Merseyside United

On April 15, 1989, Liverpool FC played Nottingham Forest in a semi-final of the highly prestigious FA Cup. Because of its importance, the match took place on a neutral ground — Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield.

Liverpool fans filled one end of the stadium, a “terrace” area with no seats. When the main entrance to that area became highly conjested, authorities permitted entry through an exit. The sudden influx of supporters caused many already in the terrace, or “pen,” to be crushed. 96 people died in the stampede.

The Yorkshire police immediately placed blame on allegedly drunken Liverpool supporters and/or fans without tickets, and began trying to build that case. But the families of the victims never accepted the police explanation; nor did many other Liverpudlians.

The official inquiry into the disaster, issued in 1990, concluded that “the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control.” However, the commission that issued this report lacked police and other key records. Thus, the families of the victims and their supporters pressed for further inquiry.

Last week, more than 23 years after the disaster, the Hillsborough Independent Panel concluded, based on a review of hundreds of thousands of previously unreleased documents, that no Liverpool fans were responsible for the deaths. According to the report, there is “no evidence. . .to verify the serious allegations of exceptional levels of drunkenness, ticketlessness or violence among Liverpool fans”. The Panel also found that attempts had been made by the authorities to conceal what happened at Hillsborough. These attempts included the amendment by the police of 116 statements relating to the disaster.

The Panel stated that responsibility for the deaths rested primarily with crowd control decisions made by the police and secondarily with poor emergency services. Prime Minister David Cameron immediately apologized to the victims’ families.

Today, there took place the first EPL match in the city of Liverpool since the issuance of the Panel’s report. But the match did not occur on Liverpool FC’s ground. Rather it was played at Goodison Park, the home of Everton, Liverpool’s arch-rivals.

Everton decided to honor those who died at Hillsborough. Before the match mascots (i.e., cute kids) representing Liverpool and Everton walked onto the field together in red and blue jersies, respectively. One wore the number 9; the other wore 6. Standing together, they represented the 96 who died in the stampede. Then, the big scoreboard listed the names of the 96 victims, to the song “He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother.”

The Everton players (as well as their Newcastle United opponents) applauded vigorously. The father of one Everton star, our brilliant left-back Leighton Baines, was at Hillsborough on April 15, 1989 supporting Liverpool.

The spirit of fellowship continued during the match, a hotly contested but very clean affair. Newcastle’s veteran goalkeeper Steve Harper even convinced the referee not to award a yellow card to an Everton player who had inadvertently knocked him down.

In the end, the two clubs produced a six goal thriller in which only four of the goals were allowed. Unfortunately the two disallowed goals both were scored by Everton, and the match ended in a 2-2 draw. As the replays showed, and as ESPN commentators Ian Darke and Steve McManaman (who was at Hillsborough on the fateful day as a young reserve player for Liverpool) acknowledged, both were perfectly good goals. There was no offside on the first and the second crossed the goal line before Newcastle cleared the ball.

But video review by refs does not exist in soccer, which is the way it should be, I think. Review should be reserved for things like the Hillsborough disaster.

In any event, this match was a great advertisement for EPL play (if not officiating), and a sorely needed boost for EPL sportsmanship.

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