Liverpool walks tall as the truth is finally told

Crushed ... fans on that fateful day.
Crushed ... fans on that fateful day.

Gary Fairhurst still has dreams about the dead lying stacked in front of him on the football pitch. Of police frantically giving mouth-to-mouth to corpses, the screaming sirens of ambulances unable to get access and young men calling for their mothers as the breath was crushed out of them.

Minutes before, he had somehow survived desperate minutes in the fatal squeeze of the Hillsborough Stadium access tunnel to reach the safety of his seat. He was sitting worrying about his two mates when he slowly realised he had a ringside view of tragedy.

''Two policemen came out of the crowd carrying a bloke who looked as though his arm was broken in five pieces. The policemen put him down on the ground. His eyes were closed and then the policemen took a cloth and put it across his face. I'll never forget it, I was 23,'' Fairhurst, a Sydney massage therapist, recalled yesterday.

On April 15, 1989, the worst stadium disaster in British history occurred at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield at the semi-final FA Cup tie between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest football clubs. Ninety-four people died on the day and two more later in hospital. Another 766 people were injured.

This week, 23 years later, an independent report showed police tried to cover up catastrophic failings by smearing Liverpool football fans, pinning the blame on them and falsifying reports. It also disclosed 41 victims could have been saved if emergency services had acted faster.

As a survivor of the Hillsborough disaster, Fairhurst is haunted by the memory of the young men's bodies laid out on the pitch or seeing others fall from the crush dead when police finally opened the gate in the fence. ''There was nothing any of us could do, just watching it happen around you. One minute you were alive, the next you weren't. And the police powerless, and then years later you learn that 41 people could have been saved if the authorities had done what they were supposed to do,'' he said.

''Instead, they blamed the victims. Us. Liverpool.''

Hillsborough was one of the final chapters in the football hooliganism that had blighted English football for much of the 1970s and '80s. Pitch invasions and pitched battles had become such a part of Saturday life that authorities started using high steel fencing to corral yob behaviour.

England was a divided nation in 1989. Thatcherism ruled and free markets, tax cuts and privatisation were the order of the day. But millions were locked out, especially those who lived in cities such as Liverpool and Sheffield.

The curious English need to look down on one another saw the unemployed working class blamed for what happened at Hillsborough.

The South Yorkshire police lied through their teeth and Fleet Street went along for the ride. Kelvin MacKenzie, the editor of Rupert Murdoch's London tabloid The Sun, ran a front page four days after the disaster mercilessly kicking the Scousers: ''The Truth: some fans picked pocket of victims; some fans urinated on brave cops; some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life.''

Fifteen years later the press was still dancing on graves: in 2004 the present mayor of London, Boris Johnson, then editing the Spectator magazine, sanctioned an editorial that read in part there was ''no excuse for Liverpool's failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon''.

Hillsborough remained a running sore for years, even though a 1990 inquiry found ''the failure of police control'' was to blame. It resulted in the end of standing terraces at football grounds. But the British public generally continued to believe the Liverpudlians were to blame.

The report this week by the Hillsborough Independent Panel concluded that no Liverpool fans were responsible for the deaths, and that attempts had been made by the authorities to conceal what had happened, including the amendment by police of 164 statements relating to the disaster.

The report prompted apologies from the Prime Minister, David Cameron, the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police, David Crompton, and MacKenzie and Johnson.

Fairhurst, 46, came to Australia in 2000. Married with two daughters, outside of massage his love is football, especially Liverpool FC, a passion shared by his children.

His mates survived the crush. ''I found them wandering around on the field but we sort of stopped going to Liverpool matches after that,'' he said.

But he loyally watches the Reds' every match on pay TV.

Early tomorrow Liverpool plays Sunderland and Fairhurst wants to hear just one thing: the soaring sound of Liverpool fans singing You'll Never Walk Alone, the show-stopper from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical Carousel they made their city's anthem, will raise hair on the back of his neck. And a lot of other necks across the world.

This story Liverpool walks tall as the truth is finally told first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.