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What does this have to do with Newcastle United?

5 years ago

Watching the outcome of the Hillsborough inquiry was eerie.

Truths emerged, harrowing accounts of lives lost and destroyed were replayed, and ultimately, according to the interviews with the families of the dead, some peace was established. While nothing can be brought back, at least the events have exonerated the innocent. The guilty have their own demons to face.

I watched the news with my own kids.

The youngest is Newcastle daft, but he likes all manner of football strips, and has a Liverpool kit. On the back of the neck is the number 96, with the eternal flames either side. He’s asked about it before, but didn’t really understand what I was trying to tell him. How could he? He’s used to all seater stadiums and wider access routes.

I didn’t want to show him any images that might be traumatic, but I did show him a photograph of the fans being pulled to the tier above the crush. He asked, “So did those people save those other people?” And the simple answer is, yes. But that doesn’t begin to address what happened.

And then there was a flurry of very thoughtful, very concerned, disbelieving questions. I’m guessing that a lot of the questions were the same as those asked by the people most affected.

Why didn’t they open the gates onto the pitch?

Why couldn’t the people in charge see what was happening?

What happened to the people in other parts of the ground?

Hadn’t something like this happened before?

Well, tragically, yes, it had happened before. Lots of times, over decades. The crumbling, inadequate grounds frequented for years without substantial development, had been found to be crumbling and inadequate at other disasters. The authorities who controlled safety had not really been in control of it for generations.

Talking about the verdict with my dad, he wondered how it hadn’t happened earlier. He recalls Newcastle United matches at our stadium where he was scared. Carried along by a crowd without having his feet on the ground. Surges of thousands of people at a time. Holding on to my grandad for dear life; literally. To fall would have meant to be crushed.

The assumption of the media and the government by the end of the 1980s was that, if you went to a football match, you were looking for bother. The demonization was completed by a newspaper title I won’t even bother mentioning. That the reporting and editorial decisions have been found to be utterly false is scant recourse. The apology is unlikely to be as huge as the original insult. Suffice to say, to this day, sales of it are lower in Liverpool.

What does this have to do with Newcastle United?

Everything. In a season in which everything has gone wrong, sometimes it’s important to remember that actually, it hasn’t.

The love of that expanding view as you stride into the ground is one that reflects the safety of a modern stadium, built into its historical roots.

Football is a simple game: you kick the ball between posts at either end of a field. But the bit around the field is where the heart, soul and passion lives.

If there is a new assumption, it’s not that those people are animals; it’s that they’re dads, mams, sons and daughters; and that they’re looked after.

You can follow the author on Twitter @georgestainsby



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