Hillsborough: The sun still shines, 25 years on

Kenny Dalglish at a charity match in aid of the Hillsborough Disaster Fund. Picture: Allan Milligan
Kenny Dalglish at a charity match in aid of the Hillsborough Disaster Fund. Picture: Allan Milligan
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AND the sun shines now. This is how the respected commentator Peter Jones signed off his last report for BBC Radio 2 from Hillsborough 25 years ago on Tuesday.

These poignant words may have been heard by supporters coming back from games elsewhere. There were other football fixtures on that day, strange though it seems.

Dundee defeated Hearts 2-1, Aberdeen beat Hamilton Accies 3-0. Alex Ferguson was continuing to fight for his job as Manchester United fell to a 2-0 home defeat by Derby County. Every football fan will know where they were that day, and can remember when they heard the news – mostly much later, given the absence of mobile phones.

Just a teenager, like so many of those who perished at Hillsborough, I was at the sole Scottish Cup semi-final staged that afternoon, accompanying a St Johnstone supporting friend to the then First Division side’s clash with Rangers, at a very busy Parkhead. Although the crowd is only given as just over 47,000, there seemed to be far more inside the stadium. There was even a spillage of Rangers supporters onto the trackside midway through the first half, at the old Celtic End of the ground where the Jock Stein stand now sits, and at the corner next to the main stand. Watching the highlights again now, commentator Jock Brown notes “there is some work for the ambulance men”.

But it was nothing compared to what was happening, indeed what had already happened, at Hillsborough. The abandonment of that game after only seven minutes is why each match this weekend in England is kicking off seven minutes after its originally scheduled time.

A week into their reign as Littlewoods Cup holders, Forest were on FA Cup semi-final duty against Liverpool, for whom Alan Hansen was making his first appearance of the season after a knee injury. But such football tittle-tattle was long forgotten after the crush in which 94 people lost their lives, a number that grew to 95 days later when 14-year-old Lee Nicol succumbed to his injuries. That death toll of which we are all now so grimly aware became 96 four years later when Tony Bland had his artificial feeding and hydration withdrawn.

On the day of Hillsborough itself, there were reports that over 100 had perished. Des Lynam and Jimmy Hill wore dark ties to present a Match of the Day programme that barely featured a single ball being kicked. There were some glimpses of the first seven minutes of the game, before it was abandoned. But there was certainly nothing from Villa Park, where Everton were playing Norwich City for the right to face the winners of the Forest v Liverpool tie. “This was to be a sports programme. You will understand that on a day of such immense tragedy it would be inappropriate to show football,” a solemn Lynam told the viewers. “Everton of course beat Norwich 1-0 in the other semi-final.”

The “other semi-final”. Pat Nevin, who, like Hansen, had just returned from serious injury, emerged as the Everton match-winner, poking home a goal in the first half that would otherwise have stood as the most important strike of his career. “I cost a lot of money [£925,000] – my highest ever fee,” he says now. “I was desperate to start repaying it. We played well, it was a gorgeous sunny day. It should have been a perfect, perfect moment. But it means nothing.

“I was talking about it the other day to [BBC Radio 5 Live chief football correspondent] Mike Ingham. Mike interviewed me afterwards. The gentleman that he is, he warned me that something had happened at Hillsborough, people have died. We started the interview and we both looked at each other; it started to dawn what had happened, and the significance.”

Nevin’s goal had meant something in that it took Everton to Wembley, for what would be an intense, emotional all-Merseyside FA Cup final with the English FA having made the decision, backed by families of those who had died and those who were injured, to continue the tournament. But first Liverpool had to ensure they got to Wembley too. It was on that same day that chairman John Smith announced that they would “comply” with the FA’s wishes to stage a re-match of the FA Cup semi-final tie seven days later, at Old Trafford. The kick-off was set for 1pm but there was a 15-minute delay, to let the crowd in.

When watching the highlights of this match, it is impossible not to be struck by several thoughts. One is that the fences are still there, caging the fans into the terraces that look, certainly at the Stretford End of the ground, where the Liverpool fans are housed, worryingly packed (the attendance was actually just below 38,000, both clubs returned thousands of tickets from their allocation and the terracing capacity was reduced by 15 per cent “to improve the comfort of the standing supporters”). Of course, it is perhaps unrealistic to have expected the fences, those relics of a bygone age, to be torn down so quickly, but they were removed for the final at Wembley, as Nevin recalls.

“I was quite angry at the final,” he says. “Emotions were confused at that time. We scored a last minute equaliser through Stuart McCall, and a number of our fans ran on. I remember thinking: ‘how can you be so stupid?’ But that was the whole point. That is why 
Hillsborough happened. They had been penned in.”

Liverpool lifted the FA Cup after winning 3-2 following extra time, and Nevin, still numbed by it all, left the ground as quickly as he could. He was getting married soon afterwards. It is sometimes forgotten that even Everton players attended multiple funerals in the days and weeks after Hillsborough. “At least six or seven,” estimates Nevin.

At the Old Trafford semi-final, there was a banner strung along one tier that read: “The Kop Thanks You All.” Striking a rather more off-key note during the same game is the reaction of John Aldridge, who had expressed doubts about whether he could ever play professional football again, after Forest defender Brian Laws unfortunately put through his own goal to make it 3-1 to Liverpool, which is how the scoreline remained. The Liverpool striker bends down and ruffles the defender’s hair before wheeling away gleefully. Indeed, the celebrations after each goal are far from muted. Liverpool, of course, were desperate to win the match for their fans, and those who had died, but what strikes you is that football, and life, was continuing. As, of course, it must.

“I was an advocate at the time for not playing the final,” says Nevin. “I accepted the league had to go on. But I thought it would have been fitting to leave a gap in the year – if 1989 was just empty, there were no winners. No one wanted to play football. I didn’t think it was right. But the families were 100 per cent – the games must go on. And I hold my hands up now, it was the right thing to do.”

No-one on the pitch at the re-staged semi-final, and, more importantly, no member of these stricken families, could have imagined that 25 years later a new inquest into the deaths would be required to reach the truth. It would have seemed an outrage then just as we know that it is an outrage now. In both the re-staged semi-final, and the final itself, something else strikes you when watching the action again: the sun still shines.