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The word Hillsborough brings pain accompanied by a sense of shame

Friends or not, the 96 that died at Hillsborough were my people, fans of a club whose recent past had been disfigured by what happened at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels.

Dileep Premachandran  16th Sep 2012

Fans fall on top of each other during the stampede at the Hillsborough Stadium in 1989.

was on vacation in Mumbai when I first heard the news. In those pre-Internet days, it took me months to know for sure that none of my friends had been there. Not that it helped. Friends or not, the 96 that died at Hillsborough were my people, fans of a club whose recent past had been disfigured by what happened at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels.

When I first heard of Hillsborough, the pain was accompanied by an acute sense of shame. I assumed, like so many others, that it had been our fault, as it was in Belgium four years earlier. I watched that European Cup final live on television. Nearly three decades on, I still haven't recovered from the images that I saw. I doubt I ever will.

The guilt will never go away. Back in 2005, I was in the 'wrong' end of the Ataturk Stadium as Liverpool took on AC Milan in an epic Champions League final. It was Juventus, and not Milan, whose fans had been killed 20 years earlier, but I still made it a point to shake as many hands as I could and at the end of night, scarves were exchanged.

But Heysel too should not be seen in isolation. It was the culmination of contitent-wide hooliganism that had been allowed to go on far too long. Tony Evans, football editor of The Times, and a lifelong Liverpool fan, wrote this about the 1984 final [Liverpool beat AS Roma on penalties] a few years ago: "It was not a day remembered with affection. Before the match, scooter gangs had stalked the travelling fans. After the game, Rome erupted in rage, and the bloody events around the Olympic Stadium left everyone who was there — and those who had only heard talk of what happened — determined not to suffer again at the hands of Italian ultras."

That determination, coupled with a dilapidated stadium patently unfit to host such an occasion, resulted in 39 deaths. That such a scenario was allowed to be reprised at Hillsborough speaks volumes of the contempt that the establishment had for working-class football fans in the 1980s. Even before the nauseating headline from The Sun – Liverpool fans have told Kelvin McKenzie enough times where he can take his apology – the public view was largely that the disaster was self-inflicted, that the lager louts had struck again. It was the textbook case of giving a dog a bad name.

That an overwhelming body of evidence suggested otherwise was apparent from the start. Justice Taylor's report said as much, and subsequent investigations and documentaries all suggested a cover-up of Himalayan proportions. The same Yorkshire police that Margaret Thatcher had used to try and crush the miners' will were employed to besmirch the reputations of the dead.

About eight years ago, Boris Johnson, now Mayor of London, was editor of The Spectator when it published an editorial that accused Liverpool of wallowing in self-pity. The same man now says: "I do hope the families of the 96 victims will take some comfort from this report and that they can reach some sort of closure."

Closure? As Henry Winter wrote in The Telegraph, not a publication known for its sympathy to the Justice-for-the-96 cause, "How can there be closure when a mother keeps a child's room untouched for 23 years as a shrine?"

Liverpool fans have known most of the revelations of the past week for more than two decades. It was common knowledge that many of the 96 could have been saved with prompt medical attention. Tony Edwards, the only ambulance man to get on to the pitch that day, told lfchistory.net a few years ago: "There were 44 ambulances waiting outside the stadium - that means 80-odd staff could have been inside the ground. But they weren't allowed in.

"There was no fighting! The survivors were deciding who was the priority, who we should deal with. The police weren't. We weren't. Can you imagine a rail accident where all the ambulances wait on the embankment while the survivors bring the casualties up? I took away the wrong people."

Given such testimony, it's no wonder that the likes of Trevor Hicks, who lost both his daughters that afternoon, have nothing but contempt for the insincere apologies that come their way. Hicks is now 63 and he told the Daily Mirror's Brian Reade:  "In the ambulance, I was sucking the vomit from Vicky's throat. I couldn't get rid of that taste for six months. A psychiatrist said I was either trying to hang on to the last contact with my daughters or it was guilt - I was punishing myself for not saving them. The hurt I suffered that day was so extreme I can't be hurt any more."

You don't need to be a Liverpool fan to be moved by the Hillsborough memorial outside Anfield. But if you are one, you won't get past it without shedding a tear or twenty. One of the 96 was Jon-Paul Gilhooley, whose cousin, Steven Gerrard, captains the club today. He was 10 years old. How can those behind what Michael Mansfield, the Queen's Counsel, admitted was the biggest cover-up in British history sleep at night? More importantly, why have they not paid a price?

Reade, whose stories on Hillsborough have struck a chord with so many down the years, put it best in his column. "If you are a football fan you should remember them when you look around today's affluent, cage-free, well-stewarded, all-seater stadiums. You should remember the agony they went through in the first Hillsborough Disaster and the suffering their families went through in the second one. And you should never forget that for English football's bright tomorrow they gave their todays."

The 96. Never forgotten.

 
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