Thousands of football fans filled Anfield to pay tribute to the 96 lives that were lost on April 15 1989, fuelled by a quest for justice against those culpable for their loss
By Jeremy Butler
For 24 years Liverpool have been commemorating the 96 fans who died watching their team at an FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough.
But on Monday, for the first time, the mass of fans who flock to the club’s famous Kop end on an annual basis arrived with hope in their hearts.
Hope that a campaign to bring justice for the 96 was finally coming to a conclusion, with those they feel responsible for the disaster being brought to order.
And also a sense of satisfaction that an independent panel report had swept away the lies that claimed Liverpool supporters had caused the tragedy.
It was a myth that has hung over the service for far too long and meant the palpable grief was always multiplied by anger.
After 24 years of crying, the tears still flow but that anger is slowly starting to subside.
Margaret Aspinall, chairman of the Hillsborough Family Support Group and mother of James, who died on that heart-breaking day, delivered the most powerful speech of the afternoon.
She said: “After 24 years the truth is finally out and the record has finally been put straight.
“It has taken 8,551 dark days and a report to expose what we have known from day one – the fans were not to blame.”
The calls for justice no longer sound hollow and a campaign that has included a number one single and support from clubs across Britain is finally expected to bring some closure.
After a weekend of unrest at Wembley and in Newcastle, Anfield proved that the power of the game can unite communities and bring fans together in a common cause.
The tragedy is a grief carried by the families of the 96 but shared by a nation of football loving fans who understand nobody should die when they go to watch their team play.
The city of Liverpool had already marked the occasion before Liverpool threw open the Anfield doors to all-comers wishing to pay their respects.
A grand-father clock, its hands stopped at 3.06 to mark the time the game was abandoned, was undraped at Liverpool Town Hall and a seven-feet high bronze drum-shaped monument with the names of the lost inscribed in it was unveiled at St George’s Hall.
But it is the service at Anfield that is always the focus of any memorial to the 96.
It is on the Kop, Liverpool’s most famous of terraces, where the families of those who died and the folk of a city unite in sorrow.
Just as before every home game, many stopped at the memorial on the Anfield Road on their way in. Some with a single rose in hand, some in Everton shirts, many with pushchairs and prams.
And just as before every match, those who studied the names struggled to comprehend the youthful ages of so many of those who died at Hillsborough.
The 96 who went to watch a football game but never came home.
Many of those who climbed the steps of the imposing Kop this afternoon had been in Sheffield 24 years ago to witness the horror.
Liverpool’s manager back then, Kenny Dalglish, who carried such a heavy burden at the time in comforting the families of those who had lost loved ones, was in attendance.
As were some of his players on that day like Alan Hansen and Ian Rush. They were clapped to their seats as loudly as the families who filled the front rows alongside them.
They sat shoulder to shoulder with the current Liverpool squad, all of whom know the pain Hillsborough has caused this city whether they grew up in Bootle or Brazil.
The sombre service, punctuated with readings and hymns, started with a choir singing Abide With Me before the names of each of a 96 was read out as a candle was lit in their memory. A minute’s silence was held at 3.06.
Brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers – sometimes two, on occasions three from the same family – in a sad list in a book of remembrance that is far too full.
A standing ovation greeted each and every name that was read out.
Liverpool’s owner John W Henry spoke of how the families’ search for truth and justice had “humbled” him.
“Now there is a real belief justice will be served,” he said. “This club will always cherish the memory of family and friends who were lost 24 years ago today. They will forever be a part of Liverpool Football Club.”
He was followed by Everton chairman Bill Kenwright, offering support in a city where reds and blues live as neighbours.
Speaking to a crowd where Everton mixed with Liverpool, as friends rather than rivals, he said: “My life will never be the same after today, I promise you that.
“Like all of you I watched that documentary a few weeks back. There were two words that were mentioned an awful lot. The two most important words in the English language. ‘Me mom’.
“We’ve all got mums. And you mums here today, I appreciate the pain you would have felt on that day. The 96 are here with you today as much as they’ve always been.
“I hope that next year you’ll be celebrating the greatest victory any team has ever had – not just in football, but in life.”
It was an emotional speech by Kenwright, but it was left to Mrs Aspinall to close the ceremony. She demanded the culpable face justice once again, before the Liverpool anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” provided a poignant finale.
Never has a song been so relevant.