Sir Alex Ferguson: Manchester United fans can be great by ending sick Hillsborough chant
Old Trafford chairman's praise of rivals' conduct among revelations in Hillsborough report
Manchester United provided evidence of Liverpool fans' "exemplary" behaviour to the public inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster in a letter, written four months before the tragedy, which thanked the Anfield club for supporters' conduct when the clubs met on New Year's Day 1989.
As Sir Alex Ferguson offered an eloquent plea to his own club's fans yesterday to put aside old enmities, end Hillsborough chants and take the opportunity "to show your greatness" when the clubs meet at Anfield a week tomorrow, the letter from United chairman Martin Edwards to Liverpool general secretary Peter Robinson delivered more grounds for reconciliation. In it, Edwards held out the prospect that the conduct of fans at the game might "herald a new beginning between supporters of both our clubs and create the same goodwill which exists between Manchester United and Liverpool at all other levels."
Edwards' letter, made public in the Hillsborough Independent Panel archive, would have been used at the Taylor Inquiry to counter the idea, propagated by South Yorkshire Police, local MP Irvine Patnick and others, that Liverpool supporters were somehow to blame for the disaster. Edwards told Robinson that United "appreciated the good atmosphere and general contribution" to a match that Liverpool lost 3-1.
The rivalry between the two clubs will always be rabid – laced as it is with unique historical and geographical dimensions, as Ferguson always points out. But the United manager yesterday recollected how he had feared for his own fans' safety in the crudely fenced football stadia of the 1980s.
"The thing that sticks out in my mind at that time was those fences around the stadiums," said Ferguson, one of the first people to call the then Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish after the tragedy at Sheffield Wednesday's ground. "That turned out to be catastrophic really. I remember us going to Derby [in August 1989] in the time of Michael Knighton [whose £10m attempt to buy United eventually came to nothing]. It was before they started limiting away fans [and] we took a massive support of about 10,000. Michael Knighton was walking round, shaking hands with the fans, and they were trying to climb over those fences. It was frightening. You think back to those fences; they were put up to avoid fans going onto the pitch if you remember. In that period, there was some bad fan behaviour around the country. But it turned out it cost people lives, I think. It contributed to what happened at Hillsborough."
The most partisan of Liverpool fans will afford Ferguson a nod today, for the way he encapsulated the need to put away for good the "Hillsborough" and "Munich" chants which have polluted the fixture. "There are always opportunities to show your greatness and I think this is another one," the Glaswegian said. "I think it's a moment for those two great clubs to show why they're two great clubs."
It remains to be seen whether United will seek to publish any messages to fans urging better conduct, though Ferguson does not seem to consider that necessary. Dalglish tells how Ferguson also sent a group of United fans across to Anfield to pay respects in Hillsborough's aftermath – a "wonderful gesture" as he described it many years later, though his own hopes that this might re-establish the bonds that Edwards had spoken of in his letter to Robinson were to be short-lived. "They soon went back to their self-same ways. The hating continued," Dalglish has since reflected.
For this weekend. Ferguson has the prospect of Roberto Martinez's seemingly resurgent Wigan Athletic at Old Trafford and though Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa both trained yesterday despite international break injuries, it is a defence that have conceded two goals in each of their last two Premier League games that concerns him. "Do we have to score three every game to win? I don't want to got down that road," Ferguson said. He will draw Darren Fletcher into his squad, as he continues his slow emergence from a debilitating bowel condition, though the Scotsman seems unlikely to feature on the bench. The League Cup tie with Newcastle United on Wednesday is a more probable target for him.
This will probably be another weekend of landmarks – potentially Ryan Giggs' 600th league fixture for United, Paul Scholes 700th game and Rio Ferdinand's 400th. Though Ferguson suggested Giggs would endure for the longest – another two years – Scholes' display in turning a struggle at Southampton into a 3-2 win makes his current contribution the extraordinary one. "It was like opening the door to another room," Ferguson said yesterday of the 37-year-old's transformation of that fixture.
Ferguson insisted Wayne Rooney was making progress. The scar on his gashed thigh is healing though he is not back in full training yet and doing all his work "with the physics" and minus the ball, as Ferguson put it. As he spoke, the Carrington training complex outside was continuing its overhaul with a garish new sign proclaiming the name of the club. The new £13m medical facility, scheduled for November, is needed. The knee injury which Phil Jones sustained in training last weekend will keep him out for eight to 10 weeks, while Chris Smalling's ongoing recovery from a metatarsal fracture will see him back in training by the end of the month.
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