Survivor's Guilt and Hidden Trauma: the Hillsborough Disaster 35 Years On

Words: Peter Hillier
Illustrations: Jim Brown
Sunday 07 April 2024
reading time: min, words

On April 15 1989, during an FA Cup tie between Nottingham Forest and Liverpool FC 766 people were injured at Hillsborough and a further 97 died as a result of overcrowding in one of the stands. We  delve into the depths of the fallout of this tragedy, exploring the hidden trauma and survivor's guilt present within many of the two clubs fanbases. 

Trigger warning: Mentions of suicide and violence

Hillsborough Orignal (1)

A 35-year-old shadow hangs over the lives of a significant number of Nottingham Forest supporters. For some, it is an ever-present; casting doubt, anxiety, guilt or any combination of the three. For some it appears in nightmares, others still in crowds. Gigs, sporting events, boarding holiday flights-   anything that really ought to be nice but might just turn out to be the worst thing ever. Grey days. Sunny days. Especially sunny, spring days. For many, the shadow is only an infrequent intrusion, relatively easy to brush off. For a much smaller number, the shadow has been inescapable, other than by taking one's own life. It’s happened. Some never speak of the shadow, even to life-partners, children, best mates. Never. Whatever the impact of the fifteenth of April 1989, anniversaries and matches against Liverpool FC tend to see the shadow looming largest and darkest.

Hillsborough was and remains Liverpool’s tragedy and the legacy on the city is intuitive and well-understood, though not always with due empathy. The 97 who lost their lives as a result of the crush in pens three and four, some of whom could have been saved – unlawfully killed by the actions of the police on the day, negligence of the ambulance service and faults in the stadium design – are rightly mourned and commemorated. A further 766 suffered non-fatal injuries.

Often overlooked, almost 53,000 other people stood helplessly witnessing this unfold, 53,000 survivors. 28,000 of these supporters of Nottingham Forest FC. The majority, on the Spion Kop, initially viewed the tragedy unfolding from the distance of a pitch-length. Some sensed hooliganism and hurled abuse, a product of the times and prevailing culture. As time passed, the true horror came into closer and sharper focus as victims were brought to that end, dying or already dead. From behind the fences, supporters watched the desperate attempts to save lives, the last breaths of the dying and the unfolding trauma of their would-be rescuers.

Some Forest supporters, those at the Leppings Lane end of the South Stand, were closer. Close enough to see the faces, hear the screams and, a particular horror that still haunts many, the smell. Some here tried to help, but recounted being beaten back by the police. Some still relive that experience every time they close their eyes. Personally, I can trace the night sweats and twisted, grim dreams back to that very date. It’s no coincidence that my dreams start out well and full of promise, but almost inevitably end in some sort of deathly horror. Awake, I dread celebrations and holidays, the fear of impending doom always spoiling the build-up. Sunny, crisp spring mornings may start full of optimistic joy but something darker always kicks in. That shadow.

Some still relive that experience every time they close their eyes.

I had been excited all week… it was a beautiful day… those present spent 100 minutes staring at the most awful events of our lives

Others have closer links still. Martin, a home and away Forest supporter for many years, travelled by car to Hillsborough on that fateful day, twelve years old at the time; his Liverpool supporting friend from the same village did not return.

As Steve Hanley wrote in the Brian fanzine, issue 10, May 1989, an issue almost entirely dedicated to reflection on Hillsborough: “I had been excited all week… it was a beautiful day… those present spent 100 minutes staring at the most awful events of our lives”.

Still, the tragedy was and remains Liverpool’s. Had the FA and police bowed to pressure to swap the allocated ends, it would have been Nottingham’s. As would the 35 year battle for justice, the false narrative, the abuse and trolling that continues to this day.

Throughout that 35 years, the instinct in Nottingham has been to clam up about Hillsborough. A scroll through posts responding to articles in the mainstream and on social media unveils a hidden epidemic of trauma. Self-inflicted silence. Survivor guilt. A feeling that since that day ‘nothing has been quite right with me’. 

Around the time of the Forest-Liverpool FA Cup tie in 2022, BBC Radio Nottingham’s Facebook was flooded with tales of repressed feelings, anxiety and desperation. And also, sadly, some misdirected anger and hatred directed at Liverpudlians, who some still accuse of causing the tragedy themselves. A horrific slur for the likes of J, a sixty year old friend who still lives coping with the mind-bending guilt of failing to be strong enough to hold the crush off his best friend, who died in his arms. Another nail in the heart of C, whose father was put alive into a body bag and died there, not from the crush but by choking on his own vomit. C faces almost daily abuse online about this. 

It was around the time of that cup tie that links began to form. Diane Lynn, a pen three survivor, had already realised that survivors in other parts of the ground would have been affected by what they experienced. Diane and another pen four survivor Peter Scarfe founded and still lead the Hillsborough Survivors Support Alliance (HSA), which offers practical support and specialist therapy for those struggling, frequently suffering PTSD.

Connections made online and in person at memorial events led to the therapy being offered to Forest supporters and, in turn, led to the formation of a Nottingham branch of the HSA. This small but rapidly expanding group offers survivors the chance to talk to others, to share experiences and to develop friendships with people who ‘get it’. The motto, ‘Unity is Strength’, being a lived value, not empty rhetoric.

The Nottingham HSA group is also involved in campaigning and education, particularly against the prevalence of hate chanting; chants which focus on Hillsborough and other tragedies which trigger and cause genuine harm to the families of victims and to survivors. The group was largely responsible, with the financial and practical support of some other high-profile Forest ‘faces’, for the thirty foot banner displayed at Anfield on Forest’s last two visits, calling for respect, solidarity and an end to hate chanting. 

Going forward, the group aims to extend the offer of support and, where needed, therapy, to more Forest supporters. It is also hoped to encourage the club, for so long reluctant to recognise the events of that terrible day as part of its own history, to engage and ensure that the much-appreciated and globally applauded gesture of the 97 empty seats at the cup tie can be built upon.

You can learn more about the Hillsborough Survivors Association at



We have a favour to ask

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion

Please note, we migrated all recently used accounts to the new site, but you will need to request a password reset

Sign in using

Or using your

Forgot password?

Register an account

Password must be at least 8 characters long, have 1 uppercase, 1 lowercase, 1 number and 1 special character.

Forgotten your password?

Reset your password?

Password must be at least 8 characters long, have 1 uppercase, 1 lowercase, 1 number and 1 special character.