IT was 20 years ago today.
I was at Highbury supporting my team Newcastle at Arsenal.
But football paled into total insignificance when the news broke over the radio.
A strange hush enveloped the crowd as word spread around the terraces of what was happening in Sheffield.
As we watched the first half of a now meaningless game, people who had also gone to watch a football match that afternoon were dying or already dead.
Several years later I met some of the bereaved families at the press launch for one of the most powerful TV dramas I have ever seen.
It’s screened again on ITV3 at 9pm tonight to mark the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster.
If you’re in the UK, try and make time to watch it.
Below is my original feature, published in the MEN on Monday Dec 2 1996, just before the drama was broadcast for the first time.
JIMMY McGovern was walking in sunshine as the two teenage daughters of Trevor Hicks were crushed to death at Hillsborough.
“It was a lovely day and everybody was out tending their gardens. They all had their radios on.”
McGovern, writer of the TV series Cracker, went back to his car around 3.30pm and turned his own radio on. “By the time I got home they’d started to count the bodies.”
Sarah, 19, and Vicki, 15, were Liverpool fanatics. They set off for Sheffield with hope in their hearts and returned in coffins.
Their parents and families of the other victims were trapped in a living hell. A tragedy which should never have happened. But that was just the start.
Trevor’s girls died as Grandstand screened live pictures. You couldn’t see them or feel the terror. But it was all just a close-up away on the terraces, down on the pitch and in a gym which became a mortuary.
Today Trevor says he can just about come to terms with the events of that day. “But I’ll never come to terms with what happened next.”
That night he told his wife, Jenni, the fans and their families had been treated like scum. It didn’t get any better.
Granada TV’s powerful drama-documentary Hillsborough is screened on Thursday. It demands your attention unlike any other programme this year.
“This is the most important thing I’ve ever done. And I think it’s the most important thing the cast have ever done. I think it’s the most important thing you’ve seen on British TV for donkey’s years,” says McGovern.
A total of 96 Liverpool fans died after being crushed in the Leppings Lane end at the FA Cup semi-final with Nottingham Forest in April, 1989.
Radios were also on that day at football grounds around the country. Thousands of supporters who had also stood on those terraces lost interest in the games they were watching. They looked at each other in silence and realised: It could have been us.
Lord Justice Taylor’s report placed most of the blame on the police. He said the officer in charge froze and a blunder of the first magnitude was committed.
Disciplinary proceedings against Chief Supt David Duckenfield were halted when he took early retirement at 46 on medical grounds with full pension. The Director of Public Prosecutions ruled there was not enough evidence to prosecute anyone.
“I’ve been talking to the grieving families,” explains McGovern. “I’ve seen their grief and their rage and the injustice, and the evasive evidence that was given by the police.”
After Britain’s longest-ever inquest, the jury returned majority verdicts of accidental death, Viewers of Hillsborough, which is based entirely on fact, will draw their own conclusions.
Some may fear the subject matter is just too harrowing for their living room. Too much emotion, too much pain. Jimmy says they’d be making a mistake. “I think it’s hugely entertaining. And it sounds ridiculous to talk about entertaining when you talk about death on this scale. But actually it’s got all the things you need for drama.
“The first part is mainly about a man who needs to find out if his girl is alive and the second part is a quest for justice. I think as a drama it’s riveting. I think the nation will be glued to it.”
Salford actor Christopher Eccleston plays Trevor Hicks and gives, arguably the performance of his life. Ricky Tomlinson, as bereaved father Jon Glover, is, quite simply, astonishing.
He says: “The story of the Glovers is a story of tragedy, trauma, courage. It’s the same for every single family who lost their loved ones at Hillsborough. They deserve this film, they deserve it after seven years of heartache. I hope it helps their healing process.”
Our Friends In The North star Eccleston adds: “There are so many challenging scenes as an actor but I believe one of the toughest was when Trevor begs his wife Jenni to try and get on with what was left of their lives by washing some bed sheets.
“But she could not do it because they still held the scent of her dead daughters and she was trying to cling on to every single memory she had of them.” The Hicks have since split up.
It was the Hillsborough families who first approached McGovern and asked him to tell their story. He used court transcripts and eyewitness reports. Every single line had to be approved by Granada’s lawyers.
“I wasn’t aware of the scale of their anger and grief. I know my own anger and grief and that’s what the Cracker story about Hillsborough was about. I think the families expected us to be very, very responsible and I think we have been.
“People might find it embarrassing when somebody says: ‘We made this drama because people were seeking justice.’ How corny and embarrassing that sounds. Doesn’t that say so much about our country today? But that’s why I made this drama.”
He reveals how the three families at the centre of the TV film responded when they first saw it. “The first reaction was – I can’t talk for a while. But soon after that came exhilaration. That for seven-and-a-half years they’d campaigned to get the truth across and there it is in a whole hundred minutes.”
Duckenfield made a mistake, one of many by police on the day, and now has to live with the consequences, says the award-winning Liverpool writer. Blunders cost lives even after the true nature of the disaster was realised. As ambulance driver Tony Edwards said: “People died who might have been saved.”
McGovern politely rejects those who argue the system was at fault. “Excuse me, but 96 people died and I’ve been talking to the grieving, and I’ve seen their grief and their rage and the injustice and the evasive evidence that was given by the police. Yes I do feel sorry for Mr Duckinfield, but I feel a hell of a lot sorrier for all those grieving families.
“I feel for the families. I sympathise with any South Yorkshire policeman who feels guilty. But there’s been too much pain and suffering for me to think too long and hard about them. It’s the families that matter. What happened that day was negligence on the part of the South Yorkshire police and a ground that was a death trap. That was the fatal combination.”
South Yorkshire Chief Constable Richard Wells refused the co-operation of his force. He claimed the programme could traumatise families and witnesses all over again. McGovern was grievously disappointed but adds: “We never put words in a copper’s mouth. They say what they said. They do what they said they did.
“The three core families in the film have given me permission to show on-screen the death of their child or children. That takes tremendous courage and faith. If there are any heroes in the story that I’ve done of Hillsborough, it’s them.”
Jan Spearritt, who lost her 14-year-old son, Adam, opens the film with her own reply for Mr Wells.
Through actress Tracey Wilkinson she says: “I’m one of those families. My son died at Hillsborough. And I want the truth.”