Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Remember the 96

Today's soundtrack: You'll Never Walk Alone

On Sunday, I will be going with seven other members of my family to watch an FA Cup Semi Final.

Twenty years ago today, along with thousands of other football fans, I went to watch another FA Cup Semi Final.

Luckily for me, my Semi Final took place at Villa Park, where Everton were playing Norwich City.

Another Semi Final was to take place at the same time, 90 miles to the north, at Hillsborough in Sheffield, Liverpool taking on Nottingham Forest.

96 people who set out to watch that Semi Final never made it back home.

Sat in the stands at Villa Park, there was little initial inkling of what was unfolding elsewhere. I remember an announcement being made prior to kick off, that the game at Hillsborough had been delayed "due to crowd trouble". Bloody Liverpool fans, we thought. Here we go again.

How wrong could we be.

For the next 90 minutes, all thought of what might be happening at Hillsborough was forgotten. How could it not be? We were in another semi, playing against a Norwich team that was punching above its weight but that we were expected to beat comfortably. We had our place at Wembley to play for.

And we won. Only 1-0, a Pat Nevin goal the difference between the two teams. We were back in the final, with the prospect of another local derby at Wembley to come.

Depending upon what happened at Hillsborough.

What had happened became bleakly, horribly obvious listening to the radio on the long drive home. My first thought was for friends and colleagues who had been going to the game - where were they located? Were they safe? (Thankfully, all were safe).

And after the shock, the aftermath. When elements of the national press vilified the Liverpool supporters. Lies, invented to sell newspapers and to perpetuate a stereotype. To fuel the egos of one or two twisted individuals (who still appear to be in denial). To provide a smokescreen for an implicated, passive and hopeless police force - who saw itself in conflict with the public it was there to serve. (And still does, to this day - but that's another story for another time).

Over time, the truth came out. The club - both clubs - conducted themselves with dignity and compassion for the people - all the people - of Merseyside, and in particular for those closest to the dead and injured. There were few families on Merseyside without any links to those directly affected.

The City was united in its grief. Liverpool has an unfair reputation for playing the victim, for wallowing in self-pity - in this instance the grief was real, was heartfelt and was widespread.

And after the grief - the anger. At the press, at the police, at the combination of factors that led inexorably to this disaster. It happened to be Hillsborough. But if not Hillsborough, at some other time, some similar event, something similarly awful could - would - have happened.

Did anything good come out of the tragedy? Maybe the widespread changes to safety arrangements in football grounds that have - so far - prevented a recurrence of the factors that led to this disaster. Maybe the vilification and boycott of a certain newspaper that continues in Liverpool to this day. Maybe the drawing together of the two halves of a city divided by football. But it should not take the deaths of 96 innocent people to force change that was already necessary and overdue.

And it was 20 years ago. The two main Merseyside teams are drawing apart, the 'friendly derby' no more. Policing techniques are returning to the 'act first, justify later' methods that prevailed at Hillsborough. And the families of the 96 still wait for justice - to understand why their loved ones never returned home.

Which is why we must never forget - or forgive. The fight for justice continues.

On Sunday, I will be going with seven other members of my family to watch an FA Cup Semi Final. God willing, we will all return home safely to our loved ones.

20 years ago today, 96 football fans did not return home. Remember the 96.

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