TEENAGER Lee Nicol became the 95th Liverpool fan to have died after following the team to that fateful FA Cup semi-final played exactly 25 years ago today at Sheffield’s Hillsborough stadium.
The 14-year-old died in hospital, some days later, having been on a life support machine. Like all 96 victims he has never been forgotten by the city of Liverpool, the club, its fans and of course by the family and friends of those whose loved ones never returned home from ‘Hillsborough’ – a name that is now sadly so much more synonymous with tragedy, chaos, grief, official indifference, corruption and cover up than it is as the home of Sheffield Wednesday.
The Bootle boy on his first every away trip, following his beloved team as his heroes strutted across England conquering all before them, so brutally robbed of all the potential of life on what should have been an action packed Saturday afternoon of football and friendship.
I remember the tragedy unfolding live on TV, and its more than likely I would have been aware of reports at the time that a 95th victim, a teenage boy – around the same age as my brother – had died later in hospital. But it wasn’t until 10 years later – 1999 – that l learnt Lee’s name, an individual – one of ‘the 96’.
I was a journalism student on a university organised work experience placement at the offices of the Crosby Herald and sister title, The Bootle Times in the autumn of ’99 when I was handed a photograph of a schoolboy, modestly clutching some impressive silverware, ‘The Lee Nicol trophy’.
An in tray in the office contained photographs taken by the team of staff photographers, who served all the Merseyside weekly papers from the offices in Crosby, north Liverpool. Each one, printed on photographic paper, came attached with a brief caption.
This one explained how a pupil at Hillside High School in Bootle had been awarded the cup, given in memory of former pupil Lee Nicol who had died in the Hillsborough disaster.
Reporters would have to write a caption to be printed underneath the picture in the paper and make some follow up calls to write up the story.
Even a ‘rookie’ like my then self could identify this was potentially a good story and I remember thinking, and of course being told, to find out if Lee’s family were still involved in the awarding of the trophy given in his memory.
I can recall the school’s bursar answering my question with the disappointing confirmation that they weren’t and saying something along the lines of ‘I think it’s been such a long time now, and very difficult for them’. I guessed this was an attempt to suggest she, or the school, considered it a sensitive subject which didn’t need too many painful details repeated.
A few of the other details regarding the award also seem a bit sketchy but obviously the important thing was the school wanted to celebrate that 12-year-old Stephen Bolton had refused to let some tough breaks set him back and was considered a worthy recipient of the honour given in Lee’s memory.
Every April brings grand, yet fitting, memorials in honour of the 96, but this simple annual award, which I assume is still given at the school, ensures Lee’s memory and spirit lives on. A young Reds fan, taken in the most unexpected fashion, will never walk alone as generations of pupils at his former school can hopefully take encouragement from his award.
A statement made by Lee’s mum, Patricia Donnelly, to the recently re-opened inquest into the deaths of those who died in the disaster, paints a picture of Lee as a bright, inquisitive, fun-loving boy with, in his mum’s words, a ‘serious side’. A trophy awarded to pupils ‘showing courage in overcoming adversity’, seems such an appropriate way to remember a ‘hard worker, who loved school’. You can read the full statement here.
I’ve no idea what has become of Stephen, but I genuinely hope he is in good health and went on to enjoy all the benefits of teenage life, as Lee had done until it so tragically came to a stop on a Saturday afternoon at the football.