The First Day of the Summer: Never Forget the 56

It’s the first day of the summer; at least that’s what it feels like for a football fan.

This is the first Saturday on which there is nothing for Lincoln fans to do. For me, the summer starts when the season ends and oddly, ends when it starts. I’m not a man who subscribes to conventional timescales, the football season is how my year is divided up.

For those who wonder, autumn starts when the season kicks off, winter starts on FA Cup first round weekend and spring starts the first weekend that we drive home in daylight. Simple in my world, isn’t it?

That means today is the first day of garden centres, trips shopping for furniture, decorating or any number of things you’ll do as a family. For the first time some of you might spend some time with your spouse and find out they’re not that bad at all. When I was a kid, it was time to head to the park on an all day football bender, stopping occasionally to send someone to the shop for drinks. Nowadays it probably means a FIFA session or an afternoon of anti-social behaviour. Maybe. Maybe that’s my age.

It’s a long time until we see the Imps in action and traditionally this is also a ‘no football’ summer. The rise of the women’s game means there is a major tournament during the off period, but there will still be fans who follow the men’s game and not the female equivalent. That’s their prerogative and for them, the summer of 2019 is like every odd-numbered summer ever. No football.

I’m spending my first Saturday off writing this, going to see my nephew who turns nine today and quietly recalling that it’s been four years since I got engaged, wondering if perhaps we ought to start looking for a venue. You’ll be doing whatever it is fills your life until the team who love gets back into action. It’s the first day of the summer.

The summer of 1985 was another that remained football free. Euro 84 hadn’t featured England and the Mexico World Cup was a year away. Back then, Lincoln City were a League One club, albeit in what was Division Three. That year was the last time we finished outside the relegation places in the third-tier. Nobody will remember it fondly, nobody at all.

Courtesy Chris Wray

That was the day that 56 football fans went to a match and never got to see the first football-free Saturday of the year a week later. Two were from Lincoln, but where these men, women and children came from is irrelevant. Some were celebrating a title win, just like we were a week ago. Others were taking a last away trip of a dismal season, but still staunchly following their side through thick and thin. All of these people were football supporters who, like you and I today, cared about a club and were facing a football free summer.

There were no garden centres with their partners a week later. No trips into town with their kids or grandkids. No birthday parties, no weddings, no more free Saturdays.

I came to Lincoln City just over a year later and although the full horror and sadness of that day 34 years ago is obvious to me, I cannot for one second begin to imagine what it must have been like to be there and to live through it. I remember it, the TV images and the tears in my fathers eyes as it unfolded, but I only came to understand football and Lincoln a year later. A tragedy like that during my tenure as a fan would have broken me, whether I knew anyone connected or not.

The name ‘Stacey West’ is now ingrained into Lincoln City as much as that of players, managers and the ground itself. When I took the name for the site I took it as the end I grew up on, the place where I watched my football as a teen and through the Keith years. I wanted to express where I felt was my home, but it has a much wider meaning. As almost everyone knows, Bill Stacey and Jim West were the two Imps supporters who lost their lives that day and it’s a fitting tribute that they will forever be remembered at our ground and of course, as part of the Imps history and heritage.

56 people lost their lives. 265 suffered injuries. On a day where our friends from Bradford City were set to lift the title, they suffered the most horrific of tragedies that has defined and characterised our relationship since. Nobody wanted to see them drop out of League One this season because the opportunity to come together with them, to celebrate the lives of the 56 and to remember them once more is always relished. We share a bond with the Bantams, one of grief and strength in equal measure. Both clubs came back from that awful afternoon, supporters who survived the day hugged their loved ones a little tighter and approached their lives with a deeper appreciation of the things they had.

Today, whether you’re at a garden centre, in a pub, shopping for the kids summer clothes or like me, celebrating Isaac Hutchinson’s ninth birthday, pause for a second and remember the 56, their families and their friends. Give a moment of thanks for your own life, the wonderful things we’ve enjoyed this year and give those you love a huge hug.

34 years ago today, 56 people went to a football match and they never came home.

Rest in peace