(Torch graphic above is from LiverpoolFC.com – the symbol of the search for justice and remembrance of those who died in the Hillsborough tragedy 15 April 1989)
Everyone who knows me knows how much I love Liverpool Football Club and, as with any die-hard fan, I’ve experienced joy and utter frustration through the years of cheering them on. It’s a special relationship between a supporter and his club; something inexplicable seems to bind you to the fortunes of your team. Passions rise with every win and every accomplishment and desperate ache seems to engulf you when failure inevitably comes (real life isn’t a video game – you can’t win everything).
Having acknowledged the roller coaster that is simply being a fan of sport though, there seems to be something uniquely intense about the Liverpool fan’s experience. From the mid-60s through the 80s Liverpool were unrivalled in England. 13 First Division titles, four European titles, two UEFA Cups, four FA Cups, and four League Cups attest to Liverpool’s dominance during that time. Bill Shankly, the architect of Liverpool’s rise in the 60s, passed on a winning team to his assistant, Bob Paisley. Paisley then led the team to their zenith before passing leadership to his assistant, Joe Fagan. Fagan continued the winning tradition before handing control over to “King Kenny” Dalglish. Dalglish poured his heart and soul into the club to the extent that LFC seemed poised for a fourth decade of dominance before disaster struck … and I mean “disaster” in its truest form.
On 15 April 1989 Liverpool were playing Nottingham Forest in the semi-final of the FA Cup at a neutral stadium called Hillsborough in Sheffield. Six minutes into the match, a crush developed in one of the terraced and fenced standing-sections of the stadium as police, who were directing crowds entering the stadium, forced too many people into one section. Panic ensued and the fences – meant to keep rival fans apart – held in the mass of humanity. In the end 96 Liverpool supporters died.
In the inquests that followed, Sheffield police testified that Liverpool fans were belligerent and drunk and rushed past them and the turnstiles and into the section against police orders. Police testimony was exactly the opposite of survivors’ stories however and only served to press the knife deeper into the wounds of the families who had lost loved ones in the tragedy as victims were blamed for their own deaths in order to save the blushes of the Sheffield police captain.
For many years afterward, the testimonies of the police were held to be true, though evidence continued to mount to the contrary. The original 1989 inquest held Liverpool fans responsible, ignoring the inconsistencies in police testimony. This outraged families as the names of their loved ones were dragged through the mud as drunks and hooligans and the families began what would be a long fight to get the real story out. “Justice for the 96” rang through the stands of Anfield for years. “JFT96” banners flew over the Kop (the famous stand where the largest supporters’ groups sit). Finally, in 2012 an Independent Panel set up to determine the truth at Hillsborough determined that no Liverpool supporters were responsible for the disaster.
Though this stopped the official blame from falling on the victims, the pain of the whole experience – lengthened to 23 years by the search for justice – will likely never go away. To this day, Liverpool refuses to play football on 15 April out of respect for those who died and in solidarity with those whose anguish was prolonged and intensified by the lies. Even now, the match each year which falls closest to that infamous date will have moments of silence and black armbands to accompany it. Each year on 15 April, an emptiness seems to haunt the stadium as men, women and children who should have been cheering on their club beyond 1989 are remembered in reverent fashion.
The toll of the experience seemed to show itself most of all on King Kenny. As manager and living legend of the club, he felt it his duty to attend each of the 96 funerals and comfort the victims’ families and survivors as much as he could. The aftermath of the event seemed to weigh evermore heavily upon his shoulders as time went on and the next season he stepped down as manager. Though former Liverpool great, Graeme Souness took over from him, it seemed that the magic of the 25 years of success was gone – hopelessly lost amidst the chaos and tragedy of Hillsborough.
Today is the 27th anniversary of that horrible day and black armbands will be worn again as wreaths are laid beside the Hillsborough flame on the Anfield Road end of the stadium. Tears will no doubt be shed by families struck with loss and tributes will go out for fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, cousins and other relations who went to a football match and never came back.
I’m not trying to be overly melodramatic about this tragedy … it really has scarred the club and its supporters to the extent that those of us who are relative late-comers to its community are struck by it in a strong way – to the point where the day is one of mourning even for us. Empathy streams in from all corners of the globe as Liverpool supporters in the United States, Australia, Indonesia, South Africa, Canada and other places pass on prayers, thoughts and well-wishes to those who lost loved ones on that day.
I suppose there are several lessons to be learned from this. Maybe one could marvel at the way tragedy brings people of disparate backgrounds together? Maybe one could find encouragement in the way justice has slowly fought back the lies of those who covered-up their mistakes by defaming others? Or maybe one could look at the tragedy as a lesson in how the best things in this life are punctuated by moments of sorrow and injustice? And doesn’t it always seem as if the moments of pain and desperation forever overshadow even years or decades of calm and goodness?
To be honest, I think we more often knee-jerk psychologically the other way. Maybe we think we can overcome the depravities and tragedies of life by overemphasizing the glories and honors? Maybe we try to pretend good is the rule rather than the exception? We try to (if I may use it as an analogy) pretend that the two and half, almost three decades of glory is the normal instead of the anomaly that it was. And when the pain and unfairness of circumstance pours waves of spite on the heads of those who have become accustomed to good, it seems to come as a shock that life is what it is: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (to quote Thomas Hobbes).
True, one could look at life in two ways … either one can say during rough times that they will be over soon and good will return again, or one can say during the good times that a tragedy is on the horizon. One is certainly more pessimistic than the other, but is either one less true? Not in this life.
And so, on days like Hillsborough Remembrance Day, I tend to not just be an outside observer in that I didn’t know anyone who died on 15 April 1989 in Sheffield, England. I sometimes believe myself to be an outside observer in life tragedies in general. A psychologist might attribute it to me trying to flee life’s troubles out of a fear of encountering them. A humanist might attribute it to me trying to run from realism and into a happy-land of my own invention.
But I prefer to believe that faith and hope, fed by the Spirit of God, are transforming me into a buoy that is freely able to bob around through the storms of life, while still anchored in place by the truth of God’s sovereignty. I am NOT at the mercy of life’s storms! I am at the mercy of God, and God only! The temporary pains and agonies of life are simply that: temporary. Simultaneously, every joy, honor, glory and gain is nothing in comparison to the glories that await me in Christ Jesus!
Though this might take some of the vibrancy out of the happiness of winning a cup in football, or gaining a promotion in a career, or even of seeing a milestone hurdled by one’s child, it also puts fully into perspective the rancid suffering that sin has imposed on our ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ lives. This world is nothing. Though feelings of happiness and experiences of goodness are possible in this life, they too often give way to inexorable pain to be anything more than fleeting themselves. Which means that true, gloriously steadfast, joy only comes by looking beyond this mortal existence and into the incorruptible, immortal inheritance we gain through Christ Jesus. And thank God for it! Because, without that hope of inheritance, I don’t think that I’m strong enough after days of tragedy to even get out of bed … much less to face the challenges of the next day. But for those who place all of their hope in God, joy doesn’t just follow, it’s perfected in those challenges.
Lord, help us to see challenges as joy perfected … and help us to glorify You throughout!