Today I have been weeping, but not just because of the pain in my back. I have been weeping for the 96 Liverpool fans whose lives were taken from them unlawfully 27 years ago, and who were finally declared innocent only today. I have been weeping for their families too, who suffered so much but never gave up, and for all who have had to fight to have their voices heard.
Two years ago, I was privileged to preach at a memorial Mass for those 96 men and women, boys and girls, parents and children, who perished 25 years earlier at Hillsborough. These are the words I spoke that night to a church-full of fellow Liverpool fans in south Dublin, all clad in our famous red strip. (I was wearing my Luis Suarez autographed shirt under my vestments).
It’s something we have all experienced. The thrill of going to a match – the joy of anticipation as the days and the hours count down till kick off; the excitement of getting ready, of putting on the scarf or jersey that you wear with bursting pride; the buzz as you and thousands of soul mates approach the stadium – the banter, the colour, the singing, the noise, the little tingling in the tummy as the teams take their place.
And so it was on Saturday, April 15, 1989, at Hillsborough in Sheffield as Liverpool prepared to take on Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup semi final – another step on what we expected would be an almost routine League and Cup double for our heroes.
Thousands of Liverpool fans had travelled that day to support their team as they had done so often in the past. Fans young and old and in between; native Scousers as well as wannabe Scousers from towns and villages far from Anfield Road; seasoned supporters who had attended games too numerous to count as well as first-timers and those who only got to the occasional game.
It was going to be another great day. And luckily for those of us who weren’t able to go, the game was on the telly. We would be able to see it live.
Liverpool supporters were allocated the Leppings Lane stand. And, well, we know what happened as 3 o’clock approached. Twenty-threedecrepit, constantly jamming turnstiles had to cope with nearly 25,000 eager fans. Inadequate stewarding, disastrous policing and appalling crowd management meant that, as the numbers swelled outside, a gate was ordered opened, allowing fans into two enclosures that were already full.
Too many people squeezing into too small a space. Moments after kick-off, a crush barrier broke, and fans began to fall on top of each other. Those poor innocent, excited fans at the front – those who had taken up position early so as to be close to their heroes or who had been carried to the front by the momentum of the crowds – were trapped, the breath sucked out of them.
I was watching the game at home that day, and it took some time for the commentators and officials and for any of us to realize that something terrible was happening. And then as people began to scramble desperately, and fans were lifted by fellow supporters onto the stand overhead and others climbed over side fences onto the pitch side, and as Bruce Grobbelaar and other players tried to draw attention to what was unfolding, the game was stopped.
It was barely seven minutes after three. Seven minutes for 96 innocent people to be killed; for over 90 families to lose loved ones; for hundreds to be injured and traumatized; for thousands to be shattered, bewildered, devastated and broken.
None of us who were alive that day will ever forget it. I will never forget the sight of broken and battered bodies being ferried frantically across the pitch on make-shift stretchers; I will never forget the look of horror and disbelief on the faces of those desperately trying to help or who stood frozen in shock; or the picture of that one ambulance entering the ground far too late while others stood outside.
And then as the day went on and minutes turned to hours, hearing the tally of the dead rise relentlessly. Twenty dead, 35, 50, 70, 85, 95. Could it really be 95? (later 96 after the death of Tony Bland in 1993). How could that be possible? They were just ordinary football fans, after all. All they had done was go out to support the club they loved, and now they were dead. Men and women, boys and girls, young and old – dead. Two sisters, three pairs of brothers, and a father and son were among those who perished on that dreadful day.
Trevor and Jenny Hicks were at the game with their daughters, 19-year-old Sarah and 15-year-old Vicky. The parents had stand tickets; the girls were at the Leppings Lane end.
“On a beautiful day,” Jenny Hicks recalls, “we left home in the morning for a lovely day of football with our daughters. We came back to the house at about two o’clock the following morning without the girls.”
Their beautiful girls, their only two children, gone.
Eddie Spearrit took his 14-year-old son Adam to the game. It was to be Adam’s first ever semi-final. Like Eddie, Adam loved football. He was a good player and a keen Liverpool fan. Both had tickets for the Leppings Lane end.
Adam was killed, and Eddie still hasn’t a clue what happened to him between losing consciousness at 3pm and being admitted to hospital at 5pm.
And so it goes … 96 lives lost; so many individuals and families broken beyond repair.
It could have been any of us.
But if what happened on April 15, 1989, wasn’t devastating enough, what followed was utterly scandalous. The systematic conspiracy to blame the fans, and so cover up for the abject failure of the authorities, rubbed salt into gaping wounds, and compounded the suffering of the bereaved. For the families, it meant not just grief suffered but pain inflicted with cold calculation; not just devastation experienced but a city cruelly maligned; not just heartbreak felt but justice deliberately denied.
Thank God, at last, at last, after all these years, after botched judicial inquiries and malicious reports and altered witness statements and tabloid lies and an establishment that displayed callous contempt towards a club and its people, justice is dawning for the 96.
What has been extraordinary over the past quarter century has been the dignity of the families. Through grief and mourning, in the face of media indifference, even as their loved ones were called beasts and their reputations besmirched, they held their heads high, for they knew that right was on their side.
What has been extraordinary has been their perseverence. People like the late, brave Anne Williams, who lost her 15-year-old son Kevin, would not give up. They kept campaigning and lobbying and and insisting and demanding that the truth be told. The powers that be hoped that eventually they would fall silent, that their campaign would grow tired, that with the passage of the years people would lose interest, but the families would not be denied. They could not be denied, and thank God, their perseverence has paid off. They haven’t been denied.
The Hillsborough Independent Panel, in its report published on that great day in September 2012, concluded what we knew all along – that no Liverpool fans were responsible in any way for the disaster. Justice is dawning, and the new inquest now taking place, and the prosecutions soon to come, will be their vindication.
And so, 25 long years after that dark and dismal day, we remember our 96 lost. We celebrate their lives, so cruelly cut short, and we commend them to our God who is just and honest and loving.
Last Sunday, the hairs stood on the back of my head as our fans sang our anthem and observed the minute’s silence with impeccable intensity. It was impossible not to shed a tear – for the 96 we lost, who are our family, for the families of the 96 and their long years of struggle; and for the club in whose cause they died, and which has stood shoulder to shoulder with its family in their suffering and their campaign for justice. The call-cry of our anthem has never rung as loud or as true as it did last Sunday, as it does on this anniversary, as it will hopefully in less than four weeks time when we win the Premiership in what would be the perfect fitting tribute to the 96, and as it will every time we remember and commemorate our fallen dead:
At the end of a storm is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark.
Walk on through the wind,
Walk on through the rain,
Tho’ your dreams be tossed and blown.
Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone,
You’ll never, ever walk alone.