It was supposed to be a father and son trip to watch the football. But only one of them made the return journey home to Preston after Gerard Baron Snr became the oldest victim of the Hillsborough tragedy.
AASMA DAY talks to Gerard Baron Jnr about how losing his dad at Hillsborough completely shaped his life and how became disillusioned with the UK and emigrated.
Fate endeavoured to try to stop Gerard Baron and his father getting to the FA Cup semi final at Hillsborough, but against all odds they got there.
Father and son thought fortune was smiling on them when they finally got to the grounds, but it transpired it was an ironic twist of fate as Gerard Baron Snr became one of the 96 people killed at Hillsborough and at 67, was the oldest victim of the disaster.
Son Gerard Baron Jnr, 26 at the time, admits he was wracked with guilt for buying the tickets for his dad and persuading him to go to the match against his initial wishes.
Gerard Jnr, now 53, who grew up in Preston, but now lives in Adelaide, South Australia, explains: “I only managed to get the tickets at the 11th hour after buying them from a work friend who couldn’t go.
“They were like gold dust. Liverpool were at the height of their game and winning everything and were the dominant force in football.
I was not a football hooligan and neither was my dad and we were not drinkers. My dad was a good person who fought for his country
“To get tickets for that game was immense.”
Thrilled with his last-minute buy, Gerard Jnr went to tell his dad the good news about their unexpected trip the following day - April 15 1989.
He was taken aback at his dad’s reaction.
Gerard Jnr recalls: “I don’t really know why, but for some reason my dad didn’t want to go.
“Normally, he would have jumped at the chance. But on this occasion he just did not really fancy it.
“He kept saying ‘It’s too much.’
“But with some persuasion from myself and my mother, he agreed to go.
“I cannot describe how much that haunted me and the guilt I experienced for buying the tickets in the first place and then persuading my dad to go.
“I wanted to buy my dad the tickets as he had helped me financially to buy a house for myself, my first wife and our daughter.
“I was very grateful and wanted to do something nice for him. These tickets were a small token of my appreciation.
“I never imagined the anguish my action would lead to. I blamed myself for years and tortured myself with ‘what ifs’.”
Born in Moor Nook, Preston, Gerard Baron Jnr was the youngest of seven children born to Gerard Baron Snr and wife Winifred.
Gerard Snr was a war veteran who served for the RAF and was posted to Burma and India.
After returning to the UK, he met Winifred and they married in 1947 raising seven children - five girls and two boys. Sadly, one of their daughters Monica passed away in 2008.
After the war, Gerard Snr was employed with the GPO as it was then known, now Royal Mail, as a postal worker.
He rapidly achieved promotion to assistant postal inspector at Preston and remained there for 33 years until his retirement.
Gerard Baron Jnr says: “My dad was not only my father, but without a shadow of a doubt he was my best friend too.
“I am the baby of the family and my dad and I were very close and did everything together.
“My dad was my backbone and inspired me with everything in life.
“He always supported and encouraged me. When I played football as a child, he always came to watch, whatever the weather.”
Football was Gerard Baron Snr’s passion and from a young age he tutored his son Gerard Baron Jnr in the game and about Liverpool Football Club.
Gerard Jnr says: “I was into football from a very early age and it was something me and my dad always did together.
“My dad took me to matches at Anfield from a young age and I’ll never forget seeing The Kop for the first time.
“I was mesmerised by the unity, solidarity and the support and wanted to be a part of that.
“Over the years, Dad and I attended many games home and away following Liverpool. I could not have asked for a better footy mate.
“Even if we weren’t going on football matches, we were watching them on TV or listening to them on the radio or talking about them.”
Smiling wistfully, Gerard Jnr recalls: “My dad’s knowledge of football was phenomenal and I often wondered why he never became a professional player.
“One day, I chose to ask this question and he replied tongue in cheek that ‘he had a bad knee from the War’
“That was Dad’s humour all over. He did play amateur and semi-professional football.
“His brother Kevin did make the grade and he was immensely proud, especially when he signed for Liverpool FC and played in the 1950 FA Cup Final.”
Despite Gerard Snr’s initial reticence at going to the semi-final at Hillsborough, the following day, he was full of beans.
As they approached Sheffield, there was a terrible bang from the car. As a light came on, Gerard Jnr realised the fan belt had snapped.
He remembers: “We were about a mile away from Hillsborough.
“I said to my father we should just go home and ask a friend who was a mechanic to pick the car up over the week to fix it.
“But my dad said: ‘No, we have come this far. Let’s go to the match’.
“He was adamant and I agreed.
“We left the car and walked to Hillsborough deciding to get the train home after the game.”
Gerard Jnr recalls walking past Nottingham Forest and Liverpool supporters and recalls the mood was joyous with no trouble.
They approached the grounds around 1.30pm and two police officers were at the turnstiles.
Gerard Jnr remembers: “I was wearing a coat with quite a few pockets and one of the police officers beckoned me over saying: ‘You with the many pockets - over here.’ and proceeded to go through my pockets.
“He then turned to my dad and said: ‘Don’t worry grandad - we won’t search you.’
“His manner was very abrupt and derogatory.
“My dad was stunned. He looked up to the police and believed in them.
“He had never been spoken to like that before. My dad had always been loved and respected.
“It really shocked him and upset him.
“It set the tone for the day.”
The two men stood half way down the terrace but after noticing it was getting busy, Gerard Jnr suggested moving nearer the front for a better view.
He recalls: “We moved forward and ate some sandwiches my dad had in his pocket.
“Gradually, it started getting busier. Although we had been in situations like this before, it began feeling strange and peculiar.
“Things became more compact and we were packed in like sardines and could not move at all.
“We ended up with my dad in front of me and directly in front of a six foot inverted spiked fence.
“My dad looked at me and the fear on his face is photographed in my mind forever.
“The very last words I said to him were, ‘You will be okay.’ How wrong I was.
“I put my arms on the railing in front of my dad to shield him. Suddenly, there was an almighty lunge forwards and I could not hold my dad any more.
“The pressure was immense and the momentum spun me round so my back was against the fence and I lost sight of my dad.
“I was pinned against the fence and had bodies up against me left, right and centre.
“I couldn’t move and was elevated from the ground.
“I had someone’s head pushed up against my chest and he was being pressed from people behind him.
“It was awful and the screams and the smell of sweat and vomit were horrendous.
“In the panic, people were literally fighting for their lives.
“They were standing on people and pulling at their hair.
“But at the same time, they were apologising for their actions.
“It was pure human survival instinct of clawing for their lives.
“I was fearing for my own life and thought I was going to die.
“I was thinking of my dad and have no doubt he was thinking about me.
“I remember screams of: ‘There’s people dying here’ and ‘Please do something. Open the gates!’
“But the police seemed to be in a world of their own.
“I saw people’s faces contorted and twisted and I was in excruciating pain and couldn’t breathe any more.
“Then it went quiet like a record with the needle taken off. Everything went black and I lost consciousness.”
Gerard Jnr’s brother-in-law drove to Sheffield from Preston to look for the pair and it took him until 1am to find Gerard Snr and identify his body in the gymnasium.
Gerard Jnr says: “At this point, no one knew if I had survived or not.
“It was about 4am when my brother-in-law was taken by a social worker to Royal Hallamshire Hospital where I was on the emergency ward.
“My brother-in-law and the social worker were crying and told me my dad had died.
“We burst into tears and hugged each other.”
The day after the tragedy Gerard Jnr kept torturing himself with thoughts of how he had bought the match tickets, persuaded his dad to go and how they could have returned home after the car broke down.
He asked some friends to pick his car up and sell it as he didn’t want to see it because of the terrible memories it would conjure.
Gerard Jnr recalls: “My mum was paralysed with grief. It was like she had been turned to stone.
“I just felt an emptiness. My best friend and father was not there any more.
“I suffered terrible nightmares and went into a very dark place.”
Gerard Jnr was married to his first wife Ann at the time, who has since passed away. Their daughter Selina was then five.
He confesses the Hillsborough tragedy shaped his life for the worse and had a drastic effect on him.
He explains: “My mood changed and I found the daily duties of life a struggle.
“I bottled my emotions up and became withdrawn and wouldn’t talk to my wife.
“It led to the end of my first marriage as understandably, my wife couldn’t take it any more.
“I was no longer the person she married. I had gone into a very dark place and it must have been very hard for her and my daughter.
“I was a totally different person and a shadow of myself.”
Gerard Jnr reached his lowest ebb when the nightmares became so bad, he couldn’t face them or the feeling of being constantly kicked by the establishment.
He explains: “I couldn’t cope and was on a downward spiral as I felt we weren’t going to get justice.”
Three years after the tragedy, Gerard attempted suicide at the age of 29 by overdosing on medication.
If it hadn’t been for a neighbour finding him, he wouldn’t have survived.
Gerard Jnr was diagnosed with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and says without the support of his mother, now deceased, his family, close friends and the Hillsborough Family Support Group, he wouldn’t be here today.
He says: “I was scared to mention Hillsborough to anyone because there was a stigma because of the claims about hooligans and drunkards.
“I applied for countless jobs but could not fill the gap about why I’d been out of work and didn’t want to mention Hillsborough.”
Life turned a corner when Gerard met Lynne, who he is now married to. They initially became friends and their relationship blossomed and she was understanding about his experience since Hillsborough.
Gerard, who had emigrated to Australia in 1985 with his first wife Ann and daughter Selina for 18 months, longed to return to Australia.
Gerard explains: “After the disappointments in our quest for justice, I became totally disillusioned with the UK establishment.
“I had no faith or confidence in the police or politicians.
“I decided the UK was no place for me any more. I did not want to contribute to what in my eyes was a corrupt establishment.
“My personal view was I no longer wanted to be part of a regime of hypocrisy and needed a fresh start.”
Gerard and wife Lynne have now been living in Adelaide, Australia, for 10 years and life has been a lot better for Gerard.
Gerard’s daughter Selina still lives in Preston with partner Tom and Gerard is thankful for the great relationship he has with her.
He says simply: “Selina is my life and is what has kept me going. She could easily have walked away from me, but didn’t.
“I have spoken to her at length about Hillsborough and she understands the effects it had on me.”
Gerard Jnr has returned to the UK a few times to give statements, meet with lawyers and attend the Hillsborough inquest.
He admits he found it very difficult.
He explains: “I had a fear of meeting the police. But this time, it was different and they were sympathetic rather than aggressive.
“I saw footage of my father’s last moments which was completely horrendous and saw photographs of my dad deceased under a piece of hoarding.
“It was like re-living the pain all over again. Thankfully, I had a very good psychologist.”
Gerard feels anger at the lies and cover ups surrounding Hillsborough and the inaccurate reports by some elements of the media.
He says: “I was not a football hooligan and neither was my dad and we were not drinkers.
“This was just a myth circulated and built up over the years.
“My dad was a good person who fought for his country and I feel disappointed he was let down.
“I want to see justice done and people held responsible for their actions on the day.
“The media at the time also need to acknowledge and apologise for what they did.
“If there is no apology, there can be no forgiveness.
“Hillsborough has really affected my life. Since 2012, it has been dominating my life again.
“I hope this prolonged struggle will soon be at an end for me and that justice finally prevails.
“But the horror of Hillsborough and 27 years of pain and injustice will always be there for the rest of my days; a permanent scar.”