Jonathan Wilson shares his personal recollection of the events of April 15, 1989, when 96 Liverpool fans were tragically killed in the Hillsborough disaster
On April 15, 1989, 96 Liverpool fans were tragically killed at Sheffield's Hillsborough Stadium, a tragedy that has continued to perpetuate due to an ongoing inquiry into a police cover-up of the investigation into the events. The following is Jonathan Wilson's personal recollection of the fateful day and perspective of what has unfolded since, on the 25-year anniversary of the disaster.
I was 12 years old and sitting at home, as I often did on a Saturday afternoon in those days, listening to the radio with Grandstand, the BBC's sports magazine show, muted on the television. It was FA Cup semifinal day, Everton against Norwich and Liverpool against Nottingham Forest, the last time those games kicked off simultaneously at 3 on a Saturday afternoon.
They couldn't show live football at 3 p.m. on a Saturday–still can't thanks to broadcasting laws in the UK–but at a little after five past 3 Grandstand cut to Hillsborough. It was a bright, sunny afternoon–perfect semifinal weather–but it soon became apparent something was wrong. I turned off the radio and turned up the sound on the television. There were fans on the pitch and a mass of people behind the goal. I remember with chilling clarity John Motson, the BBC commentator, saying in his nasal drone, "This could be very serious. Very serious."
My dad was gardening. I went outside. "Dad," I said, "I think you should come and see this."
And we sat in horror through the afternoon as the death toll mounted, saying nothing. In Fever Pitch, the film of the Nick Hornby book, there's a scene in which Paul, the hero, watches news of the disaster in tears as Sarah, his girlfriend, witters on about football being "stupid," how everybody must have known something like this would happen sometime and how he can't, surely, ever go back. It's a brilliant scene because she is somehow right, while missing the point entirely.
My mam, thankfully, was too sensible to say anything like that as she tried to make us eat our tea that night, but she knew and we knew that it could have been us–and she knew and we knew that we would go back. It happened to be Liverpool, but the 96 fans who were crushed to death could have been fans of any club.
As a proper inquiry and inquests are at last conducted 25 years on, the issue is sub judice, so there are limits in what can be said specifically about what happened that day. But anybody who went regularly to football in England in the 80s knew that the infrastructure was archaic and the policing often ham-fisted and counterproductive.
We might not have consciously acknowledged it, but as soon as Hillsborough happened, we all knew the risk we'd run. We all remembered times when we'd felt a wave of panic as bodies had pressed around us before receding; for 96 fans, they never had. That's why so many supporters of so many clubs left tributes at Anfield in the days after the disaster: it was a tragedy for Liverpool primarily of course, but it was also a tragedy for all football.
What happened in the days and weeks following the tragedy, how the portrayal of the disaster was manipulated and who was responsible should be uncovered by the new inquiry, something forced by the extraordinary patience and campaigning of Liverpool fans. The tributes this weekend–every game in England starting at seven minutes past the hour, every game preceded by a minute's silence, 96 seats left empty at Wembley, 96 blue seats removed at Hillsborough and replaced by white ones on each of which was left a red rose–were a mark of how relevant the disaster remains, how the pain and shock of that Saturday afternoon still reverberates.
And there is a new spirit now, a sense that justice might at last be done–although you wonder how, whatever happens, there can ever be closure. Steven Gerrard's cousin, Jon-Paul Gilhooley, was only 10 when he died at Hillsborough, the youngest of the victims. Little wonder the Liverpool captain was in tears at the final whistle on Sunday, after an emotional 3-2 victory over Manchester City that left his side just four wins from their first league title since 1990.
The temptation to yoke the narrative of Liverpool's astonishing season to the 25th anniversary is understandable and compelling–and before Sunday's game Liverpool fans queued to touch the granite memorial to the victims that stands by the Shankly Gates, on which, as ever, the scarves of fans of an array of clubs were knotted–but should probably be resisted.
What Liverpool achieves or does not achieve on the pitch is one thing, but the aftermath of Hillsborough is being played out–disgracefully late–at the inquiry in Warrington. On the eve of the opening of the inquests at the end of March, the Independent Police Complaints Commission revealed that 13 serving or former police officers have been identified as "suspects" in the ongoing investigation, 11 of whom have already been interviewed under caution relating to a range of offenses including manslaughter, misconduct in a public office and perverting the course of justice.
Next month, Brendan Rodgers' side might become the most thrilling and most unexpected league champions in decades, but it is in the slow turning of the wheels of the judiciary and the cold precise language of the IPCC, that the more important battle is being fought. It's a battle first and foremost for Liverpool, but also for all fans.