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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McGuinness

Hillsborough Support Group Aim To Ensure Survivors Never Walk Alone

Events such as the near disaster that befell Liverpool pool fans at Stade de France in 2022, underscore how addressing the devastation of Hillsborough is more relevant than ever. I spoke to Hillsborough survivor and HSA chairman Peter Scarfe.

The Champions League final in May 2022 between Liverpool and Real Madrid at Stade de France, Paris was marred by chaotic organization and terrifying scenes. Police openly tear gassed spectators and Liverpool supporters only narrowly averted another disaster. It evoked memories of the Hillsborough tragedy on 15 April 1989, in which 97 fans were crushed to death.

Hillsborough Survivors Support Alliance (HSA) chairman Peter Scarfe described the fallout. “Stade de France was living proof that another devastating tragedy can happen to our people,” he says. “If it hadn’t occurred to Liverpool supporters I firmly believe people would have died that day. The experience Liverpool fans had (at Hillsborough) helped save lives.”

Scarfe is adamant that what happened at Stade de France is almost a carbon copy of Hillsborough. Fans faced a major bottleneck at the turnstiles at the entrance to the stadium, with only a few turnstiles open to Liverpool fans, just as they did at Hillsborough. Police were heavy handed and openly hostile to spectators. The fallout led to some Liverpool fans retriggering, decades after Hillsborough, and ultimately two fans took their lives. It is horrifying to think such a failure on the part of the police and stadium authorities could happen 34 years on from Hillsborough. There has been no accountability from that night at Stade the France. Liverpool fans want the world to recognize that profound mistakes were made.

“Since then, HSA set up a sub-group and have managed to send several people for therapy,” says Scarfe. “A friend in attendance thought his life might end that night in Paris. A bunch of Real Madrid fans steered him away from a local mob and back to his hotel. That’s enough to retrigger any trauma. We were treated like cattle all over again.”

Trauma Therapy

Founded by Peter Scarfe and fellow Hillsborough survivor, Diane Lynn, HSA is a support rather than a campaign group for Hillsborough survivors, designed to provide mental health support to those in need. Since HSA was established in 2019, tailored therapy, monthly meetings and WhatsApp groups have combined to help survivors.

The therapy program is run by Dr Anne Eyre, herself a Pen 3 survivor, and leading trauma therapist. After Stade de France, she assembled a team of therapists to aid those in need.

“There’s never been bespoke therapy for what we’ve been through,” says Scarfe. “We’re from an era where you used to get your head up, shoulders back and carry on with life. We fundraise to pay for people to go for private, bespoke therapy. The 98% success rate from therapy is unprecedented. It helps put the mind at ease and memories where they should be. The families of the 97 are reaching out for support.”

HSA supports fans dealing with guilt from the day, often survivors who think they could have done more. This is precisely where having other survivors oversee the support proves vitally helpful. People, as Scarfe points out, need to be reminded that their simple actions on the day saved others. It might be stepping back in the upper tier of the stand to make way for a fan clambering up from the pens. That person also helped create space down below in the pens. Hearing that perspective from a fellow survivor carries a lot of weight. Christmas and the build up to the anniversary tend to be the most difficult times, according to Scarfe. The majority of the support group will tell you they’ve made friends for life at HSA.

A Packed Enclosure

Hillsborough changed British football forever. In came an era of all seater stadia and football was dragged into the modern age for better and worse. Part of the transformation that occurred in British football with the onset of the Premier League in the early 1990s was an acknowledgment of the dreadful way, up to 1989, the football industry had treated spectators. Still, with fans being treated more like consumers than cattle from the early 1990s on, it led to football becoming more exclusive and unaffordable for large sections of society, a point Liverpool manager on the day of Hillsborough, Kenny Dalglish, raised after he stepped away from the game.

Crushing outside Hillsborough at the Leppings Lane end turnstiles led to devastation on the central terraces in pens 3 and 4, and Britain’s worst sporting tragedy.

“I was trapped in the pens,” says Scarfe. “I remember seeing heads, the pitch and the horizon. It was only as Pen 4 emptied you could see the devastation all around. There was no internet or mobile phones. One of my friends called my Dad and let him know I was ok. We had a two hour journey across the Pennines back home to Liverpool that evening. My Dad was standing in the bay window in the house waiting to see me. We hugged after he ran to the front door. He said he had to see me to believe that I was ok. That was only the second time I’d seen my Dad cry. Looking back I realize how awful it must have been for him to wait and not know. How many families went through that?”

The Taylor Report following the tragedy in 1989 found that the main reason for the disaster was overcrowding stemming from the failure of police control. Lord Justice Taylor, who oversaw the inquiry into Hillsborough and subsequent report, hailed the Liverpool fans as being ‘magnificent’ on the day.

The conduct of South Yorkshire Police, Sheffield Wednesday football club - which hosted the FA Cup semi-final - and the Thatcher government has been in dock since that fateful day. No one has been held accountable. After an extraordinary fight by the families and city of Liverpool, the 97 deaths were deemed to be unlawful in 2016, decades after Hillsborough.

Supporters' selflessness on the day, their inclination to rush to save others after they had just escaped death, and to be the first hand story tellers of Hillsborough to the world, stood the test of time. Their actions effectively acted as a bulwark against the mobilization of the police, the authorities and some gutter elements of British newspapers, keen to peddle an alternative version of the truth, essentially blaming Liverpool fans.

Looking back decades later at documentaries and news coverage of Hillsborough, the poise of the Liverpool fans is remarkable, from those running advertising hoardings as makeshift stretchers across the pitch to medics, hoisting fans into the safety of the upper tier of the West Stand from the terraces, and the eyewitness accounts to watching cameras. “It’s almost like warfare,” Scarfe adds “There was a football pitch full of bodies. People running around trying to help. We weren’t trained for that.”

On a day that has so many abiding images, one particular picture captures a father with a thousand yard stare, holding his son, who is alive. The father is glaring intently into the empty terraces they’ve just escaped. His expression suggests he’s survived a first World World battle and is already dealing with the magnitude of it.

Hillsborough is a Human Tragedy

The day before I spoke to Peter Scarfe was a cathartic one for HSA. During last month’s game between the same teams that faced each other at Hillsborough, the Nottingham Forest fans unveiled a ‘Respect the 97’ banner.

“We reached out to Forest in 2021,” says Scarfe. “There was a bit of a backlash. The positivity that came from the recent Forest banner is magnificent. Hillsborough is a human tragedy. While Liverpool fans were obviously deeply affected, all the Nottingham Forest fans were in the ground that day. Forest fans tried to help and the police told them to stay in place.”

I asked Scarfe about whether any of the other parties at Hillsborough - Sheffield Wednesday employees or South Yorkshire Police qualify for the HSA’s therapy. “If someone from the South Yorkshire Police reached out of course we would help them. Thousands would disagree with us if we did. One Sheffield Wednesday worker has gone through our program.”

Reflecting Scarfe’s comments about how Hillsborough is a human tragedy, the local business owners around the stadium in Hillsborough clubbed together to build a memorial. It was only after they did that it shamed Sheffield Wednesday felt into erecting one of their own.

A Lovely Sunny Day

During Liverpool’s away game at Luton Town last Sunday, a section of Luton fans began tragedy chanting, with taunts referencing Hillsborough. Almost 35 years on from British sports’ worst tragedy and, incredibly, the nastiness and distastefulness lingers in some quarters, reminding the Hillsborough families and survivors of the old tropes, lies and injustice they’ve had thrown at them. The pain of the chants and some of the persistent comments on social media is unbearable.

“Therapists talk about the person on the day and then afterwards,” Scarfe says. “It was a lovely sunny day. Part of our soul was left there. HSA is a massive commitment for all us volunteers and difficult but I wouldn’t change it. For us, the reward when that person sends you a message saying life is good is special. These are people who have mostly endured rather than enjoyed life.”

What shows up repeatedly from the injustice of Hillsborough is the bravery of the fans, the fortitude of the families and a city that’s always been comfortable in its skin. Survivors overseeing trauma therapy for other fans is fitting. Doing it for themselves with dignity and pride, as many conclude the people of Liverpool have had to since 15 April 1989.

HSA's work has enabled Hillsborough survivors and fans retriggered by events at Stade de France to find impactful support.

That they may face the rising sun.


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