A team of local legends drew 2-2 with their international counterparts in a special match to remember those who died in the Hillsborough disaster, with Robbie Fowler scoring twice
By Garry Doolan at Anfield
Some of Liverpool’s greatest ever stars returned to the famous Anfield pitch for a ‘Celebration of the 96’ charity match on Monday.
The clash between the Local Legends and International Legends was organised as a celebration of the lives of those fans who lost their lives in the Hillsborough disaster on April 15, 1989.
There was a barely a seat to be had in the magic old stadium as some of the finest players ever to wear the red jersey pulled on their boots again for a match that also raised funds for the Hillsborough Family Support Group, the game ending in a 2-2 draw.
Both sets of players wore ’96’ on their backs rather than traditional squad numbers but there was no danger that they would not be identified by the fans who idolised them all at various stages through Liverpool’s last 40 years.
Among the stars were many who had won league titles, FA Cups, League Cups, Uefa Cups and the Champions League. All had aged, many had turned grey and piled on the pounds but each was met by a massive round of applause as they ran out individually onto the pitch from the famous tunnel.
Perhaps the biggest welcome pre-match, though, was given to current manager Brendan Rodgers, who was cheered to the rafters as he walked the perimeter of the pitch 20 minutes before kick-off.
The Ulsterman, whose late father was an avid Reds fans, said: “I feel honoured, blessed and privileged to lead this club every day and occasions like this only strengthen those feelings.”
Current Reds captain Steven Gerrard was also in the stands, fresh from a 3-2 win at Norwich City on Sunday which put his side within touching distance of a first Premier League title in almost a quarter of a century.
Gerrard, who lost his 10-year-old cousin, Jon-Paul Gilhooley, at Hillsborough, declared: “The 96 were all football fans who followed LFC everywhere and the most fitting way to honour their memory is by putting on a game they would have loved.”
The match was preceded by a moving rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ by local chorister Jack Topping. Liverpool’s rousing anthem is usually sung by the massed ranks of the Anfield choir but, on this occasion, there was perfect silence in the stands as the 12-year-old belted out the famous song.
There was little goalmouth action in the early exchanges but still plenty to entertain the fans. The crowd took to playfully booing striker Michael Owen, who joined Manchester United after leaving Liverpool, each time that he touched the ball and also shouted for Danish legend Jan Molby to shoot on sight each time he took possession.
The deadlock came close to being broken when Steve McManaman nipped through the back of the International rearguard after 15 minutes but was denied by keeper Sander Westerveld. As the Local Legends, managed by Kenny Dalglish, piled on the pressure, Owen and Robbie Fowler both fired shots high and wide.
The International Legends, led by Gerard Houllier, then almost grabbed a 35th-minute opener but Spanish great Luis Garcia drove a lot shot just wide of David James’s far post.
The stalemate was eventually shattered three minutes from half-time when Fowler – who scored 183 goals in total during two spells at Anfield and was simply known as ‘God’ by the fans – latched onto a through-ball from Jason McAteer to round Westerveld before slotting the ball into the empty net at the Kop end.
Both sides rang the changes during the break and the switches paid dividends for the International Legends, who levelled after just five minutes. Czech midfielder Vladimir Smicer showed a glimpse of the fine touch which made him such a firm favourite during his six years at Anfield when he drove home a long-range shot from the edge of the box. The shot took a noticeable deflection off Michael Thomas on its way into the net but was still credited to Smicer, best remembered for his goal in Liverpool’s dramatic 2005 Champions League victory over AC Milan in 2005.
As the legs inevitably tired in the closing stages, there were more changes. Comedian John Bishop was brought into the fray but was then almost sent off just minutes later for clattering into midfielder David Thompson.
But Bishop was at the heart of the International Legends’ second goal, on 77 minutes, when his shot bounced out off the post for Bruno Cheyrou to belt the rebound past James.
Then two minutes from time, Bishop had a penalty saved by James at the Kop end after David Burrows had clattered into Jari Litmanen.
With the seconds ticking away, the Local Legends were awarded their own penalty after Fowler was tripped and the striker picked himself up off the floor to slot the equaliser.
A specially carved wooden trophy was presented to both captains after the final whistle, as International skipper Sami Hyypia enthused: “It was great to see the stadium full today. It was a great occasion and all the players thoroughly enjoyed it.”
“It was a great afternoon,” said Ronnie Whelan, who turned out for the Local Legends. “This place has seen some great occasions but this was memorable also. The sun was shining and it was a fitting tribute.”