As the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough approaches, Alan Hansen recalls his memories of a day that will never be forgotten
By Mark Ogden
Even after 25 years, the scars remain raw and the trauma as stark as ever. Just one word – Hillsborough – brings everything back to the surface.
“We went to the hospital in Sheffield and there was a boy there, aged just 14,” recalls Alan Hansen, ahead of the 25th anniversary of the tragedy which claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool supporters. “The first thing the hospital said to us was that there was a mother there with her 14-year-old son and she was waiting to turn off the life support machine.
“But they wanted us to see him first. The mother wanted us to be with her boy before the machine was turned off. Nothing could ever prepare you for that kind of thing.
“He was just 14 years old. I have a son myself, who was eight at the time, but there I was, I am going to talk to this 14-year-old boy and then they are going to turn off his life. I mean, how are you meant to cope with that?
“But while it was awful and harrowing to deal with, I can only think of the boy and his mother, and all the other families. Their pain cannot be imagined.”
It began as a day filled with anticipation, an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest on a sun-kissed afternoon in South Yorkshire.
Hillsborough, the venue for the same semi-final fixture 12 months previously, was the stage, but the anticipation would never turn to celebration.
At 3.06pm, the tie was abandoned due to concerns for the safety of Liverpool supporters in the Leppings Lane end of the stadium and, a quarter of a century on, the opening of a new inquest into the circumstances which led to the deaths of the 96 underlines the ongoing search for answers.
But for Hansen, making his first appearance of the 1988-89 season that day following a nine-month injury lay-off, the emotion, pain and anguish remains undimmed.
“It is 25 years ago, but because it was so big, so horrific, you remember it like it was yesterday,” Hansen said. “I hadn’t played for nine months. I had played in the reserves on the Tuesday, but didn’t even know I was playing until one o’clock on the Saturday – two hours before kick-off.
“So when you go on the pitch, you only think of the game. You don’t look or think about what is going on behind you. You don’t have a clue what is going on.
“But two fans ran onto the pitch and I went to them right away because I was worried they would get us, the club, into trouble for being there. One of them just looked at me, and he had a real sadness in his eyes, and he said, ‘Alan, there are people dying in there’.
“Even then, when he said people were dying, my first reaction was one of disbelief, but that was because I was so focused on the game.
“We went into the dressing room, though, and were told there had been fatalities and we showered and just sat down, then met our wives and girlfriends upstairs and they were all in tears. The whole thing was horrific.
“But one thing which I still recall now, I got back home that night and went out for a Chinese takeaway. The enormity of what had happened simply hadn’t hit me.”
The full impact of the disaster was felt once the initial numbness dissipated in the days after the tragedy.
“It wasn’t until the next day that it hit me, when I went to Anfield, and it was just a sea of flowers,” Hansen said. “The Kop was covered in flowers, there were so many people there, and it just dawned on you that this was a tragedy beyond belief.
“Kenny Dalglish was brilliant after Hillsborough and continues to be so and it was his idea that the families should be allowed to come into the club, to speak to the players.
“The families would come into the lounges at Anfield and for the first fortnight after the tragedy, before we started playing again, it was every day.
“The place was packed with the bereaved, but when it comes to that sort of thing, I’m not hard, I am soft, really soft. It was probably the most traumatic time I have ever experienced.
“Going through to the lounges and talking to people who had just lost their children or parents, brothers or sisters or cousins.
“It was so hard, but again, there is always a sense of my feelings being inconsequential in comparison to the families. How hard was it, how hard does it continue to be for them?
“When the funerals started, I went to the first one and it was hugely traumatic, but I said to Janet, my wife, that they would get better.
“But I was naive and wrong because every one was worse than the one before, each family going through emotions and pain which I could never imagine.”
As with all of the Liverpool players involved at Hillsborough, there is a sense of awkwardness and discomfort on Hansen’s part when he discusses the personal strain of living with the events of April 15, 1989. Recalling the tragedy is clearly traumatic, with the former Liverpool captain visibly moved and affected by his memories.
The Scot, 33 at the time, neither sought nor received counselling following Hillsborough, despite attending several funerals in the days and weeks after the tragedy.
But rather than attempt to claim a share of the burden carried by the bereaved, there appears to be a shared sense of duty among Dalglish’s squad to ensure the victims and their families are never forgotten or misrepresented.
“That is what I have always said,” Hansen said. “For every bit of trauma and sadness I have felt, it is inconsequential compared to what the families have suffered. It is unavoidable not to think about the families.
“The difference between the burden for us and the families was that, as players, you were back on the pitch and playing, on the surface seemingly getting on with our lives. But the trauma always comes back when Hillsborough is brought up.
“When you go to the memorial service every April and all the families are there and you meet a relative you haven’t seen before, with a new story of their loved one, and it is heartbreaking, just heartbreaking. There are floods of tears and everything that you would expect.
“Maybe it is a reflex thing, because I know, when Hillsborough is brought up and I start talking about it, I am in a place that I don’t want to be. I am in a place that I don’t like. I feel vulnerable and tearful, but most of all, I feel sorry for the families.
“It keeps coming back to you, the ones you have spoken to, and you remember the stories. Just young guys and girls, people with their lives in front of them. To end it that way is just horrific.
“One emotion you experience is anger, in so much as the number of people over the years who said it was the Liverpool supporters – that it was a tragedy, but it was down to the supporters.
“No it wasn’t down to the supporters. That is a complete and utter misconception and the length of time it has gone on has been beyond belief.”
With Liverpool’s challenge for the Premier League title this season coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the disaster, there is a growing sense on Merseyside that winning the championship ‘for the 96’ would bring succour and comfort to the families at a time when terrible memories are being reawakened by the inquest.
But having previously admitted to the ‘guilt’ of celebrating Liverpool’s FA Cup success just six weeks after Hillsborough, Hansen insists only the families of the bereaved can decide whether glory on a football field can ever ease the pain of tragedy off it.
“After winning the FA Cup in 1989, we were celebrating and it was just six weeks after Hillsborough,” Hansen said. “When we played on, it was easy to play on. It was the same at Heysel. Once you get on the pitch, you are not thinking about anything other than the game.
“We played nine league games, the semi-final replay and the final after Hillsborough. We played 11 times and there wasn’t any thought of Hillsborough because we were on the pitch.
“It was a false reaction, because it was just taking your mind off it temporarily. It never goes away, really. But for the families of the 96, they don’t have that, they don’t have the release.”
But can football matter to those who have lost? Would a title success mean anything?
“After I saw the 14-year-old boy in the hospital, the next person we saw was a guy who had come out of a coma and the first thing he said was, ‘Can you get me a ticket for the replay?’ ” Hansen said.
“It was going from one extreme of the scale to the other, from tragedy to humour, and it was impossible to comprehend. But I guess it showed that football remained a comfort or an escape for some of those involved.
“If it was me, I would not have been interested in football after that. But that’s only me. Everybody is different.
“Would it bring comfort to win the league now? I haven’t a clue, but it would certainly be fitting, for the team to win it 25 years on from Hillsborough.
“You can’t say it would be a perfect fit because you cannot trivialise what happened at Hillsborough by suggesting the title would make up for what happened.
“If somebody, just one person, who has lost someone could take comfort from that, then great.
“But for me, there is just incredible sadness when I reflect on Hillsborough, no sense of football being able to alleviate the pain.”