Friday 6 December 2019

Days of death and expectation

Pain of Hillsborough continues to leave its mark on a city and on a football club, writes Dion Fanning

Ben Russell pictured taking part in the memorial march through the Phoenix park for the 96 Liverpool fans killed in the Hilsborough disaster. Picture; GERRY MOONEY. 12/4/14
Ben Russell pictured taking part in the memorial march through the Phoenix park for the 96 Liverpool fans killed in the Hilsborough disaster. Picture; GERRY MOONEY. 12/4/14

Dion Fanning

The 305 Bridgewater Place building near Warrington was given the 'best commercial space' award by the British Council of Offices in 2009.

Bridgewater Place is part of Birchwood Park, an industrial estate in the north-west of England that houses many of the companies involved in the British nuclear industry, including Sellafield Ltd and the UK Atomic Energy Authority. Since last month, it is also where the Hillsborough Inquest hearings are held.

In 2012, the High Court in London quashed the original inquest verdicts into the Hillsborough disaster after a long campaign by the families of the bereaved. The new inquest takes place at 305 Bridgewater Place.

At Anfield today, they will deal with what the Liverpool writer Brian Reade referred to last week as the "two modern-day Liverpool realities: death and expectation".

Liverpool play their biggest league game since Arsenal won the league on May 26, 1989. It is their biggest game since the days when the club, which had existed only to win things, existed instead to comfort the relatives of the dead.

Today at Anfield, they will also remember Hillsborough as the 25th anniversary approaches on Tuesday. Wreaths will be laid and a mosaic will be held up in the Kop to remember the 96 who lost their lives.

In the days and weeks that followed the disaster they dealt with death at Anfield and, after a time, they went out and tried to win football matches. It would have been trite to say that in 1989 they were trying to win matches for those who died at Hillsborough but it would have been wrong to say it didn't matter. "What they were suffering could not be fixed by the winning of a football game," Ronnie Whelan wrote in his autobiography about Liverpool's FA Cup win in 1989. "But I'd like to think it helped for a little while, that it gave them a small bit of happiness that day."

At 305 Bridgewater Place last week, they continued to hear the background statements from friends and family of each of the 96 who died. They usually hear ten a day and they will hear them until the end of the month after which the main evidence session will begin.

The families recall their brothers, their fathers, their mothers, their sisters, their daughters, their husbands, their wives and so often, and so, so painfully, their sons who died on that day.

This is a statement of Michael Thompson. He wrote this statement in August last year. Unfortunately, he passed away earlier this year. It says: "I am the father of Stuart Paul William Thompson who was killed at the disaster at Hillsborough Football Stadium on 15 April, 1989. My son was a victim of the crush which occurred in pen 3 on the Leppings Lane terrace. He was 17. I make this statement at the request of the coroner with a view to providing some background personal information about my son.

Life has gone on in the 25 years since Hillsborough which means that death has gone on too. "Life becomes death," Paul Auster wrote, "and it is as if this death has owned this life all along."

Just after noon on Wednesday, Louise Brookes read her background statement about her brother Andrew who was nine years older than her, to Lord Justice Goldring and the jury of seven women and four men at the Hillsborough inquest. "From as long as I can remember, he was a Liverpool fan," she said.

She told the inquest that her brother was "the apple of my mum's eye" and had a closeness to his father which revolved around sport.

"Andrew was brought up to respect the police and my parents always told us that if ever we were in trouble, they were always there to help us. When my brother most needed their help, they literally turned their backs on him."

Louise Brookes recalled the morning of the Cup semi-final at Hillsborough and said that Andrew was "really happy". He went to the game with four friends.

"After he died, the whole dynamics of our family changed. Andrew had been so important to all of us. Mum and dad never really recovered. Mum had a heart attack in 1996 and succumbed to cancer in February 2000. Dad just shut himself away, and he never went back to work. My dad passed away on March 4 this year, after a five-and-a-half-year battle with cancer. I only buried my dad ten days before these inquests began. It makes me so angry that both my parents have gone to their graves without knowing how or why their son died. I do not have any other family left now and it is up to me alone to fight for my brother.

"I think of all the things we would have talked about, all the family occasions we would have gone to together, and I feel cheated. He was my big brother and I miss him more and more with each passing year. I just want to do my brother proud and get him the justice he deserves. I didn't just lose my brother on April 15, 1989, I lost my parents too. The whole Brookes family died that day. It has also taken my life away from me too. I don't live, I exist. I exist for one reason, and for one reason only, to ensure my brother's death was not in vain."

A day at the inquest puts football into perspective. It is a reminder of how much it matters, not how little. Football doesn't matter enough to die when going to a game, but it matters enough to devote a life to it.

"What happens on the football field matters, not in the way that food matters but as poetry does to some people and alcohol does to others . . . the people own this art in the way they can never own any form of music, theatre or religion because they cannot be fooled in it as they can in these other things," Arthur Hopcraft wrote in his introduction to The Football Man.

"We used to go to a lot of football matches back then. It was about 90p, so it wasn't like it is now, £50, so kids could go," Martin Thompson told the inquest when he delivered the background statement about his brother Stuart. "He was my brother and he was my friend." Music mattered to them too. The Jam, Echo and the Bunnymen and Dexy's Midnight Runners were mentioned at Wednesday's inquest, a reminder that watching football and listening to music were the things that young men did in 1989. Today the average age of a spectator at Premier League games is 41.

Football changed with Hillsborough and Liverpool changed too.

"Dealing with Hillsborough took a toll on me, physically and mentally," Kenny Dalglish wrote. "I can never say definitively that the tragedy was the reason for my resignation as Liverpool manager on February 21, 1991, but it played a part. Others suffered far more than I did, but I did feel incredibly drained. Stresses and strains dogged me during that period, tensing me up so much inside that my body broke out in blotches. Bottling up my emotions was deeply unhealthy. I never addressed issues, storing them up until eventually my system overloaded."

Dalglish left Liverpool in February 1991, a man consumed by the duty he felt he owed the club, the people who followed it and those who had died supporting it.

Liverpool spent several years taking wrong steps. Graeme Souness replaced Dalglish. Liverpool needed change. Souness changed the wrong things but couldn't change himself and, most critically, gave a personal story to The Sun.

There have been moments since when Liverpool came close to the title and there have been more occasions when the expectation surrounding a season ensured that the side could not live with the idea that this was Liverpool's year.

The Champions League had provided the wonder. Chelsea at Anfield in 2005, Istanbul in May of that year, but it has been five years since Liverpool could rely on that competition for magic. The title has mainly provided mystery. In 2002, Liverpool won all but two of their last 15 matches but couldn't keep up with an Arsenal side that set a league record by winning their final 13.

In 2009, Liverpool were top at the beginning of April and beat the European champions at Old Trafford in a run of 10 wins from 11 games but ended the season four points behind Manchester United.

Those years led to great anticipation and even greater disappointment when the hopes could not be met.

This season, there was none of that. Liverpool surpassed the low expectations for their season a long time ago and now all they have is wonder.

Brendan Rodgers has created a side that reflects the incredible absurdity of their season. Liverpool are not Greece improbably winning the European Championships through set-pieces. They are relentlessly, thrillingly adventurous, a team that has captured the public's imagination during this unlikely rise to the top of the table. If Liverpool win today, they will feel the title is within reach, their first since Dalglish's last in 1990.

Nothing that happens at Anfield today will alter the reality for the families of those who died in what the coroner Lord Justice Goldring called the "terrible crush".

At the inquests last Wednesday, David Birtle's mother Jennifer, who had moved to Oman where her husband had found work, recalled the day of the disaster.

"On 15 April, 1989, I was in Oman. At 3.10 pm UK time, 6.10 pm Omani time, I tried to get the football on the World Service, something I had never done before, not being a football fan. It being such an odd thing for me to do, my husband was more than a little surprised. I just had a strange feeling."

Julie Fallon recalled her brother, Andrew Sefton. "We were close, the kind of close that doesn't need dissection or declaration, but just is." Andrew Sefton was 23 when he died at Hillsborough. My brother's life was like a book that had a title, an introduction, described the characters, set the scene and then someone ripped out the rest of the pages," Julie Fallon told the inquest. "An incompleteness that was, for my deceased parents, and continues to be for my own family, the central, longest, most overriding topic of the last 25 years of our lives. We no longer have an inkling of what life without Hillsborough looks like, and ironically neither did my brother – who knows?"

Nothing that happens at Anfield today will alter the reality for the families of those who died. In 2009, at the 20th anniversary memorial, Trevor Hicks, who lost his two daughters at Hillsborough, addressed the Liverpool players who had been knocked out of the Champions League by Chelsea the night before. "Can I just add," he said, "you did us proud last night."

Liverpool is a club shaped by history and driven by memory. Liverpool is a celtic city, sentimental, dogged and warm. It has depended on its clubs so often for its pride and it is a city that united behind the Hillsborough families who have fought for so long. Today at Anfield they will summon that defiant, irrational spirit. Today means nothing except for 90 minutes when it will mean everything.

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