Even in rare times of vindication, such as yesterday’s verdict on the Hillsborough tragedy, Ray Houghton can’t help wonder what might have been on the fateful day 27 years later.
He was one of the Liverpool players corralled in the dressing-room as, just metres away, 96 fans who came to support his side in the FA Cup semi-final that day lost their lives.
English football was in the midst of a hooligan crisis and Houghton doesn’t apologise for admitting the thought of another skirmish was behind the decision of Ray Lewis to remove the teams from the pitch as chaos erupted in the Lepping’s Lane end of the ground.
It was only the tears of Liverpool fans running frantically down the corridor outside that pointed to an altogether different episode. As tears of relief ran down the face of relatives outside the courtroom yesterday, Houghton could associate with their journey towards justice. He was with them from the start and, while this is a milestone, until prison cell doors are slammed on those most culpable, the aggrieved won’t rest.
“It’s always there in your mind,” explained Houghton, who spent five years at Anfield. “As much as I’ve had great moments in your career, this one stands out as the worst and it’s always going to be at the back of your mind.
“We didn’t know what was happening out there and could the players have done more?
“I haven’t been to Hillsborough for a while. I find it difficult, very emotional to the extent where I don’t like watching the ground on television. It brings back very painful memories.
“The relatives all along wanted accountability for the truth and the fact they’ve had to wait 27 years is incredible. You’d have to question successive governments who must have had the evidence but didn’t do anything about it.
“That must be something they’ve had to look at. The evidence has been there all along and I’m sure there’s more stories to come out.
“The families have got their verdict and let’s hope the people who are accountable for it are punished the way they should be. Who was in charge that and did they do their duty?”
Such was the family nature of Liverpool in the 1980s that the depths of despair struck home as the identities of the deceased emerged.
“Some of those fans we saw in the papers with their faces up against the fences used to come to our training ground regularly getting autographs,” said the Glaswegian.
“From the next day after Hillsborough, their families would come into the training ground telling us stories about what Liverpool FC meant to them.
“We were listening, talking football with them because that’s all we knew.
“If you’d told us players that the season had ended then, there would have been fine. We couldn’t train or play.
“My teammate John Aldridge, who was from Liverpool, was distraught for a long, long time. We came back for an Ireland match against Spain but John John couldn’t play.
“It had had a profound effect on Liverpool and not just Liverpool fans, but Everton fans and the whole city as well. Let’s hope something like this never happens again.”
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