Saturday is 15 April and so for Louise Brookes it will be a time for poignant reflection. She will visit her local cemetery in Bromsgrove before returning home to light a candle and raise a glass, all in memory of her brother Andrew, one of the 97 people who lost their life as a consequence of the Hillsborough disaster exactly 34 years ago.
The anniversary has been this way for Brookes since Anfield stopped hosting an annual memorial service for those who never made it back from Liverpool’s 1989 FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest and she prefers it as such given it means mourning in a quieter, more intimate way a loved one lost far too soon. As Brookes says: “People should be able to remember those who died however they want. And it’s nice to remember them as individuals, because that’s what they were – individual people.”
That much is true and for Brookes, Andrew will for ever be the 26-year-old lover of music and fashion who was strict on her but only because he cared. He was also the spitting image of Bruce Grobbelaar, and Brookes is able to talk about all of that with great warmth and humour. But as is the case for all bereaved family members and survivors of the crush on the Leppings Lane terrace, she also exists in a permanent state of trauma, the events of that fateful day in Sheffield and everything that came after, namely the gruelling fight for justice and total lack of accountability for those responsible, leaving a scar on the heart that will never heal.
And it has only deepened because of what the journalist Tony Evans describes as the “banterfication” of Hillsborough, a growing trend carried out by callous people in the disingenuous guise of football rivalry. And nowhere is it more prevalent and relentless than online. On various social media platforms, Twitter especially, there is little escape from the vile bile, something Brookes knows all too well. “The trolling has been getting progressively worse in the last 10 years or so and especially since the 2016 unlawfully killed verdicts,” she says. “There are certain people who wanted to believe the lies about Hillsborough were true because of their hatred of Liverpool fans and when they could no longer do that, they became even more cruel.
“How dare these people get away with saying disgusting things about those who died at Hillsborough, like my brother. They did nothing wrong that day. You then have the survivors who are still traumatised by what happened, so seeing all this stuff online is a real danger to their mental wellbeing. Some survivors have taken their own life because of the wicked comments they’ve seen online. If anyone takes their own life because of a troll, that troll should be tried for manslaughter.”
Fuelled by such deep anger, and driven on by a defiance that played its part in the collective pursuit of truth over Hillsborough, Brookes has taken on those who mock the disaster and through her efforts two men have been prosecuted in court; one in July 2016 for wearing an offensive T-shirt regarding Hillsborough, a photograph of which appeared on social media and for which he was fined £600, and another in October 2021 in connection with a social media post that linked Hillsborough to the chaos at Wembley before the final of Euro 2020, for which he was fined £400 and made to pay £125 in costs.
On Thursday, another man – Zakir Hussain, 28, of no fixed abode – appeared at Thames magistrates court accused of sending malicious messages to Brookes via Twitter, including one containing a threat to deface Andrew’s grave. Hussain pleaded not guilty to one of the five charges against him and was released on bail. A trial is scheduled to take place at Stratford magistrates court on 22 June.
Brookes is proud of her stance in the fight against trolls but there is also despair at the toll it has taken. “I’ve argued with these people from first thing in the morning until last thing at night and it consumes you,” she says. “My mental health has deteriorated as a result, especially in regards to depression and anxiety. I’ve had panic attacks and it got to a stage where I wanted to take my own life. I don’t say that easily but I began to dread waking up each morning because I didn’t know what I was going to see online. I’d had enough.”
Thankfully Brookes is in a better place than she once was. Yet her experiences underline the serious impact of social media abuse and for Kevin Sampson, a Hillsborough survivor and highly regarded writer on the subject, there is little chance of things improving any time soon. “I have the most profound respect for Lou and everyone who takes these people to task but my impression is that the perpetrators only go through the motions of performing contrition when they’re outed,” he says. “Hillsborough is a target for trolls who revel in the anger and hurt they cause.”
Sampson is equally downbeat about the issue of rival supporters engaging in chants about Hillsborough. It has always been there but has become more widespread. In January 2022 two Shrewsbury Town fans were banned by their club for a total of eight years for singing about the disaster during an FA Cup third-round tie at Anfield and there have since been incidents involving fans from a host of other clubs including, perhaps most shockingly, Forest.
More often than not, the “always the victims” chant is at the centre of the abuse and those responsible insist it has nothing to do with Hillsborough. It is a defence which defies credibility. As Evans puts it: “Everyone denies it’s a Hillsborough slur but it’s the clearest dog whistle in the history of high-pitched whines.”
There are several reasons why this is getting worse. An increased polarisation of society, exacerbated and reflected by social media, is clearly one. Then there is, as Brookes intimates, the long-established hatred of scousers, and Liverpool Football Club specifically, which has become more pronounced online and in the stands during the club’s recent period of success. Jealousy and resentment can do that to some people.
For Ian Byrne, also a Hillsborough survivor and the MP for Liverpool West Derby, there is only one solution: education. Hence his overseeing the creation of the Real Truth Legacy Project, an “off the shelf” online access tool that can be used to teach children and adults about the disaster and which Byrne is using as the driving force to make education about Hillsborough part of the national curriculum, something he believes is realistic and necessary.
“It’s difficult for me as a 50-year-old man who was at Hillsborough to look across and see another 50-year-old man or woman singing songs about it despite knowing what happened, and that’s why education is important,” Byrne says. “If that happens and that person has their daughter or son with them and they turn around and say: ‘Hang on, we’ve just learned about that at school’ … there can be no more powerful weapon.
“One idea for the education programme could be kids coming from Manchester to Anfield, seeing the memorial, learning about Hillsborough, the cover-up and the fight for justice. Fundamentally it’s about targeting the next generation and spreading a message that unites us as opposed to divides us; that Hillsborough, and more recently Paris, could have happened to any group of supporters. We simply have to do this if we’re going to break this cycle of inhumanity.”
Byrne wrote to Richard Masters, chief executive of the Premier League, in October asking for assistance with the rollout of The Real Truth Legacy Project and for more to be done regarding chanting about Hillsborough. He has been encouraged by the response and especially by the creation of a steering group that involves the Premier League working alongside the Football Association, Football League, the Football Supporters’ Association and other individuals and bodies, including Byrne, to stamp out tragedy chanting in general.
The group has consulted the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to discuss what legislation could be used to pursue convictions. Existing legislation makes it difficult for police to prosecute anyone involved because tragedy chants are not considered discriminatory. The FA appears especially keen to tackle such chants having on more than one occasion in recent months described them as “abhorrent”.
Liverpool have established a more forceful approach to dealing with Hillsborough chants that includes providing stewards with clear instruction on what to do when they hear it at Anfield. It played a part in the ejection of 16 Chelsea supporters there in January after they had been warned by stewards not to repeat the chants and carried on regardless. The club also regularly issues statements condemning such chanting, as was the case after Chelsea fans again engaged in it during Liverpool’s visit this month.
So the fight continues and, as has been the case since April 1989, those most directly affected by Hillsborough are at the forefront of the charge. This month Charlotte Hennessy, who was six when her father, Jimmy, died in the disaster, launched a petition calling on the government to make tragedy chanting a hate crime after widespread use of the “victims” chant by Manchester City fans during Liverpool’s recent trip to the Etihad Stadium. City fans also sung about Hillsborough during their team’s game at Anfield in October and vandalised the concourse in the away section with graffiti of a similar nature. City and Chelsea have released statements apologising for the behaviour of their supporters.
“Hillsborough, Heysel, Munich, Istanbul are not fair game,” Hennessy wrote on Twitter when publicising her petition, which at the time of writing has more than 15,000 signatures. “The suffering of families and survivors is not ‘football banter’. It is our lives. Our suffering. Our trauma. It needs to stop.”
That is a message Brookes endorses as she continues to honour those lost at Hillsborough, as well as those forever affected by what happened there and in the decades since. And on Saturday, as ever, there will be one person in particular leading her thoughts: Andrew.
“He was a very quiet, very calm person,” Brookes says. “He didn’t argue or fall out with people and I never heard him say a bad thing about anybody, ever. He was just a really lovely human being. I miss him.”