Thursday 12 December 2019

Memories of Hillsborough disaster are so raw that it could have happened yesterday

On April 15, 1989, 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives at Hillsborough. Photo: PA
On April 15, 1989, 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives at Hillsborough. Photo: PA

James Lawton

IF you were at Hillsborough on a gentle spring day 25 years ago you knew there would never be any easy measure of the rage and the pain and the consuming sadness.

Even now, so many years later, as so much of it resurfaces in an austere inquest room, it remains so raw and so vivid it might have been yesterday.

You are back in the soft sunshine and the teeming disbelief that so many lives were being lost.

Tomorrow at Anfield, where a perpetual flame flickers in memory of the desperate day, there will be an extraordinary fusion of the dreams that come with the games that we play and the realities of our lives – which we learned on that Yorkshire afternoon can be as vulnerable as old leaves caught by a sudden gust of wind.

Liverpool Football Club strive against Manchester City for their first league title in 24 years, while the surviving relatives of the 96 victims live closer than ever before to the hope that they will know finally that the mourning of the tragedy that has enveloped their existence has run some kind of course. But then, as former Liverpool captain Alan Hansen was so quick to point out this week, what happened at Hillsborough carried us so far beyond the metaphors of winning and losing on a football field – and it permitted no return.

No one understood this more acutely than John Aldridge, the Liverpool and Republic of Ireland striker, in the terrible aftermath of the tragedy.

I discovered this when he sent a curt response to a lecture aimed at reminding him that when bad things happen there is a certain obligation to push aside their worst implications and proceed, as best you can, with the demands of normal life. Aldridge's reaction was sharp and bitter and directed at me for it was I who had delivered the advice when he announced his reluctance to carry on playing.

The rebuke came in the short, searing question: "How many funerals have you attended this week?"

How many shattered lives have you contemplated, he was also asking. And if it is only one, how eager do you think that would make you to go out and play another football match?

Of course Aldridge played on – and continued to score goals at a remarkable rate. He went to the Basque country of Spain and became a star of Real Sociedad.

He was a key member of Irish World Cup squads. In his declining playing days, he still had the bite and the touch to score a stream of goals for Tranmere Rovers, a club he managed for some years. Now he is football analyst for a Liverpool radio station.

He did what I so blithely advised him to do in what now seems to be an odd piece of bravado because it was not as though I had been untouched by Hillsborough, by the seepage of death and the scenes that greeted me when I walked down from the stand on to the field.

John Aldridge, like Kenny Dalglish, got on with his life, but not before that eloquent statement that sometimes it is necessary for a man to look around in pursuit of a new set of values – and priorities.

On one day of unbreakable grief, Dalglish attended four funerals and was later candid about the emotional pressures that it brought – and which less than two years later contributed to his walking away from the manager's job after a tumultuous 4-4 draw with city rivals Everton.

In his autobiography, he said: "There was a special bond between the club and its supporters before this, but I think it increased after Hillsborough and in the immediate aftermath there were some very poignant moments and some things which will live in people's memories forever.

The football club has loyal supporters and 25 years ago they were in a bit of trouble and it was our chance as a club to support them.

"Everyone wants closure. Everyone is expecting different things but at least we are a lot closer to that than 25 years ago. We were there and we saw it but many other people experienced it and for them it was much worse.

I don't think any of the boys who were involved haven't spent part of the day thinking about it.

So we are no different – but for the families it was so much more intense.

"No player was ever looking for sympathy. They stood up and were brilliant at the time but the families have been fantastic to us as players and this was the least we could have done."

Doubtless such unity of spirit and memory will rarely have been so obvious as on the terraces of the old ground tomorrow but whatever the outcome, on and later off the field, there is the certainty of ineradicable memory.

Those who were there will guard their own with a ferocity and a sadness that will surely endure to the end of their days.

If we have been scarred in any way it is minimal, a scratch compareWe will remember the normally irreverent goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar tugging at the referee and voicing his fears of impending catastrophe and then amid the chaos and despair on the field that became a point of evacuation the untutored frenzy of those breaking up advertising placards for makeshift stretchers and later the terrible apprehension of relatives who went to the makeshift morgue and looked, hoping against the wildest hopes, that they didn't see the snap photograph of a lost loved one.

We will think of the father who was about to open a bottle of wine before the evening meal that was to be a celebration of the call that had told him his son was safe when the phone rang to say that it was a case of mistaken identity.

We will think of that indescribable pain in the evening sunshine and marvel again that John Aldridge put quite so much into one brief question.

(© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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