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Hillsborough's lessons are learned but justice remains to be done


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Hillsborough's lessons are learned but justice remains to be done

By Dion Fanning

 

 

Sunday April 19 2009

 

T here didn't seem to be much to say about the Hillsborough disaster 20 years on except to acknowledge that the families' demand for justice was now more pressing, not less, with every passing day.

 

There didn't seem to be much to say because it was such an ordinary disaster, such a mundane way to lose your life, overlooked by authority in death as in life as you stood watching a football match.

 

It was such a humdrum way to have your life destroyed, for the survivors to be scarred forever.

 

Hillsborough was such a simple way for 96 football fans to be unlawfully killed, such a matter-of-fact business because so many people had stood at sporting events at Dalymount or Croke Park in crushes like the ones that killed people in Sheffield and walked home that night wondering if anybody cared, never believing they could care so little. There was no plane screeching off the runway in this tragedy, no prime of Duncan Edwards to mourn, just the unheralded lives of 96 who mainly never grew up, never grew old, whose potential was as unknown as most of them were to everybody except their families.

 

When the pictures of that day are shown again you can see the thousands of bodies being crushed in the central pen at the Leppings Lane end but look at the film of the FA Cup semi-final the year before when the same two teams played at the same venue and the crowds look shoe-horned in then too. If you hadn't been told that the pictures from 1989 were those of people dying, it would not look that unusual.

 

Watching games played in front of people on terraces looks a little odd today but no stranger than seeing the goalkeeper pick the ball up when it's passed back to him. At Hillsborough, they died while we watched a game of football, overlooked once more.

 

Hillsborough was a mundane disaster which is why it still matters. It was the logical and tragic conclusion to society's desire to ignore the football supporter, to treat each one as a potential danger, to herd them into pens. Who puts people -- children -- into pens?

 

Hillsborough put football into perspective, as they like to say on Match of the Day. It demonstrated not how little it matters, but how much. "Where there is sorrow there is holy ground," Oscar Wilde wrote and the Kop became the place Liverpool's supporters went to after Hillsborough, turning it into a place of observance as well as a place of worship.

 

There was a danger that the anniversary would become, as Martin Kelner argued brilliantly in the Guardian last week, "grief tourism".

 

The BBC easily falls into 'Where were you-How did you feel?' school of questioning which asks what lessons can be learned from a disaster that took place 20 years ago, seemingly failing to notice that the lessons have been learned; it's justice that has been ignored. But that would be too difficult a topic so instead they stay with the cliché all the way to the moment when they say football doesn't matter at a time like this.

 

Of course football matters. Why else would the families come to Anfield for the memorial every year? Why is there such a communion between Liverpool's finest players and its supporters, a communion realised by Bill Shankly, who understood the Liverpool people's Celtic urgency to belong, but made sacred by Hillsborough? Why would Trevor Hicks, who lost two daughters 20 years ago, be cheered so movingly when he thanked the Liverpool players at the memorial on Wednesday for playing so valiantly the night before against Chelsea? Why would Fernando Torres point to the heavens when he scored the weekend before if there was not an intangible and spiritual link between football and the people who watch it and who, at Hillsborough, died watching it?

 

Torres understands this which is why he is a folk hero at Liverpool; Rafael Benitez understands it too which is why he is appreciated by Liverpool supporters when, like Kenny Dalglish before him, he is criticised by the rest of England.

 

There used to be a joke that said Ireland would relinquish its constitutional claim to Northern Ireland when Britain gave up its claim to Liverpool.

 

The city's desire to mourn 20 years ago reminded Liverpool and the rest of England that it is a city apart, a stranger in a strange land.

 

Then they wanted Liverpool to play before Liverpool was ready and there were grumblings then. Liverpool, led by Kenny Dalglish, declared they would play when the families were ready. Listening to Dalglish again this week and he was as flawless as he was in 1989. The myth about Dalglish is that he is not a great media performer, but he always understood his audience -- or the people he wanted to understand him -- which is what I thought communication was supposed to be about.

 

He spoke to them in 1989 and he spoke to them last week, his tone, as ever, perfect. He spoke of his memories of the tragedy but spoke mainly of the families and their loss.

 

Football is mainstream now. Andy Burnham, the sports minister, stood up at the memorial on Wednesday and read a message from Gordon Brown to, as he put it, their "fellow football supporters".

 

In itself, that was a reminder of how football has changed. Willie Whitelaw or Sir Francis Pym would not have tried to associate himself with a football crowd, let alone declare himself a supporter of whatever it is they were watching.

 

Burnham is an Everton supporter, he was at the other semi-final 20 years ago, but last Wednesday he was a representative of the British government. It was as if a member of Her Majesty's cabinet had decided to speak at Bodenstown. The crowd turned on Burnham and the cry went out for justice as loudly as if he had shown up in Meath and congratulated them on their efforts. He was alone, a stranger in his own land.

 

They remembered 96 football fans last Wednesday, but they announced, once more, their unwillingness to belong to a country that never understood them.

 

dionfanning@gmail.com

 

- Dion Fanning

 

Hillsborough's lessons are learned but justice remains to be done - Soccer, Sport - Independent.ie

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