Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Hillsborough disaster: the day sport lost its mystique for me

Saturday, April 15, 1989 was a watershed in my life. I was nine years and 26 days into my being when I first experienced the true meaning of loss.

In nervous rapture we journeyed through dawn and then morning to witness Nottingham Forest v Liverpool at Hillsborough, Sheffield in the semi-final of the FA Cup on the Saturday, followed by Celtic v Hibernian in the SFA Cup semi-final in Hampden Park, Glasgow, on the Sunday.

It was a blistering day. Before noon, the older men in the group, including my father, John, and his late friend Frank McKenna, took full advantage of the early licensing laws. They must have supped their flat ale in the sweltering heat and spoken at great length at how Liverpool would fare in that, the club's 17th FA Cup semi-final.

My own father, though a veteran of numerous football disasters, having attended the Heysel Stadium disaster in May 1985, when 39 fans perished, and the collapse of the wall at Ibrox in a Celtic-Rangers clash in 1971, when a last-minute equaliser led to a crush of fans and the deaths of 66 fans on the infamous stairway 13, could never have envisaged the loss of life that would ensue.

Four minutes into the game, Peter Beardsley cracked a drive that cannoned off the bar at the Kop end. Less than five minutes later, the game was over. Fans spilled on to the pitch behind Bruce Grobbelaar's goal, and it was the Zimbabwean who raced to referee R S Lewis to plead for a swift course of action.

The loss of life was not initially evident. A further 40 or 50 spillers, who then sought an immediate return to save their fallen friends and family, joined the initial few pitch invaders assembled beside the Liverpool penalty box.

The taunts and bellows from the Kop end soon subsided as the seriousness of the disaster enveloped all sides of the ground. Safe in the cluster of a stand, we helplessly stood and watched while the dead were removed and the injured were treated.

Then Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish spoke on the ground's speaker system, after what had seemed to be an eternity, and pleaded for calm. Moments later, we were ushered from the stand down the steps now littered with torn match programmes, an intermittent scarf and well-trodden cups.

Perspective is the fuel of the naive. To this day, I can recall my father's verbal lashing at a policeman on horseback as we approached the exit from Hillsborough. How did my father know whom to blame, I thought? Fathers just knew, I accepted.

Through the night we travelled, crossing the Scottish border to our temporary refuge from the terror that had unfolded barely hours since. We sat in silence as the day's events were churned from mouth to mouth, perspective oozing from the faces of those of us who had survived.

For the first time that evening, I conscientiously observed the news. In the hours, days and weeks that followed, I grasped the power of the media. Documentaries were filmed, court orders were filed, the blame was fingered at one group, or another, and life, for many, has now gone on.

For 96 supporters, some of whom were children, like me, they now watch their beloved from the sanctuary of the sky. Some would never experience true love, only that which they so fervently bestowed on their beloved team.

There is an eloquence that evades even the most articulate of minds in times of crisis. The outpouring of grief was tangible. Nightmares, feelings of guilt, melancholy and anger would slowly ease, yet the feelings aroused by that day in Sheffield must never be forgotten.

The simplicity of scarves tied symbolically to Anfield's Shankly gates; the expression of helplessness and unanimity on the faces of the Liverpool staff as they attended the funeral services.

On April 15, 1989, a disaster became the lobby for change whose legacy lies in this revitalised era of modern football. Personally, Hillsborough will always be an opaque state of mind.

Dalglish would later admit the same: "I realised that, in all my years as manager and player, I had miscalculated the importance of the club to the people. It was a mistake. I never fully appreciated the part we played in their lives. It's not we and them. It's us."

That day, 20 years ago, some of us learned the true meaning of loss and the unremitting sting of a broken heart. Sport lost its mystique. And footballers lost their immortality.

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