33 years and the pain and anger are still there, caused by the government, police, football authorities, media and the misinformed public. Steven Scragg tells his story from Hillsborough to today.
UNTIL a short few years ago, I’d never written about Hillsborough before.
I mean, I’d made mention of it within broader pieces I’d written, but I’ve never dedicated a specific article to the subject before.
Hillsborough was complex, yet it was also too simple; Hillsborough provokes a wild range of responses, both positive and negative and I never felt I could put the adequate combination of words together to convey the effects sufficiently enough. It was essentially a topic I chose to live with internally, rather than share with the group.
Just short of my 15th birthday, I was at Hillsborough, and I saw things that I’ve never been able to reconcile; I could always find a handy excuse to not write about it. It’s always there though, bobbing around the mists of the mind, liable to emerge unannounced at any given time.
An unseasonably hot and sunny day in spring can be unsettling, and it took me years to figure out why a beautiful warm spring day would leave a metaphorical cloud following me around.
April 15, 1989, was a beautifully warm and sunny day; Usually, I love the sunshine on my skin, just not at this time of the year.
That sunshine, those screams, that panic, that helplessness, the souls who dropped down and never got back up again, the utter carnage of pens three and four in the Leppings Lane end, those sights which can’t be shaken off. They stay with you.
Ninety-seven people, far too many children included, didn’t make it home from Sheffield, 33 years ago today. Only on Wednesday night were we handed a reminder of the fragility of life, as someone who cannot be replaced by their loved ones went to watch Liverpool, and never made it home.
I have a massive problem when people die in an environment where they have congregated for something which brings them joy.
It took a very long time for my mind to blink again when that bomb was detonated at the end of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, while in the days that followed the deaths of eight spectators in a crush prior to Cameroon’s Africa Cup of Nations game against Comoros, three months ago, panic attacks were never too far away for days on end.
It is totally numbing, and now a needless war erupts on European soil, in a country that I visited in the name of a Champions League final, just four years ago. We live in a world where bastards prosper, and the best of society pick up the pieces.
I’m largely desensitised to most things in life.
I like to think I’m bulletproof to most things; if I’m sat at Anfield or stood in any given away enclosure and the opposing fans trot out the “Always the Victim” rhetoric, then it leaves no imprint on me. It really doesn’t land any point-scoring blows. The proponents of these barbs are mistaking me for someone who gives a shit about their opinion.
Hillsborough’s effect on me has left a contrary and non-conformist aspect. Mild aesthetics can hit me for six, while a bludgeoning breeze block to the face from an uneducated knuckle dragger has no effect whatsoever. Parenthood has only worked to sharpen that schism.
I am still angry and I always will be.
I am still angry at a Conservative government that treated football supporters like they were a guerrilla army.
I am still angry at South Yorkshire Police for their ineptitude at protecting the sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers and grandfathers who died within their remit of care yet were chillingly adept at covering their failings and shifting the blame onto those who they shepherded into a fatal situation.
I am still angry at a media circus that happily operated as a conduit for the South Yorkshire Police to project their altered version of events to an impressionable world.
I am still angry at Sheffield Wednesday Football Club for that death trap of a terrace and a decaying stadium for which they didn’t have a valid safety certificate.
I am still angry at the Football Association for turning a blind eye to it all, a Football Association that almost three and a half decades later still makes questionable calls on where the semi-finals of their flagship cup competition should be held. The supporters still reside way down the pecking order of consideration.
For years I was drawn to Anfield on the anniversary of the disaster for the annual memorial. I was awed by the strength and the dignity of those at the forefront of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, and the splinter sibling which became the Hillsborough Justice Campaign. I also felt like an intruder or a voyeur as such.
I saw things, but these people lost the most precious things in their lives. They waved their children off to a game of football and the next time they got to see them was in a gymnasium at a stadium in Sheffield, which was being used as a makeshift morgue.
Imagine being the next of kin to a loved one, imagine identifying the body of that loved one. Imagine then being interrogated as to how much alcohol that loved one will have been drinking before the game, imagine that loved one being your child. Imagine then being told that the body of your child now belongs to South Yorkshire Police.
Where do you place your own pain when the upper scale is that pronounced?
They swept the debris and personal possessions from the terraces of Leppings Lane, they washed away the blood; they removed the twisted steel, they took down the fences and the dividing pens. They gave it a lick of paint and they bolted a few rows of seats down.
Just three years later, just three years, the Football Association allotted Sheffield Wednesday Football Club another FA Cup semi-final.
Norwich City faced Sunderland, where at the Leppings Lane end Norwich supporters created a blizzard of yellow and green balloons. The images jarred. Those advertising hoardings for Presto Engineering and Sugg Sports were still there. Those random business names have always marked the dividing line between life and death at Hillsborough for me. I was above that dividing line on April 15, 1989, a beautifully sunny and warm day.
Other big occasions were played out there not long after. The 1996 European Championship finals, the 1997 League Cup final replay, and a FA Cup semi-final replay between Chesterfield and Middlesbrough. Imagine watching those games on TV, knowing your son or daughter died there.
Sheffield Wednesday were relegated from the Premier League at the end of the 1999/2000 season and they haven’t returned since.
The anger with Sheffield Wednesday doesn’t sit easily. Some very good people who performed some remarkable acts of kindness and generosity on April 15, 1989 are supporters of the club.
When the directors of Sheffield Wednesday refused to put in place even a small memorial, a group of local business owners clubbed together to create one of their own. Incredible.
One lone voice, at the 2009 memorial at Anfield called on a clearly rattled Andy Burnham – at the time the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport – for justice, on a day when many more thousands descended upon Anfield as was usually the case.
That one lone voice was added to, until it became a crescendo of noise.
Burnham, a son of the city of Liverpool, an Everton fan, nodded and he kept his word to do something about it.
A group of people, who all too often had been told to ‘let it go’ moved the mountain. They kicked and punched until something was done. Reputation destroyers have had their own reputations destroyed instead.
There is no solace in that, however, and attempts have been made to put genies back in bottles.
Pride lives alongside the anger. The balance was always tilted toward anger, but pride now prevails. Pride in what the families of the victims achieved, after decades of doors being slammed in their faces, inclusive of tasteless quips from individuals in positions of immense power.
I am proud of a fight I took part in, in no more way than offering what support I could, in helping lay out the mosaics, putting some coins in a box, listening when listening was required, and educating and trying to open closed minds whenever possible.
As a side-effect, an unexpected degree of peace has come from that.