THROUGHOUT my childhood Hillsborough was always there — like a nettle bush prickling at my consciousness in a field of many feelings.
I was five years old in April 1989. I can’t remember the afternoon of the 15th at all, the terrible events.
Strangely, I remember the period just before. I remember Liverpool’s red kit and the Adidas stripes. I remember Candy, the sponsor. I remember Kenny Dalglish’s silver manager coat. I remember Bruce Grobbelaar wearing green. I remember Ronnie Moran barking orders. I remember Peter Beardsley and the way he shuffled across a pitch. I remember the roar at football grounds and the thrill that came with it.
I remember detecting that football did not seem quite as bright or exciting after Hillsborough.
I remember, indeed, being dropped off at my nan’s and asking for fizzy drinks and sugary sweets. I remember a visit to the newsagents and an argument instigated by a pensioner towards the shopkeeper for having the publication that printed lies about the role of Liverpool supporters.
“If you don’t stop selling that shit, I’ll buy my paper from the place on Endbutt Lane,” he told him, brandishing his walking stick.
Considering Endbutt Lane was 10 minutes away on foot, I considered it quite a statement. As the pensioner left, without buying anything, he turned to my nan and apologised for swearing.
That summer, we travelled to Menorca for a holiday. I remember a burly man with a Thames estuary accent making derogatory remarks about Scousers in front of his children while I was trying to make friends with them.
It was very funny to him. It was all, “You lot” this, and “you lot” that, as if we had flown to Spain from Mars.
I realised only much later that the reporting of Hillsborough probably fortified his views towards Liverpudlians. My mum had a right go back at him. She could be really ferocious. My dad explained quite simply — in a matter of fact way — that it was her Irish blood and red hair. I had Irish blood. I had red hair. I was from Liverpool, too.
I remember the passing of the 10th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. I remember the 15th. I was studying in Sheffield for the 17th. There, I encountered a mix of people who wanted “you lot” to “just let it go” and others who appeared in complete denial about the fact a disaster had taken place in their city.
It was only on the 20th anniversary when I felt like I’d moved into a position where I was able to articulate at length how I felt about it. By then, I was working for Liverpool FC’s official magazine. In the edition released closest to the anniversary, it was an editorial decision to only feature first-person interviews with people who were present on the day.
The shadows of Hillsborough had lived close by for so long but only then did I begin to appreciate the true human cost. You can always ask questions and gain understanding but it is only as you get older and begin to lose the people you love that you can begin to connect the sense of loss. When you meet the survivors and their families and look into their eyes, you know your own problems are nowhere near as heavy as theirs.
My mum hadn’t been well for a long time when she was diagnosed with a degenerative brain condition later that year. I hope this isn’t delivered too suddenly. I hope it doesn’t sound dramatic. I guess it was. I only speak about it with a couple of very close friends and my wife. I’ve never broadcasted it. I’ve never written about it.
Succinctly, what followed was two-and-a-half years of intense struggle, especially for my dad who became a full-time carer as well as a husband.
I tried to be there every day for both of them. I tried to put my own emotions to one side and tried to help make their lives more bearable.
It wasn’t easy.
And yet, if I ever stopped to question the unfairness, the sadness and the desperation of it all, I’d think back to those conversations I’d had with the Hillsborough victims.
It was Anne Williams who told me that the only way she could get through it was by wearing an imaginary hard hat and powering on. I carried this thought around with me every single moment of every single day until the morning my mum passed away in 2012. It reminded me that my anguish was nothing compared to hers and yet she was able to persist. Anne was not alone. “We still have our memories,” she said innocently. I held on to this as well.
It is 6am on a Wednesday as I write this. The sun has risen. In three hours, I will drive to the airport and fly to Spain to cover the first leg of Liverpool’s Europa League semi final with Villarreal.
I’ve been awake for most of the night thinking about yesterday’s news, considering, too, whether it’s correct for me to write about it in this column.
Initially, it did not seem appropriate personalising such a sensitive issue when you are only affected by it indirectly and in very small amounts. I was going to write something about Liverpool’s young players — their hopes and dreams. But that didn’t seem right either.
Then I began to realise there is probably a generation who will be able relate to this in some way. Maybe we are of a similar age. Maybe we have shared experiences.
What I do know is, I took inspiration from the mums of Liverpool. Their fear. Their panic. Their pain. Their resolve. Their bravery. Their strength. Their determination. Their pride. Their defiance.