Hillsborough healing must replace hatred as Liverpool face Manchester United
IT WAS a move designed to raise eyebrows and ease tension. When the Manchester United team coach drew up outside Anfield on Boxing Day in 1986, Bob Paisley, working as a consultant to the new Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish, stepped down on to the pavement.
Then the most successful manager in British football history, Paisley was synonymous with Liverpool FC, having also played for the Anfield team. Yet here he was, disembarking from the Manchester United bus, just in front of his friend, Matt Busby, who, it tends to be forgotten, once skippered Liverpool. It wasn’t a grand gesture. Rather, it was a subtle, poignant one. Did it help? Nearly thirty years later we are here, with cause to be anxious ahead of another meeting between the sides. Tomorrow’s Premier League fixture is being played in the long, long shadow of a tragedy that recent revelations have proved has the power to shock anew.
In the current absence of a regular Old Firm fixture, Liverpool against Manchester United has been installed as British football’s most combustible clash, though it has long since rivalled the Glasgow game for edge. With emotions running high at Anfield, it was initially viewed as concerning when it emerged that the first visitors to Liverpool’s ground following the publication of a startling independent report into Hillsborough would be Manchester United, their great rivals and, for nearly 40 years, most bitter of enemies.
And yet perhaps it can act as a blessing at a time when we again have reason to chronicle the long-time feuding between two great clubs. If these recent revelations can’t help unite Liverpool and Manchester United, what hope is there? If a disaster now proved to have been an outrage visited upon the common football fan cannot unite two clubs with deep roots in working-class communities, then has the game reached the end of the line?
This high-profile test comes just weeks after football’s flaws were placed in a harsher light than ever in the aftermath of the Olympics. Everton showed the way on Monday night prior to their match with Newcastle United, in a genuinely moving display of solidarity with their city rivals. A pair of mascots in Liverpool and Everton shirts displayed the number 96 on their shirts, while Manchester band the Hollies provided the soundtrack via a recording of He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.
Given the backdrop to tomorrow’s game, it is ridiculous that there is concern over what should be a simple handshake. Luis Suarez, who was the banned for eight matches for racially abusing Patrice Evra last season, will be expected to shake hands with the United defender before kick-off, having spurned him when the teams last met.
History explains why a degree of anxiety has been included in the understandable mix of anger and relief currently being felt on Merseyside, as the arrival is anticipated of fans not noted for their sympathy towards Liverpool. Sir Alex Ferguson has composed a letter to be distributed among the away supporters tomorrow before they pass through the turnstiles at the Anfield Road end of the ground.
“Our rivalry with Liverpool is based on a determination to come out on top – a wish to see us crowned the best against a team that held the honour for so long,” he writes. “It cannot and should never be based on personal hatred. Just ten days ago, we heard the terrible, damning truth about the deaths of 96 fans who went to watch their team try and reach the FA Cup final and never came back.
“What happened to them should wake the conscience of everyone connected with the game,” he adds, before concluding with firm authority but also no little compassion: “Our great club stands with our great neighbours Liverpool today to remember that loss and pay tribute to their campaign for justice. I know I can count on you to stand with us in the best traditions of the best fans in the game.”
The opposing captains – Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic and Steven Gerrard of Liverpool – will also release 96 balloons to mark each needless death. Gerrard’s own cousin perished at Hillsborough. Surely this weekend can mark a watershed in relations between the clubs. These gestures can bridge the divide, something not even figures so revered as Busby and Paisley were able to manage in what was meant to be the season of goodwill back in 1986. Footballs kicked into the fans by opposition players that afternoon were kicked back again.
It is instructive that such a gesture was felt necessary even then. Shockingly, prior to the teams’ previous meeting at Anfield, in February 1985, an ammonia can was sprayed as the Manchester United players left the team bus. Clayton Blackmore, the United defender, was hurt, while a 12 year-old boy who had been standing nearby was also hospitalised.
It was an incident that placed the intense rivalry between the sides back in the spotlight, although it had been bubbling over long before then. John Keith, a Liverpool-based football author and broadcaster, believes it stretches back to the early Seventies, when Liverpool began to announce themselves as the foremost club in the land and United were struggling. More recently, the roles have been reversed. “It’s based on envy,” he says. “Back in the 1960s, players from both sides used to socialise together. Paddy Crerand and Ian St John, for example, were great friends.”
No-one should labour under the illusion that the distasteful chanting about Hillsborough, which was briefly heard again during Manchester United’s win against Wigan Athletic last weekend, is as unsavoury as it’s ever been. Banners “celebrating” the death of Manchester United players at Munich in 1958 were designed to shock in the 1980s, and did. United fans responded with one that read Shankly ‘81, 1981 being the year when Liverpool’s greatest figure passed away. “The Neanderthal men of the Stretford end,” one writer commented at the time, with reference to the then intimidating home end at Old Trafford.
Roy Keane need not have worried about anyone eating prawn sandwiches back then. This was football’s darkest hour. Before Hillsborough, and just weeks prior to Heysel, a disaster could have occurred at the 1985 FA Cup semi-final between Manchester United and Liverpool, staged at a packed Goodison Park, where a flare was aimed into a section packed with United supporters.
There has been some humour employed on occasion too. Neil Ruddock, the Liverpool defender, once turned down Eric Cantona’s up-turned collar during a match in an attempt to puncture the Frenchman’s conceit of himself. The language, though, has long been inflammatory. Ferguson once spoke of having to “choke back vomit” because of what he felt was institutional bias shown by referees towards the home club when they were in their pomp.
His oft-quoted ambition on his arrival at Anfield doubled as a manifesto in his early years at Old Trafford – “to knock Liverpool off their f*cking perch”. Then, of course, came Kenny Dalglish’s comment made in earshot of Ferguson following a 3-3 draw in 1988, and as the Manchester United manager was engaged in a post-match interview. “You’ll get more sense out of her,” he said, with reference to his then six-week-old daughter Lauren, who he was cradling at the time.
It might be dismissed as on-going soap opera if it were not for the serious nature of the rivalry, and the depths to which it has plunged at times. Tomorrow is an opportunity for the healing to begin again.
SIR ALEX’S LETTER TO UNITED FANS
The great support you gave the team here [at Anfield] last season has seen our allocation back up to near-full levels. I want you to continue that progress today.
“But today [Sunday] is about much more than not blocking gangways. Today is about thinking hard about what makes United the best club in the world.
“Our rivalry with Liverpool is based on a determination to come out on top – a wish to see us crowned the best against a team that held that honour for so long.
“It cannot and should never be based on personal hatred. Just ten days ago, we heard the terrible, damning truth about the deaths of 96 fans who went to watch their team try and reach the FA Cup final and never came back.
What happened to them should wake the conscience of everyone connected with the game.
Our great club stands with our great neighbours Liverpool today to remember that loss and pay tribute to their campaign for justice. I know I can count on you to stand with us in the best traditions of the best fans in the game.
Sir Alex Ferguson
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