The events of 15 April 1989 at Hillsborough made me realise what is really important in life.
After each funeral I attended, when another set of parents buried a beloved son or daughter, when another grieving family mourned a relative who died following Liverpool, I would come home and climb into bed with my eldest son, Jamie, just to hold him, just to hear him breathing. We slept curled up together, Jordan, my second son, was just a baby and I would cradle him in my arms. For months after Hillsborough, I couldn't bear to be apart from my two sons. If one of them fell over, I ran across and hugged him, soothed him, showed him my love. Scarred into my mind was the image of those parents who could not hold their loved ones any more, who could not see them smile and grow up. That thought devastated me. So I hugged my children tight.
Before Hillsborough, I had always tried to keep things in perspective but what happened on the Leppings Lane terraces made me question so much in my life. When I struggled to get in the team at Liverpool and then Newcastle United, I said to myself, 'Does it really matter? I'm alive. My family are alive. That is all that matters.' Hillsborough crystallised my priorities.
Football lost it's obsessive significance; it was not the be all and end all. How could it be when ninety-six people died, when parents lost children and children lost parents? Bill Shankly's comment that 'football is not a matter of life and death, it is far more important that that' sounded even falser after Hillsborough. Football is a game, a glorious pursuit but how can it be more important than life itself?
Saturday 15 April 1989 should have been a day of excitement when a compelling FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest was played at the home of Sheffield Wednesday. I try not think about the day itself, but I will never forget it. The events were like a nightmare unfolding. I didn't realise anything was amiss on the Leppings Lane terrace until a couple of fans ran on to the pitch shouting, 'There are people being killed in there.' I thought they were exaggerating, like when players say 'that tackle nearly killed me.' I just thought the fans were getting a bit squashed. But Bruce Grobbelaar, who was closest to the Leppings Lane terrace, quickly realised there was something terribly wrong when he went to retrieve a ball and heard fans screaming - 'They're killing us, Bruce, they're killing us.' Bruce shouted at the stewards to do something.
Six minutes into the match, a policeman ran on to tell Ray Lewis, the referee, to halt the game. Lewis immediately led the players back to the dressing-rooms. The scale of the tragedy was still unimaginable. We thought a few fans had been squashed but that we would be playing again soon, once the stewards had sorted out the problem. Lewis kept coming in and saying, 'Another five minutes.' Each time, we all got up and started jogging again until he finally came in and said, 'That's it, lads, match off.'
We showered and hurried up to the players' lounge. Suzy was there, crying her eyes out. "Some people have died," she said. "Don't believe that," I replied, "it's just a rumour." But Suzy and the other wives knew what had happened. Because the game was not at Anfield, the wives didn't wait in the lounge before kick-off. They arrived and went straight to their seats. They had sat there and watched the awful scenes on the Leppings Lane terrace, the fans coming on to the grass, pleading for help, lifting limp bodies on to the pitch and ripping up hoardings to bear the dead away. The players never knew. We were cocooned from all the horror outside. I was telling Suzy that 'it's not that bad' when I saw the television and realised it was far worse. All the rumours of crushing and deaths became desperate reality when I heard Des Lynam say, 'There's been a tragedy at Hillsborough. There are many dead.' I went numb. I couldn't believe it. Complete silence seized the room. Every face turned towards the television screen. No one sat down. No one spoke. Forest's players were also in the lounge. What could they say? 'We're sorry your fans have been killed?' The fact that they played for Forest and we played for Liverpool was irrelevant. These were human beings who died.
We watched the television for an hour in silence. Many in the lounge were crying. Each of the players wondered whether he knew anyone who could have been in that terrible cage. I had only been at Liverpool for two years and knew hardly any of the fans. It was far worse for the local players like John Aldridge and Steve McMahon. Aldo was very agitated. He was desperately trying to make phone-calls. Eventually, we got on the coach, each player sitting next to his wife, holding hands, still numb and speechless. Everyone drank heavily all the way back to Liverpool. I got completely smashed on brandy. People wept all the way home. All the wives were crying. I was crying. Kenny was crying. Bruce said he was considering quitting. Although I never thought about giving up football despite being filled with guilt afterwards, I understood what Bruce meant.
Those Liverpool fans went to Hillsborough to watch us and there we were, stepping on to a luxury coach to go home, and they were being laid out in a temporary morgue. As we travelled back across the Pennines, their mums and dads were making the reverse journey to come and identify their children's bodies. Guilt swirled around my head. Had I been out there on the pitch, and not back in the dressing-room, I would have helped. I know I would have done. I would have done anything, ripped out hoardings to carry the injured to the ambulances, talked to the dying, willed them to live, argued with the police to move faster. Anyone would have helped if they could. I've still not watched that television docu-drama on Hillsborough. I taped it and it sits in a box on the shelf but I still cannot bring myself to watch it. Suzy feels the same.
Back at Anfield, Suzy and I climbed into our car. Suzy drove home and we watched the news on television, tears streaming down our faces. I remember going in and cuddling Jordan. As I took in the television pictures again, all I could see were devastated parents. I kept thinking that could have been my child going to a match on a lovely sunny day, a child brimming with excitement at the prospect of an FA Cup semi-final. How many parents got their children semi-final tickets so they could go to Hillsborough with their mates? And they never returned. I cried and cried just thinking about that tragedy. I held Jordan and Jamie for hours that night and thought about my own family, about what would I do if something like that happened to one of my children on an occasion which was supposed to be joyful. I managed to sleep that night only because I was still drunk. The brandy on the coach did it. The next morning, I couldn't read the papers. The photographs were so horrific I had to put the paper down. I stayed at home with Suzy and the children, thinking how lucky I was to have them. I didn't touch a drop more of alcohol. I didn't need to. I already had a raging headache from the brandy that had been my only chance of sleep.
Initially, I saw Hillsborough from a personal perspective. I just thought how heartbroken I would have been if it had been my child. Over the next few days, my emotions turned to disbelief and concern for the people who suffered. I kept thinking about the events that led to the crush.
It would be easy to blame South Yorkshire Police but they never set out that morning to allow ninety-six innocent people to die. They could never have foreseen Hillsborough. No one could. Hillsborough was a tragic accident.
I'm sure they (the police) were trained in the correct procedure, but however much preparation a policeman undergoes, he can never be ready for what transpires. No policeman could predict those scenes or his own reaction to them. I feel no anger towards the ordinary policemen involved at Hillsborough.
|John Barnes on Hillsborough|
|I've heard it said that the public's perception of me changed because of Hillsborough. I don't know how people saw me before, but it upsets me if they thought I couldn't be compassionate. People are not paying me a compliment when they say, 'Weren't you nice during Hillsborough.' Anyway, as soon as I donned an England shirt, they booed me again. I have always kept football matters in perspective. Hillsborough simply confirmed that reality and re-confirmed my love for my family.|
My sense of outrage was provoked by the top policemen who should have been far more compassionate towards the grieving relatives. Amidst all the recriminations, the South Yorkshire Police refused to accept any responsibility. Their attitude was disgusting. They should have been more thoughtful, sympathetic and honest than just to say 'it's all the fans' fault.' Listening to the police and all their leaks to the newspapers, Hillsborough seemed to be the responsibility of everyone apart from the South Yorkshire Police. A story about Liverpool fans nicking money from the dead bodies and urinating on corpses was shamefully printed by the Sun under that terrible headline 'The Truth.'
For the police to manufacture a story like that when people were killed and their families in mourning was disgraceful. Everyone on Merseyside was incensed with the Sun calling Liverpool fans 'scum.' The families were outraged. Liverpool Football Club was outraged. The whole city was outraged. No one talked to the paper after that evil story. Sales of the Sun on Merseyside plummeted.
On the Monday morning, the players went through the papers looking at the awful photographs. The full horror of what had happened became brutally clear. Two girls were pictured on one front page squashed up against the fence. Somehow they lived. We knew those girls. They used to hang around outside Melwood for autographs. I saw one of the girls, Jackie, early in 1999 at the Liverpool-Blackburn game. Everyone knew Jackie. Players were looking through papers to see if there was anyone they knew. I'm sure John Aldridge and Steve McMahon, the local boys, did but they dealt with it in their own private way.
Later that day, we travelled over to the hospital in Sheffield. When we got there and encountered row upon row of people in comas, we all felt terrible. The players stayed in groups initially. At Christmas, when a squad goes into a local hospital to visit sick children, the players all stick together. Footballers are generally embarrassed at being fit and healthy and surrounded by the unwell and injured. I always worry about saying something condescending, so I tend to march across and ask a child in a wheelchair, 'How did you lose both your legs?' Children come to terms with things quickly and can talk about it. I love kids. In Sheffield, no one felt like making the first move. We clung together for the first ten minutes, unsure of how to approach beds contained fans in comas. It was the relatives who took the initiative. A father walked up to me and said, 'You are my son's favourite player. Please come and talk to him.' Relatives went up to each of the players and asked them see their child. We were all hesitant but of course agreed.
I had never seen anyone in a coma before. I didn't know what to say or even whether he could hear me. If the child had been my son, I knew I would have no trouble talking. Eventually, I said something like, 'It's John Barnes here. I'm sorry it happened. Keep fighting. I know you can pull through.' It was the type of line actors say in 'ER'. Parents sometimes come to the training ground and ask me to speak into a tape-recorder to send a few words of encouragement to their ill child. 'This is John Barnes here,' I say into the microphone, 'wishing you well, don't give up, we want to see you supporting us again next season.' It wasn't the same at the hospital.
It is amazing what a few words can do. Some of the players started to get a reaction, a flicker of life. 'He moved, he moved,' came the cry from the parents. Families and nurses urged us to 'keep talking, keep talking.' That spurred us all on. It was so important to feel we could actually help. So we chatted away non-stop. Parents told their child 'John Barnes is here,' and encouraged me with 'Come on, John, talk to him.' I held their hands and just talked and talked and talked, about anything that came into my mind about football, about the club we all loved. Sometimes, after a while, some movement could be discerned in their hands. 'Let him rest now,' the nurse said, more hopeful that the boy would emerge from the coma gradually. I couldn't believe it.
Two fans came out of comas while the players were in the hospital. It made us feel very good. I am not religious in the church-going sense but I do believe in higher spirits, fate and the greater-good. It was a very humbling experience. One asked, 'What's the score?' He saw Aldo and said, 'John Aldridge?! What's going on?' Then he started smiling. He thought Liverpool's players had come to visit him at home in bed. Another awoke with a start and jumped up. Everyone heard the commotion and rushed around the bed. He opened his eyes and saw Peter Beardsley and me looking at him. He couldn't believe it. Neither of them had any recollection of what happened on the Leppings Lane terrace. They had slipped into comas because of the weight of bodies crushing them. Their last memory was of travelling to a football match.
If I had ever needed reminding of the importance of life and family, Hillsborough and events in that hospital ward brought it home to me. I was only there for a short time and found it deeply moving. Most of the parents had been there from the Saturday, waiting for hour after agonising hour. They just sat there, talking to their child, praying their loved ones would open their eyes. The parents were so brave. They were all convinced their children would recover. I know if it had been one of my four children lying there, I would never have lost hope of them coming round. I know my beloved daughter Jasmin and if she were ever in a coma, I am certain she would recover if I talked to her enough.
I feel tremendous respect for the parents of the Hillsborough victims, almost awe. They were so strong at a time when their world was collapsing. The parents saw the players as a means to revive their children. They never blamed us when the child remained unresponsive, still reliant for life on a bedside machine of lights and tubes. We did what we could, but I didn't expect to be a miracle worker. It was incredible when those two boys came round while we were at the hospital. It was difficult walking past parents whose child was still in a coma. As those two revived, people expected more and more to awake left, right and centre like a nice film where everyone recovers, opens their eyes and say, 'Hi, how are you doing?' But life is not like a Hollywood movie. After three hours, we climbed back on the bus. It was buzzing on the way home. That visit helped the players so much. We talked about everything that happened at the hospital, about the guy who woke up and asked what the score was, about his ecstatic, emotional parents.
By then, the families of those who had died had started coming to Anfield. Meeting them was an extraordinarily moving experience. Their relatives had died following Liverpool and here they were, almost speechless with disbelief that they were walking into the player's lounge at Anfield. Most were crying. Many said, 'He would have loved to have been here, talking to John Barnes in the middle of Anfield. He will be saying, 'I should be there because I love Liverpool.' So many grieving mothers and fathers observed that their lost child would be jealous of them. Not only was I humbled by their emotional reaction to being inside Anfield, I was embarrassed. I didn't know how they would behave towards me. The families could have blamed me. They could have said, 'My precious son came to see you play and now he is dead and you've still got your money, your car and your house.' But none of them did. They were so appreciative of what we did, of how much we meant to their lost loved one. Faced with the bereaved at Anfield, all I could think of was that their relatives died because of us. But the families seemed almost awestruck and deeply grateful. They came into Anfield, sat down, looked at us and said, 'This is the only place we are happy.'
The tributes were not just at Anfield. I walked into Stanley Park and saw all the Everton scarves tied together. They stretched from Goodison Park to Anfield, a symbol of the unity between the two clubs. All football fans were united in their grief. Even those from Manchester United sent gestures of sympathy. Every fan had reason to mourn. Every fan knew that it could have been him or her on that terrace death-trap. A few politicians appeared at Anfield to pay their respects. I was glad more politicians didn't show their faces. Hillsborough and the grieving process was nothing to do with politicians. If they had turned up, it would simply have been a publicity stunt. Politicians had no right to be present at Anfield.
I had never been to a funeral before. The first one I went to was for Gary Church (son of Dave and Maureen Church), in Waterloo on Merseyside. Kenny, Gary Ablett, John Aldridge, Ray Houghton and I went. Liverpool were keen to have a least two players at every funeral. Particular players were requested by some families so some went to more than others. Most players preferred to go together. They felt less awkward. I went to five funerals on my own and three with other players. I went wherever Liverpool sent me, to whichever family telephoned Anfield and requested my presence at their son's or husband's funeral. I drove to Bromsgrove and London, all over the country for the eight funerals. The last one was a difficult as the first.
At Anfield, the relationship between player and family had been good and positive, but not at the funeral. Everyone cried, I sat there, listening to the sobbing around me, the sounds of parents breaking down, the feelings of utter desolation sweeping everyone within the church. I relived the emotions of Hillsborough and the days immediately after, the feelings of guilt and remorse and intrusion. I felt I really shouldn't be here in this church, in the middle of someone else's nightmare. Those were the saddest days imaginable and I just sat there thinking the child in that coffin had come to watch me. And there I was, sitting in the middle of the child's devastated family, none of whom I knew. The real friends were sitting at the back, they were the one's who loved him. They must have resented my presence, the sight of John Barnes being pushed in as some sort of hero.
It meant so much to me to be able to help the families, in however small a way. That was why I chose not to play for England against Albania in a World Cup qualifier on 26 April. It coincided with a funeral. People wrote that I was not in a fit-state emotionally to focus on an international. That was rubbish. Physically and mentally, I was ready to play. If there hadn't been a funeral on that day, I would have played. The funeral was far more important than an England match. I wasn't making a statement that people were playing football too soon after Hillsborough. It was just a question of timing and priorities.
The players discussed funerals after training but wouldn't touch on the emotions involved. As for coping with the continual sight of grieving families, each player handled that situation on his own. None of the players opened up to each other. No one said to me, 'Digger, how are you coping?' and I never asked that question. We all dealt with Hillsborough on our own.
I've heard it said that the public's perception of me changed because of Hillsborough. I don't know how people saw me before, but it upsets me if they thought I couldn't be compassionate. People are not paying me a compliment when they say, 'Weren't you nice during Hillsborough.' Anyway, as soon as I donned an England shirt, they booed me again. I have always kept football matters in perspective. Hillsborough simply confirmed that reality and re-confirmed my love for my family.