If there was any awkwardness in creating a circularity between Liverpool’s restoration to the top of English football and the breakthrough in the search for an understanding of the club’s darkest day, Brendan Rodgers yesterday found a way of overcoming it.
The Liverpool manager, whose success has partially been built upon the relentless attempt to achieve through endeavour what other clubs may solve with money, declared ahead of Tuesday’s deeply resonant 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster that the relentless work ethic of those who have campaigned for the 96 – their refusal to yield – was a personal inspiration.
“To see the fight from the families…” said Rodgers, who will address the Hillsborough Memorial Service at Anfield. “It would have been so easy for people to give up, but the relentlessness of their campaign has continued and it provides such inspiration. For me, I see so much of life’s values and ethics in their work and again it is not something I shy away from. I embrace it because it is a life’s work what they are putting in. I would look at it not so much as a manager but as a person on what I can gain from that. It is a huge commitment from them to make their lives a little bit better.”
The search for an understanding of why the 96 died, which has involved the stories of their unfulfilled lives being explored in painfully fine detail at the reconstituted inquests in Warrington in the past few weeks, is one which has come to preoccupy and inspire many Liverpool managers. For Kenny Dalglish, it became a life’s work, after Anfield had thrown open its doors following the disaster, and the scenes around the stadium today will graphically recall that immediate aftermath, a quarter of a century ago.
Dalglish has written to all 92 Football League clubs asking for donations to a display of what will be thousands of scarves, laid out on the Anfield turf in the shape of the number 96. The campaign takes its inspiration from the one-mile chain of scarves between Goodison Park and Anfield, created a week after the disaster and started by the then Everton star Ian Snodin. The scarf Snodin tied to the gates of Goodison began a chain which expanded out of Bullens Road, over Walton Road, across Stanley Park and through the Bill Shankly Memorial Gates at Anfield to the Kop. Everton’s contribution to the acts of remembrance continues to grow, with the club planning their own permanent memorial at Goodison, where today’s service will be simultaneously broadcast.
Rafael Benitez was another Liverpool manager who became deeply associated with the campaign, making his own financial contribution. “You are always in my thoughts,” he said.
And, beyond the acts of remembrance, Liverpool’s players maintain the belief, instilled in them by Rodgers, that they can mark the anniversary year by reclaiming the title, which they last won in 1990.
Captain Steven Gerrard, whose 10-year-old cousin Jon-Paul Gilhooley was the tragedy’s youngest victim, has declared in the aftermath of Sunday’s 3-2 win over Manchester City that the club’s next game, at Norwich on Sunday, would be viewed with the same intensity as the Champions League final against Milan, in 2005.
“Norwich now become Man City. Norwich become Chelsea. Norwich become Manchester United,” said Gerrard, whose intensity and emotion as Liverpool seek to attain what had seemed unlikely in his footballing lifetime has taken some by surprise. “That’s how big it is. We have got to treat Norwich like we treated AC Milan in 2005. That’s just how football is. We can’t think about what colour shirts Norwich are wearing and the personnel in them. We have got to treat them like the best team in the world.”
Though football players and managers are usually disinclined to talk in superlatives, Gerrard made no pretence to hide that the win over City was the biggest league victory of his career. “Yeah. Absolutely. By far,” he said, admitting that handling the emotion of this near achievement was proving a challenge.
“It is a tough week, preparing for these matches,” he added. “There are long days going into them. Everyone knows personally how much I want it. I’ve just got to stay calm, relax and take it each game as it comes. I’m trying to do that but it’s difficult to control my emotions. I’m just trying to do different things. In my spare time, I’m not sitting around thinking about it. I’m watching the TV, spending time with my kids and my friends to take my mind off it. I want the games to come every day, not every week, but that is unfortunately the way it goes. I’d love to play the remaining four games in the next four days but it is not possible. I have to manage the time well and make sure that I’m not getting anxious and wasting unnecessary energy.”
The emotion of today will certainly build the collective spirit which seems to give Liverpool, with their run of 10 consecutive wins in the Premier League, a psychological edge. “Over the time I have been here, it becomes your life,” Rodgers said of the Hillsborough campaign. “So, to be asked to represent the families and victims of Hillsborough and to give a reading, I am very honoured and proud to do that. Hopefully, the reading will do them justice.”
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