As dawn broke on that Saturday morning, a fateful day began - 15 April, 1989, a date etched eternally into the hearts and minds of Liverpool fans across the land. Wembley beckoned and the Anfield faithful followed – to Hillsborough in Sheffield, an FA cup final place up for grabs. I can feel their excitement. It was a glorious spring morning and there was magic in the air. I was just 3 at the time and yet I know this as surely as if I were there. I too have attended such games of the sort that keep you up late into the night in the weeks before as you live out your dreams and share your fears with your family, your friends, your fellow fans. In the run up to Hillsborough I can imagine what was said – I have had those conversations myself so many times. And yet not one person could have envisaged what would come to pass. It was a football game, a pastime, a passion, not a matter of life and death. In the aftermath of the disaster the famous Bill Shankly quote* must have hung heavy in the air, macabre, stripped of its wit. The truth: 96 dead.
That is the story. A story rehashed so many times that it has desensitised rather than shocked for those not affected by the disaster. It seems to divide opinion and arouse debate. Many question the wisdom of the Justice Campaign, which continues and will continue until justice is done. “It’s over, it won’t bring them back, let them rest in peace”, they say. I don’t wish to repeat the intricate and complex details of the case against the Yorkshire police here except to say that they have some serious questions to answer**. This is the focus of the Justice Campaign: to bring to account those responsible for both the disaster and the subsequent cover-up. Recent petitions and a Commons debate have provided a glimmer of hope for the families that this wrong will be righted – we can only hope the validity of this claim as this coming Sunday, the fight for justice enters its 23rd year. After a struggle spanning more than two decades is it not right that the families too be relieved of this heavy burden and be allowed to rest and grieve for their loved ones?
In situations of such tragedy, we can only begin to imagine the despair felt by those close to the victims and yet instead of being crushed by grief, families have fought for justice: this is true in the case of Hillsborough and for other crimes too. And so even in the saddest of stories, there can be something to celebrate. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster when half of the Anfield pitch, the goalmouth and Kop were covered with flowers, Kenny Dalglish commented that it was “the saddest and most beautiful thing” he had ever seen. In this statement Dalglish unwittingly captured the essence of the Justice Campaign as did Jimmy McGovern when he named it, “the most wonderful example of enduring love”.
It is for this reason that the campaign burns fiercely alongside the eternal flame at Anfield: gone but never forgotten. RIP.
* "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that" - Bill Shankly pre-Hillsborough.