We didn't realise what was happening till we turned on the TV, says Ablett
12 April 2009 01:58
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'I went to 11 funerals in two weeks.' That is how former Liverpool defender Gary Ablett remembers the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster 20 years ago.
It is an incredibly sad statistic. What is really tragic is that several of Ablett's colleagues attended many, many more.
Never forget: Gary Ablett
A total of 96 people lost their lives after the crush on the Leppings Lane terraces on April 15 1989. The youngest was current club captain Steven Gerrard's cousin Jon-Paul Gilhooley - he was just 10.
Ablett, now Liverpool's reserve team manager, was in the team playing Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup semi-final at Sheffield Wednesday's ground. The memories of that day, and the harrowing events which followed, still haunt the 43-year-old.'The major points stick in your mind.
I went to 11 funerals in two weeks,' he said. 'You got asked to read and sometimes it was very difficult when you were looking up and there were people breaking down on the front row.
It obviously affected you and you broke down too.'I'm not afraid to admit I cried on many occasions, both with people and for people who I didn't really know and will never get the chance to know, unfortunately.
'It affected people in different ways. There were people [in the squad] who could cope and people who couldn't but you could never think less of people who couldn't cope.'
More than 25,000 Liverpool fans travelled to Sheffield on a sunny afternoon 20 years ago but as the team warmed-up they got no hint of the tragic events which were about to unfold.
'If you looked over towards that end you could see how packed and busy it was but I think the awareness of when something was wrong was not until six minutes past three when we came off the field,' explained Ablett.
'When the referee summoned us off I was down that end of the ground and to see people crushed up against the front of the railings was not a pretty sight but we didn't have time to think about it because we were told to get off the pitch.
'We didn't realise then how serious the problem was and we were waiting to go out again in five or 10 minutes.
Tribute: Former Liverpool player Stephen Warnock lays a reith in memory of the Hillsborough victims before the Reds defeat of Blackburn on Saturday
'As time went on we realised something serious had happened. I can remember maybe 30 minutes after we were taken off the field the dressing room door banging open and it must have been a Liverpool supporter.
'I didn't know where he was coming from or going to but he said there were people dead out there and only then we realised something serious was going on.'No-one knew what to think. We weren't aware of the reasons why and it was only when we got from the changing rooms to one of the lounges we saw the scenes on the television and realised the gravity of the situation.
'My brother was at the game but thankfully he wasn't at that end, otherwise we may have been having a different conversation. Some of the sights we saw on that day we will never ever forget.'
But that was only the beginning of the trauma for Ablett and the rest of the squad. After a sombre coach journey home, and with all football activities at the club cancelled, the players began the arduous task of visiting survivors in hospital and meeting victims' families.
'As a footballer you are used to doing the odd hospital visit but nothing on that magnitude. Their stories were very harrowing and it was a humbling experience,' said the former defender.'We put a stop to the training and were there for the families whenever they wanted us. Kenny (Dalglish) and Marina (his wife) led the way night and day and we tried to help as best we could.
'I think we were helped just as much by the families as we were trying to help them. They gave us the strength to carry on and we hoped in some small way we helped in terms of their loss and grieving.
'Probably, looking back now, we did help a bit but I think all of us failed to see whether any good could have come from what transpired.
'There came a point, however, when the squad had to return to playing and they began with a friendly at Celtic.'It was a difficult occasion but one we had to get through, which we did, and went on from there,' said Ablett.
'The underlying fact was we needed to get going again, perform to the best of our ability and provide a fitting tribute to those who lost their lives.'
That tribute came in the form of an FA Cup victory over near-neighbours Everton at Wembley, having eventually defeated Forest in the replayed semi-final.'Families were saying 'You need to get going again, so-and-so would have wanted you to carry on, go and win the FA Cup',' said the Liverpool-born Ablett, who won two league championships with the club.
'Everton were in a no-win situation but they played their part in a tremendous game. In terms of the people of Merseyside coming together it was a fantastic atmosphere.'
Liverpool went on to lose the league title to Arsenal with a dramatic last kick of the season at Anfield but after the events of the previous month that heartbreak hardly registered.The club host the annual memorial service at Anfield tomorrow and Ablett said it was an important occasion for everyone connected with the club, city and the disaster.'We should never forget what happened,' he stressed.