the 96 football fans that died.
We lost 2-0 after a very shakey start, but overall I felt we matched them for performance. I’m sure Sheffield Wednesday will win promotion back into the Championship this season. Part of me hopes I never have to watch us play there again. Aside from the Leppings Lane End, their ground and support was impressive but painting a tunnel where people died white and yellow doesn’t disguise the fact that it is the exact same place. Sheffield Wednesday have huge financial challenges coming up and I hope that sometime in the not too distant future they can rebuild that end properly so it becomes a proper monument and memorial rather than something that for me, felt so eerie and haunting. Supporters of all clubs have been going to Hillsborough ever since 1989 but this is how it was for me, my first visit. Life goes on, football will still be played, but RIP the 96, football will never forget you.