Gary Fleming remembers the horror of Hillsborough

Former Nottingham Forest defender Gary Fleming and his teammates looked on in stunned silence, shocked to the core as bodies were carried to rest on the football pitch which had been transformed into a makeshift field hospital.

The Derry man, then 22 years-old, was in the squad for the FA Cup semi-final clash with Liverpool on that fateful Saturday afternoon of April 15, 1989 at the neutral Hillsborough home of Sheffield Wednesday.

The former Northern Ireland international and Tristar FC full-back spoke to the 'Journal' on Wednesday to mark the 20th anniversary of the disaster - which rocked English football to its foundations - leaving 96 people dead and more than 750 injured.

As kick-off approached, chaos was brewing and the Leppings Lane terrace, which was divided by iron railings into seven pens, was dangerously overcrowded with Liverpool supporters.

"I remember seeing the Leppings Lane end overcrowding but at that stage we had no idea what was going on. About six minutes after kick-off (3.06pm) the teams were brought off the pitch," he recalled.

Fans near the front of the terrace pleaded for the gates to be opened onto the pitch but the police refused to do so and a nightmare unfolded.

"For about 30 minutes we stood around, watching in horror as people ran up and down the pitch carrying advertising hoardings with people on them.

"They kept going over and back with bodies, others were giving mouth to mouth. We still didn't know the scale of the situation - it didn't hit home that people were actually dying.

"We never imagined it would be as bad as it was.

"There were a lot of bodies and people moving around in a frenzy.

"The scale of it only started to hit us as we were driving home - outside the ground there were people littered all along the road in tears and in shock," he remembered.

Horrific disaster

Reflecting on the most horrific disaster in the history of English football, the Rosemount native did not mince his words: "It was the most horrific thing I've ever seen - it put football into perspective. The game paled into insignificance after that. It affected everybody in the club - there was no interest in the replay, the feeling was that any club winning the FA Cup other than Liverpool that year would mean nothing."

Four days after the tragedy, Gary accompanied eleven of his teammates - Steve Sutton, Des Walker, Terry Wilson, Steve Hodge, Tommy Gaynor, Neil Webb, Nigel Clough, Lee Chapman, Steve Chettle, Franz Carr and Colin Foster - to two Sheffield hospitals to offer words of comfort to injured Liverpool fans.

There were handshakes, hugs, consoling words and, above all, a bond of friendship which completely overwhelmed traditional concepts of inter-club rivalry.

"It was a surreal atmosphere - there were a lot of people on ventilators with family members gathered around them.

Very tragic

"It was very tragic and very emotional to see the people affected by the tragedy.

"I remember it was very difficult for the players, it was hard to know what to say.

"We felt it was our duty to show we were there to support them and all the people of Liverpool at that time."

Gary was in the last of his six years as a player in Brian Clough's side when the tragedy happened. He later signed for Manchester City and Barnsley FC before studying physiotherapy and returning to Forest for a ten year stint as the club's physiotherapist.

Still in Nottingham

He now works in a private practice in Nottingham, where he observed a two minute silence to mark the 20th anniversary of the tragedy on Wednesday.