Jason McAteer will be in Basel tonight, covering the Europa League final for television. Tomorrow, the former Liverpool midfielder, who retains close links with the club, will be flying back to Mersyside with the team and, “hopefully,” he smiles, “with the trophy”.
McAteer thinks it would be especially fitting if his old side could experience European success – and entry to the Champions League – to complete the season in which, after 27 long years, justice for the Hillsborough 96 was finally delivered.
“I think Jurgen (Klopp) will stay away from the sentiment of that and the players will be professionally minded,” he says of how emotionally charged tonight could be.
“They might be reminded of it, it might be mentioned it would be fitting to win the final for that, but it’s more for the fans and the ex-players.
“I was at a dinner recently with John (Aldridge) and Ronnie (Whelan) and Jan (Molby) who were involved in that game, and the speeches were all Hillsborough driven. John is chairman of the former players and introduced everyone and he went heavy on Hillsborough and rightly so. There were tears in the room. It’s still very raw. You could see Ronnie and Jan welling up. John was close to tears.”
Indeed, so traumatised was boyhood Koppite John Aldridge by the disaster, he was given compassionate leave by Jack Charlton to miss out Ireland’s 1989 1-0 World Cup win over Spain in Dublin, which took place 11 days after the disaster.
“I’m sure John won’t mind me saying this but I’ve been out socially for a pint with him and the subject’s come up and John’s been in tears,” McAteer says now. “ He’s still very, very cut up about it. People handle trauma differently and, when you know him, John can be a very emotional person.”
McArteer says that, with the results of the fresh inquest wholly exonerating the Liverpool fans who were in Hillsborough, you can sense a weight has been lifted off the club and the city of Liverpool.
“We wanted the truth and we always knew the truth but we obviously didn’t know which way the verdict was going to go,” he says. “At one point, if you watch the documentaries, they were unsure if they were going to get the verdict they wanted. So to get it, for me personally, (the feeling was) relief.
“I mean, I’m way on the outside of things but, obviously, we get to do a lot of charity work, we still have the Hillsborough memorials which we attend and the ex-players give a lot of their money to the Hillsborough Foundation.
“You see the work they did and the campaigning that they did for 27 years. It’s just unbelievable what they’ve been through. So to get the result — you breathe a big sigh of relief for them. It’s that massive weight (lifted). You feel they can get on with their lives now. It will never be forgotten and, for the families, it must be so, so difficult to bring it up again — because the documentaries have started, everyone’s talking about it — and there’ll be more stories to come out that they’ll have to go through and deal with.
“But they can get on with their lives knowing they’ve got justice. I’m just hoping that the process takes its own course now, whether they go for the people that are found responsible. I hope it doesn’t become a witch hunt, I hope the legal system takes it due course and it follows that track rather than it being like a witch hunt and people pointing fingers. But the biggest thing is that we have justice.”
Meanwhile, McAteer is critical of European football’s powers that be for the decision to host tonight’s final in the St Jakob-Park stadium which has a capacity of just 38,512. “I think Uefa have messed up really,” he says. “I understand the fact Sevilla and Villareal fans filling a 35,000 stadium was not going to happen and I appreciate getting the right venue is difficult, but they had to consider if Liverpool or Borussia Dortmund had got to the final or even now Liverpool-Sevilla, you could sell Croke Park out if you wanted, any stadium in the world.
“Where they missed a trick is that they should have two stadiums, a big one on standby and a small one. And if it was to be the big one that missed out, Uefa have enough money to compensate for that.
“The ones that miss out are the fans. Jurgen has retracted the statement that everyone should go. He had a bit of a telling off for his comments but I hope they understand that he was full of adrenaline at the time and he felt it was the right thing to do.
“Liverpool fans will still travel in numbers so I just hope that everyone is safe there.
“It’s a small place, a small venue, there will be a lot of people without tickets and I just hope it’s all handled in the right manner.”
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