Saturday, 2 July 2016

Waiting for the trains

Waiting for the trains

While clearing recorded programmes from my Sky box this week I noticed I still had the two hour documentary on the Hillsborough tragedy saved. I watched it a month ago and was deeply affected by the events it described. As football fans all of us can identify times at games when we genuinely feared for our safety. The league clinching game at Celtic Park in 1988 comes to mind as Celtic unwisely didn’t make the match with Dundee all ticket. Celtic admitted to 72,000 filling a ground with a 60,800 official capacity and only the absence of fences allowed for prompt evacuation of the overcrowded areas of the Celtic end to the less packed away end. There were other games when I left the stadium with my feet barely touching the ground and I guess in some ways we were lucky.

As I watched the Hillsborough documentary again I don’t mind saying that my emotions got the better of me on a few occasions. There was genuine sadness and a few tears at the very human stories unfolding. What those families went through would touch even the hardest of hearts.  There was also anger, even rage at the establishment attempting to cover up their own failings and faults. It is now common knowledge that the Police changed statements in officers’ note books to help concoct and support a narrative which laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of Liverpool supporters. Grieving families stunned at their loss were questioned about the drinking habits of their lost relatives as Police sought to shore up the ‘tanked up mob’ story which took so long to expose as the contemptable lie it was. This lie was supported by a disgracefully compliant and unquestioning media as well as politicians who clearly saw football fans as little more than the dregs of society. We all know what the Sun and other newspapers said and we all know who gave them these lies to publish. The tragedy was greatly compounded by the smears and cover ups which followed.

As I watched the documentary again I couldn’t help thinking of my own children and how I’d feel if they were caught up in such a horrendous incident. Those Hillsborough families went through hell in their fight for the truth. They faced a sneering establishment, a judicial system which tended to side with the official version of events as described by the Police and a political class which, with some honourable exceptions, wished they’d just go away. But they wouldn’t go away. They fought a battle which lasted 27 long and bitter years until the truth was finally told.

As the 2016 inquest reached its conclusion and the Jury was asked to deliberate on 14 crucial questions about what actually happened that day, the families watched with hope in their hearts that justice would finally be done. The crucial questions of Police culpability were dealt by the Jury in no uncertain manner. They found that there were many poor decisions, inaction and a complete lack of contingency planning by the Police which had a huge effect on the events of that day. Such errors and omissions were bad enough but the cover up which followed was unforgivable. Crucially the Jury exonerated the Liverpool supporters themselves from any blame for the events which occurred in the Leppings Lane end that day. Question seven asked the Jury…

Was there any behaviour on the part of football supporters which caused or contributed to the dangerous situation at the Leppings Lane turnstiles?

The answer was a resounding ‘No!’ The families had been vindicated and at last the truth was coming out. At last the lies were unravelling, at last the families were finding justice which was delayed for so long.

One part of the documentary which really hit home was footage of family members waiting in Lime Street Station for the trains returning from Sheffield that day in 1989. Amid the confusion of the day they had no idea if their children, husbands, sisters, sons were on the trains or hurt or worse. Parents spoke of the long wait as train after train trundled into the station. For some there was the relief and joy of reunion. For others there was uncertainty and dread as the last train rolled in and their loved ones weren’t on it. One poem caught this poignant situation at Lime Street Station very well…

Waiting on the trains

Waiting on the trains from Sheffield
counting time in cigarettes smoked
in prayers silently muttered,
in fears they dare not shape with words,
Lime Street station, heavy with worry and expectation,
‘He’ll be on the next one, you wait and see,’
Coaches empty, eyes scan for familiar faces,
the lucky ones surge together, palpable relief,
they hug, cry and thank whatever god they believe in
for this mercy, this deliverance, this second birth…
Sympathetic looks as they leave the station
cast towards those still waiting, still hoping,
met in turn with almost imperceptible nods
which seem to say, ‘ good for you, you’ve got your lad back’
Scouse hearts have always had room for empathy,
The crowd thins as dread thickens,
‘He’ll be on the next one, you wait and see,’
Hours limp past as the Mersey sky darkens
Casting shadows on the hopes of those who remain,
The railway man with the sad eyes shakes his head
There will be no more trains from Sheffield tonight.

I’m glad justice may now be done but nothing can fill the void for those families affected by the tragedy. We move on but we never forget. How could we? There but for the grace of God could have been any of us in those days.  The courage and humanity of the Hillsborough families shines out like a beacon. I may have finally deleted the documentary from my Sky box but I’ll remember all my life the lies, the cover ups and the gutsy Scousers who brought the whole rotten edifice crashing down. 

Those lost on that sad day would be proud of you all.


  1. I was at FA Cup semi 1982 at Highbury QPT V WBA - awful game - but the overcrowding in the QPR was a disaster waiting to happen. YouR arms were either up or down & we were packed in like sardines. There is little doubt in my mind that pretty much every semi final in the 80's - & probably before then also - would have been massively over attended. As you allude to "there but for the grace of god..". I never thought about it at the time being a young & immortal (so I thought) 17 year old but the Hillsborough tragedy brought the long forgotten memory flooding back.

    1. Hi Steve, as a wee boy I attended the Celtic v Leeds United European Cup Tie at Hampden Park. The official attendance was 136,000 but gates were forced, boys lifted over turnstiles & men 'doubled up' on one ticket. I'd say 150,000 was nearer thr mark. I actually recall feeling frightened at the sway and surge of the crowd, When Celtic scored I ended up 20 yards from my old man and he signaled for me to wait at the front by the wall until it was over. Fans were herded in and out like cattle in those days. Ibrox (1971) & Hillsborough signaled the end of the terraces. Celtic will introduce 'safe standing' this coming season for about 3500 fans. It's an interesting experiment but safety is the prime concern. We had some narrow escapes back then & thank God we seem to have learned something from them. Appreciate you taking the time to read my stuff Sir. Thank you.

  2. By the way excellent article as always love reading your stuff!