If I hadn't become a footballer it is almost certain I would have been in the middle of the Leppings Lane terrace at Hillsborough on Saturday, 15 April 1989. In the days when I was a fan I would never have considered missing an FA Cup semi-final involving Liverpool so I have to assume I would have travelled with everyone else to Sheffield for the game against Nottingham Forest. But fate decreed that John Aldridge be elsewhere that day. I was not on the Leppings Lane terrace, I was on the Hillsborough playing field, oblivious to what was going on among the Liverpool contingent.
When the full extent of the disaster that eventually claimed the lives of ninety-six people unfolded, my emotions were of great sadness for the victims whose only mistake was choosing the wrong day to watch a football match; a football match in which I was playing. Yes, time does heal, but if I am still alive on 15 April 2039, the fiftieth anniversary of Hillsborough, I will shed tears. That is because I shed tears every year on 15 April. Not out of ritual. Not out of obligation. Not out of duty. But out of a deep sense of grief for the lost and a genuine feeling for the loved ones they left behind.
Hillsborough was a real tragedy on a real day involving real people. We often talk of nightmares in our lives, of disaster, of tragedies, but most of us don't really know what we're talking about. I was injured playing for Liverpool the season before Hillsborough and I called it a personal disaster. Disaster? When you know people have died in your vicinity you realise missing a football match or two through injury is irrelevant. Most things are irrelevant. The death of the innocent - the suffering, the injustice - is a real disaster. A real tragedy.
In the ten years since, more eloquent wordsmiths than I have offered their assessments of the day and its aftermath. But as it remains one of the most significant events in my life, I have to write about it. I don't want to, but I have to. Thinking about it hurts, so talking about it and putting it down on paper serves only to bring back the horror of it all.
So much about Hillsborough is still disputed but there is one inescapable fact. Too many people were allowed into a small pen behind the goal at the Leppings Lane end, causing a major crush which eventually claimed ninety-six victims. It is not my place to comment on who was responsible for the deaths; that is a matter for the experts and the families of the ninety-six. I do hope, however, that those who made mistakes that day, whoever they are, are brought to justice and are forced to answer for the misjudgements.
I was the Liverpool player furthest away from the Leppings Lane terrace when a fan decked out in Liverpool red approached Ray Houghton and shouted something at him. I assumed it was some kind of pitch invasion. The last action I could remember was Peter Beardsley hitting the crossbar with a fierce shot. But soon a policeman with a look of concern approached referee Ray Lewis and began talking to him. The game was brought to a halt. I remember Steve Nicol saying something to the referee, though I was too far away to hear anything. I didn't have a clue what was going on. At six minutes past three, the players were ushered off the field and into the dressing-rooms. A lot of people suspected crowd trouble but even the, even before the full facts had emerged, there was a kind of eerie atmosphere that suggested something far worse had taken place. On our way into the dressing-rooms we had the first inkling that, far from crowd trouble being the reason for the delay, there had in fact been a tragedy. I overheard people talking of serious injuries to Liverpool fans and, worse still, deaths. Deaths? At a football match? I could not comprehend it. I was still convinced a barrier had collapsed and we'd only been taken off for fifteen minutes or so. If only that was true. I could not have been more wrong. This was fast developing into the worst disaster in English football history.
In the dressing-room, Kenny Dalglish told us to keep warm as the match was bound to re-start. But Kenny was walking round nervously, refusing to sit down. Most of us were seated, though some were standing, doing stretches and simple exercises. Some were reading the programme. I don't remember what I was doing. But I do remember seeing fans walking past the dressing-room door with tears in their eyes.
That was when I began to realise this was something serious. Yet Ray Lewis came into our dressing-room at around half-past three and told us to be ready to go back on the playing field. The match, he said, would re-start as soon as possible. That was the last communication for thirty minutes. We were still trying to psych ourselves up for the match. Looking back on it, I am sure the Liverpool staff knew what was going on but chose to keep the full facts from us. I think Kenny must have known, too. I didn't know it at the time, but his face told the story. It was only when we heard screaming outside the dressing-room that we finally understood something wasn't right. Kenny went out into a corridor and I heard on fan shouting at him, 'People are dying, Kenny.' Or words to that effect.
At four o'clock, Ray Lewis came back to say the match had been abandoned. The confirmation that Liverpool fans had died reached us while we were getting changed. Some of us were showering, though some had already put their clothes back on. Again, I don't remember exactly what I did. I cast my eyes over to John Barnes and could see tears in his eyes. He was sitting there quietly, not wanting to be disturbed. A few of the other players looked stunned. I couldn't talk. Nobody could, There was a strange sort of silence. Usually there is much conversation and banter when the lads are all together in the dressing-room. Not now. Too many thoughts were flashing through our minds. The sense of logic was disappearing.
I knew of people, fun-loving Liverpool supporters, who had tickets for the Leppings Lane terrace. My friends. Naturally, I had to find out whether or not they were safe. But how? Kenny was determined to keep us all together in the dressing-room, out of the way. When we were all dressed, the Liverpool manager told us to go quietly to the players' lounge upstairs. Minute by minute we could feel the situation getting worse. Even before we got into the lounge we could see the girls working there were sobbing. They obviously knew more than us. At the other side of the lounge there was a television screen showing live pictures of Hillsborough. The reporter spoke of deaths, the figure rising minute by minute. Struggling to take it all in, I became edgy. I couldn't stand still. The picture was becoming clearer in my mind and I didn't like it one bit.
There was too much take in at Hillsborough and it was a relief to get away from the place. It was only when I got home that night that it all began to sink in. I was watching television with Joan and, inevitably, it was the main story on the news. That was when we broke down as on, bursting into tears and hugging each other. We cried for most of the night slept little.
Kenny telephoned me the following morning. He said he wanted me to join the rest of the players at Anfield for a meeting. In the immediate aftermath of Hillsborough, Kenny showed tremendous leadership qualities a lot of people didn't think he possessed. He told us to be dignified and insisted we set an example. In the afternoon, I took my daughter, Joanne, to Anfield to lay some red roses by the Shankly Gates. There were already a lot of scarves tied to the railing - not all of them were Liverpool scarves - and there was an overwhelming scent of flowers in the air. I didn't want to be seen but a group of reporters had spotted me. That spoiled what should have been a private moment. I was, after all, a Liverpool fan. I wanted the same anonymity as any other person, I deserved it.
We had a special mass at the Catholic Cathedral that night. Again, the enormity of what had happened hit me hard. We were beginning to see how it was affecting the city. People were breaking down, not really knowing what to do. All the players were at the Cathedral that night to hear Bruce Grobbelaar read the lesson. Each player dealt with the tragedy in his own way. My first tangible response was to pull out of the Republic of Ireland's World Cup qualifying match against Spain in Dublin on 26 April. Playing football was the last thing I wanted to do. I remember giving an interview to the Liverpool Echo in which I said I didn't care if I never played again. I meant every word. For the two weeks following the disaster I was in a state of shock, helpless to do anything, I feel no shame in admitting Hillsborough affected me mentally for a time, a long time. I couldn't cope, It weakened me physically, emotionally and mentally.
The thought of training never entered my head. I remember trying to go jogging but I couldn't run. There was a time when I wondered if I would ever muster the strength to play. I seriously considered retirement. I was learning about what was relevant in life. I didn't really see the point in football. Reading abut the parents who lost sons or daughters at Hillsborough made me think of my own children. My son, Paul, was only seven at the time. I was only a little older when I went to my first football match in the 1960s. Paul and Joanne have never been less than the most important things in my life, yet after Hillsborough they became more precious, if that was possible. We all became closer as a family.
The Liverpool players spent much of their time talking to people affected by the tragedy. It meant going into hospitals to see the injured. In some cases, it meant trying to talk people out of comas. We spoke to people who had lost loved ones. The immediate aftermath because a succession of funerals. I don't know how many funerals I went to but they were becoming more difficult to deal with. Alan Hansen said much the same thing. He thought he'd get used to the funerals after the first few but by the twelfth he felt worse. I'd only been to one before Hillsborough, which was when my grandmother died.
Within days, Anfield became a shrine. It began when a Liverpool director agreed to let one fan lay flowers on the Kop. Two weeks later, the whole of the goalmouth at the Kop end was covered with flowers. It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. Anfield was open house. If anyone needed advice on how to deal with the effects of the tragedy, they were welcomed. Players and wives were on hand to offer words of comfort and support. Joan and I found this particularly difficult. We were not trained in these skills and sometimes it was difficult to know what to say. We had experienced bereavement in our own family but nothing on this scale. We were being asked to console people at a time when we needed it ourselves.
I think people sometimes forget about Hillsborough affected the players. Ray Houghton said the experience of visiting so many hospitals and attending so many funerals made him more upset than he'd ever been before. Ray's way of dealing with the tragedy was to play football against Spain in that World Cup qualifier. Ronnie Whelan played too. I couldn't. I didn't have the physical or mental energy. Alan Hansen, the Liverpool captain, was said to be visibly shaking at times. Bruce Grobbelaar had, like myself, considered retirement. Steve McMahon claimed the Hillsborough tragedy was a watershed in his life. 'I grew up almost overnight,' he said. Players openly wept in front of each other, which was incredible. There had never been such a display of emotion among the Liverpool players before. Usually we spent most of the our time taking the mick out of each other, but Hillsborough pulled down the fašade and showed us up for what we were: vulnerable human beings. What it was all doing to Kenny Dalglish would become apparent when he resigned as Liverpool Manager in 1991, but at the time he did a remarkable job. He became an unofficial spokesman for the players and was particularly eloquent. This was a man who many thought uncommunicative. This was a man who many thought had not interests outside of football. These myths were shattered. Kenny was dignified throughout and worked tirelessly. I think he realised, for perhaps the first time, how much Liverpool Football Club meant to the ordinary person in the street. This, of course, carried with it certain responsibilities but Kenny was up to the challenge. He proved himself to be a good listener to those who had something to get off their chests.
The entire country was sympathetic and I know bridges were built between the cities of Liverpool, Sheffield and Nottingham. Football would never be the same again. Decaying football grounds were at last considered inadequate and Lord Justice Taylor, whose report on the Hillsborough tragedy did so much to reveal the truth, set a plan that would destroy terracing once and for all. All grounds would, in time, become all-seated, making them safer.
Whenever I think of Hillsborough I am drawn to the story of young Lee Nicol from Bootle. Lee was fourteen but looked about ten. He reminded me of my son, Paul. Lee was in the middle of the crush at Leppings Lane but was still alive when he was pulled out. I went to see him in hospital. He looked a lovely kid. As he lay there in a coma, I whispered words into his ears. I asked the doctor about his chances of recovery. 'He's clinically dead, John,' he said. I hadn't realised how badly he was injured. That news ripped into me. My heart went out to Lee's family, decent people who didn't deserve to be victims of such a tragedy.