appears in The Oatcake, the long-running Stoke fanzine.
15th April, 1989.
One topic that always sees a plethora of responses and debate on the internet, including the Oatcake messageboard, is the Hillsborough disaster. You would think that it’s a subject that a) is very close to every football supporter’s hearts, and we’d all be on the same wavelength, and b) such an atrocious waste of precious human life that no one could ever even have the slightest of cheap digs about it, wouldn’t you?
That we play Liverpool today on Boxing Day at the Britannia Stadium, despite us being their equals on the pitch in 2012, is still a big occasion for me. They are still a massive football club, there’s no question about that, and that is why three points tonight will see my personal giddy-o-meter shoot off the radar. The very best Chrimbo present.
The recent death of my father has probably meant I’m more emotional and maudlin than normal. I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and I recognise everyone’s right to an opinion. But I won’t apologise for having a tear in my eye when I see the closing scene from the Justice Collective video. And I won’t ever apologise for doffing my cap to everyone that keeps the spirit and memory of the 96 alive.
“Margaret Aspinall had always loved the Hollies' ‘He Ain't Heavy’, so – as a small act of love – her 18-year-old son James bought her the single as a present. Five months later he went to watch Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough and never came home.
After his death his mother found it too painful to play the song, but now, 23 years later, she has renewed reason to listen again. On Monday a star-studded version of the track will be released in time to challenge for Christmas number one, with all proceeds going to the legal costs of a fresh inquest into the tragedy. It is a fitting bookmark to a momentous year, said Aspinall, the chair of the Hillsborough Families Support Group.” The Guardian 14/12/12
Surely you have to have a heart of concrete not to have a lump in the throat and not feel the slightest bit sick in the pit of your stomach after reading the above?
I just don’t get how anyone can be anything but in total support of Liverpool Football Club and its supporters over Hillsborough, and what happened on that day and the subsequent 23 years. Because what happened was totally wrong. Because what happened was totally shameful. And because what happened could have quite easily have happened to any one of us, back in the day.
Those who have been to that particular football ground in the past, before 1989, would testify to it being a disaster waiting to happen. It’s still quite startlingly unbelievable that so many people could have lost their lives at a football match, isn’t it? In all of this we should also never forget the 9th March 1946, where 33 people lost their lives at Burnden Park, with ourselves being the visitors, and a crowd estimated to be over 80,000 jammed in. Anyone who has ever been to Burnden Park will be amazed by that crowd figure, absolutely amazed.
But back to Hillsborough....
I can vividly remember that Saturday afternoon. I was home from university (in Swansea, and no, I wasn’t a cleaner!). Stoke were at Bournemouth and a few mates of mine had travelled down there to watch our game. I was watching Grandstand, when it quickly cut to the Liverpool v Forest game. The next couple of hours were horribly surreal. It couldn’t be real, could it? They couldn’t be lads carrying their mates on advertising hoardings, could they? Simply horrific.
A week later I returned to Swansea University on the Saturday afternoon. We were having a beer later that night: a group of lads who followed amongst others Luton, Swindon, Sunderland, Cardiff and me, Stoke City. There was only one topic of conversation.
At that moment a lad came in. To my eternal shame, I have since forgotten his name. He was a Scouser, a Liverpool fan. Like me, he went everywhere to watch his team, whenever he could. The week before he had been at the FA Cup semi final.
He sat down with us, nursing a beer. We had no words for him. What words could there ever be? I have never seen such a shell of a man. His eyes were open, but he saw nothing that evening. Just a vacant gaze, eyes that could hardly decipher or believe what they had witnessed several days previously. His words, always so quickly spoken quickly and with such wit and life in such a strong Merseyside accent, were now having to be forced out. They were token. He didn’t want to be there. He didn’t want to be anywhere.
I’ll never forget that night.
He was never the same again. It was as if he too had died that vile afternoon and no amount of love, banter or care from us could bring him back. I hope he got his life back on track in the future years, but I really doubt it. It was as if all hope had been extinguished in his soul. I’m shaking my head just thinking about that night. Good, sound lad, he was. No-one ever deserves to witness or experience that. No-one.
I don’t really like Liverpool FC, I never really have. Possibly stemming from visits to Anfield with my dad in the 70’s and 80’s, but I take delight in us being their equals on the pitch now. But I have every respect and admiration for the families and friends of the 96, and for those who have fought so valiantly for the truth, and now, hopefully, justice. Whatever your thoughts on the city or club, Liverpool is a proud, unique place. Please don’t bring Heysel into this as some do – the 96 do not deserve that at all. This is a singular event. A singular, horrific event, to be judged on its own. It’s not to be compared for point-scoring purposes, with any other event before or since.
I hope we absolutely hammer Liverpool today. But I also hope that our support acts with class, respect and dignity whenever we play them. Because those 96 could have been us. Because they actually are us.
I spoke in the last issue how Vale fans had set up a thread on their messageboard in respect of my late father. Superb stuff. I’ve since had emails and messages from any number of supporters from any number of football teams paying homage to my dad, a fellow football supporter.
96 people went to watch the team they loved one April day. They never came back. That is the crux of Hillsborough for me, and don’t we as football supporters and decent human beings have a duty to ensure their memory is kept alive, and hope and pray that their families and friends find solace and closure in the very near future?
Justice for the 96.