HILLSBOROUGH: “We were very lucky .. but were only three or four steps away from being extremely unlucky.”

Photo: David Hurst
Rob Pratten of Green Drive, Penwortham at the age of 18, the age he was when he was involved in the Hillsborough Disaster.

Photo: David Hurst Rob Pratten of Green Drive, Penwortham at the age of 18, the age he was when he was involved in the Hillsborough Disaster.

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Caught up in the crush that resulted in the deaths of 96 people at Hillsborough as a teenager, Rob Pratten and his friends were lucky to escape as they were right near the front as the gates swung open temporarily.

He tells AASMA DAY how surviving the experience has left him valuing every moment since that terrible day

Ripping up his ticket for the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough in disgust, Rob Pratten remembers discarding his torn up ticket on a bus following the fateful match on April 15 1989.

Photo: David Hurst
Hillsborough survivor Rob Pratten of Green Drive, Penwortham, with his wife Helen, daughter Georgia age 13 and son Tom age 10.

Photo: David Hurst Hillsborough survivor Rob Pratten of Green Drive, Penwortham, with his wife Helen, daughter Georgia age 13 and son Tom age 10.

Rob, now 45, was just 18 at the time and studying for his A-levels and thought the football match would be a welcome distraction from his studies.

Instead, he saw some horrific sights that have stayed with him throughout his life even though he tried not to see the terrible events unfolding before him.

After leaving the ground, Rob and his friends got on a bus to take them back to the station and everyone aboard was in a state of shock.

However, one Nottingham Forest supporter jeered: “The only good Scouser is a dead Scouser” and Rob and his friends were so upset and disgusted, they decided to get off the bus and that’s when Rob ripped up his ticket.

Photo: David Hurst
Hillsborough survivor Rob Pratten of Green Drive, Penwortham, with his wife Helen, daughter Georgia age 13 and son Tom age 10.

Photo: David Hurst Hillsborough survivor Rob Pratten of Green Drive, Penwortham, with his wife Helen, daughter Georgia age 13 and son Tom age 10.

Rob, who now lives in Penwortham, near Preston with wife Helen, daughter Georgia, 13 and son Tom, 10, recalls: “Ripping up my ticket was an act of anger and frustration.

“I realise the person who said this did not realise the enormity of what had just happened but it was an awful thing to hear after what we’d just seen and been through.”

Rob was living in Nottingham at the time and was at Sixth Form studying for his A-levels.

He grew up in Cumbria and remembers becoming a Liverpool fan from the age of six, shunning his dad and granddad’s team of West Ham.

When living in Nottingham, Rob began going to Liverpool away matches with his friends.

Rob remembers: “When I heard about the Liverpool and Nottingham Forest FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough, I was desperate to go.

“My friends were Nottingham Forest season ticket holders so managed to get two tickets for the Forest end.

“When I went to the same match at the same venue the year before, myself and my dad had stood at the Forest end.”

Rob remembers feeling a real anticipation and happiness as he left home for the match that day.

He recalls: “It was a beautiful morning.

“I remember feeling incredibly happy and going to the match felt like a nice break from revising from their looming A-levels. There was a large group of us who met at the station and four of us were Liverpool fans.”

The group of friends got the Forest Special train and discussed how great it would be to be with Liverpool fans.

Rob says: “It was then that the idea came into our heads to try to get into the Liverpool end with permission with our tickets rather than the Forest end.”

When the friends arrived at the ground, it struck Rob how different it felt to when he had attended the same semi-final the year before.

He says: “There seemed to be a lot of people and there was no organisation.”

The four friends asked at a particular turnstile if they could go to the Liverpool end but got turned away.

Rob says: “We realised the reason we had been turned away at the first turnstile was because it was for the seating area and our tickets were for standing. He said we should try at the terraced standing turnstiles.”

The friends told the turnstile operator they were Liverpool fans and were worried there might be trouble if they went on the Forest end and asked if they could go to the Liverpool end with their tickets instead.

Rob recalls: “The turnstile operator turned to the policeman on the other side of the turnstile and explained and he just nodded and said yes.

“Because of the way the pens were closed off from each other, you could not access the side pens from the centre so there were too many people in that one area. If they had policemen and staff directing people, it would have avoided it getting so full”

Rob and his three friends entered the grounds at about 1.30pm and were surprised to find the area already quite full.

By 2.30pm, it became uncomfortably full and the four lads squeezed their way to an area where it felt a bit better, but they were still tightly packed in.

Rob says: “The players then came on to the pitch and from that moment, it felt like a vice was gripping us. The pressure gradually got worse and we initially felt this squeezing and then could not move our arms.

“I could not talk and could feel I was struggling for breath.

“In my head, I vividly remember thinking, ‘If I don’t get another breath, I am going to pass out or die’.

“But then I told myself, ‘Don’t be silly. No one dies at a football match. You’re just panicking’.”

Rob and his friends then heard shouts of: ‘There’s people dying here.’ and ‘Open the gate!’ and saw people panicking.

Rob recalls: “Even then, it did not actually register what was happening as it seemed so inconceivable.

“There was a policeman outside the gate on a walkie talkie trying to get some instructions and people were screaming at him to open the gate.”

At that moment, Rob says the gates suddenly swung open due to the pressure and he and his friends were about four steps away and directly in front of the perimeter gate.

Rob estimates around 20 people got through before the gates were closed again, including Rob and two of his friends. However, their friend Mark got left behind. Rob remembers: “We realised Mark hadn’t made it through, but our main worry was that Mark had our train tickets and for a few minutes, our only worry was how we were going to get home.

“But minutes later, more and more people flooded on to the pitch and the match was stopped. That’s when we realised something horrific was happening.”

Luckily, the friends spotted their friend Mark walking around in a daze. They later learned he had been forced to climb over the fence to safety.

Rob says: “At this stage, it was absolute chaos. I remember seeing bodies on the ground and people trying to resuscitate them and clearly failing as they were upset. Even though I was only 18, I remember thinking, ‘Don’t look too much because this could haunt you for the rest of your life’.

“I remember sitting there with my head in my hands.

“After the anger, confusion and chaos abated, there was this strange eeriness around the pitch. People were walking up and down the perimeter shouting out names trying to find their family and friends.”

Outside, the friends found a telephone box to call home. “My mum was in tears and they said it had been the longest hours of their life.”

Rob felt numb after his experience at Hillsborough. “I took up couwnselling after Hillsborough and that helped me a great deal.”

Rob, who did a Masters degree in Museum Studies did his dissertation on football museums. He ended up in Preston when he became curator of the National Football Museum when it was at Deepdale, Preston.

Rob says: “Even though me and my friends were very lucky, we were only three or four steps away from being extremely unlucky. I try to make it a positive for living as I know how fortunate we were.

“The actions of the police on the day and the cover up, lies and complacency was disgraceful.

“The only good thing to come out of Hillsborough is that football grounds are now much safer places.

“It is such as shame that came at such a high cost.”