Hillsborough Doesn’t Leave You – A Liverpool Fan’s Postcard from Azores, Portugal

In 2014, Liverpool was pushing to win the league for the first time in 25 years. Globetrotting Liverpool fan Pete Martin found himself in the Portuguese islands of Azores watching a title-deciding match.

Hillsborough Doesn't Leave You - A Liverpool Fan's Postcard from Azores

In 2014, Liverpool FC  was pushing to win the English Premier League for the first time in 25 years. Under the stewardship of Brendan Rodgers and lead by the genius of Luis Suarez, there was a strong belief that Liverpool can finally end their long draught. The author of this piece Pete Martin, after some life-changing events, embarked on a soul-searching journey of a lifetime to circumnavigate the world by ship and train. He watched the events in the Premier League unfold wherever and whenever he could. In mid-April, on the eve of the Hillsborough Anniversary, he unexpectedly had a poignant day in the islands of Azores as he watched a potential title-deciding tie between Liverpool and Manchester City.

I wake up just after seven o’clock. The sunrise is beautiful. The sky is bright red beyond the volcanic mountains of the islands of the Azores. I’m glad for some respite from the cruise today; it’s been a long, tortuous journey crossing the Atlantic from the USA. By eight o’clock, the ship is still and the lifeboats begin to escort those who have booked tours. At half past eight, the rest of us are allowed to queue to be tendered ashore. As I’m walking to the disembarkation point, there’s a general announcement that getting people to their tours is going slower than expected and those without tours, like me, are encouraged to linger over breakfast until the passengers with tours have departed. I have to wait another hour for my escape.

I step off the tender and take my first footsteps back in Europe again. It is Day 70 of this mad trip and the last time I was in Europe was Day 6 when I crossed the border into Asia on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Horta is the small port on the Azorean island of Faial. It’s used as a stopping point by sailors crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The island has a population of only fifteen thousand. I’m back in jeans and a fleece for the morning weather. The rain is just about holding off. The passengers waiting for tours are blocking the terminal building, so I head out into town away from them. I walk along the coastal road from the harbour to the centre, stopping at the cathedral. It’s very European inside with a grandiose altar and pews. The priest is laying out prayer books for morning mass. It’s still early on Sunday morning; the streets are empty and the shops closed. None of the other passengers have made it this far into town yet. This setting reminds me of the lines from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” – calm is the morn without a sound, calm as to suit a calmer grief.

I walk to Peter Street. It appears and, with it, Peter’s Café Sport. I ask inside if they will show the Liverpool match that’s on this afternoon and the kind owner says she will check the channels if I come back later or that I could try the Marina Bar. I walk around further but there’s not much here and I’m too stressed about finding somewhere to watch the match as kick-off nears.

Today it’s Liverpool against Manchester City. Liverpool have made an incredible burst to become title contenders for the first time in many, many years and, today, we play the title favourites. There is also the matter of it being the game closest to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, which is an emotional time for any Liverpool FC fan.

The sadness of Hillsborough, where 96 football fans died attending an FA Cup semi-final in 1989, as well as the shame of 1985’s Heysel tragedy, still hang over the city and its people (even those who have now left for pastures new) like a dark shadow. To have a light shone on the mistruths, lies, and corruption propagated by the county’s government, police and media in the wake of the disaster have become a long and tortuous road. At its core, to lose friends and family at a football game is tough enough. In every city in the world, the communion of watching the match goes on and nobody expects supporters not to come home again. Yet to have your fellow fans and, in some cases, family blamed as the cause of the disaster even with the obvious holes in the propaganda circulated by the Thatcherite government and Yorkshire police took the pain to another level. The mistrust between the city and the central government was bubbling through the tough economic policies that ravished the city in the 1980s which left many without a job and continues with the lack of justice regarding Hillsborough after all these years. [It was only in 2016, twenty-seven years after the event, that the British government exonerated the fans and declared the deaths as unlawful killings. I can only imagine how the families, who have pursued justice both with grit and grace, felt.]

The marina walls and the benches of the old town are painted with the names of fellow travellers either sailing around the world or, as a minimum, crossing the Atlantic Ocean. There are many Norwegian and German names and flags, that stand out more than the others. It amuses me to see them on my trip around the world. It feels good that people have lived out their dreams.

I find the Marina Bar by accident. It’s empty and I ask the barman if they will show the match. I tell him the kick-off could be either half-past ten or half-past eleven; with the change to British Summer Time in the UK, I’m not sure what the time difference is.

We chat for a while and he is convinced the match will be on and tells me to come back at half past eleven. I wander around the town again, but time is dragging. At a quarter past eleven, I go back to the Marina Bar. The barman convinces me that kick-off is actually half past twelve local time. He checks a website and he is right.

I have another hour to kill but I’m too nervous about the football to do anything else:  a win today would give the advantage to Liverpool; win this game and the title would be in our own hands. Then, just win our four remaining games and the league would be ours…finally. So, for a €1.50 coffee and free wifi (unlike the ship), I catch up on email, news, and Facebook in the Marina Bar. On the ship, I  would need to take out a small mortgage for a coffee and an hour’s interweb.

Ten minutes before kick-off, I hassle the barman to check that we have the right channel. He patiently and calmly changes channels for me until I hear a familiar tune. The signing of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Hillsborough has begun. The few American passengers in the bar who are drinking coffee or eating lunch have no idea what is going on. The other barman comes to my table too and the three of us stand in silence. At the end of the singing, he shakes my hand and says, “I want Liverpool to win.” This makes me smile.

Outside, the sun begins to shine. Liverpool scores within six minutes and we are two nil up by half-time. Then, City comes back and the game is level. I resort to an afternoon beer to settle my nerves. The bar is now empty, with the exception of me, the two barmen, and one American from the cruise ship who is now totally fixated.

It’s all City now, but Coutinho scores to put us back in front. We cheer loudly, including the American, who admits he doesn’t know which team is which. Liverpool holds on and, like Liverpool fans everywhere, I’m in dreamland. Could we actually do it? Win the last four games and the title is ours!

I head back to the terminal building in disbelief. There’s a long queue to wait for boats back to the ship, but nothing can affect my mood. It’s bright sunshine now too. The queues move quickly and, back on board, I watch the lifeboats being lifted back into position. We leave the Azores and head for Gibraltar, our next stop in two days’ time.

I grab some pizza from the Sail Away party at the Sea View Bar. The only seat I can find is inside, under the John Lennon picture. As I eat, Cruise Director Tony announces the evening itinerary. I’m not paying attention but I hear him say there’ll be a piano rendition of Beatles songs in the Piano Bar. It must be one of those days.

I’m too fired-up after the football to chill in my room, so at five o’clock I venture to the Crow’s Nest bar for an early sunset drink. Strangely, the bar is full. I wonder whether these people have actually been ashore. The honeymoon couple from the martini tasting on the first day is at the bar again. They are half cut and hitting the red wine hard. It’s hard to imagine this marriage lasting if they choose to spend all their days in the bar so soon. Impatient, I make my way to the Piano Bar. It’s another bar to tick off from the list of eleven on the liner. A solo pianist is playing “Hey Jude” to a half-full lounge. It’s good enough for me to take a seat at the bar that circles around his piano. At the end of the song, he welcomes me as it seems he knows the others; they have been attending his show most nights.

Piano Man Johnny asks where my accent is from. I tell him and he energetically bursts into “Come Together” and “Oh Darling.” After two more Beatles songs, Piano Man Johnny takes requests but it seems the Beatles are too modern for his elderly audience. He plays a song I do not know and, after this, a woman asks for some ‘show songs’ instead.

As the conversation continues over what song to play, it suddenly dawns on me. I ask the pianist to play “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” I have to explain that it’s from “Carousel” and hence a ‘show song’, but also that it’s appropriate today. If he’s not going to play the Beatles then he could pay homage to their hometown and mine.

Piano Man Johnny finds the music on his iPad and starts to play. To my amazement, the old woman sitting at the end of the bar stands up and starts to sing. She has an incredible falsetto voice and by the end of the song everyone is singing along. I thank both the pianist and the woman. The woman tells me that she has a friend from Liverpool who always sing this song, but she had no idea of the significance of the song.

The song, of course now a sporting anthem adopted in recent times by many other teams including Celtic, was first sung on Anfield’s famous Kop in the early sixties. Prior to games, the Kop would sing along to the hits of the day that were playing through the stadium tannoy. Gerry & the Pacemakers, one of the famed local Merseybeat bands that were dominating the charts, had recorded their version of the song in 1963. According to folklore, Gerry Marsden, the lead singer, presented a copy of the single to the then-manager of Liverpool Football Club,  Bill Shankly and he was immediately in awe of it. Once rumour of this reached the Kop, it continued to be sung by the fervent supporters before kick-off, irrespective of the song falling out of the charts. Sang after Liverpool won the FA Cup for the first time in 1965, it became Liverpool’s signature tune. Through the glory years of the 70s and 80s and particularly after Hillsborough, the song has become much more than a sporting anthem, sung by fans to sum up the feelings of both joy and pain.

My evening continues with the pianist and the singer performing old-time songs. I give up my chair to some more old fogies coming in after seeing one of the other shows and who want to finish the evening with a sing-song. It’s my queue to leave, but I can’t quite believe what I have witnessed – we have a chance to win the league and I’ve had my own personal little tribute to those lost at Hillsborough and to those who continue to seek justice.

Back in my room, I expensively check the interweb just to make sure Liverpool FC really did win. We did.

Of course, Liverpool did not win the Premier League – losing one and drawing one of the last four games to hand the title to Manchester City. The long wait continues.
This is an adapted extract from Pete’s book “Revolutions”.
Pete Martin

Pete Martin is a traveller, author and journalist. Pete is a Liverpool FC fan and is passionate about football at all levels. Pete’s most recent book is entitled “Fantafrica”. Soul searching for his true calling, the one activity to give himself up to that will replace ‘work’, he is invited to a volunteering project – developing a football academy in Ghana.