Hillsborough disaster

No-one will ever forget the 96

September 12, 2012
By Harry Harris, Football Correspondent
(Archive)

To have been at Hillsborough is not something I usually mention. I don't write about it, don't talk about it.

Liverpool fans pay their respects as flower tributes cover Anfield.
PA PhotosLiverpool fans filled Anfield with floral tributes in the days after the Hillsborough tragedy

• Rewind: A fateful day of change

But on the day that the 96 are finally getting justice, it somehow feels right to relive the one football game I attended, among the many thousands, that cannot be forgotten.

Haunted is the best way to describe the feeling about it, having watched from the sanctuary of the press box the scenes that have been, and continue to be, a scar on the image of English football and indeed on English justice.

Haunted is the only way to describe the most nauseating, harrowing experience of more than 40 years in sports journalism. Of having a newspaper correspondent's "duty" to report on the Sheffield Wednesday indoor sports hall that doubled up as a resting place for the dead of Hillsborough.

The journey home was numb, the days in the offices of the Daily Mirror of post-event shock that culminated in an unprecedented rant at someone for nothing in particular.

The journey to the FA Cup semi-final on April 15 1989 was full of the usual banter, laughter and excitement of just doing the job of watching important football games with your friends, although my friends at that time happened to be a handful of fellow chief football writers on rival newspapers.

Being a non-driver all my life, I travelled to the game with Colin Gibson of the Daily Telegraph, Steve Curry of the Daily Express and Stuart Jones of the Times.

As we approached the stadium, we noticed the usual pre-match rituals of the fans; drinking in the pubs, spilling outside into the streets, all good-natured, good-humoured, but nothing you would want to nip over and join in. Being recognised was not pleasant at times, not in that era, and sometimes not even, in those days, at a football match.

It was impossible to imagine the events that would unfold up to 3.15pm and the scale of the loss of life.

That hit home when we visited the sports hall. It hit home on the journey away from the ground, listening to the endless news bulletins on the car radio, having gone through a reporter's duty of interviewing the people involved but hardly taking in the enormity of the consequences of what had just occurred.

My main recollection of all of that professional reporting was not really taking any of it in. A book full of notes, yes, but not really knowing what it all meant.

It was an emotion I had not experienced before, and have no wish to experience again.

If any good has come from Hillsborough, it was the Lord Justice Taylor Report, which transformed football in this country forever. No more terraces.

The all-seater stadia, with luxury boxes and hospitality, may have brought more billionaire foreigners, more wealth and more distance between the ordinary fan and the superstar footballer.

But it is now safe to go and watch the national sport at the highest level, when crowds are at their largest. So when I hear well-intentioned campaigners for limited areas of terracing, I can understand it but I cannot forget Hillsborough and my answer is no. No way.

Journalists didn't exactly have a good name in those days - even worse now, since the hacking scandal - but I felt absolutely gutted that the Sun claimed to have "The Truth" about what happened. Their report said the Liverpool fans were to blame, that many were drunk and had caused the crush of bodies in their panic to get into the game, that many were without tickets.

I couldn't help thinking that I was there and hadn't seen any of that. How could I have missed it? Or was it just not true?

What cannot ever be washed away is the pain and suffering of that day. No-one will ever forget it, certainly not anyone who happened to be there. That is impossible.

As for the blame: from the time I was leaving Hillsborough, it was pretty obvious to me who was to blame. It wasn't the fans. It wasn't the 96 who perished.

It has taken quite a while for the truth to emerge. Far too long.

We had a famous cartoonist at the Daily Mirror in those days, who drew a really heart-wrenching portrait of all the top clubs' biggest stars wearing their club strips and holding a banner that said: "You Will Never Walk Alone."

The sports editor presented that to me, and I still have it on the wall.

Yes, a poignant reminder. A reminder of a game I would love to forget but cannot. And no-one will ever forget the 96; certainly not me.