Chelsea will play at Liverpool tomorrow the day before an important anniversary of one of the most dreadful days in the history of football. One of our club legends was very connected to that day in April 1989, as he recounts here…
It is extraordinary that it is now 30 years since the disaster at Hillsborough which not only led to the loss of so many lives, but it also claimed many other victims through serious physical and mental injury as well, writes Pat Nevin.
It also destroyed the future happiness of the families and many of the friends of those who died. It also changed football forever in ways that it would have been hard to imagine back then.
The obvious that it changed was the stadium architecture and the levels of safety and security therein. Football grounds in many ways are almost unrecognisable from those bad old days when every fan at some point knew the helpless feeling of being in a crush that could so easily have gone fatally wrong. The designs have improved and even if it has had some impact on the atmosphere at some grounds, it is most certainly a price worth paying to ensure that we and our loved ones can go to a game of football and feel sure that we will all get back safely from the day’s entertainment.
These are however just the superficial changes. There were deeper cultural shifts as well. The years of brainless thugs charging across terraces have thankfully gone too and even if there is still some trouble between football fans, it is nowhere near the level it was back in the 1980s. The game and the true fans managed to make sure these morons were crystal clear in the knowledge that no one at all wanted them associated with us.
Some might bemoan a certain gentrification of the beautiful game but I have always believed this sport is for all of us who truly love and respect it and its players. Wealth, gender, class, religion, skin colour or indeed any difference should not matter and should not be a barrier.
The anniversary of Hillsborough and how it is observed shows football and its true fans, those who are not part of the embarrassing loathsome minority, are respectful of other fans when it comes to the important times. This day is always given due respect and I can vividly remember how well the Chelsea fans showed their respect at the anniversary 10 years ago, it was truly moving.
It took me right back to that day in 1989 which was so incredibly emotional for me. As those fans were dying and others were fighting for their lives, I was unknowingly celebrating jubilantly in the other semi-final. I scored the only goal to take my new club Everton into the final of the FA Cup. It was a glorious sunny day at Villa Park and our narrow win belied the dominance we had over Norwich. We played well as a team, I knew I had played well myself and as I danced off after 90 minutes I was in heaven. Moments later it felt like hell. Mike Ingham from the BBC explained seconds before I was to be interviewed in the tunnel for BBC Radio that a large number of fans had been killed at the other semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.
We both gave up on the interview a couple of moments later, neither of us could care less about something that felt so important moments earlier that now suddenly felt frivolous and even offensive to talk about.
Back on Merseyside, the days and weeks afterwards were a blur. I recall visiting the carpet of flowers that covered Anfield, so unusual and moving then and so common now after tragedies we see on TV from around the world, but no less moving for that. Then there were the funerals in the city, so many that the Everton players had to organise a rota because we couldn’t physically get to them all as many happened simultaneously. Every one that I went to seemed to be a very young man, whose family was utterly devastated, grief stricken, confused and still in some ways disbelieving.
I remember having to drive through Liverpool just a day or two after the tragedy and it was a harrowing sight just looking at the people. They were just walking aimlessly around any open space looking gaunt, dead-eyed and almost semi-conscious themselves in despair. It looked like an entire city in shock
In reality the game of football was in shock, I didn’t even really want to play in the cup final that was to follow, what was the point? We agreed only because the families of those who lost their lives said they wanted it to go ahead as a memorial to their loved ones. It helped that it was a Merseyside derby, the city could come together and forget any silly small-minded animosity that had existed before. Reds and Blues will still shout and bawl at each other at the derby to this day, but they know in reality it is just a game, when it really matters they will stand together.
This has been the case in football as a whole as well. When this anniversary comes, fans show respect whoever they are and wherever they are. There are many reasons for this but one of them is certainly that we all know that, but for a quirk of fate it could have been us, it could have been our loved ones.
Some younger fans, many who were not even born in 1989 might struggle to see the relevance and it might be a little harder for them to show the deep respect to the same level as the years go by, but we must remind them and educate them. Those fans didn’t give their lives willingly, but in losing them they paved the way for the game to become safer and more civilised than it had been for some time. For that they will always deserve a dignified respectful reaction on this day, the day that we remember them most.