‘Tonight there were no words’: a dark day at Hillsborough with Brian Clough

It’s a beautiful spring morning. Brian is one game away from the first FA Cup final of his career. Nottingham Forest will play Liverpool, league champions and top of Division One. They have won their past 11 games.

Of the past 22 games, Forest have lost two. We’ve just won the League Cup. We are motivated, not only because we want Brian to win the FA Cup, but because Nottingham Forest in April 1989 are a very good side. However, inside Hillsborough’s big blue gates, the atmosphere is strange, nasty, brooding. As I get off the team bus, I’m scared – I’ve never felt like this before.

Sometimes, at Millwall or Leeds, Brian would order the bus to park outside the ground and the players to walk, just to show they were not intimidated. This is different. There’s a kind of electricity in the air. Hostile electricity. Vitriol. When I’m given my ticket, I’m told not to show it about.

The ticket takes me to the main stand, where I’m sitting alongside Ronnie Fenton, Franz Carr and a young lad called Billy Stubbs.

The semi-final begins. Peter Beardsley hits the bar, then some Liverpool fans seem to be invading the pitch. I leap out of my seat and start shouting. Their fans are trying to stop our counterattack: bastards.

Franz Carr taps me on the shoulder and says: “Hang on a second, son. Sit down and shut up, this is something different.”

Over to the left, in the Leppings Lane end, Liverpool supporters are being lifted over the fences or being helped up to the second tier of the stand. The game comes to a standstill.

Something is going very wrong. I start to panic. Our Darren [Craig’s oldest brother] and some of my mates from Sunderland have come down for the game. Brian had sorted tickets for them and now they’re on the other side of the ground. Are they safe – are they?

We are all ushered into the dressing rooms. Somebody says there has been a death. Later, we are told five people have been killed and that the club gymnasium is being turned into a morgue.

Brian was at the front of the Forest bus, slumped in his seat. The deaths had left him distraught
I go back out with a few of the players. A line of policemen are standing across the pitch with their arms linked. They start marching towards the Kop, where the Forest supporters are – they want to stop the Forest fans from invading the pitch and clashing with the Liverpool supporters. That there could or would be a pitch invasion in these circumstances is the product of someone’s imagination.

As bodies are carried by on advertising hoardings, I go to the end of the police line and ask what they’re doing, why aren’t they helping? A policeman turns and says I should mind my own fucking business – they have their orders.

The disaster is being broadcast live on the BBC. The cameras catch me walking by the pitch alongside Des Walker, Steve Hodge and Billy Stubbs. I’ve got the tracksuit top tied around my waist and my skinny arms are showing through a cream T-shirt – that’s how Mam knows I’m alive.

We go back to the dressing rooms and mill about. Nobody says the game has been called off, but at six o’clock, Brian tells the lads: “We’re going home. Get your stuff and get on the bus.”

In the players’ lounge they have watched Des Lynam on television say there’s a possibility that as many as 75 have died. The Nottingham Forest bus, like the Liverpool bus, went home in silence.

Brian was at the front of the Forest bus, slumped in his seat. The deaths had left him distraught; the early, confused reports that Liverpool fans have stormed the gates and triggered a catastrophe have left him furious.

For a long time afterwards, he was convinced Liverpool fans who had come early to Hillsborough and waited patiently by the fences at the Leppings Lane end had been overwhelmed by a tide of supporters, who had disobeyed every instruction and swept into the stadium: the innocent killed by the reckless. [An inquest jury later decided the behaviour of fans did not contribute to the disaster.]

Usually, words tumbled out of Brian. One-liners, quotes from Sinatra, exchanges with Michael Parkinson or David Frost that could captivate a television audience. Speeches that inspired footballers to win European Cups and dark threats that would chill your blood.

Tonight, there were no words.

The next day, I went out to take Del the dog for a walk when someone emerged from behind a clump of trees.

“Who are you?” he asks.

“I’m Craig. I’m taking the dog for a walk.”

“Why have you got Brian Clough’s dog?”

“I live here.”

“I’ll tell you what, son. I’ll give you 2,000 quid if you’ll give me his phone number.”

“I’m sorry, mate, but you’ve got no chance.”

I walk up the drive and tell Brian, who marches out, looking for the man. For the next three days, there are journalists and photographers in the garden.

Brian has a rifle for shooting pheasants, although it has yet to be fired at anything. Now, he threatens to use it on those milling around outside. For those few days, he retreated totally into himself. He was as quiet and as alone as I ever saw him. Those days will be the start of his being dragged down by alcohol.