On Wednesday, they'll gather to remember. By 2.45pm, thousands will have assembled on the Kop, as they've been doing for nineteen Aprils now. They'll bow their heads in prayer, listen to the readings, hear the names of their loved ones called aloud, watch as a candle is lit in their memory and at 3.06pm, pause in silence. But all that is for next week. Over the past few days, the families have been reminiscing; sharing the fond memories of their loved ones. Joan Bell recalled how her 17-year-old son, Simon, was nicknamed "smiler" because his face was rarely seen without a broad grin across it. Marian Brady told of how she enlists the help of her son, Paul, when she mislays something. "I talk to him every night. I have lost things and I say 'Paul, help me find them.'" Paul Robinson explained how friends of his brother, Steve, who died in the tragedy, go on a pub crawl they now call "Robbo's Run" each weekend in memory of their buddy.
There is a tenderness in the way the families of the victims talk of the first Hillsborough disaster, the one where 96 boys and girls, men and women, died on a Sheffield football ground on an afternoon where they'd simply gone to watch 22 blokes kick a football about. They are not happy about it, certainly not, but when they speak about it the overwhelming emotion is one of love, not hate. But talk to them further, those grieving families, those mothers and father, brothers, sisters and friends whose lives changed irrevocably on 15 April 1989, and they'll tell you about the second Hillsborough disaster, one they cannot fail to get angry about.
"It's amazing how governments get it so wrong," says Sheila Coleman of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign (HJC). "They start down the road of a cover-up and fully expect to get away with it. The problem is that they're attacking the integrity of the individual, the core of their being, and thank God as we've seen over time, people will always fight against injustice when they feel like that."
Coleman could be talking about anybody. She's a friend of Paddy Hill, for example, one of the Birmingham Six whose friends, families and supporters went down numerous legal dead ends before they were freed 16 years into a life sentence for a crime they didn't commit. This is how those affected by Hillsborough – families and friends of the dead, survivors, Liverpool fans – feel. As though they are locked up and won't be freed until they get the verdict they are looking for.
But what is justice when the crime cannot be reversed? Where lives cannot be returned? Where pain cannot be reversed? Where family events – birthdays, anniversaries, weddings – cannot be relived at the flick of a switch? What is justice for the families of the 96? And why are they so determined to get it?
'Given where it happened and all the circumstances surrounding it, the alcohol level was something that sprang to mind as a [factor] that could possibly be relevant'
Dr Stefan Popper, Sheffield coroner in charge of the morgue in the Hillsborough gymnasium in the aftermath of the disaster
Liverpool, the city's proud inhabitants are not shy to tell you, is unique. It is a port city, like many others, where anti-establishmentarianism is the default mode. In the mid-1980s, when Margaret Thatcher ran amok, bulldozing much of what England and Wales held dear with her deep-rooted ideology, the locals stood firm and elected the only Militant-led Labour Party council in the country. They passed illegal budgets and generally stuck two fingers up at Downing Street at every given opportunity. The city and its people acted like a metal weight in Thatcher's handbag; not enough to topple her, but certainly enough to slow her down.
The establishment feared Liverpool because they did not understand them. Could not understand them. The city was perceived as lawless, principally because it would not accept Thatcher's particular form of law. Its citizens earned a reputation for being headstrong and argumentative, uncontrollable even. The high levels of unemployment in the city may have fuelled those attitudes, or, may have come about because of it. There's no question what the establishment of the day thought; to them Liverpool was a city of troublesome skivers, folk who'd prefer to drink and cause trouble than do a honest day's work for an honest day's pay.
It was in that context that Dr Popper made the first of countless slurs against the people of the city. Sheffield's coroner decided, in a complete break with normal convention, to take blood from the dead in the Hillsborough gymnasium with the purpose of checking for alcohol levels. As this wasn't a motor accident, there was no need, no precedent, for him to take such a step. But these were football fans, he thought, and even worse, football fans from Liverpool, so alcohol became an issue. "Can you imagine if there was an accident where people died at Wimbledon, or the Henley Regatta?" Brian Reade, a Liverpool fan and Daily Mirror columnist, asked recently. "Would the police be going around checking people's blood alcohol levels then, to see how much Pimms or Bollinger they've had?"
'The Truth: Some fans picked pockets of victims; Some fans urinated on the brave cops; Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life'
The Sun, 19 April 1989
From 3.06pm on that fateful Saturday afternoon in Sheffield, the victims and survivors of Hillsborough were discredited. When Liverpool supporters made their way onto the turf from the Leppings Lane End, the call went out to police on duty around the ground that a pitch invasion was taking place. When FA chief executive Graham Kelly asked Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield of the South Yorkshire Police what was going on he was informed that the overcrowding was due to "people coming in at one end of the ground who were unauthorised".
It was a lie. Within a few days of the disaster, Duckenfield admitted that he had ordered the gate to be opened. Better late than never? No. His lie initiated a series of further slurs against Liverpool fans. The following morning's papers all ran with the line that they had forced their way through turnstiles. Reports turned even nastier once the police started briefing newspaper with their spin on the day's proceedings. The Sheffield Star reported in the days after the tragedy that, "ticketless thugs staged crush to gain entry, attacked an ambulanceman, threatened firemen and punched and urinated on policemen as they gave the kiss of life to stricken victims."
Then The Sun published their now infamous headline and Liverpool fans become fair targets. Undoubtedly, there are some people out there who still believe these stories, who still find it easier to believe that the disaster was caused by Liverpool supporters barging through a gate, rather than through the incompetence of a police force who failed to direct supporters into Leppings Lane's less crowded pens once the central one became dangerously full.
Brian Clough appeared to be of that number. In 1994, five years after the tragedy, when Lord Taylor had already firmly blamed the South Yorkshire police, the former Nottingham Forest manager still couldn't get his head around the fact that Liverpool fans weren't at fault. "I will always remain convinced that those Liverpool fans who were killed were killed by Liverpool people," he said in his autobiography. How many people out there still think along the same lines?
"You're trying to defend a 14-year-old lad who went with the Boys Brigade to watch the semi-final of the FA Cup and he ended up coming home in a wooden box," says Phil Hammond on why he continues to fight for justice for his lost son, Philip. "You're trying to defend him from all these slurs, especially what The Sun said. What you read on that day, you think it's true. No matter if you come back years and years after and apologise, we got that wrong, that's still in your head. You still think that's true. That's what we've been fighting against. The people we're fighting against have read the papers about our loved ones and thought, they're hooligans, they've killed themselves, they've urinated on the dead, they've picked the pockets of the dead, they've robbed the dead."
The Sheffield Coroner's Court verdict on the 96 deaths
"The inquest was a farce," says Eddie Spearritt, who lost his young son Adam in the tragedy, "but we all went along with it. We had to, there was no choice." Each of families of the victims were first granted individual "mini-inquests" and then all the cases were lumped together so that a verdict could reached. The mini-inquests turned out to be a massive insult; the families found their perfunctory nature offensive. Some compared them to being at a theatre. Everything appeared to have been rehearsed and any tough questions were left unanswered.
The generic inquest ran from 19 November 1990 to 28 March 1991 at Sheffield Town Hall. The witnesses were selected by the coroner, Dr Popper. He decided that the inquest would only examine events up until 3.15pm on the day in question, concluding that whatever happened after that had no effect on the number of survivors. He instructed the jury that an "accidental death" verdict did not mean that "you absolve each and every party from all and every measure of blame". For a verdict of "unlawful killing", he instructed, there needed to be some form of "recklessness" informed. On the 80th day of the hearing, the jury returned a verdict. The 96, they decided by a 9 to 2 majority, had died an accidental death.
"People need a sense of completion," says Jimmy McGovern, the Liverpudlian television director who brought the reality of Hillsborough to the masses through his award winning 1996 drama-documentary on the tragedy and its aftermath. "You bring somebody into this world and if they die, you want them to go out properly, to at least have the correct words written on their death certificate."
'Have you got a few of your people, or are they like Liverpool fans, they turn up at the last minute?'
Lord Justice Stuart-Smith
Imagine this. You are a family member of someone who died at Hillsborough. You've been through the Taylor report, which puts the blame squarely on South Yorkshire police, through an inquest at Sheffield Coroners Court, which concludes that nobody is to blame and then discover that the Director of Public Prosecutions doesn't believe it has enough evidence to earn a conviction against anybody on the other side. Soon after, the Police Complaints Authority drop the cases against Duckenfield and his second-in-command, Bernard Murray, because the former has retired and it would be unfair to blame the man below him for everything. But through all this, you plug on, you campaign for a new inquest and when Labour, Liverpool's traditional party, sweep to power in 1997, Home Secretary Jack Straw announces that he has ordered Lord Justice Stuart-Smith to undertake a "scrutiny" of evidence to see if another inquest is necessary.
So the Lord Justice, your latest hope of finding justice, maybe even your last, comes to Liverpool for three days to meet the families and what are his first words when people are delayed as they struggle to find parking outside the venue? "Have you got a few of your people, or are they like Liverpool fans, they turn up at the last minute?" Imagine how your heart must sink with the realisation that yet again, you are not being taken seriously, that yet again, those in authority have a pre-conceived notion of what happened, one that will never change.
"The entire legal process has done untold damage to the families," says Coleman. "I was present at many of those "mini-inquests" and the way in which people were treated was disgusting. It really has set back so many families. And not just them either, the survivors have found it a heart-breaking experience too. In the minutes after the disaster, they acted as rescuers despite barely escaping death themselves but they've always been treated terribly. The Sun accused them of robbing from their own. That's not all. When they've been interviewed by police, they have been told things like "no, that couldn't have happened" and "no, you couldn't have been there at that time." They have been subject to hostile questioning at inquests and in court. It has done untold damage. People think the survivors still suffer just because of what they experienced on the day but they way they have been treated by the authorities has also had a powerful affect."
• • •
They'll assemble on the Kop on Wednesday but for members of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign (HJC), it will all feel a little strange. There are two supporters groups that sprung up after the tragedy, you see, the HJC and the Hillsborough Family Support Group. That latter group are officially recognised by the club; the campaign that Sheila Coleman is dedicated to have been given the cold shoulder.
"The club want to let things lie, they want to consign the whole thing to history" says Coleman. "They don't want to cause any trouble. At the time of the disaster, people within the club, particularly the players, were brilliant in attending funerals and events like that but the hierarchy of the club don't want to get involved in anything political at the moment. They just want to leave well alone."
For the HJC, there is no logical next step in their pursuit of justice. "We have gone down most legal avenues and there is not a lot else obvious that we can do. Time is also an issue. It's 20 years since Hillsborough and that cuts back on what you do legally. But we'll keep going. If families come to us, we'll help them. We won't stop highlighting the issue until we get the conclusion we're happy with."
And what that might be? "Well, for everybody it's different," says Coleman. "But I do think that if there was an acknowledgement that there was a cover-up, an acknowledgement that this tragedy was avoidable, that it need not have happened, if there was a full disclosure of the facts, then that would go a long way towards giving the families and survivors feel a little closure."
It's 20 years a coming. And still not yet arrived.
Date 15 April 1989
Location: Hillsborough, Sheffield
Event FA Cup Semi-Final, Liverpool v Nottingham Forest
What happened 96 Liverpool supporters were crushed to death at the Leppings Lane End of the ground
The cause The Taylor report put the blame firmly on the inaction of the South Yorkshire police, who failed to direct supporters away from the central pen on the Leppings Lane terrace when they opened a gate to alleviate congestion at the turnstiles