Wednesday, 23 April 2014

We Never Walked Alone – Hillsborough 25th Anniversary Walk

My personal thought’s on a wonderful, emotional and collaborative journey.

So there I was minding my own business on 24 June 2013 when a post appeared on Facebook, a plan for a walk to mark the 25th Anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster was born. The post was asking for those interested in taking part in walking the 96 miles to respond by simply posting a comment “96”.  I knew that I was probably one of those that the post was specifically aimed at (knowing who posted it) and I took a deep breath and moved on to another page…

Running away from thoughts of that day in 1989 is something I’d become quite good at, although in recent years, probably the last 5, I have spoken more about it than in the previous 20.  (Still Hurting After All These Years)

The person who posted the invitation is a tenacious lady and I knew that this wouldn’t easily go away. Still, if I didn’t respond, I’d maybe get away with it.

Walking 96 miles didn’t faze me; I love walking and do it for fun regularly.  I had formed a small informal group of friends Wildknight Walks and we would get together for a walk and have some great banter.  I also walk when I need solitude and time to gather my thoughts and this can be any time of day or night. So the timeframe and potential lack of sleep didn’t faze me either.

Barriers did exist however.  I’d never returned to Hillsborough since 1989. Why would I want to with the memories I had stored from there from 15 April 1989?  I had spoken and written about the day but this was quite controlled, if I went back there would my guard drop, would the emotions run away with me and lay me bare? I was scared.

I wasn’t expecting the reminder, like a prod in the ribs, to come so soon after the initial post. Then on the 25th June 2013 there was a post suggesting that another Ian and I were being a bit quiet “What say you chaps?”

This wasn’t going to go away anytime soon. I pondered, I argued in my head and just less than an hour later I posted “96 all the way!”  A journey had begun.

Being someone who regularly walks I realised that the commitment needed to achieve a 96 mile walk over a short period of time and with little sleep would need some training so I offered those taking part the chance to join in with Wildknight Walks as an opportunity to get some walks in and get fitter.

It was from this point that the walk took on a new dynamic as I met new friends for the first time and we walked.  We literally walked through a storm on the Fylde coast as we were battered by the wind and the rain, we took the wrong turn on the Wirral but we walked on and we saw a golden sky while taking a break midway through a 30 miler to watch our outstanding team beat Manchester United 3 – 0 at their place! We were ready.

On the Tuesday preceding the walk there was the 25th Anniversary Memorial Service at Anfield.  This year I felt it was “easier”, on a different level emotionally than in previous years, perhaps because the new inquests are underway?  Mentioning this to my daughter when leaving the memorial she said “It’s now less of a fight and more of an achievement.”  I can go with that.

The days leading up to the 18th April, when I and many others would depart for Hillsborough to begin our pilgrimage to bring back home 96 souls, were hard for me. I was still filled with a nervous apprehension about going back. But the day came…

I was made up when Kim and John, fellow walkers, contacted me on the Thursday and offered me a lift to Anfield. Public transport on a Good Friday evening was potentially going to be a nightmare.

So there we were. It was shortly before 9pm on Friday 18th April and we were waiting for the coach to take us to Sheffield, albeit taking a shorter route than that that we’d be walking on our return. I don’t think that I was the only one with butterflies in my stomach at that time.
Photo Debi McMillan

The walkers that were taking part were made up of family members and their friends, survivors and those who simply wanted to show support.  Oh, and of course HJ Jimmy our Scottie dog mascot. 
I already knew some of those taking part some from before the planning of the walk and some, as mentioned, through the training walks. Soon we were getting to know new friends.

With the characters taking part there was bound to be banter and laughter on the journey to Sheffield. I dipped in and out of the banter as the journey progressed and we neared Sheffield.  I was getting messages of support all the way, in fact they’d begun much earlier in the week and they were very welcome. It was good that people could understand the difficulty of the journey I was making.

We arrived at Sheffield, I was back at Hillsborough. I had a dry throat; I had the same the last time I was there. The memorial was filled with flowers and other personal items left in memory of the 96.

Quietly, I took it all in; I knew that there were plans to read out the names of the 96.  I felt that I wouldn’t be able to do it but having been handed a card with six names on: Thomas Howard aged 39, Thomas Anthony Howard aged 14, Eric George Hughes aged 42, Alan Johnston aged 29 (My age on the 23 April 1989), Christine Anne Jones aged 27 and Gary Philip Jones aged 18 years 

I decided that I should.  Just six of the 96 who I went with to a football match who would not return home to their families and their friends, a tragic and an avoidable waste of life.
Photos Reshma Minaz Karmali

We got into position and we each read our card. It was a poignant and emotional time. Then Brian “Nasher” Nash read his poem specially written for the walk; “Why do I cry?”  An emotive piece of writing that says so much.

The route for the walk would take in Huddersfield’s John Smith’s Stadium (Nearly There!), Boundary Park Oldham, The Ethiad Stadium Manchester, Gigg Lane Bury, The Reebok Stadium Bolton, The DW Stadium Wigan, Goodison Park and finally Anfield.

After the ceremony we set off on our way with 96 souls in our hearts to take them home to where they belonged.  

I wanted to get away from Hillsborough as quickly as I could, I walked on and I never looked back.  I walked briefly with Paul and Brian before losing them as I stopped to remove some layers. I spent the next few hours in wonderful darkness and solitude when I was able to process my thoughts and reflect on what had happened earlier at the stadium and look further back to 1989. 

I’m still unsure as to whether revisiting will make a difference to how I feel but I feel I’ve got over a hurdle and other aspects of the walk definitely have given me a different focus although I’m finding it difficult to articulate exactly what.

The darkness and solitude I experienced on this leg of the walk was only really possible because of the support vehicles and more importantly the people within them keeping a check on my wellbeing. So my thanks go out to Andy, Ian, Mark, Eric and Steve and photographer Liz at this point.

After a few hours walking with my own thoughts I felt it time to let the group catch me for some company and comradeship and I walked into Huddersfield with friends to a welcoming breakfast provided by Scoff Outside Catering who looked after us brilliantly and kept us fuelled up throughout the journey.

At this point it became apparent that a crepe bandage is no match for a real fan belt and we lost the coach which was replaced by a smaller and less comfortable bus for the rest of the journey. It was an inconvenience that because of the spirit and togetherness of the walkers we literally took it in our stride.

As the miles mounted up so too did the niggles of blisters and leg and back injuries. Andy and Ian had been doing sterling work on the hoof but on arrival at Oldham the physio’s, Roger and Richie were able, it seemed, to rebuild people. I can vouch for the patching up of my blistered feet working a treat.

I’m sure the others who took part may well agree that as time moved on and tiredness set in many of the stages merged in the mind at least.  I know that I enjoyed every mile I walked, even through the pain, because there was always good banter and encouragement when it was needed.

My best memories are of the walks from Dowry reservoir to Oldham and that Magnum, the walk from Oldham to The Ethiad and that Borini goal celebration at a junction in Manchester and then the final assault down the East Lancashire Road with horns blasting and people applauding the efforts of us all on the way to Goodison and ultimately to Anfield.

Other magic moments for me were my friend Anita turning up at Wigan to give me some much needed encouragement and a Mars Bar and Gow and Joel being at the same venue to walk a stage having got up at some daft hour to drive there. Well in you three!

Also lots of families and friends were reunited along the way from the Showcase to Goodison and what a special feeling that is and I’d like to thank everyone who was able to be there for me.

When we arrived at the Eternal Flame at Anfield the symbolism of bringing the 96 back home was completed as the walkers passed a named red rose to a child who then placed the rose in a vase which eventually formed an impressive 96 rose display.

I haven’t mentioned all of the walkers here but can I thank you all for making this journey such a special one for me.  New friendships have and will develop from this amazing journey and others have undoubtedly strengthened. I look forward to seeing you all again.

There are two people (and a mascot) who of course deserve special mention as none of this would have happened without all of your hard work Steve Kelly and Cherie Brewster so thank you. And thank you Cherie for the prod in the ribs on the 25 June 2013.

We never walked alone and now 96 souls are home. Thank you all YNWA.

Sunday, 30 March 2014


Tomorrow, 31 March 2014, just a fortnight short of 25 years since I accidently became a "survivor" new inquests begin into 96 lives wasted, tragically lost.

I was there. I survived. I also survived on Wednesday when we beat Sunderland.

I hate being called a survivor. I hate being lucky that I climbed out.  To be honest I don't go to a football match expecting heroics from the survivors - you wouldn't would you?

I hope that everything works out and no new obstacles are placed in the way of the families. My thoughts and prayers are with you. #JFT96

Also 25 years ago we lost the league title to the final kick of a football match, Michael Thomas scoring, and I didn't give a shit.

The point of this post is to ask you all to be careful in what you post and to say that I am believing that Steven Gerrard will be lifting the trophy in 6 games time and dedicating it to the 96. YNWA