The Last Word: Will Hillsborough families get the truth at last this week?
Independent findings into 1989 disaster, released on Wednesday, are awaited with trepidation
Sunday 09 September 2012
Margaret Thatcher swept into the first-floor room overlooking Downing Street, trailing senior ministers and civil servants. She had hypnotic eyes, a terrifying smile and a brusque command of her brief, football hooliganism.
Those of us in a group of commentators summoned in the aftermath of the Heysel disaster in 1985 were about to be given an unforgettable insight into political expedience, social profiling and the application of power.
Mrs Thatcher, a prime minister in her pomp, went around the large walnut table asking each of us in turn for observations and solutions. Such was the futility of the exercise we could have quoted Nietzsche or Norse verse. She had evidently made her mind up before anyone had the temerity to venture an opinion.
Football supporters were second-class citizens who had forfeited the right to trust and respect. They were a social disease which had to be contained. We were about to enter an era in which fans were caged – and died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Memories of her chilling certainty of purpose, and the obsequious nature of her entourage, seem surreal in what is, despite its imperfections, an altogether more enlightened age. But since context is everything, they have a sudden relevance.
The climate created by Thatcher's government will inevitably inform the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel when they are delivered to the families of the 96 victims in Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral on Wednesday morning. It will have taken 8,551 days from the disaster to reach the cusp of truth and justice.
Pray for the tender mercy of closure. The final, forensic study of more than 400,000 documents, including Cabinet papers, should confirm whether Hillsborough represents one of the great scandals of our time.
Many families are afraid of what they will hear when the panel, chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool, deliver their verdict on police culpability in the carnage at the Leppings Lane end on 15 April 1989, FA Cup semi-final day. There has been such silent suffering.
The Truth. For the families of the Hillsborough victims, it is both a basic right that has been denied for too long, and a base lie propagated in an infamous, amoral tabloid headline. It may yet be too much for some to bear.
Anyone who has followed the story through successive reports, inquiries and legal appeals understands its searing humanity. Lives have been fractured by grief, guilt and anger.
Steve Kelly's brother, Michael, was the last of the Hillsborough victims to be identified. Steve found him in a cold church hall, and was prevented from human contact by a policeman who insisted the body belonged to the coroner, who was to pass 96 verdicts of accidental death.
Steve's sister and mother succumbed to cancer without the emotional release of full disclosure. He still finds solace in the simple act of touching the golden letters of his brother's name. It is the 10th on the right-hand side of the Hillsborough memorial outside the Shankly Gates at Anfield.
A former taxi driver, Kelly has retrained and works, unpaid, counselling survivors of the tragedy on behalf of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign. Stephen Whittle's suicide hit him hard, because it was so unexpected. Stephen never forgave himself for selling his ticket to a friend who died in the disaster. He endured 22 years of private torment before, in February last year, he stepped into the path of the 7pm train from Southport to Manchester Victoria.
Pat Joynes wants to mourn her son, Nicholas, and will return to Liverpool Cathedral on Wednesday in the hope she will be given an answer to a question posed on its steps 23 years ago.
Peter, her husband, asked Mrs Thatcher directly whether the authorities would be held accountable. She replied: "There will be no cover-up."
We are about to discover whether that was the promise of a parent or a politician.
Connor's sacking an utter disgrace
Wolves are not the first football club to calculate bad news will have little resonance in international week. Thankfully, they were deluded.
The sacking of Terry Connor, a decent, loyal man, was rapidly, and rightly, condemned as an utter disgrace. He had given 13 years of exemplary service and deserved more than to be discarded with mealy-mouthed platitudes.
Connor failed to prevent Wolves' relegation when he was pushed into an unwanted and unsuitable role as caretaker- manager. The job took a visible toll. He took each setback personally, painfully.
Nothing will change because of his misfortune. Directors will continue to act with the freedom of despots, because their patronage is so sought-after.
Elsewhere in the Midlands, Richard Shaw continues his audition to become Coventry's new manager today, in a televised League One match against Stevenage. He is a brilliant development coach, a model professional who was player of the year at each of his clubs during a 22-year career.
He is an outstanding candidate. Yet a significant minority of his rivals for the job are said to be offering to work without pay in the hope they will eventually be given a contract.
Football is a buyers' market, without scruples or standards.
The Arsenal full-back Bacary Sagna suggests that the sales of Robin van Persie and Alex Song "leave a lot of questions" to be answered at the north London club. Like "What's in it for me?" presumably.
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