Playing In The Shadow Of Grief

Football is a sport of great joy and exceptional sorrow. And, increasingly, loss.

Via Wikimedia Commons

If you’ve watched any Premier League game this season— or last season, or even the one before that— there’s a reasonably good chance kickoff of your game was delayed to allow for a moment’s silence.

For the most part, these observances have either been for former players and coaches and other important figures, or because of some national tragedy far away from the pitch, such as the Grenfell Tower disaster. Whether because we feel more comfortable observing them, or because the tragedies themselves are becoming increasingly common, these are practically a regular fixture of our football experience now. In the same way that baseball fans kindly remove their caps before the national anthem, football fans in England are called on to remember some new honored dead.

Even by recent standards, the 2018-19 season has been wracked by tremendous loss. In October, a helicopter carrying Leicester City owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha crashed outside the King Power Stadium, killing him and the other four people on board. This past January— not even three months after the Leicester helicopter crash— Argentine forward Emiliano Sala died in a plane crash on his way to the UK, having just signed with Cardiff City from Nantes.

It’s such a strange thing, that such unspeakable loss hits us so often now that we just all kind of know what to do. Whole families and communities get torn apart, and then 40,000 or so relative strangers stand in a stadium and fall silent in near-perfect unison. We all have the public choreography of mourning in football down pat these days.

This sport is big enough to contain literally every human emotion and also small enough to make you feel the full brunt of it, yourself, whether you’re ready for it or not. People you don’t know, would never have known, die by some fashion or another, and because we’re all lashed together in the same interdependent web of joy and heartbreak that is football, we feel their loss as if they were family. We can’t help it.

And then what are we supposed to do with it? The highs in football fade too quickly. Nerves calm once the critical moment passes. Broken hearts mend, with enough time. Grief is something else. Grief is sticky. Grief seeps into all the cracks and pores in your life. Bookstores are replete with volumes and guides to help people cope with grief— half of them building off those Seven Stages you’ve almost certainly heard about— and they sell because we’re all hit with it at some point and we never know what to do with it. The people who write those books mean well, but here’s the thing: none of those books ever fucking work. Because you never move past grief, not really. It just becomes part of who you are. The “acceptance” part at the end of the Seven Stages is really just accepting that there’s a giant sucking hole in your life and it’ll never go away. And someday, you, too, will be someone’s hole.

I would say that the past 48 hours or so has been an emotional rollercoaster for Liverpool fans, but really, it’s not materially different from the base experience of a Red. Yesterday, Liverpool hosted Chelsea in a game that they absolutely had to win if they were to have any hope of fending off Manchester City and winning their first league title in the Premier League era. They won that game 2-0, returning them (however briefly) to the top of the table and, for a time, banishing the ghosts of five years ago, in this very same fixture and in very similar circumstances.

But before that, the teams, and over 53,000 fans (including travelling Chelsea supporters) stood up and held a minute of silence to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster.

Liverpool are, obviously, not the only football club to have direct and long-lasting experience with tragedy and loss. But Hillsborough— and the subsequent cover-ups and investigations and campaign by the families to get the truth out— has become an indelible part of the club and everyone connected to it. You can’t separate it or compartmentalize it; being a Liverpool fan means screaming at the top of your lungs after Mohamed Salah’s goal against Chelsea, and also having your hands shake when you remember that ninety-six of us went to an FA Cup semifinal 30 years ago and never came back. They’re all bound up together, and us with it. Millions of Liverpool fans around the world, the vast majority of whom did not know the victims and do not know their families, who cannot possibly comprehend what the tragedy did to this city, are nonetheless charged with carrying part of that insurmountable grief with them, forever.

Liverpool are sometimes criticized for making Hillsborough such an essential element of the club’s identity. They are, again, not the only club to have dealt with tragedy and loss, and that perhaps making it central to their story is a bit, you know, unseemly. But I don’t think that’s right. Because in our own lives, we have such a hard time moving past grief. We never get over the loss of someone we loved, not really. We may carry on as before, we may try to get on with it as best as we can, but there will always be that hole in our hearts. Liverpool, I think, are unique in that they don’t try to pretend otherwise. There is no moving past Hillsborough. It’s just part of our lives now. Running away from it won’t do anything. So every year, every middle of April, we gather in one place and acknowledge the hole. Because what else are we supposed to do with it?

It’s a strange and difficult thing to admit how much grief shapes us. None of us ever want to admit the extent to which our lives are defined by tragedy. But they are. We mourn, every day. We mourn people we’ve lost, and we mourn people we used to be, and we mourn futures we could’ve had. There’s healing to be found, after a time, but so often being “healed” of grief means always carrying a dull ache and a noticeable scar. And that’s if you’re lucky. Grief can swallow you whole, if you’re not careful. If you let it. There’s no real use in denying the hold grief has over us. All we can do is acknowledge that, with honesty and kindness toward ourselves and patience for those who aren’t there yet.

And sometimes we can do all that together. All in one stadium. All pin-drop quiet.


Bridget Gordon is the digital editor for Howler Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @thaumatropia.