Whatever the anniversary and however many the years, the small agonies of Hillsborough continue to reveal themselves. Even when the 96 were remembered under an azure blue sky in a city which feels that a reckoning is coming at last, the match report privately typed out by Victoria Hicks, the aspiring teenage journalist who never came home from South Yorkshire, was heart-breaking to read when first published on Tuesday.
“The Fulham team were totally humiliated by a fantastic Liverpool line-up and really, after a bright first few minutes, they were never really in the game,” Victoria wrote of Liverpool’s 10-0 win over Fulham in the Milk Cup on 23 September 1986. She was a 13-year-old, then. She was 15 when she died.
The wounds are still open for many and the genuine difficulty for the players, as they stepped off the coach at Anfield and into a crowd feeling title euphoria, was how to respond. There was a winsome smile from Steven Gerrard and a grimace from Luis Suarez, who received the loudest cheer, before they disappeared into the stadium.
Only when the afternoon was complete and the sun was beginning to disappear beyond the corrugated roof of the old Kop, did Margaret Aspinall, the Hillsborough Family Support Group leader, give voice to the fact that Liverpool can use the spirit of the campaign to drive their title ambitions.
“Stress is difficult. But stress is also good,” she said, slowly turning her gaze towards the players. “It makes you fight and I know that you are going to do that to get this championship.” And she won the loudest cheer in the house.
She was the one whose determination to involve the Labour MP for Leigh, Andy Burnham, in this commemoration service five years ago – which didn’t go down well with many at first – helped set about changing perceptions about Hillsborough irrevocably, as Burnham spearheaded the political fight for a re-examination of the tragedy. “I’m so glad I took that risk, Andy,” she told him at the service, though little did either of them imagine that the 25th anniversary service would take place amid such deference for the judicial system, because of the reopened inquests which Burnham’s work laid the path for.
Tuesday’s event, attended by 25,000 people, was staged amid a near obsessive concern about not affecting the course of justice – “ Ironic, that!” said Mrs Aspinall – though it helped that two of the great communicators in modern football management happened to be in attendance, as the men who stand at the helm of this city’s two great clubs.
The sharp, distinctive accents of Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers pierced the silence, with the Catalonian tones of Martinez destined to be remembered here for a very long time, as he drew Everton and Liverpool together in remembrance.
Martinez was a 15-year-old, just like Victoria Hicks, living and breathing football when – as he related at his press conference on Tuesday – his father told him what had happened, far away in England. “We could not believe or comprehend the horror of receiving the news their loved ones would not come home from a football match,” Martinez said. “How can anyone die watching the game they love? That isn’t right. That isn’t fair. To have to fight for the good names of the ones you love is appalling.”
It was a measure of the way the tragedy has forged bonds at Liverpool that Rodgers, of necessity more circumspect in his observations than Martinez, paid tribute to a man whose job he took, nearly two years ago. “We are privileged to follow in the footsteps of great men and those we aspire to emulate, though we know that is impossible. One of them is in front of us today,” he said. “It’s Kenny Dalglish.”
The stadium was a microcosm of the wider world’s attempt to comprehend. Nearly 2,500 viewed a transmission of the service at Goodison. Messages to the lunchtime BBC Radio Merseyside programme, in which the broadcaster Roger Phillips has charted many post-Hillsborough years, came from Charlton and Port Vale fans.
But it was Anfield which remembered most acutely. The extraordinary precision of the service – the seven minutes it took to read the names of the 96 taking us precisely to a verse of Abide With Me and then a minute’s silence – revealed a club which has been here, doing this, many times before.
There was not a deafening response from the crowd when led by a gospel choir in front of the penalty area where Raheem Sterling’s brilliance had given Liverpool a lead against Manchester City, 48 short hours earlier. Many instead preferred to sit in contemplation.
But after the elegies and the addresses were done and You’ll Never Walk Alone was sung, they chanted “Liverpool” with all their might. “My mum told me to wish you all the best for the title,” Burnham told them. “She told me to say how fitting it would be if you won it in this of all years.”
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