sundaylife

| 13.4°C Belfast

sundaylife

'The scale of the grief hit me': Northern Ireland's ex-Liverpool ace Jim Magilton recalls horrors of Hillsborough

Jim Magilton

Saturday morning, April 15, 1989, and excited teenager Jim Magilton is on a coach to Sheffield with his team-mates from Liverpool's reserve squad.

Saturday night, April 15, 1989, the coach returning from Sheffield is silent as the travelling party tries to come to terms with the tragedy they had witnessed at Hillsborough.

Magilton was in the South Stand to watch the mighty Liverpool play Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup semi-final when the disaster unfolded 31 years ago on Wednesday.

Ninety-six men, women and children would die as a result of the tragedy, with another 766 people suffering injuries as a result of crushing following crowd mismanagement by the police.

As part of the official Liverpool party, the former Northern Ireland international midfielder endured a kaleidoscope of emotion on the day and remains haunted by the memories.

"What stands out is the silence on the coach on our way back to Liverpool from Sheffield", reflects Magilton. "We were like zombies.

"Normally, that bus would have been buzzing - there were quite a few lively characters in the group - but there wasn't a sound.

"That was chilling and always resonated with me when I think about Hillsborough.

I could see Brian Clough and Kenny Dalglish up the tunnel watching events and we were getting feedback that something was not right. We knew something was not right

"I wasn't in the senior squad. I was in the reserves and I was with the other pros not in the squad and the party of wives and girlfriends.

"We met up at Anfield that morning and headed down to Sheffield in high spirits. We were all really looking forward to the semi-final.

Close

 Liverpool fans are pulled to safety on to the upper tier, from the crush that was happening below Credit: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

Liverpool fans are pulled to safety on to the upper tier, from the crush that was happening below Credit: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

Liverpool fans are pulled to safety on to the upper tier, from the crush that was happening below Credit: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

"I had been spoiled as I had been to Wembley a few times but I couldn't wait for the game against Nottingham Forest.

"I was right in the middle of the main stand with all the players' wives and girlfriends, with the Leppings Lane Stand over to my left.

"I remember the game started very quickly, with a high tempo, particularly Forest, and then we saw the crowd coming onto the pitch.

"We thought, 'Here we go, pitch invasion', and initially I was angry, because I wanted to see the game played out and hopefully Liverpool getting to another final.

"Stewards started directing us into the players' lounge, and then we were shocked to see the players coming into the bar.

"We watched the TV pictures and we could see lads tearing up advertising hoardings around the ground and running to the stand. I thought, 'Hold on, what's going on here?' We saw ambulances and knew something had gone badly wrong.

"I could see Brian Clough and Kenny Dalglish up the tunnel watching events and we were getting feedback that something was not right. We knew something was not right.

"The TV started reporting casualties at the ground, then deaths. We could see red and white everywhere, people crying or on their knees, praying. There was silence in the players' lounge. Wives were getting emotional. Kenny came in and we all watched as it unfolded in front of us.

Scousers are very open people. They were talking about people's sons and daughters not coming home from the game and the club became a Mecca for the fans

"We heard there were 20 people dead, then it increased and we were in total lockdown, unable to do anything. By the time we got back on to our coach to go home, the gravity of the tragedy began to sink in.

"From being angry at the thought of a semi-final ruined to the dawning of what was happening, it was shocking."

The tie was called off, naturally, to be replayed in May as the supporters, the players, the club and the city of Liverpool tried to come to terms with what had taken place.

Close

Liverpool Manager Kenny Dalglish is comforted by a police officer, as he and Nottingham Forest Manager Brian Clough leave the pitch. Credit: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

Liverpool Manager Kenny Dalglish is comforted by a police officer, as he and Nottingham Forest Manager Brian Clough leave the pitch. Credit: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

Liverpool Manager Kenny Dalglish is comforted by a police officer, as he and Nottingham Forest Manager Brian Clough leave the pitch. Credit: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

The club issued a clarion call to its players and staff to support the bereaved, with manager Dalglish shouldering the greatest burden.

"I didn't know what to do, but I got word that all the players who wanted to were to come to the club and help out whatever way we could - make tea, coffee and sandwiches, whatever we could do to help.

"It was like an open-door policy, but the club made it clear that if any player didn't feel up to coming down to the club, that was fine. The club looked out for everyone.

"I was 19 and had no problem making tea and sandwiches. I was glad to help out. There were a lot of people gathered outside the ground and we all went out to talk to them, comfort them, support them.

"I remember Roy Evans walking past and asking if I was alright. I said yes but then the grief, and the scale of the grief, hit me.

"Scousers are very open people. They were talking about people's sons and daughters not coming home from the game and the club became a Mecca for the fans.

"The gates became a shrine to the victims of the tragedy. Everyone and the country really came together in grief and sympathy at the time.

My mum and dad joined me at the service. I was very proud to say a few words and it felt to me like Northern Irish people came together over the tragedy

"All of the players assumed responsibility in the aftermath, and Kenny particularly so because he was the manager and also because of his relationship with the club and the supporters.

"He took a lot on in terms of counselling people and it had a massive effect, as with others, but particularly Kenny.

Close

Liverpool fans are crushed on the terraces behind the fencing. Credit: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

Liverpool fans are crushed on the terraces behind the fencing. Credit: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

Liverpool fans are crushed on the terraces behind the fencing. Credit: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

"He was revered before Hillsborough by the fans and even more so after. No wonder they have him up on a pedestal.

"Then we realised there were huge sensitivities. A replay had to be arranged while people were burying their loved ones and I have to commend both Liverpool and Nottingham Forest for their conduct throughout. They showed great dignity in a difficult time.

"It was surreal. Did we care about the replay? Looking back, no, probably not. It seemed meaningless and we didn't want to upset anyone.

"I knew people who lost relatives. Liverpool was such a close-knit club and the players were very hands-on when it came to helping out.

"Players were delegated to attend funerals of the victims. I came home for a massive memorial service on the Newtownards Road in east Belfast organised by Liverpool supporters' clubs in Northern Ireland.

"My mum and dad joined me at the service. I was very proud to say a few words and it felt to me like Northern Irish people came together over the tragedy.

"It's a bit of a blur as I was only a kid and I was like a rabbit caught in the headlights a bit, but I remember the ovation at the end.

"There I was, representing my club in front of my family and it was very emotional for me, but I managed to get through it okay.

"I was engaged to a fanatical Liverpool family as I was going out with Collette McGuinness, and Steve Staunton was going out with her sister, Joanne.

"Their father, Tony McGuinness, and brother, Marty, were engrained in the fabric of the club, and my two sons are season ticket holders at Anfield.

"Tony died last week, sadly, and that makes this week even more poignant. Liverpool will always be a part of me and so will Hillsborough." 

Belfast Telegraph