“You’ll understand when you’re a parent.” It was what my mother always said, and she was right. This morning I kissed my two year-old daughter and my six-week old son and held them more tightly than usual, and for longer. This day is always hard, and after 25 years, rather than getting easier it seems to be worse.
For me, it’s a peculiar chill that settles from the moment I wake up; a mixture of profound sadness and cold rage. And it being 25 years ago — a quarter of a century — does nothing to diminish the memory of the sights and sounds and smells of that day; the sense of hope and expectation turning to blind fear, then the numb, silent shock which has been replaced by a deep and lasting anger.
But perhaps most of all with this anniversary, it is the acknowledgment of all that I have done and been through in the years since; all the ways I have changed and all the things I’ve been able to learn. All the people I have met, all the memories banked and stories told. All the things that were denied to the 37 teenagers who never made it home; the 40 who were in their 20s; the 10-year-old, cousin of present Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard.
If it is hard for those of us who were there and witnessed people dying around us, at least we made it out. What of those who were at home, for whom the reality of what was happening in Sheffield dawned in a fog of confused radio and TV reports, frantic phone calls and the terrible wait for news?
It was the same for my parents when they got the call that me and my friend, both 18 at the time and seeing out our last days at school, had gone to Hillsborough with the intention of swapping our tickets in the stand for ones that would place us on the Leppings Lane terrace behind the goal. They, like countless parents, in Liverpool and across the country, were plunged into a purgatory of ignorance and rising panic.
Of course, nobody had mobile phones in 1989. There was no internet or social media from which to glean a better understanding of what was unfolding, and at what cost. For those at home, especially those in Liverpool, they had to sit and wait for the phone to ring, or head to Lime Street to see if their loved ones were among those spewing ashen-faced from trains and coaches.
For some, this wait was in vain. Many of these poor people got in their cars and headed across Snake Pass to Sheffield where they were made to wait and were pushed from pillar to post before finally being thrust into a tatty gymnasium and being asked to make sense of a notice board on which polaroid pictures of lifeless faces were pinned, faces these people had last seen flushed with the excitement of heading to an FA Cup semi-final.
I have had some of the best times of my life watching Liverpool. I’ve danced with friends after seeing the team win titles, and lifting cups at Wembley and Cardiff. I’ve shivered in the rain, cursed the travel and basked in the sunshine of European cities on midweek sorties across Europe. I was there to see European trophies hoisted aloft in Dortmund, and, most famously, in Istanbul on a night when many of us believed a higher power was at work; a night that ended with us looking into the night skies and remembering those who would, and should have been there with us.
But whatever Liverpool Football Club has achieved, whatever it’s won and whatever it might win in the future, the greatest pride I take in being a fan is the dedication, the dignity and the refusal to be beaten of the Hillsborough families and those who have stood alongside them, people like Professor Phil Scraton and the team he led on the Hillsborough Independent Panel.
April 15 is a date that is etched into the lives of Liverpool fans. For many of us, it informs who we are, what we believe and what we refuse to accept. Being a father has helped me to understand what my parents went through. It has also made me weep to think of what the parents and relations of the 96 endured, and have been forced to endure ever since.
“At the end of the storm, there’s a golden sky” At least that’s what the song says. There will never be a golden sky as far as the events of April 15 1989 are concerned, but perhaps, at long, long last, there is now a glimpse of something better beyond the clouds.