The Point
Last updated: 27 June 2022. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Interview: A Hillsborough survivor speaks

Neil McDougall, 45, is a born and bred Liverpudlian now living in London and is the father of four children. He has been a Liverpool fan since the age of five and, aged 22, was at Hillsborough on April 15th, 1989 – the day on which 96 of Neil’s fellow Liverpool fans went to a football match and never returned home.

Neil spoke to The Point's Willie Duncan about his recollection of the events of that day, the aftermath of the smear campaign and cover up perpetrated the UK Government, South Yorkshire Police and the media, as well as his hopes for the future of the campaign for justice for the 96.


      Neil, what are your memories of the day of the disaster and at what point did you first become aware that there was a problem at Hillsborough?

“The strange thing is that my first worry was actually how packed the Nottingham Forest (Liverpool’s opponents that day) end was. I remember saying that I had never seen it so full before. Then, I began to realise how busy it must have been in our end of the stadium because, in the build up to kick-off, people were waving and shouting rather than singing. Then, of course, people started to climb over the fences or climbing up a tier in the stand and when some fans started running towards Bruce (Grobbelaar, Liverpool goalkeeper) to tell him what was going on, it became clear how serious the problem was.

The memories are, of course, focused on what happened but the build up to the match itself was nothing unusual. It was another semi-final, we were confident of victory and the weather was great. 

It was just another football game but, of course, the events of the day changed all of that.

I just remember watching on in horror and seeing fans on the pitch using advertising hoardings as emergency stretchers. When I looked out across the pitch, it was like a war zone. Bodies were laid out everywhere and they were being carried down to the far end of the stadium. There were people crying everywhere, walking about the pitch in a state of shock. It was such a horrible sight to see.

Whenever I recall the day and see the pitch, in my mind, I always think of a scene akin to something from World War I: The shell suits turn into army uniforms with tin helmets on, those advertising stretchers are real stretchers. People were running around in circles in sheer desperation doing their best to help those who were dying.  Every so often, you’d hear a small cheer as someone was brought back to life on the pitch, only to fade away again. It was like watching a war scene in a movie but it wasn’t a war: it was only a football match and those people should never have been killed. They should have been safe. Something went horribly wrong on that day.

Afterwards, the memories are difficult to deal with. I remember little things like that nobody had a mobile phone in those days so you couldn’t phone or text to let people know that you were ok. I remember that the queues for the pay phones were absolutely massive. My parents never even knew that I was alive until I walked through the door at around 10pm that night. My dad was convinced that he’d seen my jacket being packed away into a plastic bag during a television update and, so, my parents hadn’t seen any updates for hours because my dad wouldn’t let my mum watch it. He never told anyone about what he thought that he’d seen.

I never did go to the replayed match but I did go to the final against Everton with my dad, who is an Everton fan. When Gerry Marsden sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” before the game, so many people were in tears – from both sides. That brought a lot of comfort to me because it helped me realise that I wasn’t the only one struggling to cope with the horrors of that day and that even big dockers cry sometimes.”

      How quickly were you aware that the UK Government, police and media were preparing a smear campaign against Liverpool fans and how did it make you feel?

"To be honest, I didn’t catch on too quickly. I remember seeing The Sun headline and thinking to myself: “Wow. I never saw any of that”. All that I’d seen was people trying to help and care for their mates, people in tears and numb with shock.

I’ve always found that what happened that day to be a very difficult thing to talk about and the smears were a big part of that because people believed the lies. As the saying goes, “the lie is halfway around the world before the truth has got its pants on”. I saw with my own eyes what happened that day and I knew the truth but most people didn’t and that was difficult to accept.

The anger, disgust and realisation of what was being said and what was going on kicked in shortly afterwards."

      As a direct result of the tragedy, 96 people lost their lives but what do you think that the psychological effect has been on some or all of the survivors as a consequence of the smear campaign?

"Waiting 23 years is a long time to have waited for the truth. We don’t have justice yet but, at last, we have truth. For anyone to lose someone very close to them, even due to natural causes, the feeling of loss lasts for a very long time. To have had the grieving process drawn out for 23 years as you fight for the memories and values of the person that you’ve lost is unimaginably cruel.

To have lost someone and to have the majority of people think that they were killed by their own kind or through their own fault is not right. It’s completely unacceptable. To wait that long to get the truth widely accepted is far too long to wait.

I never knew any of the 96 who died but, even still, that day has affected me ever since. I can’t imagine what the families of the deceased have been through.

I really do struggle with it at times. The kids know to turn the TV off if something about Hillsborough comes on; they know to leave me alone on the anniversary of the day itself.

It has become a little easier as groups began to form and provided us with a voice and a platform. It helped you to realise that you were right and that there was a fight to be taken on."

      Since the recent report was published various individuals including the UK Government, South Yorkshire Police and Kelvin MacKenzie have apologised. What do you think of those apologies?

"Those apologies were long overdue and needed to be said, particularly the apology from David Cameron on behalf of the UK Government. The apologies aren’t worth a tuppence to me, though. Words are easily said but I see no real evidence that there is any genuine meaning behind them and I still have not had an explanation as to why it took them so long to make those apologies."

      It is now abundantly clear that the UK Government of the day and subsequent Governments failed to get to the truth. What would you say to those who failed to address the injustice when they had the chance?

"They should face justice today. It doesn’t matter that it was 23 years ago or that some may have retired or changed jobs. They should be held accountable for their actions. The cover up within public office was so widespread that it was easier to ignore it or do nothing. That simply is not good enough.

I feel that the lies and the cover up have made the mistakes far worse. Those who have failed should hold their hand up, admit their mistakes and take their punishment. For South Yorkshire police to be so inept and corrupt and to get away with it is unbelievable. 

I believe that the close relationship between the Government and South Yorkshire Police, partly because of the Miners’ Strike meant that the Police believed that they were untouchable and that they could do whatever they wanted. It’s very wrong."

      After 23 years, the truth has finally been revealed. How much does that mean to the people of Liverpool?

"The thing that people don’t realise about Liverpool is that it’s really like a big village. It’s a real community. The philosophy in Liverpool is that you look after your own. The truth is a massive step forward for everyone but only justice will provide us with closure.

People underestimate us. We fight for what we believe in; no matter how hard we need to fight or how long we need to fight for, we just keep fighting. The families of the Hillsborough victims should be praised for keeping the fight going when people kept telling them to give up the fight."

      What needs to happen for justice to be done for those who lost their lives as a result of the tragedy?

"Those responsible need to face the consequences of their actions – no more, no less. All of those responsible for the decisions that they took on the day and participated in the cover up afterwards should face the consequences. In cases where it is appropriate, I would like to see criminal charges brought against individuals responsible.

The police, the Government, the ambulance service: all of those who failed to do their job properly and caused the deaths of the 96 and then covered it up should be brought to justice. They should not be treated differently, they should be held accountable for their actions in the way that anyone else would be."

      Finally, what do you see as the way forward for the campaign for justice for the 96?

"The fight for justice needs to be carried on. The truth has been revealed but the 96 deserve justice now. I would like to see those who were responsible to be held accountable for their actions and I believe that previous reviews into the case and decisions that have been made should be overturned immediately.

It’s very important that progress is made while the world’s spotlight is on the case. Even those who chant for justice for the 96 at football matches have done their bit in keeping up awareness of the campaign and kept the profile high. If you’ve ever done anything like that, then you have played your part in the truth coming out and you should be proud of that.

In a strange way, the smears had a positive effect on the campaign because it galvanised the groups and reinforced the belief that things were not right. Whenever it got dark, it gave you the incentive to keep fighting.

For me, justice must be done and that will enable us to get closure. If that happens, we will be able to move on without ever forgetting the 96 and what happened on that day."

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

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