Despite receiving a Royal Pardon earlier this month, Michael Shields is still eager to clear his name completely of the crime that has plagued him for almost five years.
Speaking exclusively to JMU Journalism at his family home in Edge Hill, Michael gave what he says will be one of his last interviews as he tries to put his nightmare prison ordeal behind him.
The 23-year-old from Liverpool was accused of attempted murder in Bulgaria in the wake of Liverpool’s European Cup Final victory in Istanbul back in May 2005, a crime which the boy, now a man, was adamant he did not commit.
After waiter Martin Georgiev almost lost his life, 18-year-old Shields was sentenced to 15 years and sent to a Bulgarian jail. In November 2006, Michael returned to the UK and served the rest of his time behind bars at prisons in Wigan and Preston, before Justice Secretary Jack Straw announced that he would be freed from Thorn Cross Young Offender Institution in Warrington in September 2009.
When asked about what he would say to the sceptics who believed he was guilty, Michael said: “There’s only a handful of people who were there that night that know what happened... I can’t do much more to prove that I wasn’t there. If they’d let me have a retrial or a reinvestigation I’d love it, but the fact that they don’t means they [the Bulgarian legal system] are hiding something.
“I think in the beginning it was mistaken identity. But the fact that they lied and were covering it up and producing all these witnesses... in the end you felt that you just couldn’t win over there. It was hard to get anything done,“ he said, describing his anger at the miscarriage of justice.
The Liverpool fan has already taken steps to get his name cleared in Bulgaria but to little avail. He said: “We’ve sent letters, we’ve sent all the evidence that led to the pardon. We’ve always just tried to campaign for the pardon and not for the case to be reopened. It’s very difficult for them [Bulgaria] to admit that they’ve made a mistake. I’d like to think one day that it’s going to come, but I just don’t see how it’s going to.
“Disappointment is a bit of an understatement,” he added, regarding the length of time that it took for his release, despite the strength of his ‘Free Michael Shields’ campaign. However, he vowed to put his tribulations to one side now and get on with his life by finding a job. “I just try not to think about it. Otherwise I’ll be angry all the time. I put it to the back of my mind and move on.”
Shields revealed that he hopes the media attention surrounding his release just days ago will soon be brought to an end by the publication of his book, ‘Michael Shields: My Story’, which was written in a bid to get his life back and out of the public eye.
“The interviews, they can’t go on forever, so I thought, no, I’ll just do the book, get it all out of the way and that’s it, it’s done now.” The book is an account of Michael’s private ordeal based on his own diary entries and written with the aid of ghost writer, Greg O’Keeffe of the Liverpool Echo. Shields' decision to take on the project in the wake of his release is part of the healing process. He said: “When I sat down with Greg [O’Keeffe] and I was talking about it, it was just great to get it all off my chest. And once it’s all off your chest you feel better after it. It’s the best form of counselling.”
In his darkest hours, Shields admitted he had given up hope of ever walking away a free man: “There were a few times when I’ve had visits and thought, just forget about it, we’ll try and get to an open prison and just take it from there. Every time we built ourselves up we’d always get a knock-back. There were a few times when people have had to say to me, ‘Look, we can’t give up, we have to keep going’. I was always exhausted from building myself up and then coming back down.”
Michael said that the visits from his family, friends, MPs and the Bishop of Liverpool all served as reminders that while in jail he had a massive support network back at home: “It was good to hear from other people how it was all going. It’s great that my parents were like 'we’ll try and do this'. It was great to see that it wasn’t just us doing it, there were other people helping as well.”
Despite his ordeal, Michael has no intention of giving up following his team. He said: “I’ve never put it off for anybody. From the first day since I was locked up it was just something I couldn’t wait to get back to. “
The die-hard Reds' fanatic was full of praise for manager Rafael Benitez and the high standard of Liverpool’s recent form: “Since I’ve been out I’m surprised at how good the team is overall compared to how it was when I used to go. I mean, they couldn’t have been that bad because they won the European Cup but the team now, when you watch them, they are much better.”
With his youth on his side, Michael now feels optimistic about the future, getting a 9 to 5 job and coming home every night to his family. He said: “It’s nice to sit back and not be told what to do and when to do it. I can make plans like go on holidays and go to the match with my mates. It’s nice to know that I can make plans for the future. I can work. I’m looking forward to things like that. “
None of this would have been possible for Michael had he not had the strength and determination of his loved ones to fall back on, his mum, Maria, father Michael Senior and two older sisters, Melissa, 30, and Laura, 27. Perhaps more than any other young man, Michael is one who knows he will never have to walk alone.
By Liz Hewitt
Free at last: Michael Shields with a message of support; YouTube: documentary about Michael's case