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The Unknown Stranger

A life saved at Hillsborough

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To encourage us to consider how random words and acts of kindness can have significant effects (SEAL theme: Social skills).

Preparation and materials


Leader: Phil Greene is an ordinary bloke who has many things to be thankful for.

Reader 1: He's thankful that he has travelled to sunny locations such as Latin America and Mauritius.

Reader 2: He's even taken the opportunity to live abroad.

Reader 1: That means he’s also thankful for Skype, so he can talk to his daughter and six brothers and sisters scattered across the globe.

Reader 2: He's thankful for hot sunny days  . . .

Reader 1: . . .  and mornings when he doesn't have to get up early.

Reader 1: Phil's thankful that he can listen to his favourite tunes  . . .

Reader 2: . . .  but, most of all, he's thankful for the words an unknown man said to him more than 25 years ago.

Leader: Phil is a Red, a Liverpool Red.

You may want to make some additional comment if your school is in Manchester, London or the students are avid supporters of some other Premiership team.

On 15 April 1989, Phil travelled over to Sheffield, where Liverpool were to play Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup semi-final. Whenever he went to a game, Phil always headed for the terracing behind one of the goals. That's where the real fans went – those who chanted and sang, who claimed they could suck the ball into the net by their combined efforts.

As he and his friend Mark were about to go down the tunnel to the Leppings Lane terraces, they were stopped by a man who warned them that something was wrong behind that goal. They'd never met him before in their lives. He was a complete stranger. He had no reason to speak to them, but he did. If they'd gone a few steps further, they would have been caught up in the tide of fans helplessly drawn into the death trap that was to claim the lives of 96 Liverpool supporters and injure more than 750 others.

Phil and Mark paused for a moment, then retraced their steps out of the tunnel and, instead, found places on the side terracing, where the fans weren't as closely packed together.

How many complete strangers do you meet in the average day? They may be people you pass on the street or share a seat with on the bus. You may stand next to each other in a queue or wait together at the pedestrian crossing for the lights to change. There's no reason for you to have any contact or interaction. You don't know one another, you're simply sharing the same space for a few moments.

It's interesting to watch people in such situations. Many actively avoid any form of contact with those around them. They look in any direction other than at each other, often peering with apparent interest at the adverts or notices on the walls around them. No one touches anyone else. There's always shuffling to create a gap between bodies. It's as if everyone is in their own little world.

What might the consequences be if we took a slightly different approach? What if we considered those moments as times when our sharing of the same space was a time for exploration and creation? What if it was an opportunity to be grasped?

Reader 1: A smile and a cheery ‘Good morning’ might make a world of difference to someone who's feeling rather down. It's a sign someone has noticed them, that they matter.

Reader 2: A simple conversation might make a world of difference to someone who's lonely and maybe hasn't spoken to anyone else that day.

Reader 1: An offer of help might make a world of difference to someone who's heavily laden, elderly or has some disability.

Reader 2: A door held open or an ‘After you’ in a queue might make a world of difference to someone who's trying to cope with bad news or who is worried about some aspect of their life.

Time for reflection

It’s easy to say that these trivial words and actions are insignificant. They may be ignored. They may even irritate some people. They may be rejected.

We have no way of knowing what the consequence might be  . . .  and maybe that's the point. Just as the unknown stranger at Hillsborough had no idea that his words probably saved Phil and his mate from injury or even death, so we cannot foresee the effect that our contact might have. You or I might be the one who lifts the gloom, eases the burden, shows that there's good in the world.

So, rather than staying in our isolated bubbles, let's break out, share a little optimism and hope. Our simple words and actions might be the ones that change someone’s day for the better.


Dear Lord,
Thank you for the words and actions of other people that have helped us move on.
Remind us of each opportunity we have to do the same.
Give us spontaneous words.
May lives be changed a little because of us.


‘Bus stop’ by The Hollies

Publication date: April 2015   (Vol.17 No.4)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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