For me, Hillsborough is kind of personal.
I spent 12 years of my youth on Merseyside, my mother was a Liverpudlian and most of my friends and family in the area supported Liverpool or Everton –such ‘ecumenism’ has always been possible in that city.
Although I supported lowly Southport through the sixties, I often visited the Liverpool grounds – I saw the 66 World Cup Games at Goodison Park, and in those far off days when you could turn up and walk in, I was at Anfield when Liverpool beat Chelsea to win the title in 1966, and experienced the sway of the Kop a good few times. My mum had even been present in the thirties when Dixie Dean scored his record breaking goals for Everton. I was at Anfield more recently for Hibs UEFA Cup ties, and for the Scotland v Wales World Cup qualifier in 1977. So I know these places and I understand the mentality of the Merseyside support. They aren’t necessarily all they are cracked up to be, but they are passionate about their teams and they have a humour which is quite unique.
But it’s personal in ways other than geography.
My first football match was in January 56 – an Edinburgh Derby, taken as a toddler by my dad and uncle, but my match attending habit started properly on November 16th 1963 when I went to watch Southport play Walsall in an FA Cup tie.
I was instantly hooked: the buzz of the crowd, stamping cold feet to warm them up, hot sweet tea and the smell of pipe tobacco, the tension, the release of excitement, and, as the months and years went on, the rituals: the scarf, the rattle, the trips away, the planning, the anticipation, the reflection, times and matches shared, daft stories remembered, great goals and major bloopers cherished.
As my life has progressed, live football has been a constant. Since 1970, back at Easter Rd to watch the Hibs, I’ve also seen games as far apart as Hanoi and Washington DC, and in Ireland, France, Germany, Holland and Belgium.
Naturally, my experiences and approaches have adjusted as my life has changed, but it would be an odd Saturday if I wasn’t ‘at the football’ – and that, more than anything else, is what promotes my empathy with the families and friends of the 96 who never came home from Sheffield. Like me, ‘live’ football was their habit, it was what they did, and they will have all had their own routines, patterns, good luck charms and excitements – just as I do every week. I know, therefore, the place in their loved ones’ lives that has been empty since that day: the references to match times, the re-arrangements necessary to family life, the teasing, the understanding, the outpourings of joy and gloom – even for those not necessarily interested in football – the vicarious sharing of the emotions of someone you love.
For so many folk in Liverpool and elsewhere, phrases such as “Three o’clock on Saturday”, “Where’s my scarf?” and even “They were crap” will have three decade long resonance. The glimpse of a red football top, the mention of ‘Sheffield’ or ‘FA Cup’ will all be hurdles to be negotiated; the roar of the crowd muted to a last exhalation.
However you dress it up, the aftermath of that fated semi-final tie was always going to be ever present and recurring to those left behind– as unavoidable as the rhythm of the football season, its traditions and foibles.
How cruel, then, that the very authorities who are put in place to protect and reassure those who are their most vulnerable – the bereaved, the confused, the angry, and the despairing, should be responsible for prolonging and exacerbating that misery. How unthinkable that those public representatives, put in place to ensure the protectors can be relied upon, found it so easy to look the other way.
From our police we should expect trust and concern for the public good, from our politicians, we should expect a listening ear and a commitment to justice, and from our legal system we are entitled to demand an independent and transparent support for what is right and condemnation of what is wrong. And when, as human institutions, all or one of these guardians fail to do their job, we have expected the Fourth Estate to shine a torch in murky places, to lead us in finding solutions rather than providing a smokescreen for wrongdoing.
After Hillsborough, none of this happened. Liverpool and its citizens were let down at every turn.
There are those who suggest that the government’s antipathy towards this bolshie part of north western England, the suggested area for ‘managed decline’, lay behind the ease with which the cover up and diversion of blame was accepted. Working class males from the unfashionable ‘militant’ north were never going to receive a ‘fair deal’. There is something in that view, though I suspect the families of the relatively high fliers who perished in the Marchioness disaster on the Thames might take issue with such a simplistic opinion.
The fact is that, certainly in my life time, enquiries and verdicts which would lead to an uncomfortable time for the politicians have been notoriously hard to achieve.
From Timothy Evans, through James Hanratty, to Blair Peach, Bloody Sunday, the Guildford 4, the Maguire 7, the Birmingham 6, Judith Ward, Jean Charles de Menezes
and Ian Tomlinson, where the establishment has felt threatened, the judicial and political wagons have been drawn into a circle, and, in the state which is listed as the fourth most unequal in the world, with its public school educated, millionaire dominated cabinets, of whichever hue, the ‘US’ has grown bigger and the ‘THEM’ has grown smaller, as the minority have looked to protect their privileges and defend their advantages. And lest we seek any comfort from our Scottish Justice system, events at Camp Zeist, and the follow up, hardly cover us in glory.
Oh the irony that in a state which proclaims the superiority of what it terms ‘British Justice’, barristers such as Michael Mansfield and Gareth Pierce have spent entire careers fighting the injustices perpetrated by the establishment, and we have a support organization termed ‘Prisoners Abroad’ to attest to the unreliability of Johnny Foreigners legal systems!
It seems for too many of the folk in control, the threat of change, the possibility of, for want of a better phrase, ‘citizen power’, is so terrifying that the perversion of natural justice is to be preferred.
The words of Lord Justice Denning in the Birmingham 6 Appeal that ‘the vista of widespread police corruption was so appalling that it could not be countenanced’, were echoed last month, decades later, at the Edinburgh Book Festival, when Magnus Linklater told Jim Swire, Hans Köckler and John Ashton that the possibility that state and security agencies had combined to frame Megrahi was ‘too big to contemplate’. In the 80s, Denning later stated openly that, as a leading law officer, he was quite content that the innocent should be incarcerated rather than the system be undermined by having its faults and mistakes revealed and examined.
The complicity of the media in this whole sorry mess is only highlighted, as is the craven shirking of responsibility by the legal and political classes, by the efforts of a few – in each of these sectors, to fight for justice for the Hillsborough families.
The UK state is throttled by establishment control and a determination to preserve the status quo. This is what drives the class system, the archaic deference to monarchy’nobility, wealth and ‘connections’, and the growth of an underclass who have no influence or access to power and little interest, therefore, in the common good.
So the death of 96 at Hillsborough WAS personal. It was personal to all of us, because it was an aching symbol of what happens when, time and again, the state watches its own back instead of those of its citizens.
Those families should not have had to walk alone for so long, but, sadly, it was all too predictable that they would.
Just ask Ian Tomlinson’s family, or James Hanratty’s, Timothy Evans’……………