Stephen Francis O'Neill

Stephen Francis O'Neill

Age: 17

Named after Liverpool winger Steve Heighway, Stephen O'Neill duly caught the football bug early in life. Later on, he planned to earn a degree in Electrical Engineering and start a business with his dad. The pair received a lift to Hillsborough and were among a group of five that included Stephen's uncle David Hawley, who also lost his life in the disaster. 

Stephen's mother, Patricia O'Neill, said: "Friends and relatives alike knew Stephen to be a great lad, always smiling, happy, carefree, considerate and kind." 

Portrait by his mother Patricia O’Neill

Our lovely son, Stephen Francis O'Neill, was born on July 16, 1971 at 6.30am. It was a Friday, one of the best days of our lives.

He was the apple of our eyes. He was born in the Isle of Man, where me and my husband Kevin lived at the time. We were so proud to have our first born, a son.

My husband was an avid Liverpool fan, as indeed were half of his family. Kevin had seven siblings. Half of them supported Everton and the other half supported Liverpool.

When we had a boy, Kevin asked me if we could call him Stephen, after Stevie Heighway, the Liverpool winger. From the beginning, football played an important part in Stephen's life. Even on his pram we had a little pair of football boots, rather than a teddy.

Both of us wanted and planned to have many children but, alas, this was not meant to be, so we felt so blessed when we had our beautiful daughter, Lisa, five years after having Stephen. We wanted more children and I was having fertility treatment when Stephen was so cruelly taken from us.

Stephen was by nature a good child. He was one of those children who soaked up information, wanting to know how everything worked, and he loved school. He rarely missed a day and one year he had no sickness at all so his teacher gave him a Mars Bar.

He was very protective of his younger sister, Lisa, and his smaller cousins. He was hardly ever disobedient, although I can recall one incident. I wasn't in the room at the time with them, and him and Lisa were messing about and he accidentally knocked a plate off the dresser and broke it.

Stephen moved to avoid it and accidentally stood on Lisa's finger, cutting it. We had to go to the hospital, but Stephen was so upset that Lisa was in pain and that he'd broken a plate.

When the children were growing up, my husband Kevin worked away during the week. He was a cable jointer, installing optical fibres up and down the country.

Kevin would tell Stephen to look after his mum and sister while he was away and Stephen took this responsibility very seriously and always tried to be good. But, like I said, he was a good child anyway.

He attended church each Sunday, where he enjoyed being an usher. Stephen used to mind his little cousin Leanne Hawley when she was a baby. When they went to church, Stephen would be at the back with the other children pulling faces and making Leanne laugh. He loved children and he was really good with his cousins.

Stephen wanted to earn some money so he decided he would get a job as a paper delivery boy. This meant he had to be up early at 5am every morning, but he never complained about that job.

Ironically, on the Thursday before he died, while he was at church the pastor asked everyone to close their eyes and anyone who wanted to make peace with God should raise their hands. Stephen's friend opened his eyes while we were praying and said the only person with their hand up in the church was Stephen.

He was 17 years old and studying at college for his O-levels in Maths and Physics and other subjects, but these two were his favourites. His ambition was to work with his dad in their own business, O'Neill and Son.

This would have been after he graduated from university with a degree in Electrical Engineering. Stephen and his dad used to talk about their plans for the future a lot.

He loved football and all sports. He particularly loved the Tour de France. He had a racing bike and he loved nothing better than going out on his bike after school and early on a Sunday before church.

He passed his driving test the first time, a few months after his 17th birthday. From when he was a little boy, he would watch his dad strip and repair the car. Stephen's mind was very technical and he would have excelled in his chosen career. We were, and still are, very proud of him.

The morning of April 15, Stephen had given his little sister Lisa £20. This was to buy herself a birthday present. Lisa had been pestering him because she wanted to get her first pair of jeans, but ironically he would not be there to share her birthday as she became a teenager or to see what she had bought with his money.

Friends and relatives alike knew Stephen to be a great lad, always smiling, happy, carefree, considerate and kind. He had never been in trouble in his life.

His friends from college later told us that he had been so excited to have a ticket for the semi-final. He had never been to a semi-final to watch his beloved Liverpool.

He was so pleased to be going to the match with his dad, his uncle Dave, family and friends. We'd gone to Wembley when Stephen was nine years old and we had such lovely memories of that day.

On April 15, 1989, both Stephen and his dad waited in our living room for their lift to Sheffield. When their lift arrived, they joined Stephen's uncle, Dave Hawley, Stephen's cousin and a family friend.

All five drove away as I waved them goodbye. Both Stephen and his uncle Dave had tickets for the Leppings Lane End and the other three had tickets for the West Stand.

The last words I said to Stephen were, 'have you got your ticket, your house keys and your money?' and 'I'll see you later'. He smiled and walked to the car. That is the last time I saw him. Five left the house that day and only three returned. What a waste of a lovely life.

On his headstone it reads, 'life holds many blessings, our Lord bestows them all, to have had you as a son, Stephen, was the greatest of them all'.

 

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