LIKE so many, I can remember exactly where I was when the first news broke of the unfolding disaster at Hillsborough as 96 Liverpool fans were being crushed to death.
Like so many, my initial reaction was that hooliganism – that rotten scourge of the 1980s when football grounds became battlegrounds – had caused Britain’s worst ever sporting tragedy.
Like so many, I still regret – to this day – initially believing the police lies rather than the harrowing testimony of those present at Sheffield Wednesday’s decrepit ground and who witnessed supporters dying from asphyxiation because they were trapped in metal pens. How could this happen in a civilised society?
And, like so many, I shed tears of sorrow and relief when the inquest jury returned its unlawful killing verdict and relatives of the victims emerged, one by one, and started singing the most emotional ever rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone.
For too long, they did walk alone as they took on the might of the police – and British establishment – and overturned the gravest miscarriage of justice in this country’s legal industry. For 10,000 heartbreaking days and sleepless nights, their loved ones were treated as numbers and not names.
Overcome by bewilderment at the sheer injustice of their 27-year ordeal as they sang their song of defiance, the thoughts of many turned to a truly inspirational lady no longer with them.
Her name? Anne Williams. She was working behind the counter of her local newsagents’ on the day of the tragedy. She died from cancer in April 2013 and went to her grave not knowing that her 15-year-old son Kevin – one of the disaster’s youngest victims – would eventually be exonerated of the smears levelled against Liverpool fans.
I did not know Mrs Williams. I never met her. Yet it was only some years later when I started reading her memoir, the poignantly-entitled When You Walk Through The Storm, that I appeciated the extent to which the uncompromising South Yorkshire Police believed that they could mask their lack of leadership, honesty and integrity because the victims hailed from working class families on Merseyside who would not be believed.
The irony was that the Williams family only relented to their son’s pleadings on the night before the 1989 FA Cup semi-final and allowed young Kevin to make the fateful journey provided that he travelled with the official police escort.
The last time Kevin saw his mother was when he dropped into the aforementioned shop to buy a packet of crisps. Her son was Liverpool-mad. On one occasion when he skipped school to queue at Anfield for tickets for a big match, who should be in the queue? His games teacher.
Yet, as the haunting television images emerged of traumatised fans trying to escape from the inevitability of death as a lone ambulance made its way onto the pitch, Anne Williams realised that she had spoken her last words to her son and become one of 96 families left with empty space at the family dining table.
Like so many, their ordeal was only just beginning – not least at the pre-inquest hearing a year after the tragedy. There, Mrs Williams was taken into a room and told that her Kevin had died in a policewoman’s arms in the Hillsborough gymnasium, a makeshift morgue, at around 4pm and that he had found the strength to utter one final word as he gasped his last breath.
Had she not the right to be told this at the time?
Yet the whole original inquest, which shamefully ruled the deaths were accidental, was being held on the basis that the fans could be presumed dead by 3.15pm. As eye-witnesses later suggested that some of the victims, Kevin Williams included, could have been saved if they had received prompt medical attention, the family suspected that the reason the teenager’s funeral was held a swift six days after his death was because the authorities wanted to bury evidence of criminal negligence with him and others.
Cue the start of an unequal struggle to determine the truth about her son’s death – a mother’s basic human right – as Mrs Williams turned her kitchen into the headquarters of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign as the former secretary at the Littlewoods pools headquarters took on the full might of the legal establishment, here and in Europe, without any training in the law. She was not alone. She had the solace and support of 95 other grieving families whose own individual stories of hurt and betrayal are equally powerful and pertinent.
It is a lingering source of regret that Labour did not do more when Tony Blair came to power in 1997 – and that it took the resolution of Theresa May, the current Home Secretary, to put the wheels in motion in 2010 which culminated with Tuesday’s verdict and the prospect of senior police officers facing criminal charges.
Speaking with both gravitas and empathy, Mrs May read out to Parliament each of the 14 questions put to the inquest jury – and the verdict. When it came to the critical sixth clause, the issue of unlawful killing, she paused momentarily for effect before saying ‘Yes’ unequivocally. MPs bowed their heads, both in shame and sorrow. It was a telling moment. It is now on the record, in Parliament, that the Liverpool fans were not to blame for this unspeakable tragedy. Anyone who still doubts this should think again.
For Anne Williams, and many others who passed away during this traumatic time, it is already too late. She died days after defying medical orders to attend the 2013 memorial service at Anfield in her wheelchair and she was posthumously honoured at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award in Leeds at the end of the year.
For the police, political and legal establishment, it is not too late. Their duty now is to ensure that the justice process is completed quickly and fairly – the Hillsborough families have to place their trust in the integrity of the aforementioned Mrs May who ordered the landmark inquiry presided over by James Jones, the former Bishop of Liverpool, and then the inquest.
As scandal-hit South Yorkshire Police’s reputation implodes still further, many will find this difficult, and understandably so. But they do so safe in the knowledge that they will never walk alone in their quest for justice.
If only the same could have been sent on the afternoon of April 15, 1989, when Anne Williams and so many others made the frantic journey to Sheffield to discover the awful fate of loved ones and begin a nightmare that would last for the rest of their lives. For that, I – and many others – will always be truly sorry.