Ronnie Whelan and Ray Houghton are being urged to act quickly and openly and to sever their association with an Irish TV show sponsored by The Sun.
Friday was the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster that resulted in the deaths of 96 supporters and countless cases of deep psychological trauma for survivors.
Tuesday is the anniversary of The Sun printing front-page lies accusing those survivors of carrying out unspeakable acts on those who died. Under a headline of ‘The Truth’, those lies led to a boycott of The Sun that still holds strong 22 years later.
As the fight continues to get the truth in the quest for justice there is always a feeling that the paper assisted the establishment in hiding that truth. The paper’s editor at the time, Kelvin MacKenzie, later admitted the claims were lies and also said they were fed to the paper by “a Conservative MP” and backed up by the “Chief Superintendent”. To this day some people still believe those lies.
Any decent person taking time to read the truth about the disaster before reading the words under that headline of ‘The Truth’ would find it difficult not to avoid that paper. That’s why the boycott is observed so strongly – not just by Liverpool fans, not just on Merseyside, not just by people who follow football.
Ireland has a huge Reds fanbase and those fans feel as strongly about the boycott as anyone from L4.
The disappointment felt by those Irish Reds was huge when they heard RTÉ plugging a show sponsored by The Sun and featuring major roles for ex-Reds Ray Houghton and Ronnie Whelan. Ronnie was club captain on the day of the disaster. Ray was memorably approached on the pitch that day by a fan desperate to get word out about what was unfolding on those terraces.
It is unthinkable that either would knowingly allow themselves to be associated with that paper.
At the same time it seems a rather underhand act from an organisation like RTÉ to put two Liverpool players into this position.
The show is a one-off version of RTÉ’s football highlights show ‘Premier Soccer’, essentially the equivalent of the BBC’s Match of the Day in England. This one-off show is planned for May 1st and is to have a different format to the Saturday show. The panellists will be interacting with a live studio audience and the show will go under the title of ‘Premier Soccer Sunday’.
Some Reds felt angered at the regular version of the show carrying sponsorship from the News of the World. However, although the News of the World is essentially the Sunday version of The Sun, it has never been ‘officially’ included in the boycott and therefore the reaction hasn’t been quite as strong.
The club educates its players about the reasons for the boycott and although they aren’t contractually obliged to stay away from The Sun that education works well. Liverpool players don’t talk to The Sun.
There is no similar policy with the News of the World even though a sizable proportion of fans feel there should be. Fans debate whether or not to include the News of the World – but there is no debate at all about The Sun.
There is no debate about any show sponsored by The Sun. Liverpool players – past or present – should not be taking part in it.
Whelan and Houghton’s appearance on any such show would give the impression that the stance on the boycott has been softened in some way. It hasn’t, not by any means.
Houghton has been quoted in the past talking about the disaster. “Six minutes in, Peter Beardsley had just hit the crossbar and I remember being on the pitch and a Liverpool fan came running up to me and said, ‘There are people dying in there.’
“At the time I couldn’t comprehend what he meant by that. My first thought was that some of the opposition fans had gotten into the Liverpool end and there had been a fight. But I never could have imagined it would be anything like it turned out to be.”
Whelan has also been quoted on the disaster. He was club captain and joined other members of the squad – and the manager – in visiting survivors in hospital and attending funerals of those who died.
One funeral in particular stood out for Ronnie: “The worst for me,” said Ronnie, “was the funeral of a young fan who was christened Ian Whelan, but everyone knew him as ‘Ronnie’ because I was his idol.
“I stood at that funeral with his mam and dad and his sister and I watched them mourn the loss of their son, their brother, who went to Sheffield to watch me play for Liverpool and never came back to them.
“I looked at his family that day it hit me hard. It is still difficult at times for me to think about Hillsborough or talk about it, but whenever that happens I just ask myself what Ian Whelan’s family have been through in the 20 years since the disaster. How have they coped?”
Ian’s dad, Wilf, spoke two years ago about the failings of the police. “To me the police failed in their duty that day,” said Wilf. “They didn’t organise things like they did in the years before, they had a new man in charge, less officers on duty and they just let the crowd build up.”
But, like many other families, they got to see first-hand the contempt that police force had for the victims, survivors and families.
They weren’t informed of their son’s death until 4am the following morning after which they drove to Sheffield: “We didn’t know what was going on,” Wilf recalled, “we had to look through a glass window and there were lots of other families coming to find bodies.
“We were interviewed and there were about a dozen police officers asking had he been drinking and had he been on drugs. They were just trying to put him down all the time.”
Ian’s Mum Doris put it simply: “The police treated us like criminals. You don’t realise at the time what is going on.”
This attitude was mirrored by those lies fed to The Sun. It printed those lies and then when it was clear beyond any doubt they were lies it failed to apologise or retract its story, meaning many of its readers to this day believe that bile it printed.
That bile made the recovery for the survivors that bit harder. Struggling to come to terms with what had happened, after witnessing sights nobody should have to witness, sights that were nothing compared to what they’d felt whilst trapped in those cages, many said they felt guilt about what had happened. There was nothing they could have done, none of it was their fault in even the tiniest of amounts, yet here in black and white was a national paper acting as the mouthpiece for the contemptible idiots who were truly to blame.
Liverpool fans are now calling on Ronnie Whelan and Ray Houghton to do the right thing.
They must pull out of this show, and they must pull out of it as loudly as possible so that supporters in every corner of Ireland and around the world hear their reasons for doing so.
Don’t buy The Sun. Don’t surf The Sun’s website. Don’t follow The Sun on Twitter. Don’t add The Sun as a friend on Facebook. Don’t borrow someone else’s copy of The Sun. Don’t go on a show sponsored by The Sun.
Boycott The Sun. For the 96. For the families. For the survivors. For us all.
Read more on this story in The Irish Media:
The Irish Independent: Liverpool fans demand Irish duo quit TV show
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Follow Jim Boardman on Twitter: @jimboardman