Liverpool crest in flowers at the Hillsborough memorial (Photo credit: Ben Sutherland)
24 years ago today, I attended my first ever football match at Hillsborough stadium. That afternoon, one of the worst disasters in the history of football killed 95 Liverpool fans and injured 766 more. The youngest victim was just ten years old. A 96th victim died four years later. Each and every one of these 96 names corresponds to the parent, the child, the sibling or the friend of an immeasurable number of people who lost their loved ones in horrifying circumstances. Their pain has been exacerbated by the appalling handling of the disaster, the slanderous media coverage and the terrible lies told to cover up the true responsibilities. I have not set foot in a football stadium since that day. I am aware that my account could cause distress, and I apologise. I am publishing this post today because the Hillsborough disaster and its victims should never, ever be forgotten.
I still wake up with my heart racing. Each time they are there, behind the fence. Within arm’s reach, yet inaccessible. The crying man, the unconscious boy, the sobbing girl. The overflowing emotions resurface every time – distress, frustration, anger, fear, sadness, incomprehension, revolt, empathy. It has been 24 years now, and they still return with vivid precision.
My boyfriend had been adamant: I couldn’t claim that I didn’t like football if I’d never seen a real match. That’s how I ended up at Hillsborough Stadium on the 15th April 1989. We unknowingly stepped off the bus into an afternoon that blew my world sky high. That day, at just twenty years old, I realised how tenuous our link with life can be. The experience painted a stark picture of how human nature can hold unexpected, generous sources of humanity and bravery as well as the utmost cruelty, cowardice and ignorance.
Standing inside the stadium, behind the goal and close to the exits, I was struck by the imposing height of the fence, designed with an overhang to made pitch invasions impossible. We were penned in with jostling, excited people of all ages and from all horizons, a few of whom were overtly fueled by alcohol and harboured an illogical hatred of the Liverpool team. But the majority of people were just happy to be there. In the crowd, I saw children waving their scarves above their heads. Many were in front, impatiently clinging to the fence after hours of waiting to have the best view.
The match began with a near goal, and the crowd screamed enthusiastically. But seconds later, the match was stopped as people inexplicably began climbing up the fence behind the goal at the opposite end of the pitch. “Pitch invasion”, my boyfriend grumbled, but I shook my head and pointed. A man had dropped to the ground like a dislocated puppet. He stood up, walked a little, fell again as policemen tried to push other people back over the fence. People continued to climb the fence with difficulty, and some sat astride it and pulled others over. They tumbled onto the pitch. Some stood up, others remained motionless on the ground. They were not hooligans. The police started helping people over. Something was terribly wrong.
I was mesmerised by the man. He stood up again, and began walking down the pitch, impervious to everything around him. Shakily putting one foot in front of the other, head held high, he crossed the turf towards us. He arrived in front of us and fell to his knees. His trousers were soaked with urine and tears were pouring down his face.
It was as if a glass dome had been lowered over the stadium, cutting us off from the reassuring normality of our everyday life. We only understood later that having made fans wait much too long outside the stadium, the police opened an exit gate to release the consequent crowd pressure, resulting in supporters being swept down a tunnel by the sheer force of the crowd into two spectator pens that were already full. Metal barriers were crushed to the ground by the sheer force of the crowd and men, women and children were crushed against that high, unyielding fence.
It was no longer a question of rivalry between teams. People who had come to watch a football match were now working together to save lives. I saw a human chain slowly form, dangling from the upper circle. Then another. And another. Complete strangers were working together to pluck survivors out of the bedlam below them.
Long before the extra police and ambulances arrived on the scene, football supporters placed along both sides of the pitch tore down the advertising hoardings and used them as makeshift stretchers. They hastily laid injured fans in front of us on the other side of the fence before returning into the milling mass of people, running the length of the pitch again and again. Their instinct to save lives gave me faith in human nature. All of these people are real heroes who disappeared back into the anonymity of everyday life, having played crucially important roles in the lives of so many people.
Others made me deeply ashamed of the human race, like the drunken man beside me. I threw myself at him, fists flaying, as he waved his beer can in the air, leering and spitting “Die!” at a child lying motionless and alone on the pitch less than three feet away from us on the other side of the fence. I will never know if the little boy survived. Becoming a mother has increased this need. So my memory brings him back. I see him again and again in my dreams. I awaken as I beat my fists into thin air – into that miserable, evil excuse for a human being who was alive, safe behind a fence to insult an unconscious child. The injustice of the situation was unbearable.
The photographers sickened me. Impervious to human plight, they were taking close-ups of those suffocating against the wire fence. The camera lens appeared to be a filter between them and the appalling, urgent reality of the situation. At what point does a person lose touch with humanity to the extent that he chooses to photograph suffocating children rather than attempt to save them? I am still angry today to know that certain tabloids published those photographs, making money out of suffering and giving the sales of their “newspapers” priority over the respect of the dead and their bereaved families. We were shortly to see that they could sink even lower still, with front page headlines accusing fans of picking the victims’ pockets, of attacking policemen trying to save lives and of arriving at the stadium drunk and ticketless. Just how far can the moral values of journalism sink in a bid to make money?
When we were finally allowed outside we stopped beside a young woman who was sobbing on a step. Her boyfriend had been taken to hospital. Hugging her was the only thing we could do at a moment when we all wanted to turn the clock back in time. A hug was a mere drop in the ocean of help that the situation required – we felt inadequate, frustrated and useless. The only sound in the bus on the return home was that of grown adults weeping.
The images of that day are engraved in my memory, along with the fury of being trapped behind that fence. How I hate that fence: just a few millimetres of regularly soldered blue metal that made me powerless to bring any form of help. Permeable to my sight and feelings, the distress and pain just a few feet away on the other side had flowed through it and engulfed me. Yet it was impossible to cross, leaving us and many others as unwilling and horrified spectators who could do nothing to ease the pain on the other side.
On the 12th of September last year, the results of the Hillsborough enquiry were published, and the British government apologised to the families of the 96 people who died in the biggest football tragedy in British history. The apology will never be enough for those who not only lost their loved ones, but discovered the appalling cover-ups for the lack of organisation and inadequate reactions for emergency services, and learned that more lives could have been saved. A horrific conclusion for people who had already suffered too much.
Twenty-four years later, I wonder how many people will stop today and spare a minute to think of the 96 people who lost their lives, the survivors, and the families whose lives have been put on hold ever since they lost their loved ones. Please be one of them.
Link to Liverpool FC site page