Sport has produced many poignant moments over the years — moments of triumph and tragedy, glory and grief. Moments indelibly imprinted in the memory.
One that always registers with me happened 20 years ago on April 15, 1989 when 96 Liverpool supporters died in a human crush to become known as the Hillsborough Disaster — the Liverpool v Nottingham Forest FA Cup semi-final abandoned at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground after only six minutes. That was British football’s darkest day.
When covering an Irish League match I heard the drama unfold on BBC radio.
“Oh no, not again,” I said to myself for the horror of Ibrox 1971, Heysel Stadium 1985, the Bradford Fire 1985, still haunted football.
Confusion reigned throughout the afternoon but the voice of the commentator, the late Peter Jones, brilliantly unravelled it all and as the sun set, the stadium emptied, scarves and memorabilia covered the terracing, he signed off with emotional words which aptly and with dignity summed it all up.
That Saturday and its aftermath changed British football for ever. The report by Lord Justice Taylor exposed the catastrophic police handling, the total disregard by football clubs throughout England of spectator safety and the inept leadership of the game’s authorities. The document laid before Parliament resulted in the conversion of United Kingdom stadia to all-seated and the removal of barriers at the front of stands and terraces preventing hooligans from encroaching on pitches.
What caused the problem? A bottleneck developed at the Leppings Lane End where Liverpool fans were congregated.
People refused entry because they had no tickets couldn’t leave the area because of the crush behind them. Security opened a side gate to eject someone and 20 darted through it. With an estimated 5,000 fans attempting to reach the turnstiles police decided to open two gates, exit entrances, and the fans rushed through a narrow tunnel into the overcrowded pens — all unaware of the problems at the front of the terracing.
The result — chaos and 96 deaths caused by compression asphyxia; some died standing up.
Only when fans spilled on to the pitch and the referee stopped play was there an indication of tragedy.
Hillsborough, 1989, revealed that Merseyside fans, Liverpudlians and Evertonians, despite the fierce local sporting rivalry, were a united football family.
Cometh the hour cometh the man and that day there were two — Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish and Peter Robinson, the highly competent Liverpool secretary who had played such a major role in the Anfield development, had gripped the enormity of what happened and introduced calmness and organisation to it.
Dalglish, King Kenny they called him, was the goal-scoring hero of the 1978 European Cup Final, the 1986 double but, perhaps, his finest achievement was how he (and wife Marina) handled that day and brought comfort to so many in a grief- stricken community
He even went early the next morning to the ground, walked in the stillness to the Kop goalmouth and tied two teddy bears taken from his children’s bedrooms to a post. He was the shining light in Liverpool’s darkest hour.
His approach was — those fans supported Liverpool, now it is the turn of Liverpool FC to support them.
Scotland defender Alan Hansen, now a BBC TV pundit, and his ex-team-mate Mark Lawrenson admit Hillsborough was the lowest point of their lives.
“When you go to Liverpool you instantly realise it is a strong community,” says Hansen.
In his Daily Telegraph column, he wrote: “This showed in the wake of the disaster as it was the sense of coming together, even for Evertonians who were magnificent, that helped everybody through. Some may have fallen apart but Liverpool has come out the other side even stronger.
“In the circumstances I think only Liverpool FC could have come back and won the championship the following season. It should not have been easy but football is a game where your focus is solely in front of you. You are not inclined to look at the past.
“It was only when you pause to think about it that you fill up.”
Today at Anfield the Liverpool Families Support Group, who are seeking justice and a Government Inquiry, were due to hold an inter-denominational service which ended with their anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, and, as the bells pealed in the city’s two cathedrals and in civic buildings, 96 candles were lit in memory of those who perished — among them 10-year-old Jon-Paul Gilhooley, a cousin of Steven Gerrard, the new King of The Kop who says time may pass but the scars of April 15, 1989, never heal.