I was nine at Hillsborough and I'm still haunted by the anguished cries
Published 02/04/2014 | 02:30
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 and heartache.
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, his late friend Frank McKenna and Con Houlihan took full advantage of the early British 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 Stadium 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.
Then Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish later spoke of the concerns that had been raised about the allocation of ground ends. The police argued that to allocate the larger Kop end to Liverpool fans would have meant fans crossing each other on their approach to the ground, which might have led to violence. There was neither a hint of malice nor anything else untoward as I ascended the well-worn stone steps to find my seat. Looking to my right at the Leppings Lane End, the Liverpool support swayed in a luminous symphony of humour, song and banter.
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 as a spectacle and animation was replaced by complications at the Leppings Lane End. Fans spilled on to the pitch behind Bruce Grobbelaar's goal, and it was the Zimbabwean who raced to referee RS Lewis to plead for a swift course of action to be undertaken.
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.
We watched in horror as the scenes unfolded. Shouts of exasperation, cries of anguish and pleas for assistance to a hidden, higher, but absent power still ring heavily in my ears. The taunts and bellows from the Kop End soon subsided as the seriousness of the disaster enveloped all sides of the ground. A band of fans from both sides had the presence of mind to convert advertisement hoardings into makeshift stretchers. In poignant truth, the Hillsborough disaster was an outstanding exhibition of humanity.
Safe in the cluster of a stand, we helplessly stood and watched while the dead were removed and the injured were treated on the grass. A man several rows back in the stand, I can clearly recall, was inconsolable in his grief. The expression on his broken, aged-lined, sobbing face told a tale both of his own and the inaudible emotions of the rest.
Kenny Dalglish spoke on the ground's speaker system, after what had seemed to be an eternity, and pleaded for calm. For one deprecated as being an aloof man, shy to the press and said to have had no public relations skills, I recall how he selflessly opened his heart to his public.
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 as life went on back in Dublin. 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 that 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.
PETER BREEN IS THE HEAD OF FUNDRAISING & COMMUNICATIONS WITH THE DUBLIN SOCIETY FOR PREVENTION OF CRUELTY TO ANIMALS (DSPCA). VISIT WWW.DSPCA.IE