Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Match Pricks and Hillsborough

My connection to Liverpool Football Club is one that I've struggled at times to reconcile with what happened at Hillsborough. For one, I'm an American, raised with baseball and "throwball" in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Compounding my limited history with the club is the fact that until roughly 2000, I had only watched two football matches start to finish – the U.S. v. Brazil at USA '94 and then the final from that World Cup, Brazil v. Italy. I didn't give any kind of football a real chance until I was in college. Then once I realized I liked it, I remembered a somewhat hazy memory of Michael Owen's goal from France '98 and now here I am. I've omitted a great deal there, obviously, but it's unimportant.

Where I've struggled with regarding Hillsborough comes from feelings of respect and right to privacy. I'm naturally a curious person, and I have always wanted to know what happened, but often I don't feel it's my place to intrude on the memories of those much closer to the situation. In The Match Pricks Interview, I asked author Neil Dunkin about it, and he was gracious and generous in sharing his thoughts. In the end, I chose to learn more because it's simply too important to understand what happened, how people's grief was mocked and compounded by the authorities and how, with the Taylor Report (click for important details), the presentation of the English game basically came to be what it is today.

But when I've thought recently about Hillsborough and what I would write today, for how I personally relate to it, I kept coming back to how Liverpool Football Club created an invaluable friendship. It's one that I couldn't imagine being without, and it's improved my life to no end. About five years ago, my neighborhood in Milwaukee saw the opening of a place catering to "soccer" fans in the area – The Highbury Pub. Despite the Arsenal-centric name, everyone was welcome. At first, no one really knew anybody else, but familiar faces showed up each week, and there was some guy in there named Ian with the most impossible accent. He talked so fast! I had no clue what he was saying, but I could figure out he was a Liverpool fan, and our friendship grew from there. That's all we needed. Go to the bar, watch the match, bang back more than a "reasonable" number of pints and come back the next week.

Over time, I figured out how a true Scouser talked, met his wife, Kate, learned he grew up in Norris Green and learned he stood on the Kop during its final day before it was converted into an all-seater. The years passed, and Ian's family came to visit. His dad, Les, his mom, Karen, and his brother, Adam, and sister, Amie, have all been to Milwaukee in recent summers. They've treated me like family, and we've had immeasurably great times together. Adam's girlfriend, Stacey, taught us new "bits" we use to crack each other up every weekend. I couldn't be luckier.

And then shortly before the 2007 European Cup final in Athens, Ian and Kate had a son, Roan. Within minutes after that match ended wrongly for Liverpool, I was standing outside in the sun on Kinnickinnic Avenue, holding Roan and singing his name softly to him. Losing to Milan didn't seem that big a deal anymore. Ian and Kate have been welcoming enough, loving enough to treat me as "Uncle Jim" to Roan, and the boy has been amazing to watch for two years. He's just a joy, even if he might drive his parents a little batty now and again. I can just see him in a couple years hopefully joining his dad and I on their couch and watching at least a few minutes of a match, ready to shout on his Reds.

That's what I have focused on in thinking about Hillsborough and how Liverpool Football Club relates to my own ties to the club. I've been up and down all over the place this season, and Match Pricks is basically my "diary of a season" as a fan here since Colin and I started this site last summer. The team is much more than a hobby or passion for me – in good times and bad. Hillsborough is a time to reflect on that relationship for each of us and our own personal experience. Liverpool has introduced me to priceless people and unforgettable experiences that make me better. I'm eternally grateful for that chance. And I know I'm lucky this football club allowed me to get to know the Smiths.

Les Smith went to Hillsborough that day. He was unhurt and returned home safely. His good fortune enriched my life. I offer my deepest, unfailing sympathy to those whose experience ended in tragedy.


Jamie said...

wonderful peice. very nice... the picture is chilling.

it was a strange time. football stopped for a short while, so they could make sure it never happened again.

when it returned, it came with a bang... his name was mickey thomas.

Dan said...

Well done Jim. I like to say that the club found me a few years ago, as there was just something special that drew me to it.

Of course, I was aware of Hillsborough. It really wasn't until this week that I truly began to understand the scope of the tragedy, and the injustice these families were left to deal with.

I read the letters last night, some were absolutely heartbreaking. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims, families, and the survivors who have had to deal with the after effects.