April 15 marks the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster
The list starts with Jack Anderson, who was 62 at the time. It ends with Graham John Wright, only 17. The 29th name of 96 is Jon-Paul Gilhooley, who was 10 years old when he went off to watch a football match. He never came home. The Bluebell Estate in the Liverpool suburb of Huyton is unmistakably working class.
The city has been transformed in the 25 years since the Hillsborough disaster, but even now Huyton is hardly what you would call a posh neighbourhood. It was there that Steven Gerrard, Liverpool’s ‘Captain Fantastic’, grew up. It was also there that he and his brother Paul used to kick a ball around with Jon-Paul, their cousin, and other friends.
Jon-Paul was a year older, and in dreamland when he accompanied a family friend to Hillsborough for the FA Cup semifinal against Nottingham Forest. The next day, his family identified his body. He was the youngest of the 96 to die on a day that transformed English football forever.
April 15 marks the 25th anniversary of that tragic day. What is even more terrible is that the victims and their families have yet to receive any justice. After the initial nonsensical accidental-deaths verdict was quashed by the High Court — the families affected campaigned more than two decades for that — a new inquest is underway.
After the cover-ups, false allegations and general contempt for fans on view in the first one, one can only hope that justice is served this time.
On Sunday, for what was billed as a title-deciding game against Manchester City, 96 of the seats — tickets were changing hands for thousands of pounds — were left empty. Liverpool have not won the championship since 1990, but the banners and mosaics in the stands made it amply clear that while what happened on the pitch was of vital importance, it was nothing compared to Justice For The 96. In many ways, Hillsborough was the beginning of the end for Liverpool’s era of dominance. Between 1972-73 and 1989-90, the club won the title 11 times, while also adding four European Cups, two UEFA Cups and three FA Cups to the trophy cabinet.
When Gerrard and Gilhooley were growing up, it wasn’t so much a question of whether Liverpool would win the title, but how far ahead they would finish. Even when they didn’t win, the trophy usually stayed in the city, with Everton the other force in English football at the time.
A generation on from Hillsborough, thanks to the work of two brilliant young managers, both teams are once again in the top four. If they finish that way, it will be the first time that has happened since 1987-88.
When you visit Anfield, there are three things that catch the eye as you enter. The Shankly Gates pay tribute to the club’s legendary manager, the man who took them from second-division mediocrity to European glory.
Inside the gates is a statue of him, with the inscription on the plinth saying: He made the people happy. But if you’re a child of my generation, it’s the Hillsborough Memorial where you’ll spend most time. You’ll find cards, flowers, scarves, replica footballs and other tokens of remembrance at its base. It’s not uncommon to find personal messages along the lines of: ‘There but for the grace of God go we’.
In a parallel universe, it might have been Gilhooley wearing the captain’s armband at Anfield on Sunday. Gerrard himself has always said that he is also “playing for Jon-Paul” and his parents, a constant source of encouragement when he was a youth trainee.
“Even when I stop playing for the first team, I will continue to go to the [memorial] service and show my respects every year,” he said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph five years ago. “I do see Jon-Paul’s family there as well. It’s nice to share the memorial service with them.”
If Liverpool do win the title this year, there will be some that see it as a tribute to the Hillsborough 96.
We must not, however, confuse the triviality of sport with matters of life, death and justice. At his funeral, Jon-Paul’s parents left a floral message that said: ‘To the world he was a football fan. To us, he was our world’.
No trophy in the world can compensate for what those families lost. Gerrard knows that.