Anthony Gerrard lost his 10-year-old cousin in the Hillsborough disaster. Richard Sutcliffe speaks to the Huddersfield Town midfielder after his return to South Yorkshire this week.
AS the two teams stood, most with heads bowed, during the impeccably observed minute’s silence held at Hillsborough before kick-off on Wednesday night, it was difficult not to look towards the Leppings Lane end.
Much has changed in football since that dreadful day in April, 1989, when 96 supporters suffocated in the Sheffield open air. Not only have the fences been torn down but across the country gleaming, new stands have replaced the terraces outlawed by the Taylor report into the disaster.
Such has been the rate of rebuilding at our grounds that many are unrecognisable. Hillsborough, though, is different with the general shape unchanged, save for the ground having been made all-seater.
Looking across from the press box to what is now known as the West Stand just as the 25,230 crowd fell silent was enough to send a chill down the spine of this correspondent. And I was 50 miles away on the day of the disaster at Turf Moor, blissfully unaware as to what horrors had taken place in Sheffield until back in the car.
I cannot, therefore, begin to imagine what emotions were running through Huddersfield Town defender Anthony Gerrard’s mind during the tribute that preceded a 3-1 win for Simon Grayson’s side.
Gerrard lost his cousin that day, 10-year-old Jon-Paul Gilhooley being the youngest of the 96 victims whose lives were claimed at Hillsborough.
His family had, in common with all those affected by the disaster, been forced to live for 23 years with the lies that were told in a crude attempt to shift the blame away from the authorities.
The Sun, of course, played a major part with their now infamous ‘The Truth’ front page. But the revelation in last week’s damning report by the Hillsborough Independent Panel of 164 statements being altered by South Yorkshire Police illustrates the depths to which some were prepared to go to cover-up their own failings.
The families are now pressing for those responsible to be brought to book. It is a call that Gerrard, who joined Huddersfield in the summer from Cardiff City, wholeheartedly backs.
“One of my cousins, Jon-Paul Gilhooley, died at Hillsborough,” said the 26-year-old, speaking in the bowels of Wednesday’s stadium just half-an-hour or so after the final whistle had blown on what was an emotional night for the Town defender.
“So, for the truth to come out, well it is 20 years too late. The hurt is already done. Liverpool had its name smeared and dragged through the mud. Only people in Liverpool knew the truth.
“Everyone outside – including that newspaper I won’t mention – didn’t. It is amazing what the media could do, even in 1989.
“The truth has finally come out. I just hope justice follows it. It should do. People should be held accountable for what happened.
“When the report came out, it was a strange day. I was reading Brian Reade’s article in The Mirror. To be honest, I had to stop halfway through.
“He was there at Hillsborough and his recollections were harrowing. From what I have been told, everyone’s accounts were like that.”
Among the Panel’s findings was the shocking revelation that as many as 41 lives could have been saved had the disaster been better handled.
Gerrard added: “It is heartbreaking. The thing that most disgusted me was that 164 statements were modified or tampered with by people who are supposed to be looking after us and upholding the law.
“If they don’t apply the law to themselves, who is going to come down on them? That is hopefully what the process is going to be.
“People have to be held accountable. I, for one, will be happy to see a positive outcome.”
As happens in times of trouble, football rallied round last week. You’ll Never Walk Alone was sung at several grounds, while tributes were also held. Among the most moving came at Goodison Park before Monday’s 2-2 draw between Everton and Newcastle United when the two mascots, one wearing a Liverpool shirt and the other with an Everton top on, led the teams out sporting the numbers ‘9’ and ‘6’.
Gerrard added: “That shows what Liverpool as a city is all about. I am a Liverpool fan and it was fantastic to see blue and red looking after each other. That is how it should be.”
Football supporters often get a bad press. Sometimes – such as when the halfwits who besmirched the name of Manchester United last Saturday by mocking the Hillsborough disaster – it is deserved.
Often, though, it is not, as Monday night at Goodison proved.
Two days later, the derby between the Owls and Terriers brought another example of the bond that exists between football supporters once the tribalism is put to one side when, before the minute’s silence for Hillsborough, mention was made of the two soldiers from the Yorkshire Regiment who had been killed in Afghanistan the previous Saturday.
Private Thomas Wroe was, Wednesday’s PA announcer informed the crowd, “A passionate Huddersfield Town fan who, if not bravely serving his country, would have been amongst us here this evening”.
At that, the 20,000 or so Owls fans broke into a spontaneous and sustained round of applause that was returned by the visiting contingent seated in the upper tier of the West Stand behind the goal.
It was a marvellously touching moment and one that showed just what a uniting effect football can have.
That unity is why every football supporter should now join with the families of the Hillsborough victims and not rest until justice is finally served.
Ninety six men, women and children deserve nothing less.