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Wednesday, 15 April 2015

26 Years Later, Liverpool Fans Still Feel the Loss

LONDON — At six minutes after three o’clock on Wednesday afternoon, a packed Anfield Stadium in Liverpool will fall silent — as it has at this precise time every April 15 for the past 25 years.

And when the silence is over, the more than 40,000 people will burst into the anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

This is how Liverpool pays its respects to the sons and daughters, the mothers and fathers, the cousins and friends who were among the 96 fans who died in the crush of a chronically overcrowded standing area behind one of the goal boxes six minutes into the FA Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, played at the neutral venue of Hillsborough, Sheffield.

Time has not been allowed to ease the bereavement for the families, nor to prevent the tremor in the pulse for any of us who were in that stadium in 1989. We were drawn for sport, but barely had the game begun when the horror unraveled before us.

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This weekend, as fate would have it, Liverpool plays another FA Cup semifinal, this time against Aston Villa at London’s Wembley Stadium. That makes five times the Reds have reached this penultimate stage of the world’s oldest tournament, following the tragedy — the semis of 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2012.

So the love of this competition continues to compel Liverpudlians — among them relatives of the dead and the hundreds more fans injured at Hillsborough. Some, but not all say it would only make more futile their loss if they turned their backs on the cause their loved ones died following.

If you get the chance, watch Wednesday’s Hillsborough Memorial Service at Anfield. You will witness a remarkable bond between the survivors, the relatives and the former players who come back to share this ceremony at each anniversary.

For those of us who were mere bystanders in 1989, the worst thing was seeing the tragedy build up, watching helplessly from the adjacent main stand the calamity resulting when 2,000 extra fans were allowed to enter that crowded section of the ground. The excitement of a Liverpool attack on the goal at the far end of the field caused people at the back of the Leppings Lane stand to surge forward, trapping and crushing those at the front into the impenetrable steel fencing.

As the ablest-bodied fans climbed those high barriers, or were hauled bodily up to the concrete second tier above them, life was crushed out of the spectators, many of them youngsters, trapped by the fencing.

There was no aggression. Sheer weight of numbers caused the suffocation. But we all knew why those ugly, immovable barriers had been erected. It was the ill-considered response of authority to keep hooligans from encroaching on the field — and as inexcusable as it seems, such fences still remain in parts of the world, including France, Germany and Italy.

The government ordered that all of the country’s stadiums, most of them crumbling relics back in the 1980s, become safer, modern structures in the ensuing years. Standing was made illegal at soccer games in the top divisions of England and Scotland, and though the prices have rocketed, the legacy of the Hillsborough tragedy is that every fan has a designated seat inside the arena.

German soccer fans might argue that with proper crowd control and well- behaved spectators, people need not be deprived of the right to stand if they choose to. Many thousands do every time the giant teams like Borussia Dortmund play, and the atmosphere they create is second to none.

However, all is not laid to rest, and may never be, regarding Liverpool. If anything could be worse than the accident, it was the blame game that is still going on after more than a quarter of a century.

Right now, in a makeshift courtroom at Warrington on the outskirts of Liverpool, there is a harrowing re-examination of the evidence, while simultaneously the Independent Police Complaints Commission is attempting the biggest criminal and disciplinary investigation in its history.

At stake is the accusation by senior police officials and by the editor of the Sun newspaper that the fans were responsible for causing their own deaths.

Those accounts were worse than erroneous. The fans were either victims or, often, heroes who ran to the fallen, trying to give the kiss of life or breaking up advertising boards to cart the injured to ambulances outside the stadium.

The Family Support Group, led by parents who lost children, have made it their life’s purpose to demand truth and justice. Some, alas, have died with the passage of time, but others are beginning to see and hear the truth under oath.

Last month in Warrington, David Duckenfield, the police chief who was the match commander at Hillsborough, admitted under cross-examination that he had ordered the gate to be opened, allowing the 2,000 fans to pour through. He further admitted he had been part of the attempt to cover up police culpability and blame the fans.

Duckenfield cut a pitiable, and self- pitying figure. Now 70, he was pensioned off by the police force two years after Hillsborough. Like other officers, he took early retirement because of depression.

No doubt the police suffered, but it is living pain. Duckenfield testified that he panicked, having been given the Hillsborough command only three weeks before. But others should be in the dock alongside him. Who appointed him? Who chose the venue, who decided Liverpool, with thousands more supporters than Nottingham, should be given the smaller end of the stadium? Who was responsible for building a fence of steel — with insufficient safety gates — that left so many with no escape from asphyxiation?

No amount of compensation, no apology, can replace their loss. But on every Hillsborough anniversary, the sadness deepens that there remain stadiums in the world that cage in fans just as unforgivably as Hillsborough did.

FIFA and its federations should pay some of their riches to ensure the arenas are safe places to watch the “Beautiful Game.”

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