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Steve Nicol remembers Hillsborough 1989

"Frightening." Steve Nicol paused as the memories came back.

"Pretty frightening." He paused again - perhaps for a little longer - but the feeling remained the same. "Pretty frightening."

Just for a moment, his voice - hitherto stoic - broke. Just for a second, the distinctive Scottish brogue faltered enough to betray his emotions. Behind his glasses, he was back, standing in front of the Kop, which had become a shrine to the dead.

The events of Saturday, April 15 1989 where 96 Liverpool fans would lose their lives (as a result of a deadly human crush in the stadium terraces) would never be forgotten. However, ahead of the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest, it had been very much business as usual for Liverpool. Then 27, Nicol was on his way to winning the Footballer of the Year award as an established part of a dominant Liverpool side chasing its second double in four seasons. The semi-final matchup was a repeat of the previous year. Liverpool had won that game and entered the rematch in confident mood.

"The fact that we had drawn Forest, we were so happy," recalls Nicol. "We knew that, on their day they could do something; but also that, if we turned up, we were going to win the game."

Previous success against Forest, combined with a familiarity of playing in big games, meant that, to Nicol, the build-up to the match was normal. Just another game. Though the warning signs of impending tragedy on the terraces were there as referee, Ray Lewis, whistled the game underway, to the players it was business as usual.

"To be honest with you, we had no idea of what was going on. There were people running about and we had no idea what they were doing. It wasn't until we got in the dressing room and had been sitting there for half an hour that we started to hear."

Initially, both sides were told to be ready to restart the game. However, as the disaster unfolded, it became clear that the day would be remembered for something other than a football match. Nicol recalls a silent bus journey back to Liverpool, although what would happen next was, at that point, still uncertain.

"The initial thing was that we would be in on Monday for training but then, on the Sunday, it was arranged that we would go to the hospital and see some of the people fighting for their lives so we went down to Sheffield on the Monday. We went round the wards and saw who we could just to try to help them and cheer them up."

Meanwhile, back in Liverpool, the full extent of the tragedy was unfolding, as an entire city dealt with what had happened some ninety miles away. Anfield instinctively became a gathering point for the grieving.

"There were fans who hadn't lost anyone and they didn't know what to do but they wanted to do something," says Nicol. "I guess they must have heard that some people had gone (to Anfield) and then everybody started doing it. People put out scarves and all kinds of things and it became so much that it was decided to open the ground."

Suddenly, the most successful club in the history of the English game faced a challenge greater than any game. No more was the attention solely on eleven men in red.

"When you go to Liverpool, all the focus is on the first team and winning on Saturday. That's it,'' says Nicol. ''Every single thing that happened in that place - that's what it was built around. That whole thing totally went the opposite, the other way."

Playing football was not even discussed. Along with the Salvation Army, the club's players and their own wives and families took on the role of grief counsellors. Nicol admits to having had little idea what to say but believes that, just by being there, Liverpool's players did some good in helping the bereaved understand just what the club meant to their loved ones.

"I think the least thing you can do when someone has lost their son or their daughter is try and do what you can for them. Families were in a position of having lost their son or their daughter because they supported Liverpool Football Club. They were at a loss to figure out how somebody could die just supporting a football team."

In addition to offering support through words, the club and its players took it upon themselves to be present at as many funerals as was possible. Nicol, who attended six, recalls them giving him a new level of appreciation for just how important what he and his team-mates did was for so many.

"We always knew the feeling but, when you go to a funeral and everybody has got a Liverpool shirt or an Everton shirt on, it opens your eyes a bit to see that a football team is not just a wee hobby that they enjoy at the weekend. For some people, it was why they did everything, so they could follow a team and go to the games for all the highs and lows. When you go and see the support like that, it's very humbling."

While focusing their attention on helping families deal with their grief, Liverpool's players had their own issues to wrestle with. Nicol recalls there being an offer of counselling that he thinks, looking back, should have been made mandatory.

"What they should have done is made us go, individually or with your wife or whatever. Nobody was ever going to turn around and say 'I need counselling'. But that's only hindsight; the club did everything it could. It was trying to do everything it could for everybody."

With Hillsborough an unspoken subject among the players - 'everybody knew what everybody else was going through so there was enough of it without bringing it home' - gradually, attention began to turn towards playing again. A friendly against Celtic was scheduled for 30 April, 15 days after the disaster. For Nicol and his team-mates, it was time to try and move forward.

"What else would you do? Never play again? Just stop playing? Whether it was a week, a month, a year, you're going to play and, at the end of the day, everybody wanted us to play. That's why everyone was there (at Hillsborough), to see us play, so why would we not go and play?"

And play Liverpool most certainly did. Celtic were beaten 5-1 before the league campaign resumed with a goalless draw against Everton. A run of four straight Division One wins would follow but first came the rescheduled FA Cup semi-final against Forest, this time at Old Trafford. It ended 3-1 in Liverpool's favour, a result that was never in doubt to the winners.

"We just couldn't lose the game," said Nicol. "We just said 'we can't lose this game'. That was the only thing. That's certainly the only thing I can remember."

Victory set up a Wembley final against Everton and something positive on which to focus for a region that had gone through so much. Even before Hillsborough, Liverpool as a city had been reeling from years of economic problems and unemployment. Nicol remembers a unique day.

"The fact that it was Everton was huge because a lot of Evertonians were involved in families who had lost someone - it meant a lot to them as well. You'll never see another stadium that full and no segregation. The two teams were going at it on the field while the fans stood side-by-side on the terraces. You'll never see that again in your life."

Ian Rush's double strike in extra-time saw Liverpool prevail, 3-2, but there was little time to celebrate. The backlog of fixtures caused by the break after Hillsborough meant that there remained two league games to play. Three days later, Liverpool beat West Ham to set up a title decider against Arsenal, in which they just had to avoid defeat by two goals to claim the double.

It was not to be, thanks to Michael Thomas' famous goal, and as Arsenal celebrated, Liverpool's players were left to deal with a tumultuous period that had changed their lives. Nicol recalls the worst summer of his career and one which left him ill-prepared for the next season.

"It was rotten. It was a nightmare. We went to Malta - probably the worst holiday we ever had. It was impossible to switch off and I guess it was the same for everybody else although we didn't really talk about it. I certainly know that, when I came back, I wasn't focused. Looking back now, I clearly know everybody else wasn't either."

Nicol puts Liverpool's subsequent 1989-90 league championship-winning campaign down to individual ability more than anything else. Hillsborough continued to weigh heavily on the players and on the club as a whole, something which, in a football sense, Liverpool has yet to totally overcome.

"We were there," says Nicol. "We were as good a team as there was on the planet and would have given anybody a game. To get there takes a certain thing but it's very hard to keep and very easy to lose so, when you lose it, you just don't get it back in ten seconds. They still haven't got it back. Almost, almost, they're certainly close to it but they haven't quite got it back and that's twenty years ago."

Nicol would stay at Liverpool until 1995, when he left for a short spell at Notts County. From there, as fate would have it, he moved to Sheffield Wednesday. Playing at Hillsborough, however, was not something that automatically triggered memories of the disaster.

"I wasn't going back there thinking 'this is where Hillsborough was' because, by then, it was ingrained in me. That never affected me at all and the stadium had completely changed by then. It was all-seater, the terraces were gone."

Today, Nicol lives in America where he is the head coach of the New England Revolution. On April 15 this year, he will be preparing for his team's MLS game against DC United. Although his thoughts may drift to the memories of Hillsborough, he admits that it does not have to be the anniversary for him to be reminded of what he and so many others went through.

"There are a couple of families that we are still in touch with and memories come back when we talk with people we met and those who were helping. Those are the kinds of things that remind you."

Twenty years ago, Steve Nicol took the field to play a game of football, unaware that what would happen around its perimeter that spring day would have a life-changing effect on him, his wife Eleanor and his family.

Moreover, what happened irrevocably changed Liverpool as a football club and as a city. The reminders will keep coming to Nicol, for he knows he owes it to those that lost their lives to ensure that they never leave.

"Pure and simple, it was just sad. There are hundreds of different things that happen that make you think of it and it doesn't have to be any certain day of the week. When you think about it, it doesn't change how you feel about it. It doesn't change. It doesn't change."


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