Hillsborough. A name that is known throughout the football world. Hillsborough is one of the country’s most well-known grounds and one of British football’s former grand stages. The word Hillsborough also has far more tragic undertones. Hillsborough has been on my list of grounds to visit for quite a while now, but when I found out that their midweek League Cup (or Capital One Cup, sorry) fixture against Premier League Fulham was £10 a ticket, I thought this was the perfect opportunity to tick it off my 92 list – it was also an economically sound idea.
I had only stepped foot in Sheffield twice before and both times were merely to step off one train and jump onto another train to complete my trips to Barnsley to watch Swansea play at Oakwell. Today was going to be the day that I actually set foot outside of Sheffield train station and saw the city centre proper for the first time. I set off mid-afternoon from Manchester to give me enough time to have a wander around Sheffield before heading up to the area around Hillsborough, about 3 miles outside of the city centre. After the fairly prompt 40 minute train ride from Manchester Piccadilly to Sheffield, it was time to set foot in Sheffield and fairplay to the place, what a way to greet you. In the late summer sunshine, the exit from Sheffield station was very impressive with the various water fountains, a metallic wall with water flowing down it into a mini stream below and the large building opposite the station welcoming me with a large Andrew Motion poem written down the side of it – always nice as an English teacher to be welcomed to a city through poetry (the poem was ‘Off the Shelf’ for anyone that is interested).
My first port of call was far less cultural than the poetry of Motion, as on my ascent up to the city centre I spotted a ‘Scream’ pub, a brand of pub I had grown to love in Liverpool after ‘The Hope and Anchor’ (a ‘Scream’ pub) became my regular drinking haunt in my residency on Merseyside. As the drinks are usually cheap in ‘Scream’ pubs, I opted to have a quick pint before carrying on towards the city centre. Whilst I was sitting in the pub, I made the belated decision to check what time the last train back to Manchester was, through the use of my ever-reliable National Rail App; last train: 22:47 – that meant if the game went to extra time, we’d have an exciting race across Sheffield to make it; if the tie went to penalties, well, it looked like a night partying in Sheffield was on the cards until the 03:45 train back to Manchester. One pint of Fosters, a peruse of a train timetable and an unsuccessful couple of games on the quiz machine later and I found myself in the city centre. I had no idea what to expect, but I have to say Sheffield is a very nice city, although much more hilly than I expected. After a quick wander around the city and a pint in The Benjamin Huntsman Wetherspoons pub (actually two pints, as the first one was certainly ‘off’ to say the least, so that got taken back) I received a text from my mate Jason who was keen to join me at the game and experience Hillsborough, so the next task was to go meet him. Eventually we rendezvoused at Castle Square tram station where we were to begin the 15 minute journey to the Hillsborough area in the northern part of the city by ‘Supertram’. It was unbeknownst to me that Sheffield was a city with trams until 24 hours before when I thought I’d better check how to get to the ground. It was at the tram station where the most confusing aspect of my journey arose: firstly, there was a sign on the station making it very clear that those without a valid ticket for the tram would be fined, yet there was also a sign stating that there are conductors onboard all trams to buy tickets from. Did we buy a ticket before getting on or not? If we didn’t would we spend the night in a Sheffield prison? After trying to play it safe by buying a ticket beforehand, it soon became clear that there was nowhere to buy tickets from, so the only thing for it was to hop on the next tram and hope not to get fined. Soon enough, a ticket lady came around and sold us our Dayriders – no fine or prison! I also have to add that Sheffield’s trams are much nicer and better maintained than Manchester’s trams (suck on that Metrolink).
Most of the prematch drinking haunts were at Hillsborough tram stop, but the ground is actually a 5 minute walk from Leppings Lane tram stop, 2 stops further on than Hillsborough. We had decided en route to grab our tickets first and then head back down to the pubs around Hillsborough. On arriving at Leppings Lane, it dawned on us that we didn’t have any idea where the ground was and we couldn’t see any signposts or sign of the place (something I was surprised at, since I thought Hillsborough was meant to be massive), so Google Maps App made its regular away trip appearance; the App was determined that the ground was situated in the middle of a river, so I assumed it was having one of its funny days but decided to head towards the river anyway. Then one of Hillsborough’s stands appeared from behind the street we were standing on as we began working our way towards the river on my map. It turned out my Google Maps wasn’t too far off as the South Stand overhangs the River Don, so much so you have to cross a bridge over the river to go through the main reception entrance of the ground. I have to say, that from the outside, Hillsborough was very impressive – it was much, much bigger than I thought it’d be. Hillsborough can hold close to 40,000 spectators and is the largest ground outside of the Premier League. The ground famously used to host FA Cup semi-finals and was even one of the host stadiums for the World Cup in 66 and Euro 96. The club moved to the ground in the Owlerton area (hence the nickname Owls) in 1899 with the ground originally called The Owlerton Stadium; a series of improvements led to a name change and to the name Hillsborough.
Irritatingly, we were told we had to circle three-quarters of the stadium to get our tickets. It was whilst walking down Parkside Road, we encountered the small enclosure set aside for the Hillsborough disaster memorial. Standing there reading the stone engraved tribute on the headstone, surrounded by scarves of clubs across the country and the world was particularly eerie and sent a shudder through me. The Hillsborough disaster was not only one of the worst sporting tragedies to occur in this country, but also one of the of the worst human tragedies. Having lived in Liverpool for a year and meeting some people who were affected by the disaster, I know how much the people crave real closure from what happened that day and I hope there is finally Justice for the 96 in the near future.
To buy our tickets, Sheffield Wednesday made us walk through the club’s store, through all their blue and white (and yellow) merchandising to get to the ticket desk – a clever ploy I suppose. My favourite bit of merchandising in the shop had to be the skull caps on sale, as worn by club favourite Miguel Llera. On buying our tickets, I had to go through the usual “Have you bought with us before? No, well we need to put you on the system”, a ritual most clubs seem to employ now to hassle you to go to more games; I have a collection of letters in my house from Manchester City, Manchester United and Blackpool all trying to persuade me to become a season ticket holder for the upcoming season. Anyway, tickets were purchased (£10!) and we decided to head to the pubs down Hillsborough way.
We arrived at the Hillsborough tram stop, which has a Wetherspoons right on the platform – always a good thing. However, Jason was hungry and we headed to the chip shop next to the tram stop. With the aroma of fish and chips in the air, I also could not resist diving into some chip shop action. I highly recommend ‘Riverside Fish & Chips’ as the portions were pretty hefty and the chips were textbook. We decided to make Wetherspoons our final stop before heading back up to the ground and instead opted for a drink in a small place called the ‘Legends’ Sports Bar’. This looked a great place to start a night out as the shots on offer were relatively cheap, but as my regular Swansea away day companion Tom will tell you, we only do shots prematch before a game at the Reebok Stadium in The Beehive pub – a tradition which began last season. Then onto Wetherspoons, where the placed was thriving with the blue and white stripes of Wednesday. After a long wait to get a drink, we took our pints and sat in the beer garden/smoking area for Jason to smoke. Jason enjoys compiling lists of ‘Best evers…’ and ‘Top 5s’ relating to football and having (shameless plug alert) read my article about Juan Roman Riquelme we spent 10 minutes compiling the “Top 5 number 10s of our Lifetime”; I can’t remember the final list but we were soon on our way back to Hillsborough.
At around 19:25 we were through the turnstiles and into Hillsborough. Our seats were situated in the upper tier of the North Stand, which meant we had to climb a winding ramp to get to the concourse on the upper tier – certainly a unique feature compared to the usual trawling up a staircase. Admittedly the concourse was very compact and there was little room for manoeuvre, especially now that we were about 15 minutes away from kick off. Strangely, the alcohol selling booth had no queue so alcohol was purchased easily; on the other hand, the queue for food was massive, but the pies did look good (I was still pretty full from the chips though). With bottles of Carling drunk, it was up through the narrow walkway and into the stand.
Our seats were positioned towards the top of the North Stand almost on the halfway line – they really were great seats and Hillsborough looked brilliant from up there. To our left was Hillsborough’s famous Kop, the second largest Kop stand in the country behind Liverpool’s famous stand, which was not open for tonight’s game in anticipation of the small (by Hillsborough standards) crowd that was expected for the League Cup fixture. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but I can’t talk about the Kop without mentioning the amazing entrance to it, which involved a stair winding along a mini-mountain next to the Kop – it really was different to anything I’d seen before. To our right was the Leppings Lane stand (the stand where the Hillsborough disaster occurred in 1989) which was scattered with a sprinkling of Fulham fans that had made the long journey up from West London for a midweek cup game – good effort! Directly ahead of us was the South Stand, complete with the famous Hillsborough clock. Another strange feature, especially for such an old ground, that only came to my attention once inside the ground was the fact that the ground has no floodlights and instead the action is illuminated from lights that beam down from the roofs all stands.
Me and Jason both declared our love for Bryan Ruiz before the game and we were both excited to learn (via Twitter) that he was in Fulham’s startng XI; so we were both heavily disappointed to not be able to find him out on the pitch and instead found Damien Duff playing instead, after it turned out that Ruiz had picked up a niggling injury in the warm-up. We were also just as appalled to see Fulham’s away kit – a hideous ensemble indeed. Fulham started the game the better team with Damien Duff and Steve Sidwell particularly impressive in the opening stages, but after the opening 10 minutes Sheffield Wednesday began to dominate Fulham and this was the story for almost the entirety of the game. Sheffield Wednesday did not give Fulham a second on the ball, were first to every loose ball and made every tackle. Fulham were getting more and more frustrated and soon they were flying into tackles and accumulating yellow cards. I’d told Jason to watch out for the Slovenian Nejc Pecnik who had impressed me in Wednesday’s previous League Cup game against Oldham which was televised on Sky. There was some nice touches from him, but he was quite quiet and isolated out on the left side of midfield. The star of the show was on the opposite side of the pitch: Sheffield Wednesday’s winger, Michail Antonio. I’d heard a lot about Antonio during his loan spell at Wednesday last season, but had never seen him play properly; his impressive form last season made Antonio a huge hit with Wednesdayites and his displays prompted the club to pay £1m for the winger’s services from Reading. Antonio proved devastating all game with mazy, powerful runs as well as chasing every ball – I was very impressed with him.
Wednesday had all the play, but there were very little chances either way. There were a couple of chances for Wednesday to score and they perhaps came closest through Antonio who brought a good save out of Schwarzer and fired a piledriver over the bar. Half-time: 0-0.
At half-time we had arranged to meet Laura, a Sheffield Wednesday fan who writes the excellent blog “Yes, I Can Explain The Offside Rule”. Jason had joined me at the Football Blogging Awards and we had met Laura there after we shared a table with her and her mate (you can read about our evening here on her blog). We shared some half-time analysis, some Carling and some musings on the ground itself before heading back up to our seats in the North Stand.
We’d missed the opening minutes of the second half and in the rush to our seats, Jason led us the wrong place. In the confusion, we partly missed the incident which earned Sheffield Wednesday a penalty early into the second half – I turned around whilst navigating the seats just in time to see Chris Maguire falling to the ground (what caused it I’m not sure). We decided to head to straight to the nearest empty seats to watch the ensuing penalty. Gary Madine looked confident and he surely enough stepped up to send Schwarzer the wrong way: 1-0 to Sheffield Wednesday. The game was now made more exciting for us, as we were desperate for the game not to go to extra-time due to sheer rush to catch to the last train it would cause – I was now behind Wednesday 100% to hold onto their lead. In all fairness, the Owls’ lead never really looked in doubt as they continued to dominate Fulham. The most enjoyable aspect of Fulham’s performance was laughing at the woeful performance of Fulham’s Swiss midfielder Pajtim Kasami; he had no first touch, no power, no control of the ball, no aerial ability – he really was awful and was substituted just after the hour for Marcello Trotta. Shortly after the substitution, Fulham had the ball in the back of the net after Brede Hangeland scored a flying header off a Matthew Briggs cross, but the assistant referee spotted a foul in the box and the goal was ruled out.
I got quite excited just before the 70th minute as Dave Jones (ex-Cardiff manager I know, but I actually always quite liked him and always rated the guy) brought on former Barcelona B player Rodri for Maguire. It’s always good to see a player associated with Barca grace a football pitch and from what I’d heard and the goal I had seen him score in the highlights, he had a good debut on the weekend just gone. He certainly was very busy throughout his 20 minute cameo and I feel with a bit of time to adapt to the rush of English football, he looks like he could be a top player for Wednesday.
The last 20 minutes should have been a nervous time for me and Jason as we worried over whether we would make the last train back to Manchester, but Wednesday’s lead was never troubled and should have even been doubled when Madine went one-on-one with the keeper only not to shoot after seeing the linesman put his flag up, although the ref waved played on. Fulham didn’t even try in the last 5 minutes and the game finished 1-0 to Sheffield Wednesday. We were going home on time and with no rush!
Put simply, Hillsborough is a brilliant ground; the classic “traditional ground which oozes character”. On exiting the ground, we both agreed that Hillsborough was quite similar in style to Goodison Park, although with the advantage of less poles obstructing your view. The only disappointment really was that I went on a Tuesday night League Cup game, so the atmosphere was never going to be up to the famous roar that many people associate with Hillsborough; although there were moments in the game when the crowd got going, which made me think how loud it must be when the place is full. I definitely want to go again
There was still time for a bit of last-minute PR for Lost Boyos before leaving Sheffield. The aged, ticket conductor lady on the tram back into the city centre was clearly very tired and strugglingtowards the end of her shift; when she came and joined me and Jason and asked about the game, somehow I got on to telling her all about Lost Boyos. I wonder if she ever did get around to checking it out?
Highlights: A real traditional ground with character, cheap tickets (for League Cup anyway), easy to access ground by the tram, plenty of unique features.
Low Points: Atmosphere wasn’t great (but I appreciate it was a League Cup game), concourses are a bit tight.