'Lives lost' | 

Emotional Ronnie Whelan recalls seeing people die in Liverpool’s Hillsborough disaster

“There was a lad nicknamed Ronnie. He was Ian Whelan from Warrington. Ian 'Ronnie' Whelan was on the plaque outside. He was just 18.”

Leeds United forward Eric Cantona ( left) is beaten to the ball by Ronnie Whelan during the FA Premier League match between Leeds United and Liverpool at Elland Road on August 8, 1992 in Leeds, England. Photo: Getty Images© Getty Images

Eugene MastersonSunday World

An emotional Ronnie Whelan admits that witnessing people die when he was captain of Liverpool during the Hillsborough disaster was the worst moment of his life.

A total of 97 Liverpool fans perished after they were crushed to death in a FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest in Sheffield in 1989.

And Dubliner Ronnie reveals that the human cost of the disaster had extra poignancy for him when he learned one of the young victims was nicknamed after him.

"So many, so many lives lost needlessly that day, " he reflects.

When asked by presenter Brendan Courtney on RTÉ’s Keys To My Life if it was his worst day he confirms it was, especially when he learned about one of the victims nicknamed after him.

"Yeah, Hillsborough and the aftermath. The week or two after when we were going to funerals. There was a lad nicknamed Ronnie. He was Ian Whelan from Warrington. Ian 'Ronnie' Whelan was on the plaque outside. He was just 18.

"I eventually got in touch with his parents after it. It was just something I felt I had to do. And I found out his nickname was Ian Ronnie Whelan. They'd only gone to watch a football match."

"We were taken in on the Monday to the hospital in Sheffield. To see some of the people that were hurt. Then you see someone, a kid and his life support was to be turned off that afternoon. Yeah, it wasn't easy. it wasn't easy at all."

Ronnie Whelan

Ronnie (60) returns to his childhood home in Finglas.

"A happy home. Always felt it was home and felt safe there," he recalls.

His Dad, Ronnie Snr. won two international caps for Ireland

Showing Brendan the back garden he says: ​"This is where I learned everything. I would spend hours on my own out here. Keep it up - 50 times with my right foot and I'd go in and my Dad would say, try your left foot now."

Commenting on where he gets his drive from he says "I was always watching my Da.."

In 1993 the family were shattered when Ronnie Whelan Snr died at the age 56 of stomach cancer. His Mum Marie stayed in the house for another 15 years.

"There's a little bit of guilt there always. That I didn't get home enough. Could I have done more? Maybe I could have stayed another night instead of shooting back to England,” he explains.

Ronnie retraced his footsteps at Home Farm Football Club, where he started going when he was six or seven years of age.

"You know what, I felt it in the house as well earlier this morning. Places that I always felt safe with people around me. Where there was fun. Happiness. It means an awful lot to me this place ," he notes.

He showed promise as a teenager and scouts noticed his skill. "I started to get a couple of phone calls and a couple letters asking if you'd like to come train with us. Man United. I was a Man united fan. Where I wanted to go always. That was the dream. It was always Man U. That's where I wanted to go,” he maintains.

"I was offered an apprentice at 15 but my Dad said you're not going away. You're going to finish your Leaving Cert and we'll see what happens after that."

Keys to my Life

He finished his Leaving Cert and at the age of 18 he was given a break by Liverpool.

"I got a two-week stint at Liverpool. Pre-season and they obviously liked what they saw cause they offered me a professional contract. Pretty weird, I just went in. They said 150 a week, there's the contract. I'm about to sign it and my Dad goes we'd also like £20,000 signing on. So, they asked us to step outside and they'd have a chat with each other. £20,000 went into the account in Finglas and my Dad got a new car. A Mazda."

Ronnie admits his dad was a lifesaver for him.

"He was always looking out for me. The person who guided you through life isn't going to be there,” he muses, while trying to hold back tears,

He returns to the house in Liverpool where he had his first digs when he was 18 and suffered from homesickness, where he used to listen to Irish rebel songs so he could hear Irish voices in his room.

He met his future wife Elaine Connolly in a Liverpool club and they lived in the Merseyside town of Southport. At the age of 20 he bought his first house and the couple had three little girls.

Ronnie, who is now a grandfather and whose talented young grandson is training with Liverpool Football Academy, reveals how the club had a gynaecologist for the players’ wives.

"They induced the women so it didn't get in the way of football,” he explains. “Play a game on Saturday. Elaine would get induced on the Sunday."

He and Brendan visit Anfield, which he left in 1994.

"!5 years of glory in there,” he reflects. "If you give 110pc in Anfield, no matter how good you are, the crowd will love you. It's not very nice when you have a crowd that don't like you."

During his time at the club he suffered some discriminatory abuse from rival fans.

"A stupid Irish person,” he recalls himself being branded. “It was more back in the early 80's but you just had to get on with it. “

Ronnie was at the Heysel stadium disaster in Belgium in 1985, as well as Hillsborough in 1989. He captained the FA Cup winning team that year. In 1994 he was called in by the then manager and told his time was up, when he was on a wage of £6000/£7000 a week.

“I'd come to the end of my contract. It was the first two years of Premiership, so my wages were half decent at the time,” he remembers.

"It was like coming out of prison. You were free to go. And It didn't hit me until I was driving home. I was back near Southport and I just couldn't...I've got three kids...I'm not rich, like I don't need to play anymore. I need to do something. Stupid things go through your mind, like, I haven't got a doctor anymore. I had a cry. I pulled over and I wept on the side of the road. It's gone. It's all gone."

The midfielder had made 362 appearances for Liverpool, scoring 46 goals.

His time with Ireland – during which he earned 53 caps and scored three goals, including his wonder strike against Russia in Euro ’88 – was also coming to an end. Ronnie then worked as a manager in Southend and in Greece.

He now owns a mansion in Liverpool, which houses his den which includes a snooker table and bar with memorabilia.

"The kids are happy and healthy. I do a bit for Liverpool TV. Play a bit of bad golf. Everything I want really. I can't complain,” he smiles.

  • Keys To My Life tonight RTÉ 1 8.30pm

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