In the opening few minutes of Liverpool's FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough on Saturday 15 April 1989, I felt happier than I could have anticipated.
Two months short of my thirty-fourth birthday, I had been out of Liverpool's first team for nine months - the result of a dislocated left knee sustained in a pre-season friendly against Atletico Madrid in Spain and had only started playing again, for the reserves, four days before the semi-final. The Liverpool fans gave me a tremendous reception as I came on to the pitch, and I made a great start to the game. In those opening minutes, I hit three good passes – two long balls over the top of the Forest defence to Steve McMahon and the other to Peter Beardsely, who hit a shot against the Forest bar.
All my fears about my fitness evaporated. I felt as if I had never been away. Then, suddenly, I started to fall into the blackest period of my life.
Seconds later Hillsborough became a death chamber as 95 of the Liverpool followers, who packed the central terracing behind the goal at the Leppings Lane end, were crushed to death in the worst crowd disaster in the history of English sport. One person spent some two years on a life-support machine before his death so the toll finally reached 96. The number of broken hearts was incalculable.
It bother me sometimes that I tend to think only of the people who perished at Hillsborough when the subject is raised or when I see the memorial to them just outside the Anfield Main gates. I have attended a number of services to mark the anniversaries of the disaster, and at the third, in 1992, Bruce Grobbelaar and I had the honour of reading the lessons, but Hillsborough has always been something I have tried to shut out of my mind: the more I dwell on it, the more I am forced to imagine how my life would have changed had the catastrophe claimed anyone close to me.
That so many youngsters were among the victims was particularly heart-rending. People can find tremendous strength through adversity, but if either of my children had been lost at Hillsborough, I honestly cannot see how Janet and I could ever have recovered from it. Adam was only eight at the time, but had he been 15 or 16 and wanted to go to the match, I might well have made arrangements for someone to watch it with him from the terraces rather than the stand. I could imagine myself saying to him, 'You don't want to go into the seats, you'll get a better atmosphere on the terraces.' To think of him at the Leppings Lane end of the ground is just too painful.
It was certainly thus at the time of Hillsborough. The immediate aftermath, when Kenny Daglish and the players attended the funerals and tried to show support for the grieving families, took more out of me emotionally than any other experience I have gone through.
I thought I had already experienced a big enough tragedy for one lifetime with the events at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels four years earlier. To be involved in another, this time so close to home and involving people who were an integral part of my professional life, inevitably hit me even harder.
Whenever I think of Heysel, the first image that springs to mind is the expression on Joe Fagan's face as the terrifying scenes of crowd violence escalated to the point where the game that had been his whole life no longer meant anything. Following the announcement the day before that the European Cup final against Juventus would be his last as Liverpool manager, Joe deserved good memories of the occasion, no matter what the result. But, at the end, he looked a broken man.
Of all the men at Liverpool who went through the ordeal of Heysel, Joe, who was then in his mid-sixties and had decided to retire, was the one for whom I felt most sorry. In one way, though, he was lucky: at least he was not subjected to the nightmare of Hillsborough. It says much about the inner turmoil experienced by people at Liverpool FC that Kenny Dalglish, inevitably the focal point of Liverpool's attempts to bring some measure of comfort to the mourning families, brought his Liverpool career to an end two years later and took a complete break from the game.
It affected everybody.
It is incongruous to attempt to draw a parallel between the two disasters, given that the cause of Heysel was hooliganism. At Hillsborough, they were the innocent victims. However, if there was one common denominator, it concerned the inadequate crowd arrangements.
For most people, the reaction to Heysel was one of shame a well as sadness. Inevitably, the reaction to Hillsborough, where both sets of supporters were well behaved, was even more emotive. Millions of words have been written about exactly why the disaster occurred and who was to blame, but the bottom line was that it all stemmed from a catalogue of mistakes in policing and stewarding. It had been a disaster waiting to happen.
It is widely acknowledged that the decision to put Liverpool's followers at the Leppings Lane end of the ground, rather than the much bigger Kop end, was one of the biggest mistakes that day. It was a ludicrous decision if only because of the difference in size of the two clubs' support. Liverpool's average home attendance that season was around 40,000, almost double Nottingham Forest's, yet Forest's fans were put in the section of the Hillsborough ground in which the capacity was twice as great as the area reserved for Liverpool's fans. This decision was made on the premise that the Leppings Lane end was the one that provided the easiest access to fans travelling to the game from Liverpool on the M62. It was overlooked that Liverpool had one the widest fan bases in England, and that their supporters would be descending on Hillsborough from all directions.
There was a crush involving Liverpool supporters outside the ground before the kick-off, partly because many arrived late and partly because only one entrance gate was open. The sensible thing to do then would have been to delay the start of the game, as often happens nowadays when there is a dangerous build-up of fans trying to get into a ground. But, tragically, that did not happen.
This was followed by another error. When the other access gates were opened, a breakdown in communication between the police officer monitoring the situation led to the fans being forced into the already packed central area of the terracing. The following Monday, a photograph in the Liverpool Echo showing the Leppings Lane end at 3.06 pm, five minutes after the kick-off, told its own story. The central part was full to bursting point, but the two 'wings' were nearly empty. In those days, many leading English football stadiums had fenced in their terracing to stop fans going on to the pitch. At Hillsborough, the vast majority of fans fighting for breath – who had arrived early to ensure they had positions at the front – had no means of escape.
Of course, the same crowd arrangements were in operation at Hillsborough for the previous season's Liverpool-Forest FA Cup semi-final, and there was no trouble then – or, at least, no apparent trouble. However, I heard a number of complaints from supporters about the crowd-control methods at that tie, especially with regard to the build-up of fans trying to get into the ground.
Of all the hundreds of matches I'd had for Liverpool, the 1989 semi-final was the one that I least wanted to take part in. After being out of action for so long, I felt it was ridiculous to select me for my comeback in such an important match.
I had originally intended to spend the afternoon playing golf and when I was told that I would be travelling to Sheffield with the squad, I took it that club just wanted me there to make me feel part of the first-team scene again. Not for one moment did I think I had a chance of playing, not even when it became known that there were fitness doubts about other players. At our hotel on the Friday night, Ian Rush had been told to share a room with me because his usual room-mate, Barry Venison, was suffering from a virus, and as Ian himself had been out of the team through injury, we discussed other players whom Kenny Dalglish might bring into the side. When Ian suggested that Kenny might bring me back, I said, 'You must be joking – no chance.'
However, having had the thought planted in my mind, I started to panic. So, too did Ian, who was also unhappy about his level of match fitness.
At 12.30 pm. on the Saturday, with both of us almost praying on our knees that we would not be picked, I told him, 'Look, if Kenny doesn't tell us we're playing before one o'clock (fifteen minutes before the squad were due to leave for the ground) we're in the clear.' By 1 pm we had still not heard anything – but at 1.05 pm there was a knock on our door from Liverpool's assistant manager, Roy Evans, to tell us that Kenny wanted to see us.
It was me who got the short straw by being included in the starting line-up. Ian was on the bench.
'I can't play – I don't want to play,' I told him.
'What do you mean you don't want to play?' he asked.
I tried to tell him that I lacked the necessary match fitness, but Kenny, supported by his backroom staff, would have none of it. 'You did well in the reserves on Tuesday night and you've looked good in training since then,' he pointed out.
In the end I had to say, 'All right, but I'm not happy about it.'
From then on, my mood could best be described as distraught. By the time we got to the ground, my unease was so noticeable that some of the players were winding me up about it. However, nothing before kick-off gave us a clue that this was not going to be a normal game. Some might find it strange that we didn't notice anything untoward during the pre-match warm-up, but then players don't look at the crowd, and I was warming up on the edge of our penalty area. Even when the match started, and the crush behind our goal was beginning to take it's toll, we were focused too much on the play to be able to take in what was happening.
The first I knew of the trouble was when two fans came on to the pitch. As they ran past me, I told them, 'Get off – you'll get us into trouble.'
One of them shouted, 'There are people dying back there, Al.' I could see some people trying to get over the terrace fence but, because I was concentrating so much on the game, his comment did not really register with me. Much as I hate to admit it, my reaction as one of cynicism. I remember thinking, Oh, yeah?
The next moment, the referee had stopped the game and the two teams were being taken back to the dressing rooms.
The scene in the dressing room was little different from what I had experienced at Heysel, in as much as nobody knew the extent of what was happening outside. There was just too much confusion about the situation for any of the players to address themselves to it. Professional footballers are conditioned to concentrate on a game, shutting out all distractions, and it can take time to step out of match mode. At Hillsborough, we were all aware that something terrible was happening on the terraces, but with the adrenalin pumping we were still half thinking of the jobs we had to do. Up to when we were told that the game had been abandoned, I found it difficult to stop thinking that we would be brought back on to the field and that I needed to be tuned in mentally to the game. To look back on it now is like viewing it through thick fog. We were so dazed that all I can remember about the rest of the time we spent at Hillsborough was the distress of our wives and girlfriends when we joined them in the lounge set aside for the guests of the two teams.
I think the catastrophe did not register with me until we went to Anfield the following day, and walked across the pitch to the countless flowers that were being put down at the Kop end. Those floral tributes remain my most vivid memory of Hillsborough. It was Hillsborough that brought home to me the effect that football can have on people's lives.
Previously, I never appreciated just how much the game means to fans because I'd never been committed to a team as a football-watcher, and I looked upon my involvement in the game as a job. I therefore found it extraordinary that after the initial period of mourning, so many fans – including the families and friends of the bereaved – were able to pick up from where they had left off in their support of the Liverpool team. I am convinced that, had I been in their position, football would no longer have meant anything to me. I would not have been in the least bit interested in watching Liverpool.
Indeed, in hindsight, I am not sure that it was right for Liverpool to continue that season, even though it was clear that the vast majority of the Liverpool public wanted us to do so. Many have argued that our win over Everton in the FA Cup final – just eight weeks after Hillsborough – was the best source of comfort that the grieving families and the public could have had from us. Yet, while there was a lot of evidence to support this view, I have never been at ease with it. When I was prancing around Wembley with the FA Cup, and letting my hair down at the celebration party afterwards, I couldn't help but feel guilty. I still do. I still think, Was it right for me to look so happy?
My first real insight into the horror of Hillsborough – and Liverpool FC's emotional links with the community – came on the following Monday, when the players visited the injured at Sheffield Infirmary. The first person we were asked to see was a 14-year-old boy, who was on a life-support machine. There was no hope for him, but his mother requested that he be kept on the machine until we arrived. Though he was not conscious, we sat there talking to him for a few minutes. Then someone announced that he was dead and started putting a screen around his bed.
At that point, I lost it completely, I cried my eyes out. I tried to say something to comfort the mother, but I almost felt that she was comforting me. She kept thanking me for coming to see him, and telling me how much he loved Liverpool – the strength she showed was incredible. Then I went into another ward, and reached a man's bed just as he was regaining consciousness. He recognized me instantly, and his first words to me were, 'If you reach the Cup final, can you get me a ticket?'
I did a lot of crying in the weeks ahead. I attended 12 funerals, but instead of becoming hardened to them, I found them increasingly difficult to handle. One of the problems for me was knowing what to say to the families and friends of the deceased. I thought I was supposed to be there to provide some form of counselling but I tended to get as upset as they did.
Liverpool set up a system whereby the bereaved could visit the players at Anfield, but I struggled with that as well. I remember an elderly grey-haired gentleman who had lost his grandson coming up to me and saying, 'He was seventeen… How can you take somebody away at seventeen, with so much of his life in front of him?' I couldn't answer him, I don't think I could have been of any help to him because as the tears rolled down his cheeks, I broke down, too.
|Alan Hansen on Hillsborough|
|I have heard people say that they should now 'let it go' and 'get on with their lives', a view that stems partly from the massive changes that have taken place in English football as a result of Hillsborough. However, though a great deal of water has passed under the bridge since Hillsborough, my attitude to those who feel that the HFSG should now forget its grievances is, 'It's easy for you to talk – you didn't loose anyone.' Had I lost someone, I would never have let it go.|
Trevor Hicks, a London businessman, took his two daughters, Sarah, 19, and Victoria, 15, to the match. Also at the game was his wife, Jenny, who had a seat in the stand. His daughters had wanted to watch the match without his 'beady eyes' on them, so while they stood with the Liverpool fans on that central terrace, he stood directly under the police control box near by. At the judicial inquiry into the tragedy, Trevor said he saw people in the central pen showing signs of distress at 2.45 pm. When a senior police officer stepped out of the control box and began to look at the crowd in the central area, Trevor shouted to him, 'For Christ's sake, can't you see what's going on? You've got (closed-circuit) cameras.' The officer did not respond. Then, as Trevor was becoming increasingly agitated about the safety of his daughters, another officer appeared. Trevor again tried to draw attention to what was happening, but claims he was told, 'Shut your ******* prattle.'
He made his way to the pitch just as one of his daughters, Victoria, was being lifted above the heads of the crowd. She was laid on the pitch beside her sister, who was being given the kiss of life. Both were dead.
Trevor was chairman of the Hillsborough Families Support Group (HFSG), which is still fighting for what it considers to be the proper action against the South Yorkshire police officers who were deemed at the inquiry into the disaster to be the more culpable, and for greater compensation than the small sums handed out by the Government. The inquest into the Hillsborough deaths recorded a verdict of misadventure, and the Crown Prosecution Service decided that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute any of the police involved.
In 1997, the HFSG's crusade for a new public inquiry gained new impetus as a result of a Granada TV programme about Hillsborough, which revealed new evidence to challenge the police's version of events. Though the Home Secretary, Jack Straw did not see it that way, the HFSG's battle for justice has continued.
I have heard people say that they should now 'let it go' and 'get on with their lives', a view that stems partly from the massive changes that have taken place in English football as a result of Hillsborough. But for the tragedy, and the Taylor Report in January 1990, which enforced the transformation of British football grounds into all-seat stadiums, it is possible that the long history of stadium neglect, and spectators treated as turnstile fodder, would have continued. The new-style British club stadiums, which are among the most impressive in the world for safety standards and facilities, have made it easier for clubs to be better run, and therefore improve the quality of their football. However, though a great deal of water has passed under the bridge since Hillsborough, my attitude to those who feel that the HFSG should now forget its grievances is, 'It's easy for you to talk – you didn't lose anyone.'
Had I lost someone, I would never have let it go.
This article originally appeared in Alan Hansen's autobiography 'A Matter of Opinion'.