Thursday 12 December 2019

Vincent Hogan: The day Robinson opened floodgates of Red emotion

Liverpool's chief executive Peter Robinson, right, of the time watches as a fan is treated on the Hillsborough pitch in 1989
Liverpool's chief executive Peter Robinson, right, of the time watches as a fan is treated on the Hillsborough pitch in 1989
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

One of the very best things Liverpool did this year was to welcome Peter Robinson back to the Anfield directors' box.

In another week of emotional overload for the Hillsborough anniversary, the remarkable contribution of Kenny Dalglish was again, rightly, referenced in just about every pitch-side speech.

But when those 96 lives were lost on that Leppings Lane terrace 25 years ago, there were two employees of Liverpool FC who instantly understood the need for the club to wrap its arms around its people. One, undoubtedly, was Dalglish. The other was the man who threw open Anfield's gates.

I covered the immediate aftermath of the tragedy for this newspaper, watching the flowers, scarves, hats and shirts stretch from the Kop-end goal until almost half the pitch had been turned into a garden of remembrance.

I was at Liverpool's first competitive game after, a surreal scoreless draw with Everton at Goodison. I was at the replayed semi-final against Nottingham Forest at Old Trafford and at the subsequent Wembley final against Everton.


With help from life-long Liverpool fan, Pat Coakley, myself and RTE's Des Cahill were granted the first media interview with John Aldridge at a time he thought he might never again have the heart to play football.

For weeks, our work was to shuffle awkwardly between heartbroken people, picking at their grief as if we might, somehow, be able to articulate that grief through words. For the families, there could be no balm for what they were enduring. For the rest of Liverpool, there were just Anfield's open gates.

More than a million people poured through in a single week, quietly leaving coloured tributes on the field.

Robinson's decision to allow them do so was the act of a man who knew that football needed to stop treating its customers as cattle. More critically, he knew that Liverpool hadn't handled the Heysel tragedy in Brussels four years earlier with the human care it demanded, however shamefully his pre-game warnings to both the English and Belgian Football Associations had been ignored.

Before Hillsborough, he'd written to the English FA again, pleading with them not to pen the bigger raft of supporters (Liverpool's) into the tightest end of the ground.

Robinson was an old-school administrator who, in 35 years at Anfield, never oversaw a single managerial sacking. He didn't believe in the barriers that, increasingly, separated football people from those paying their salaries. At Heysel, he'd taken himself straight to the site of the wall collapse, seeking instant information rather than observing the unfolding tragedy from safe distance.

He suspected a National Front infiltration of Liverpool's support on the night, but knew, too, that, at a time when hooliganism was rife in the English game, the club couldn't reasonably hold themselves as immune from it.

The dead of Heysel were never granted the respect they should have been by either Liverpool or Juventus.

Most of them were not from Turin, thus thieving their families the kind of solidarity that has ennobled the 'Justice for the 96' campaign on Merseyside.

Of course, the '80s offered an easy climate in which to smear and demonise football supporters, something South Yorkshire Police clearly understood in April of '89. Only now do we truly know the depths to which they sank.

Abandoning the remainder of the season might have been the most appropriate response to Hillsborough back then, but the appetite – even among some of the bereaved families – seemed to be for Liverpool to honour the dead with their football.

A quarter of a century later, it may seem inappropriate, even faintly crass, to thread a connection between the soaring form of Brendan Rodgers' team and the enduring pain of a city betrayed for so long by authority.

Yet, the sight of Robinson in that directors' box for last month's defeat of Sunderland spoke of a club keen, not simply to write new glories, but to keep a value on its past.

They may or may not become champions now to mark the 25th anniversary of their darkest day. But in their efforts to do so, you have to suspect silent spirits willing Liverpool relentlessly forward.

This is a team that, sure as hell, do not walk alone.


Browne's sky-high standards defined an era

You forget that when Tony Browne first started hurling for Waterford, Michael Carruth had yet to win his Olympic gold.

Browne's retirement this week is a real jolt to the senses because of that, because it feels like the final curtain coming down, not simply on a career, but on an entire hurling era.

In lasting so long, Tony managed to create an illusion that the inter-county game was easy.

At his thrilling best at wing-back for the Deise, he could make an opponent look like someone chasing after a bus.

But Tony achieved what he did only because – long before it became de rigueur for an inter- county man – he chose to impose professional standards on his own big-game preparation.

That he could still play championship hurling for Waterford at 40 was, thus, no wild fluke of genetics.

It was testament to his understanding that the modern game demanded more of a man today than a basic requisite of talent.

Waterford did not win the Liam MacCarthy Cup in his time but, in Browne, the great Ken McGrath – whom we wish after his recent surgergy – John Mullane and the irascible Eoin Kelly, they had a rare collection of truly compelling hurlers.

Of course, Tony Browne never saw himself as any kind of star with Waterford – the only evidence we can find that his vision was less than perfect.


Ken lining up an age old glory story

Ken Doherty will be the oldest competitor in this year's World Snooker Championships that get under way at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield today.

At 44, he is positively prehistoric compared to some of the young gunslingers now mastering the green baize.

It's 17 years since Doherty was champion and he is considered a 300/1 shot to repeat the feat this year.

Actually, Ken is deemed odds-on to lose his first round game against Stuart Bingham.

But could there be a sweeter story in sport than the wise, humble Dubliner – in whom fame never triggered a single molecule of conceit – turning back the clocks now?

Particularly in the year his beloved Red Devils find themselves pining for old times and dreaming of the trophy filled glory years.

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