Andy Robinson attends a day of the Hillsborough Inquest and gets to know nine people who went to a game and never came home just that little bit better.
The 15 April 1989 is a day that will never be forgotten by the people of Liverpool or by football supporters the world over. That horrible day saw 96 people leave their homes to attend a game of football never to return. Much has been written, said, discussed and discovered since then about the tragedy all leading to where we are now. Criminal investigations are pending through an enquiry led by the former Chief Constable of Durham, Jon Stoddart and a new inquest is being held at Cheshire coroner’s court at Birchwood Park estate; just over a mile from my home in Warrington. On Wednesday, I was in attendance for the proceedings of the day.
The venue is a new environmentally friendly building that blends in well with those that surround it such as headquarters for a large construction company and a number of “Hi Tech” companies. A long concourse with a water feature and some fashionable sculpture led to the entrance where TV cameraman were filming. A quick airport style search from security and I was led through to a large annex room. As I took a chair, I soon realised that everybody else there was a relation to one of the victims. As more people came in I noticed that some attracted more attention than others. I realised instantly that these were the families that were due to make their statements today.
On entering the Court I was surprised at how big the room was. With the Coroner set to the side of the room rather than at the head, he faced the legal teams. With solicitors, lawyers and barristers representing various parties from the families, presumably the two police forces involved in the case, Sheffield city council – others too most likely, this shouldn’t have been disconcerting but it was. It gave the place the look of a United States congressional hearing as opposed to a British court. In all there must have been over seventy legal people present all sat behind a laptop. The jury sat to the right of the Coroner and the families to the left. I sat at the back with the journalists.
At this point in time the proceedings are consisting entirely of “pen portraits”. Members of the families stand and give a requiem for a loved one, rather like a eulogy at a funeral. None of this perhaps relates to true evidence about the events of the day but far more pertinently to the aftermath and the subsequent series of lies and layer upon layer of conspiracy and cover up where blame was attached to the supporters. I heard nine of these life stories and tributes yesterday. Each one, bringing a lump to my throat. Here are parts of their all too brief life stories:
VINCENT FITZSIMMONS (34) His story was read out by his sister, a doctor. Vincent had lost his ticket for the game and as the tragedy was unfolding on the BBC, his sister phoned his flat and spoke to his girlfriend. He had found it the day before. He spent time in the USA as a teenager where he was bullied until he fought back. He worked in the plastics business. Vincent was thinking of going back to University. Vincent’s sister broke down at the end and said she would give everything just for another few minutes with her brother.
ROY HAMILTON (33) Roy had married a girl a few years older who was divorced with two young boys. Roy took these boys on at a young age and the step sons were 18 and 15 at the time of the tragedy. His step sons who made the family statement described Roy as everything any lad would want in a dad. A technician for British Rail the family had just been abroad for the first time and moved into a nicer house. After the harsh times of the early 80’s, times were good.
TOMMY HOWARD SNR (39) and JNR (14) From Runcorn. Tommy had been a merchant seaman and lived for his three sons and Liverpool FC. Pestered like mad by his eldest, he finally managed to get him a ticket. Young Tommy loved birds and karate and was going to be tall like his dad. Big Tommy told his wife as they set off for Sheffield “don’t worry I’ll take care of him”.
INGER SHAH (38) Inger Shah was Danish with an ethnic Indian background. She had come to London in the swinging sixties to work as an au pair and see bands like the Stones and the Beatles. After studying nursing and then business studies she was working as a secretary at the Royal London Free Hospital. Described as bright, well read, articulate; Inger actively campaigned against racism and raised funds for the Ethiopian famine. After a disasterous marriage she was bringing up two teenagers Becky (17) and Daniel (13) alone. The highlight of family life was the weekend trip to Anfield with the rest of the Essex and London reds. Becky’s season ticket had ended in the wrong number and so she couldn’t go. The day before, as so often happens, teenage daughter and mother crossed swords badly. No amount of words from Inger could get Becky to change her mind and chance her arm of getting a ticket outside the stadium. Becky was to go to a mate’s party. As Becky finished her statement to the court she broke down uncontrollably and screamed out that “mum wasn’t a football hooligan” and she wanted “justice”. With family overseas, both teenagers were taken into care by social services and both Becky and Daniel have experienced mental issues in their adult lives. It was at this point, that I openly started crying and attracted attention from the families a few rows in front. Margaret Aspinall, one of the leaders of the campaign who has been interviewed on TV many times gave me a little smile and winked at me. I will remember that forever.
PETER McDONNELL (21) Peter’s story was read out by his elder sister. Peter had an interest in geology and wanted to be a builder. After leaving school he got himself on every local college course going where he could improve his skills. When he couldn’t find work on Merseyside he went looking for it down south, finally ending up in Southend. Once after a visit home his sister saw him with a load of old coats. Peter was to give them to the homeless at Euston station. A decent sportsman, the football club of his youth Vale FC hold a tournament in his memory every April.
CHRIS EDWARDS (29) Chris was a scientist working as a Lab technician and a mad, keen golfer. He was also committed to his religion. Chris had followed Liverpool everywhere, even to see friendlies in Canada. His love for Liverpool began when as a choirboy the vicar would shorten practice so that he could go and watch them on the telly and Chris went to watch with him. His father has always wondered if he would have ever married.
BARRY BENNETT (28) Barry’s story was read out by his brother Phil who was supported in the witness area by his daughter, the niece Barry never got to see. Barry worked on the tug boats in and around the port and had qualified as a first mate. He had also received a commendation award. When Phil had moved to London with work he was skint. Barry turned up one day out of the blue with cash to help his brother furnish his flat. Barry’s brother again called for justice.
JOHN PAUL GILHOOLEY (10) John Paul was the youngest of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster and a cousin of Steven Gerrard. John lived in a close knit loving family with relatives in the street. He loved animals, swimming and football. His mum’s statement was read out by two female cousins. As soon as the events started to unfold on the TV in front of her she knew he was lost. It was stated in Court that John’s older brother, Ronnie had never recovered fully from the loss. His mum spends her time often daydreaming of the man he would have become.
As an individual, in any given social situation I have always felt comfortable and as a chatty sort I am usually at ease. This place though just wasn’t right for idle chatter. What was I going to say – I live close by and I came to see how it’s going because I write about football type things for a website as a hobby now and then? Nothing in life has ever prepared me for that walk into that reception area and take a seat with the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters of the 96.
The bond of grief and loss along with a 25 year fight -and it’s been an ugly fight for truth – bound them all together and I was an outsider. It didn’t surprise me in the least that these bonds extended to the inside of the Court. After each family statement, the jury were asked to leave the Court for a few moments and this allowed the other families to reach out and comfort those who had just spoken. It wasn’t just the other families doing the comforting either. The barristers and solicitors went forward too with their words, the press did likewise. It seemed to me that each journalist in the room had shared some of this long journey with one of the families. The girl next to me was ( I think) with the “Express” and she certainly went forward.
In a short recess in the proceedings which allowed time for a coffee,visits to the toilet and a cigarette normal life resumed. One lady told another that she had finally booked that holiday in Rhodes. Two of the father’s or brother’s were talking about Jose and Chelsea, the game this Sunday and Liverpool’s title chances.
A few hours after arriving back home I spoke to a friend who works in the legal profession and told him much of what I witnessed. Along with his interpretations of the information available including the still fresh images of the Prime Minister reading out that shocking statement in the House of Commons produced by the Hillsborough Independent panel a year or so ago and the gasps of shock and horror from MP’s on all sides of the House which accompanied it, justice – and hopefully, finally peace for the families – may not be too far away.
Justice for the 87 – and the nine I got to know just that little bit better.