DAVID WALKER was a shocked eye-witness to the tragedy at Hillsborough 25 years ago. Here, on the day of the moving memorial service at Anfield, he recounts a journalist’s view of that terrible day
The danger is to sound self-obsessed and a victim.
Compared with the devastating pain and inexplicable sense of loss suffered by so many families and friends at Hillsborough, my wounds are superficial.
Yes, I was there. People describe it as the day football changed forever. It was certainly the day that changed my life.
I was a football reporter covering my fifth Hillsborough semi-final. For several years I’d been the Daily Mail’s man in Yorkshire so I knew Sheffield Wednesday and their home ground well.
That experience of covering the semis and sell-out Wednesday matches would stand me in good stead when it came to offering my insight about the cataclysmic events of the day to the original police investigation and later Lord Justice Taylor’s Hillsborough Inquiry.
This is not the moment to relive that awful spring day in South Yorkshire. And not just because I prefer not to re-open wounds for any of the injured or witnesses scarred by the tragedy that will always be summed up in one word – Hillsborough.
A couple of weeks ago I was re-interviewed by the Police regarding their new investigation into the disaster. The meeting lasted more than three hours as we went through my observations from 25 years ago. Yes, it was harrowing but it was also strangely rewarding to be reminded of some of the minutiae of that day and how quickly the lies came tumbling from the lips of those in authority.
I was down on the pitch, guiding the makeshift stretcher party helping a young victim of the crush to the gymnasium that had become a first aid post and soon turned into the mortuary.
Around this time on that Saturday afternoon the story was leaked that Liverpool fans had broken into the stadium to spark the crush. In my notes I had names and quotes from Liverpool fans who had been standing in the courtyard outside Leppings Lane when the police ordered the gates to be opened.
It had been no hooligan invasion by ticketless fans.
I reported on the outrage of fans who knew they were being smeared by the police via unwitting FA officials. Looking back, that was one of the less contentious lies. But, in many ways, it started an epidemic of wicked smears and unsubstantiated rumours that quickly spun completely out of control and caused rifts that survive to this day.
I CAN SHARE WITH YOU one small example that over the passing years became important to me. From the start I pointed out that compared with previous semis, the policing outside the stadium had been changed for the Liverpool-Nottingham Forest game.
Barriers, set along the streets to filter ticketless fans way from the stadium, were absent. Hence ticketless fans congregated outside the ground and the initial scenes of crushing began.
During the Taylor Inquiry I made my point. A string of South Yorkshire police officers claimed I’d got my facts wrong.
Somehow I must have been confusing my recollections and my venues. You can imagine my satisfaction when, 24 years later, the Independent Hillsborough Report was published. My phone rang at work and an old colleague from Merseyside pointed out that I was named by the Bishop of Liverpool’s panel in their exhaustive review.
The reference was brief but related to my claim that the police blueprint for filtering away ticketless fans from the Hillsborough environs was correct. After 24 years I felt vindicated.
And yet you soon experience the feeling of “so what?” A minor admission of the truth – and trust me, there will be more – does not affect the real pain of Hillsborough.
Thousands of fans went to a football match that day. It was the last game for 96 of them. And even though I was there I can only guess at the perpetual sense of loss and unrelenting grief endured by the victims’ families and friends.
Without doubt an unbreakable, emotional bond was forged between Liverpool fans and their club. Kenny and Marina Dalglish were inspirational in the way they comforted the grieving and supported the injured. As Kenny steadfastly points out, he and his wife were not the only heroes.
There were many others.
I had to return to Hillsborough to cover matches. I have never found it an easy experience. In fact, I find it appalling that in the decades when hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent on renewing and improving our stadiums, the Leppings Lane stand still survives.
Yes, it’s an all-seat area now. But when football has had trust funds to assist clubs to renovate their grounds, it wouldn’t have taken too much wit or wisdom for Sheffield Wednesday to build a new stand in memory of those fans who perished on their day trip to Sheffield.
The fact that the key landmarks – the stand itself, the courtyard outside and the tunnel where bodies piled up – remain in place, must rank as an indictment of English football in this era of television deal billions.
Liverpool FC has been steadfast in offering support to those who mourn the 96.
Yet there are fans from other clubs who sneer and don’t understand the importance of the Hillsborough legacy.
To them I say this. On that hot, sunny April day fans from all over the country flocked to see two of England’s finest clubs compete in a football match.
Fans do that every week. But on April 15 1989, 96 Liverpool fans went to watch a team they loved play a game they loved and perished. Never forget that.
- David Walker is the chairman of the SJA. This feature was first published on the Daily Mirror football site and is reproduced here with permission