I am not a native Scouser, nor even an adopted one. Brummie by birth and Yamyam by upbringing, maybe it was the resulting existential confusion that led to my accidentally becoming an Evertonian 30-odd years ago. I have little affection for either of Birmingham's clubs, my few tears (and metaphorical ones only at that) shed at Aston Villa's relegation being for the indefinite discontinuation of English football's most-played fixture, only a support-your-local-team soft spot for WBA that endures to this day. In any case as a small child my interest in football was not fully-formed, so neither at that stage would be any strong allegiance.
Then it just happened, and I have occasionally tried to work out exactly how. It seems ultimately to boil down to Everton being the first team I ever actually wanted to win a game, which turned out to be something called the 1985 FA Cup final. Despite the result, the bug had bitten, and I didn't become aware that they were Champions or Cup-Winners' Cup holders or defending FA Cup holders or even that good a side until some while later. These details are incidental, however.
The point is that aside from the team I happen to support, there is no link between me and the city of Liverpool at all. I have therefore observed the events of April 15th 1989 and thereafter from a somewhat disconnected viewpoint, even apart from possibly being a little too young to fully comprehend at the time the gravity of what happened. It was nevertheless immediately obvious that it was very, very bad.
Though the memory gets hazy over this length of time, I clearly recall where I was that afternoon: the old Smethwick end terrace of the Hawthorns, although I don't so clearly recall the opposition that day. Barnsley, I suspect. As everyone reading this will be aware, Everton were also playing their semi-final simultaneously â€“ and here is a sign of the times, both FA Cup semi-finals being played at 3:00pm on a Saturday â€“ so I took a radio with me to keep in touch with that game.
As a result I was quite likely as well-informed of the unfolding tragedy as anyone outside Sheffield, and yet I knew very little. Strange, in this age of 24-hour news, internet-connected smartphones, etc., to think that even relatively recently we didn't have constant up-to-the-minute access to breaking stories, but there you go, kids. Back then we certainly didn't. Pity my poor mum who, we found out later, had been doing her fruit hearing of a serious incident at a football game, aware of little more than that her husband, son and brother-in-law had gone to a football game.
Probably around 3:20pm I was hearing reports of makeshift advertising-board stretchers and of oxygen canisters, and my first thought was that someone had released gas in the stands, which of course sounds ridiculous now but to an 11-year-old picking up bits and pieces of information as they came in on my radio it was the best sense I could make of what I was hearing until things got gradually clearer. I will admit that, this being English football in the 1980's, particularly Liverpool fans only four years on from Heysel, it was very easy to jump to the conclusion that it had involved violence. It would have been easy for those in authoritiy at the game to do the same too, initially at least. How long any such opinion lasted with me, I don't really know, but it can't have been very long - if I ever held it at all.
I don't remember myself projecting blame onto the fans and in fact only a few years afterwards I wrote a piece of GCSE English argumentative-writing coursework on all-seater stadia in which I pointed the finger largely at the police. "Controversially", according to my teacher. "Correctly", it would now seem. Why so many clung on to the notion that hooliganism was a factor when sufficient information to conclude otherwise was available to me, a mere schoolboy, I don't know and won't attempt to address.
As an outsider to Merseyside, all this time I had been a rather isolated Evertonian. It wasn't until I went to university in 1995 and immersed myself via the burgeoning internet in ToffeeNet (as it was then) that I joined for the first time a community of Everton fans, and as the anniversaries passed I was struck each time by the weight of the support expressed by Everton, both official and unofficial, for Liverpool and its fans. Maybe it would be easy to dismiss this as neighbourliness in times of grief, but the more I read the more obvious it became that in fact it is very much more than that. And the reason for this was clear early on: the club most affected besides Liverpool isn't Nottingham Forest, or even Sheffield Wednesday. It is Everton. Almost certainly every single one of those 96 victims had Everton supporters among their acquaintances, their colleagues, their friends and even their family. Hundreds, maybe thousands of Everton fans knew one of them or knew someone else who did.
I read a moving account from an exiled Everton fan who was good friends with one of the two sisters who died, had heard via others that she was among the dead and yet months later received a letter that started in her handwriting. He was distraught to find that it had been finished and posted by her father (if you are that Everton fan, wherever you now are, your story has stuck with me for some years now and probably will do forever. And I sincerely hope I have the details correct, I am writing from memory). You get the overwhelming sense that in the reverse circumstance, had the crush happened at Villa Park instead of at Hillsborough, the Liverpool fans would have done exactly as the Everton fans did.
That may even be the wider point here: "... had the crush happened at Villa Park instead of at Hillsborough ...". We are all football fans, regardless of our allegiance. We have all been to games, where we rarely think about how reliant our safety is on other people doing their jobs properly. Hindsight, of course, is always 20-20, but finally â€“ an astonishing 27 years later â€“ it has been officially recognised that on that day, some people didn't.
And it wasn't an isolated incident; football crowd safety is far, far better these days, as a direct result of what occurred at that stadium on an otherwise pleasant, sunny Saturday afternoon, but reading through the articles from the inquiry detailing the 1981 near-miss on the same terrace, one can't help but suspect that it was only a matter of time before something like it happened, and if not there, somewhere else. Maybe even Goodison Park ... And that is a chilling thought, one that all right-thinking football fans, whichever team they support, who are old enough to remember when standing on terraces was how you routinely watched your football, should give consideration: it might have been us.