IT is 23 years, almost to the day, since Liverpool Football Club with Kenny Dalglish at the helm, took the field against, Brian Clough’s, Nottingham Forest to contest one of the semi-finals of the 1988/89 FA Cup competition.
The two clubs had met at the same stage the previous year, in the same stadium no less, with Liverpool fans complaining of some crushing in the Leppings Lane end, leading to an official complaint being lodged by the club with the FA before the 1989 semi.
The 87/88 face off produced a hard fought, entertaining encounter, with Dalglish’s men running out 2-1 winners, before going on to be majorly upset in the final, losing 1-0 to Dave Beasant, John Fashanu, Dennis Wise, Vinnie Jones, Lawrie Sanchez, and the rest of the “Crazy Gang”.
The next year would prove to be different however, different than any other FA Cup match in history, and, we all pray, different from any FA Cup match ever to follow. It would be a memorable day in the story of English football, a memorable day for all Liverpool fans, but it would be remembered for all the wrong reasons. It would be remembered as the biggest football related tragedy of modern times, remembered as one of the most cynical and sinister attempted cover-ups, and campaigns of disinformation by the media (most particularly Kelvin McKenzie’s/Murdoch’s rag The Sun), and the Police (South Yorkshire Constabulary), in English history. The match would be abandoned at 3.06 pm and, from that day on, it would be remembered simply as “Hillsborough”.
Those Liverpool fans, such as myself, and indeed all football fans of a certain age, will never forget what happened on that day. The pictures beamed across Britain by BBC’s Grandstand, Bruce Grobelaar desperately trying to help the dying get over the perimeter fences, fans climbing literally for their lives to escape the crush, while others jumped from upper tiers to try to reach safety, frantic supporters spilling onto the pitch in search of loved ones while ambulances struggled to get close to the injured and dying. Moira Stewart’s ashen face as she read the news that evening, the carnage at the Leppings Lane end, the screams, the desperation, those scenes will be permanently etched on our minds, scars that will never heal; even now I get emotional thinking about them, and I wasn’t there.
96 Liverpool fans died on or in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, because of the demographic of football fans in those days, nearly all of them were male: sons, brothers, uncles, fathers, grandsons, cousins, all gone. Jon-Paul Gilhooley, cousin of current Liverpool F.C. captain Steven Gerrard, was the youngest person to die at Hillsborough, aged 10. Gerrard has stated that it was this tragedy that has inspired him and led him to lead his boyhood team and reach the heights of his career.
Liverpool went on to face, Merseyside rivals, Everton in the FA Cup final at Wembley that year, in what has always been known as the “friendly derby”, owing to the tight-knit relationship between the two sets of fans, and sure enough, supporters of both clubs came together to pay a fitting tribute to those who had so cruelly lost their lives or their loved ones in the disaster. Many Evertonians had lost friends or family members on that fateful afternoon in Sheffield, they too laid down blue & white scarves and flowers in respectful memory of those that had perished, and to show solidarity with their fellow Merseysiders.
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Though the relationship between the Red and the Blue half of Merseyside is said to have soured slightly over the years since 1989, it is still by and large, amongst the fans, a “friendly derby”. You’ll often see blue shirts amongst the Liverpool fans at Anfield on derby day, and vice versa at Goodison, and both teams still permeate many families, with brothers or fathers and sons having different allegiances. The two sides meet at Wembley this Saturday, the eve of the 23rd Anniversary of Hillsborough; the tough police segregation rules and the early kick-off time for the match have dismayed many fans of both clubs, who don’t see the need for such draconian actions. Quoted in the Liverpool Echo, Jamie Dempsey, from Wallasey, said:
“I’m a Blue and my dad’s a Red. My memories of Wembley are of mixed groups of fans walking down Wembley Way together. It’s really sad that fans are being driven apart, it’s unnecessary. Maybe with other clubs but this is Everton and Liverpool. Last time the teams met at Wembley the fans were chanting ‘Merseyside’ together. But this is a wall being put up between us.”
Words of this nature from an Everton fan go a long way towards indicating that the spirit of Merseyside is still one, and while the clubs might divide, the people and the city remain united. To be honest, that is what it is all about, that is why Red and Blue come together for the memory of Hillsborough. It isn’t about a football club, it isn’t even about football; in the end it is about tragedy, and tragedy that has affected a whole city, a whole people, not one side or the other. The city comes together, because the city feels the loss as a whole, as one, as a people bound together by sadness, remembrance and pride. A young Liverpool fan, speaking on LFC TV echoed these thoughts, saying:
“Hillsborough’s got nothing to do with the football club, it’s got more to do with the city and how the city reacted to it…I’ve learnt over the years that Everton are just as supportive as anyone in the country, in fact more so. You go to these memorial services every year and you see Everton flags and scarves, and you see lots of Evertonians paying their respects. It gives you a sense of pride, not just as a Liverpool supporter to see how close-knit we are and how far we’ve come, but the way the city comes together on days like that. I think it’s brilliant that 23 years on we can still remember so strongly, because I think sometimes with tragedies as the years go on, people tend to water down the memories, but we (as a city) haven’t, and that’s brilliant.”
Whatever happens on the pitch on Saturday lunchtime, one thing is guaranteed, that the fans of each side will enjoy a fantastic day out. Merseyside draped in Red and Blue, will invade the capital in high spirits, they will sing and drink and dance and scream, but they will do so with good nature and they will show themselves off to the world in the best possible light. A minute of silence will be undertaken by fans before kick-off, for those who didn’t come home 23 years ago, and I expect it to be impeccably observed, as the City of Liverpool comes together to honour her fallen sons, and do battle once more.
I urge any fan who doesn’t know about Hillsborough to please find out about it. Boycott The Sun!
You can follow neil on Twitter @Neil1980 or on his blog http://itsallinthegameblog.wordpress.com/
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