After the myriad emotion, the heartache of new revelations and the triumph of vindication that has come to the people of Liverpool during this truly historic week, 11 men with the Liver bird crest on their chest stepped out to represent an exhausted city.
Quite how, given the backdrop of this week, was to their credit, as was their point. As with much of what has happened over the past four days, it was the least they deserved.
"Justice for the 96" rang around the streets of Sunderland before a ball had been kicked. They were here for football, but they will never forget.
How not to rage at the failure of so much alleged authority? The police, the ambulance service, the Football Association, Sheffield Wednesday, the Government. Whether to point the bile of resentment at them or to marvel at the stoicism of the families who showed strength beyond the realms of human comprehension has been the spectrum of emotions that the people of Merseyside have flickered through.
Numbers can get lost in the vastness of a football crowd, so perspective is vital. Twenty-two players marched on to the Stadium of Light turf at 5.25pm yesterday, the 11 from Liverpool in black tracksuit tops with two numbers on the back. Nine and six. Twenty-two players covered the turf from where Liverpool can perhaps begin to look to a different future.
Those 22 plus another 19 was the number of those people who, we now unequivocally know, were left to die on the Hillsborough playing field while supporters made stretchers of advertising hoardings and became the emergency services. No wonder there was anger on Thursday to follow the joy, if that is what the emotion actually was, of vindication. It bubbled yesterday; "You'll Never Walk Alone" tumbled down from the stand in which their supporters were housed one minute, the vilification of Margaret Thatcher the next.
From this Brendan Rodgers has to make sense of a struggling team, a football club on the slide, and walk through with dignity. He will, but this game was not the time for a fair assessment to begin, not in the aftermath of Wednesday.
It is Liverpool's worst start for over 100 years, he was told, but there were signs of progress as that bit of unwanted history was made. The togetherness was noticeable. As was their dominance. Bar one mistake, which led to Steven Fletcher's goal six minutes before half-time, Liverpool were in control.
"I thought it was an outstanding performance and the players deserve a big credit," said Rodgers. "The players have been terrific. It has been a difficult week, as you would imagine. Some of the players have been involved in the tragedy in terms of relatives. It's been really emotional. When you sign for Liverpool that's part of the contract. You sign an agreement with the supporters, an emotional one. The support we got was exceptional. They kept driving a young team on.
"The tracksuits that we wore were about being respectful. We felt it was something we wanted to do in support of the families, the survivors and the people of the city. It was a club decision.
"The performance really bodes well as we move forward. Our creativity and movement were good and we had a really good tempo. Their goal was soft and against the run of the play and we upped the tempo and the penetration in the second half. By the end Sunderland were probably happy with the point."
His players deserved the mention. They were the forgotten men this week, but there were good showings from Steven Gerrard, Jonjo Shelvey, Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez, who showed his good and bad side, drawing a yellow card for his theatrical dive in the first half, then giving Liverpool the equaliser they richly deserved in the 72nd minute after a fine run from Sterling.
Sunderland's goal was littered with errors from Liverpool's players. Suarez and Glen Johnson were guilty of woeful defending to let Craig Gardner skip down the Sunderland right, his cross should have been cut out by Pepe Reina but it slid past him and Fletcher struck what was, to all intents and purposes his side's only on-target shot of the afternoon on the visiting goal.
Shelvey, Suarez and Fabio Borini had missed chances before the goal. Shelvey and Borini did the same after the interval, but once Johnson curled a shot off the crossbar with Simon Mignolet beaten and Gerrard clipped the outside of the post, an equaliser felt inevitable.
It came when Sterling produced skill to go past Danny Rose. He crossed to Suarez, whose shot hit Titus Bramble. From the rebound Suarez gave his side a point.
"Overall Liverpool probably deserved the equalising goal," said Martin O'Neill. "They had the better of the second half. We played well in the first half but a point was a fair result. I'm delighted for Steven Fletcher. He's got three goals now and he will get better. I'm just very pleased with how the crowd have taken to him. He can link the play up." O'Neill's was the language of football, and there was some form of reassurance in that.
Sunderland (4-4-1-1): Mignolet; Gardner, Cuellar (Bramble 46), O'Shea, Rose (Campbell 72); Colback, Larsson, Cattermole, McClean; Sessègnon, Fletcher (Saha 86).
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Kelly, G Johnson, Skrtel, Agger; Gerrard, Allen; Sterling, Shelvey; Suarez; Borini (Downing 64).
Referee: Martin Atkinson.
Man of the match: Shelvey (Liverpool)
Match rating: 6/10
Half-time: 1-0 Att: 41,997Reuse content