A fortnight ago today I had the pleasure of watching Liverpool overturn seemingly impossible odds to knock Borussia Dortmund out of the Europa League.
I was accompanied by my two teenage sons and a good friend. The boys were understandably over the moon by what they had just witnessed. They’ve been at Anfield on quite a few occasions, but the red-hot atmosphere, sheer drama and emotional highs and lows were of a level they had not experienced before.
The talk among fans and throughout the media afterwards was of a comeback to rival the mother of all comebacks in Istanbul, of one of the greatest victories in a famous history awash with great victories.
This was how sport and following a team should be. The chance to create magical memories which will last a lifetime. It’s why hundreds of thousands of people in the UK, and millions more throughout the world, set off every weekend to support their teams. And they are THEIR teams. In the words of the legendary Jock Stein – words which have been at the forefront of the recent successful campaign spearheaded by Liverpool fans over soaring ticket prices – “football is nothing without fans”.
The day after the Dortmund match was April 15. Probably a date which doesn’t mean a lot to most readers.
However, to the families and friends of 96 people, it is a date they will never forget.
April 15, 1989. The day of the Hillsborough stadium disaster in which those 96 people, male and female, aged from ten to 67, went to a football match but never returned home. Two sisters, three pairs of brothers and a father and son were among those who died. As were two men who were about to become fathers for the first time. Hundreds were injured.
Of the victims 78 were aged under 30 and 38 were children or teenagers – joined in the common bond of supporting a football team, THEIR football team.
Trevor Hicks was at the match with his wife Jenni and daughters Victoria and Sarah. Jenni was sitting in a different stand to Trevor and the girls who were in the Leppings Lane end where the tragedy was to unfold. He became separated from his daughters when he went to buy a programme. As the mayhem ensued he realised the girls had been caught up in the chaos.
He burst onto the pitch to find them lying side-by-side, repeatedly calling their names so they knew he was there. Witnesses recalled Trevor running between the girls, as attempts were made to revive them, pleading: “Not both of them; they’re all I’ve got.”
The girls, both teenagers, died and their father, who said he had lost everything - “the present, the future and any purpose” - went on to become one of the most prominent of the justice campaigners.
On Tuesday justice was finally done. An inquest jury ruled that the 96 fans had been unlawfully killed, victims of a catastrophic failure by the police in particular and ambulance service, with Sheffield Wednesday football club, its engineers Eastwood and Partners and the stadium licensing authorities also criticised.
The fans were exonerated of all blame.
The behaviour of South Yorkshire Police has been shameful. From the days after the tragedy, when they fed media a litany of lies in a bid to shift the blame on to the innocent fans, to their turning of the inquests into, in the words of the families’ lawyers, “an adversarial battle”, they have behaved disgracefully.
Similarly trenchant criticism was aimed at the South Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance Service. The police and ambulance service, the very people who the public expect to protect them, have for 27 years engaged in a callous, sickening attempt to hide the truth. Hopefully criminal proceedings will now follow.
That truth has finally come out and it has done so thanks to the incredible courage and perseverance of the families, people like Trevor Hicks, people who refused to accept the mountain they were being asked to climb was insurmountable. No adversity was too great for them.
Talk of victories on the pitch and brave comebacks, as happened after the Dortmund match, pale into insignificance when compared to the victory just achieved by the heroic Hillsborough families, battling to right the wrong of what has been described by senior politicians as the “greatest miscarriage of justice of our times”.
Next week I will again travel to Anfield to enjoy a football match with my two sons. It is harrowing to think that, 27 years ago, that is exactly what those Hillsborough victims did only never to come back home.
We will again stop and pause for thought at the temporary Hillsborough memorial, erected while major reconstruction of the ground takes place.
The Eternal Flame from the original memorial has been transferred to Liverpool Anglican Cathedral until this work has been completed. Today it burns brighter than ever.
• Mark Weir is Night Editor of the News Letter and a lifelong Liverpool fan