I’ve never written about Hillsborough and the tragic events of 15th April 1989. I remember the day. I was one of the ‘lucky’ ones who didn’t go, I just picked up whatever information you could from tv and radio in those days.
It’s still very raw. Why? I didn’t lose anyone personally, and I didn’t know anyone who went and didn’t come back. I cannot begin to imagine what those families and friends have gone through all these years. Why is it so raw? I guess it’s because those who died have been blamed for it ever since.
The main reason I haven’t ever written about it is I never thought I could ever do it justice. Where do you start? How can you keep it from sounding like a rant? How can you keep it from being over emotional? But for the first time I believe we are going into a memorial without having to fight people who still believe the story concocted at the time. You still get the occasional idiot who tries to blame it on other factors.
“It’s because they were drunk, didn’t have tickets and turned up late”
As if that’s now a justifiable reason to lose your life at a public event. I have been at plenty of public events since where people have done one or all three of those, yet they still walk away with their lives. Hillsborough remains the only major catastrophe I can recall where the victims are blamed, and so many seemed to believe this version for years. But it took the courage of the families and those close to them to campaign for the truth to come out.
Liverpool is a unique city. Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t make it better or worse, but it is unique. You could probably make comparisons with other cities around the country for the passion for football from a mainly working-class background. They love a local-boy-made-good. In Liverpool you either support red or blue – there’s no other choice. To the point where many families contain supporters of both clubs who would often go to derby matches together, although that is happening less and less now.
Two aspects which characterise Liverpool is the history of the docks, and its Catholic roots. Bill Shankly completely understood the former and the latter can give rise to the impression of ‘self-pity city’ as some have preferred to label. The Catholic roots are traced back to Ireland and so the propensity for feeling betrayed, downtrodden and sorry for themselves can often manifest itself when tragedy occurs. But with that comes a fight and belief in what is right. Often Liverpool can feel the world is against them and will turn in on themselves, but what they will retain is a determination they are proud of who they are and where they come from. To just label it as ‘sorry for itself’ really misses what drives the city.
Rogan Taylor, a local football academic described it when he said “it is in disaster that character is formed, through suffering comes identity”. This identity is what gives people a belief they can change things, they can right wrongs. What other city would have adopted a song such as “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as an example of how together we are stronger, and you are not alone, we are with you and supporting you every step of the way.
These factors meant they were never going to lie down and take what was being handed out by the South Yorkshire police.
My own personal belief is that the police briefed the government very well in a version of what they wanted. The government, particularly Margaret Thatcher was still in debt to the police for their support during the Miners’ Strike of the mid-eighties and so was not going to have the force called into question. What remains a puzzle to this day is why successive governments did not question this. Jack Straw effectively signed off on the ‘truth’ as he saw it when he was Home Secretary and even when Andy Burnham turned up for one of the memorials, he was reluctant to believe the police and authorities were to blame.
But the tide began to turn when he arrived at Anfield five years ago. As the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport he was there to give a speech, although few in the ground realised this as it was not in the programme. Just as he started his speech the crowd voiced their derision. “Justice for the 96” could be heard around the ground. There were 28,000 people at Anfield that day and the ferocity and sheer anger at being mis-judged all these years, came out.
Burnham claimed he had nothing new to add, which only compounded his hopelessness. He was visibly shaken by the backlash. But it worked. He set about getting to the truth and once he understood it fully, he campaigned to get the verdict quashed. He was able to highlight Anne Williams as an example of how the original decision was flawed. Her son, Kevin, was pronounced dead by the coroner at 3.15pm yet there is evidence he was calling for his mum an hour later. In another tragic twist, Anne died of cancer not long after the original verdict was quashed.
Anne Williams was a vociferous campaigner and flatly refused to accept her son’s death certificate, believing the cause and time of death was incorrect. You see, we need people like Anne. People who are prepared to put their heads above the parapet, knock on doors and not accept ‘no’ for an answer in the pursuit of truth and justice. Many of us aren’t prepared, or confident to do that, but Anne was and this has resulted in what we now know.
It is now a matter of public record the fans were not to blame for the disaster which occurred at Hillsborough in April 1989.
The fact that Liverpool fans were at that end that day and on that day the stadium and the organisers failed to keep the public safe, is sheer coincidence. Hillsborough isn’t about Liverpool fans, it is not even about football fans. Hillsborough is the failure of those given the duty of responsibility to keep the public safe at a public event, and their categorical failure to carry out their duty, and then their subsequent attempts to cover their tracks and apportion blame elsewhere. There had been concerns about Hillsborough as far back as 1981 when Tottenham played Wolves in an FA Cup Semi-Final. Others have spoken of their concern at the ground in matches since then. The stadium didn’t have a safety certificate. It was an accident waiting to happen.
It will remain English football’s blackest day that it took 96 people to lose their lives that day before anything was done about watching football matches in this country. In the Sixth Round that year, Liverpool beat Brentford. Had the reverse happened and Brentford had been at the Leppings Lane end it is conceivable a tragedy may not have occurred that day as they were unlikely to garner as many supporters as Liverpool did. But we could’ve been looking at the this happening a year or two later and maybe it would’ve been Manchester United, Nottingham Forest or Arsenal supporters who lost their lives.
So now we await the outcome of the latest inquest to discover the truth. It does not make pleasant reading and is unlikely to leave many in positions of authority back then, very comfortable. But then that is what the word ‘responsibility’ means.
This weekend was very moving for me as a Liverpool fan in that all games in England kicked off seven minutes late to signify the time when the referee called the game off in 1989. Minutes silences were observed throughout the country, although for some reason the Arsenal & Wigan fans resorted to applause rather than silence at Wembley. This should’ve been about honouring death rather than celebrating life.
It must be difficult for supporters of other clubs to truly understand another club’s tragedy, but many clubs have given their support. As I said earlier, Hillsborough is about members of the public going to a public event and losing their lives. The aftermath is then those victims being blamed for their own death.
Down the years around the world we have had stampedes in various public places, even in underground railway stations, yet nobody blames people for being scared out of their minds. They blame to authorities and organisers for not making the event/venue safe. Hillsborough has never been afforded that ‘luxury’.
Just think for a moment. You drive to a match with a car full of people, there may even be someone in there you don’t really know. There is an incident at the match so tragic the game is called off and the pitch full of supporters not really knowing what’s happened, desperate to help others. There are fans using advertising boards with makeshift stretchers, running from one end of the pitch to the other carrying another fan. There are no mobile phones, no stadium announcements – only people telling you what they’ve seen and what they believed has happened. You have actually watched people dying and there’s nothing you can do about it. Then you have to drive home and that bloke who you didn’t really know, is not with you. You don’t know where he is but he is not with you. How do you feel?
When you get home you cannot really tell his family where he was, as you don’t really know. So they travel down to Sheffield the next day just hoping for some news. Remember, there’s no twitter, facebook, mobile phones or 24-hour news. Then for years this guy, who you didn’t really know, is one of those blamed for his own death. But you didn’t see any violence, no one appeared drunk so much they would kill others and you have to live with this whole sorry affair for the rest of your life.
Just imagine all that, and then get a visit from the police to take a statement only to be told you must’ve been a trouble-maker, you must’ve been the cause of the whole tragedy and then if, when you still protest your innocence, you aren’t any of these, then you cannot have been there.
Just imagine all of that and have to hear someone say years later “why can’t they just shut-up about Hillsborough and get over it?”. Now imagine how you would feel, because that is what happened to at least one lad who was there and he wasn’t even a Liverpool fan.
It won’t be long before there is justice and the families and friends of the 96 can have some sort of closure. It doesn’t bring their loved ones back, it doesn’t change anything other than you are not continually fighting against a false representation of what actually happened.
This Hillsborough Campaign story is an example of how you can change things if you are prepared to go on fighting. Would it have happened if another city was involved? I have my doubts and thankfully we will never know. When you go to football now and sit in comfort and have plenty of room to move about, you are afforded that luxury because the authorities waiting until 96 people lost their lives in conditions completely foreign to the ones you enjoy.
Today, just spare a minute to think about that.