By Jonathan Birchall
In a town called Warrington, I grew up on the dividing line. From a Manchester United family, Old Trafford sat 22 miles to the east of my house while Anfield, on the other side of the Manchester Ship Canal, was 26 miles to the west. Another world, where Kenny, not Eric was king and Fowler, not Fergie was God.
My best friend was Liverpool. His father and grandfather, present at Hillsborough on April 15, 1989, would make jokes when United lost and make excuses when they won. We were, and are, rivals after all.
The rivalry, which spreads beyond the north west of England and to the eyes of the footballing world, will have another chapter added next Sunday, as the so-called greatest feud between the two greatest clubs in English football plays out at Anfield. As a fan of either side, you can only dread it these days.
For at some point, Liverpool v Manchester United, or Manchester United v Liverpool fell sick, poisoned by a tiny minority of those in attendance – they don’t deserve to be called fans.
At one end you see them miming an aeroplane, chanting about the Munich runway on which 23 United players, staff and journalists lost their lives on February 6, 1958. Not old enough to have seen its after-effects on the city of Manchester and too ignorant to learn, they mock and cheer.
Concurrently, in another part of the ground, a different pocket retaliate, or so they say with the pathetic hint of a ‘well they started it’ attitude. They sing about Heysel, where 33 Juventus fans died at the European Cup final against Liverpool in 1985, and they sing about Hillsborough. Accusatory, twisted songs that we all know the words to but wish we’d never heard.
On Saturday, as fans from the likes of Leeds, Stoke and Manchester City sang their support for Liverpool’s campaign for justice, and Sunderland lowered the Stadium of Light flags to half mast in resepct for the 96 Hillsborough victims, the poison seaped in again.
To the despair of the right-minded fans at the Theatre of Dreams, handfuls – and it was only handfuls – of attention-deprived, brainless individuals reignited the myths that the city 34 miles away has spent over two decades desperately trying to expose.
Both clubs, to their credit, have tried to cure the fixture. Kenny Dalglish and Sir Alex Ferguson both pleaded for an end to the chants before last season’s matches at Anfield and Old Trafford in an effort to cut the poison off and reclaim the game for those that deserve it.
On Friday, the United manager spoke out again after the Hillsborough Independent Panel published a report exonerating the Liverpool fans of any blame in the 1989 tragedy and Prime Minister David Cameron apologised on behalf of the government for its involvement in the 23-year cover up that followed.
“We are two great clubs, ourselves and Liverpool,” said Sir Alex.
“We should understand each other’s problems. Maybe a line will be drawn in the sand in terms of their behaviour towards each other.”
Mercifully, most do understand. As a student in Liverpool, I was once called “a Munich” after admitting my family’s allegiance to the club an hour down the East Lancs Road, but it was isolated. Embarrassing for he who said it and bemusing to everyone that heard it.
Brendan Rodgers, less engrained in the rivalry between the two clubs than Ferguson and Dalglish, has also called for calm in recent days, though you wonder if even he is confused as to why he has to. A football manager being forced to police a minority of those that watch his team because of the vitriol they spout without care or concern. How did it come to this? And how has it remained? It can’t anymore.
On Wednesday, we were told what the survivors and loved ones of the 96 who died on that darkest of sunny Sheffield afternoons already knew. After nearly a quarter of a century fighting with unerring dignity, the families, still scarred by their losses had the comfort of justification, and finally the truth.
That truth, that football fans were treated with the most disgusting, heartless contempt at Hillsborough and in the 23 years that followed has shocked the country. At Anfield next Sunday and from now, and forever, the same vile behaviour from those pockets in the stands must stop.
Football, these clubs and these cities are above such poison. Never has a time been so fitting as to prove it. Never again can we let them shame our game.
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