Hillsborough disaster: 25th anniversary
April 14th, 2014
02:22 PM ET

Will Hillsborough scars ever heal?

For British football fans in the spring of 1989, it was our JFK moment.

Every one of us remembers exactly where we were and what we were doing on April 15, when we learned that over 90 Liverpool supporters had been crushed to death at an FA Cup semifinal. Along with many others across the country, I was listening to the game on the radio, quickly switching on the television to watch a disaster unfold in front of me.

This was a time before the Premier League, before the massive investment in all-seater stadia; football was very different back then.

Anyone who'd stood on a terrace and been herded like cattle into and out of a stadium could relate to what those fans must have gone through. Most of the time, standing behind the goal at a first division game was a lot of fun, the crowd ebbed and flowed with the action on the field, a crowd that was a vibrant, living entity and you were thrilled to be a part of it.

Never did it occur to you that being swept off your feet to a point 30 feet down the terrace could be dangerous, nor that one day you might not be able to move at all, the life slowly crushed from your lungs while your favorite team played just yards ahead of you.

Everything about Hillsborough was awful, but for the bereaved families and the traumatized fans, the pain would only get worse. Within minutes of the game being stopped, the senior police officer in charge had blamed Liverpool supporters for forcing open a perimeter gate.

His comment took seconds to utter, but it helped shape the narrative for decades to come, namely that those supporters were responsible for their own fatalities and for the deaths of others.

Only in 2012, 23 years after the fact, was the accepted narrative meaningfully open to question. An independent panel cleared the supporters of responsibility and new evidence suggested that some of the victims might have survived if there had been a better – and more coordinated – response from the emergency services.

Tireless campaigning from the families was starting to pay off, 96 verdicts of accidental death were quashed, a new inquest – which began last month – was ordered.

Now, the role of a number of interested parties will be considered by the Inquest – notably South Yorkshire police, who were on duty on the day of the disaster; the West Midlands police, who were responsible for the official investigation that followed the disaster; the Yorkshire ambulance service, and the Football Association.

It has taken a generation for the families to at last feel that all the evidence will be put to the test. In that time, an entire community in the northwest of England had been traumatized, but crucially it had never given up. Against all the odds, they at last have a chance of finding out what happened all those years ago.

It was almost as if Liverpool's adopted song, "You'll Never Walk Alone," had provided the template for their struggle:

"When you walk through a storm, keep your chin up high.

At the end of the storm is a golden sky.

Walk on with hope in your heart and you'll never walk alone."

But the Hillsborough campaigners never wanted to be in that storm. Working-class families never wanted to have to find the strength to stand up to the highest authorities in the land, but that was the card they were dealt. They don't want any awards or accolades but they will not give up until they are satisfied that there has been a fair and rigorous hearing.

Liverpool is a port city. Some would say it has more in common with New York or Marseille than the rest of Britain, its people are hard-working and honest and they don't take kindly to being pushed around. It's sometimes debated whether any other community would have kept fighting for as long as the "Scousers," whose campaign has been tenacious in the extreme.

As Bill Kenwright, the owner of the city's other big team – Everton – once put it, "They picked on the wrong city. They picked on the wrong Mums."

Just ask Rupert Murdoch, who watched the sales of his "The Sun" newspaper plummet after leading with a cover story titled "The Truth" about Liverpool's fans robbing the Hillsborough victims and urinating on the police.
It was estimated in Phil Scraton’s book “Hillsborough, the Truth” that the headline cost the publisher 200,000 readers and over $16 million in annual revenue.

The bereavement was so cruel. The families have had to relive the horror of 1989 so many times that there's hardly been a chance to grieve. Countless family members have died prematurely, there have been breakdowns and suicides. No-one outside of those families can say for sure if Hillsborough is the cause, but their pain is very obvious.

I spent only a short time with the victims’ relatives, but it was long enough to see the inner torment that is still very raw and very real. I saw the Polaroid photographs of their loved ones in body bags, I held the tickets that granted them access through the turnstiles and down towards their deaths.

In some cases, the impact of Hillsborough is obvious. Trevor and Jenni Hicks, who drove to the game as a family and returned home without their two daughters, were divorced within two years. The grief and the pressure of coping with it drove them apart.

In so many other cases though, the devastating impact is less apparent. Margaret Aspinall, who lost her eldest son James, admitted to me that she hardly saw her other four children because she was so consumed by the years of struggle following the disaster. Now, the next generation makes the same complaint, they never get to spend time with Grandma.

These are just two stories of the bereaved families. There are at least 90 more and that's before even considering the hundreds of people who were injured and the countless others who went to a football game and were emotionally traumatized by a sight of bodies piled against a perimeter fence.

So many people have been damaged by Hillsborough, so many families irrevocably broken.

All of these people are tired. Many, who should by now be enjoying a peaceful retirement, are still waiting for the facts to be established.

There must never be another Hillsborough. In recent times, the debate around the reintroduction of standing at football matches has re-surfaced – "safe standing" is proving popular at some grounds in Germany.

Some would like to see it introduced to Premier League grounds in England, but those making the arguments haven't had to walk even a mile in the shoes of the Hillsborough survivors. They would never endorse it because safe seating will always be safer than safe standing.

I must say it's hard to disagree with them.

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Filed under:  Football
soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Adlass

    I believe that the families can finally begin to find closure now that the real truth is out. After 25 years of lies and cover-ups by the government, justice looks like it will finally prevail. RIP and YNWA to the 96.

    April 15, 2014 at 3:56 am | Reply
  2. kuppusamy ravindran

    A fitting tribute!

    April 15, 2014 at 5:58 am | Reply

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