Friday, April 13, 2012

Hillsborough Revisited

A man’s desire for a son is born of a wish to duplicate himself, so that such a remarkable pattern may not be lost to the world. Thus wrote American humourist Helen Rowland (1875-1950). If she is right, then I must plead guilty to the ultimate conceit, particularly given that I have ‘duplicated’ more than once. It follows, then, that when a son inherits his father’s enthusiasm for a particular pastime, their relationship stands to flourish, and flourish for good. As a boy, I had no such luck, which has made me doubly determined to find a common thread with my own ‘duplicates’ and nurture it for all I am worth.

I am sure millions of fathers, all over the world, have cradled their baby sons and whispered: ‘One day, we’ll go to football matches together.’ As a route to male bonding, few influences are as powerful as the world’s most popular sport. One of my sons was bitten by the football bug while watching Spain win the 2010 World Cup. He had no immunity and has since become incurable. As well as playing in his local junior league on Saturday mornings, he watches, talks, reads, writes, draws, paints and practically breathes ‘the beautiful game’ (Figure 39.1). His favourite team is, unsurprisingly, Barcelona. Watching the Catalan maestros – Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas et al. – inspires him especially, but he is happy accompanying his dad to any match at any club’s ground.

Figure 39.1: Barcelona’s midfield dynamo Andrés Iniesta has a lot to answer for.

Copyright © 2011 Paul Spradbery

This year, we spent Easter in Sheffield, England – just the two of us. Hillsborough, home of Sheffield Wednesday, is one of the most beautiful grounds in Europe (Figure 39.2). Unlike the clinical, contrived, characterless stadiums built within the past 20 years, this place has evolved gracefully for more than a century. Its architecture blends effortlessly with its surroundings and is capable of evoking memories of players and matches otherwise long forgotten.

Figure 39.2: View from Hillsborough’s resplendent North Stand. Opened in 1961, this was the first cantilever stand to run the entire length of a football pitch in the UK.

Copyright © 2012 Sheffield Wednesday Football Club Ltd.

Mention the word ‘Hillsborough’ to anyone in England, though, and, sadly, an altogether different scene will be envisaged. It was here, almost 23 years ago to the day, where the country’s most tragic sporting disaster occurred. 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives (Figure 39.3). By some morbid coincidence, as the tragedy unfolded, I was watching another football match, just 30 miles away, at Valley Parade, Bradford (Figure 39.4), where, four years previously, 56 people had died as a result of a fire.

Figure 39.3: 95 lives were lost on the old West Stand terrace during an F.A. Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. All were Liverpool fans, every one of them crushed to death. The 96th, Tony Bland, succumbed four years later. (In January 1990, as my first child was being born, this poor young man lay in a coma in the same building at Keighley’s Airedale Hospital.) Thousands of Liverpool fans, many born after 1989, are currently campaigning for the whole truth behind the tragedy to be disclosed. I suspect, though, that many others among them would prefer that it remained buried.

Copyright © 2012 Telegraph Media Group Ltd.

Figure 39.4: Bradford City 2-2 Ipswich Town. That day, no one cared about the score.

Copyright © 1989 Bradford City Football Club

In good time for this Easter Monday’s lunchtime fixture against Oldham Athletic, my son and I strolled along Leppings Lane, until we reached the permanent memorial to the 1989 tragedy (Figure 39.5). I explained to him what it was for, and could see in his face that he appreciated the gravity of what it represented. He was, after all, born in Liverpool. The only negative was the sight of weeds growing between the brick mosaic, which I felt was a shame: memorials ought to be immaculate.

Figure 39.5: The memorial headstone in Owlerton, Sheffield 6

Copyright © 2012 Sheffield Wednesday Football Club Ltd.

Outside the ground, we met Oldham’s Finland international striker Shefki Kuqi, formerly a Hillsborough favourite. I shook his hand and wished him well in Finnish – Onnea! – and he affectionately patted my son’s head.

Inside, we took our seats in the North Stand (Figure 39.6) and waited for the 12.45 p.m. kick-off. The match itself was as enjoyable as any. Despite Kuqi’s best efforts, the result was never in much doubt. Three headed goals – from Gary Madine, Miguel Llera (Figure 39.7) and substitute Ryan Lowe – settled matters to the delight of a bumper holiday crowd.

Figure 39.6: Sheffield Wednesday 3-0 Oldham Athletic. Attendance 22,230 plus 2

Copyright © 2012 Sheffield Wednesday Football Club Ltd.

Figure 39.7: Miguel Llera (furthest left), Sheffield Wednesday’s 32-year-old Andalucían defender, heads their second goal in front of the Hillsborough Kop.

Copyright © 2012 Johnston Publishing Ltd.

With ‘Mini-Me’ on my shoulders, we exited the ground amid a happy crowd and made our way to the car. He jumped inside, his appetite for football unsated. It was now 3 o’clock: time for the rest of the day’s matches to kick off. We began our extremely long journey, listening to the BBC’s live radio commentary from St James’s Park, Newcastle. ‘Dad, when did you first listen to football on the radio?’ he asked. I smiled peacefully: ‘When I was your age.’

At 5 o’clock, still rolling along the motorway, it was time for a summary of the day’s results and discussions on Sports Report. As the programme’s iconic signature tune began, we both started singing along, like a pair of tone-deaf idiots. ‘De-dum de-dum de-dum de-dum de-diddly-dum de-dum!’ It was hilarious, and our day’s bonding was complete. The tune, a brass military march called ‘Out of the Blue’ by Hubert Bath (1883-1945), has been used by the BBC since 1948, and it brings back more memories than I could ever find time to describe. British comedian, writer and actor Michael Palin, himself a Hillsborough devotee, lists it as one of his favourite pieces of music, probably for the same reason.

Last month, in Ride The Weekend Waves, I reflected on the fact that some weekends do not go to plan. Well, this one did. To a child, love is spelt T-I-M-E, and we had spent ours well (Figure 39.8).

Figure 39.8: Whatever happens, the game will eventually end – but you and I will forever be father and son.

Copyright © 2012 Paul Spradbery

Copyright © 2012 Paul Spradbery

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