Saturday, 11 April 2009


Twenty years ago I was driving from south Liverpool to my home in Crosby, my head still reeling with the information and images from the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough. My route took me close to Anfield. Though it was nearly midnight something made me drive up Anfield Road to the ground. To my surprise, a number of other people were there too, just standing in the road looking at the stadium. A couple of bunches of flowers has been attached to the gates. It was the start of the amazing, moving phenomenon which saw Anfield disappear beneath a carpet of blooms.

On the day of the disaster I was producing the BBC TV news bulletin in Manchester. I spent the early part of the afternoon reviewing another programme which I had produced the night before. Then I went into the gallery to watch the pictures coming in from the Liverpool v Forest tie. The game was not live on TV - these were the days before FA Cup semi-finals routinely appeared as live events. The pictures of the crush at the Leppings Lane End were aired live because the BBC interrupted their planned schedule to take coverage of what was becoming a major news story. My role then was to react as any producer would - to get the incoming pictures recorded for use in the bulletin later, and to track someone down who could tell us what was going on.

Afterwards, as the BBC's sports correspondent in the North West, I was involved in covering the ongoing repercussions from various angles, presenting a round-up of the latest news on Radio Merseyside the next morning, presenting coverage of memorial ceremonies in Liverpool Cathedral and at Anfield, and following the progress of the various enquiries for TV and radio. Ten years ago, to mark the first decade since the disaster, I produced a documentary for the BBC's religious department, looking at the way the disaster had affected the faith of the survivors and the bereaved.

It was that last experience which brought home just how much the Hillsborough disaster was still a tragedy in action. It did not conveniently stop on that day, and certainly not at 3.15pm that afternoon, the time arbitrarily decreed by the coroner as the moment beyond which no evidence would be considered regarding the deaths of individuals. The disaster was still a living monster, damaging lives and relationships on a daily basis.

Making that programme took me to the heart of the human suffering. Parents told me of the loss of their children. One man described how he drew on golf balls the faces of the police officers he held responsible for the death of his son, and hit them as hard as he could with his club. Others described their own battle for survival in the depths of the Leppings Lane pens. The words of one still echo: "People say we are lucky to be alive, and yes, we are lucky. But if you knew what was going on between my ears, lucky isn't the right word for it - definitely not."

I discovered that the ongoing Hillsborough Disaster was about anger and destruction as much as grief. The group which represented the families had split. The Hillsborough Justice Campaign had broken away from the established Hillsborough Families Support Group. The two sides disliked and distrusted each other. Liverpool FC, impressively supportive of the Families Group, seemed not to know how to react to the splinter grouping and refused to recognise them. This created bitterness and disillusion to heap on top of everything else.

Among the members of the Justice Group were Dave and Maureen Church, who lost their son Gary. Maureen, when interviewed, could not hide her anger at the football club. It was raw and uncomfortable viewing and it summed up a complete breakdown in the relationship of people who at first stood shoulder to shoulder. It also left me, as the producer, caught in the crossfire between the two groups and the football club. For years, Dave and Maureen battled to find the information they needed to show how, and just as importantly, why Gary died while watching a football match. It cost them both their health. Both were struck down by cancer. Dave survived but Maureen did not. I went to her funeral - another victim of Hillsborough.

Today, at Anfield, there was an impressive minute's silence in memory of the dead. The two family groups, in their different ways, have done a magnificent job over the last 20 years. But still the key question remains unanswered. How come no-one has yet accepted proper responsibility for 96 deaths which were totally preventable?

Twelve months earlier, the FA Cup semi-final had featured the same teams at the same stadium and gone perfectly. So what went so badly wrong this time? What was different in 1989? The answers to those questions can be found in Phil Scraton's excellent book Hillsborough - the Truth which I thoroughly recommend. Changes in command in South Yorkshire Police were a big part of the problem.

This afternoon the fans chanted "Justice for the 96." They did so from seats on the Kop, the living legacy of the disaster which had the beneficial spin-off of rendering all British sports stadia much safer, cleaner, better organised venues. But that is not the only legacy, and anyone who thinks that the passage of 20 years has been an example of "time healing" had better not voice that opinion too loudly in the company of anyone who lost a friend or relative, or was pulled out of the pens and left for dead, on a deceptively sunny April day in 1989.

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