Wednesday 22 November 2017

Liverpool great Nicol reveals how he broke down after Hillsborough disaster

Steve Nicol in action for Liverpool in 1990. Photo: Bob Thomas/Getty Images
Steve Nicol in action for Liverpool in 1990. Photo: Bob Thomas/Getty Images
Never forget: flowers, wreaths and tributes left at Liverpool’s Anfield stadium in 1989
Kevin Palmer

Kevin Palmer

Former Liverpool defender Steve Nicol has admitted he has never fully recovered from the shock of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, as he reveals how he turned to the bottle in a bid to deal with the pain of the tragedy.

Nicol was part of the Liverpool team on the fateful afternoon that saw 96 of the club’s supporters lose their lives after a crush in the Leppings Lane end of an overcrowded Hillsborough stadium during the FA Cup semi-final.

The inquests and recriminations following the events of that fateful day rumble on more than 27 years later and Nicol admits he is still struggling to come to terms with the darkest day in Liverpool’s history.

“Every time I think about it now I keep telling myself to shut up because we never lost anybody. Others did,” he writes in his upcoming autobiography, before going on to explain how he struggled to come to terms with the grim reality that fans who went to watch him play football never returned home.

“I remember getting in the car one afternoon after being at Anfield and I just started howling.

“I had spent the day at the club with families, talking to them and trying to be supportive. Tears streaming down my face. Wailing.

Ninety-six Liverpool supporters died in the Hillsborough disaster due to crushing following the admission of a large number of fans through exit gates
Ninety-six Liverpool supporters died in the Hillsborough disaster due to crushing following the admission of a large number of fans through exit gates

“Then, a sudden change of emotion. The tears stopped. I now felt guilty. Why am I howling? I didn’t lose anybody. I wasn’t in the middle of it. It still happens from time to time, no matter how many years later.

“To this day, none of the players talk about Hillsborough when in each other’s company. We never brought it up back then, we don’t bring it up now and, I imagine, it will never be brought up in the future. We just don’t know how to talk about it among ourselves. It’s too close to home.

“At the time, the club asked us if we wanted counselling. It was our choice. They left it up to us.

“How were WE to know what we needed? We were just footballers. We were not equipped to do all those things we had to do. Counselling should have been mandatory.”

Nicol suggests he never fully regained his focus as a professional footballer after the events at Hillsborough and suggests he should have left Liverpool soon after the tragedy.

“After Hillsborough, and up until I finally left Liverpool in January 1995, I never had the same focus that I’d had before the tragedy,” he continued.

“It’s only now, looking back, that I realise just how much of an effect it had on me as a player. Three years, I reckon.

“Everything I had done before April 1989 was simply geared towards playing my best on the Saturday. But from the end of that season, and until I left, I was not the same player or anywhere near as focused as I was before Hillsborough.

“I went from drinking at the right time to doing so whenever I got the chance which - surprise, surprise - shows on the field, right?

“I had friends who had drinking establishments and I went there too often. Far too often. But that was because I could.

“Previously I would go at the right time, not all the time. Then I started doing it at the wrong time. A couple of pints here. A couple of pints there. Then more and more.

“Three years of being unable to focus properly. Three years of playing in a bubble. Three years on autopilot.

“I should have left Liverpool Football Club long before I did. That sounds like a terrible thing to say, but it’s true. I loved the club - still do, always will - but I simply could not rid my mind of Hillsborough. Consciously and subconsciously, it was eating away at me.

“Eventually, I just couldn’t take it any more. God alone knows how the survivors and families have coped.”

Nicol went on to tell a story of how he took his emotional problems to manager Kenny Dalglish and was shocked by the response that came his way.

“Five months after Hillsborough - in September 1989 - we beat Derby County 3-0 at the Baseball Ground. The night before the game, I went to see Kenny in his hotel room. I knew I wasn’t right, but I didn’t know why and had no idea what to do. I was lost,” he added.

“I trusted him and wanted to share my thoughts and feelings. He asked what was wrong. I told him I was drinking too much. I told him I didn’t feel myself. I told him I wasn’t focussed.

“I was half-expecting a response along the lines of; ‘Right. Get a grip of yourself and don’t be so stupid. If you know you’re drinking too much then you just need to look after yourself better’.

“The real Kenny would have told me off. Told me to stop drinking. Told me to get my arse in gear. But this version of Kenny didn’t say that.

“At the time I was shocked at his response. But now it makes sense — he was in the same boat as me. He just couldn’t let it go either.”

Stevie Nicol: 5 League Titles And A Packet Of Crisps is on sale from Thursday September 8.

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