“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.” Bill Shankly.
In that moment, when a ball trickles over a line, when the keeper chooses the right way, when a man flies into a tackle, when a flag is raised, a whistle is blown or a chorus of “Can we play you every week?” is sung loud and clear from the away end you feel Shankly’s statement loud and clear. In that very instant, nothing else matters.
This quote of his would be tattooed across bodies and carved into grave stones of football fanatics for years to come epitomises a supporter’s passion for the sport.
Football is a game that pushes tough men to cry and pure souls to scream, shout and swear. It drives fans to love and hate in equal measure. In those 90 minutes of pure theatre, nothing else matters. Life or death is irrelevant. Or so it seemed.
April 15th 1989 proved all the above sentiments wrong. And today, 24 years since 96 Liverpool supporters lost their lives in Sheffield, just when football fans think their world has come to an end after a frustrating draw or embarrassing defeat, a footballing world can take a step back and unite in remembering the 96.
This article isn’t a history lesson. Thatcher’s death pales into insignificance that I shan’t dwell on. The injustices of the past 24 years the families have endured are what make a day like this more poignant. This is the one day of the year, when all the hating, blame and everything else is put on hold and we simply remember.
It is seen as a game which brings the very worst out in people. In certain aspects, yes, it can do like any sport, as per Wembley stadium and Newcastle city centre in the past 48 hours has proven. But those incidents are from a minority.
What makes football so popular in that it gives working class men something to maul over and debate in a pub. Sometimes it will boil over but without it, our lives would be dull to say the least.
As much as there is a hatred for rival teams, there is, most of the time, a respect for one another. We understand why people celebrate against us and taunt us when we fail on a pitch. Why? Because we do the same to them. On a Saturday afternoon, a football stadium is filled with like-minded people who all have a common interest; the beautiful game.
The cheaters from South America, modern technology and the businessmen with pockets as deep as a Greek tragedy has taken away the beauty and romance which made this game so special for so long. Or so ‘they’ say.
It’s days like today which defies these thoughts. No matter who you support, today as a football fan you take a step back and you remember 96 lost lives. A silence is impeccably observed. At 15.06 BST, the exact time when that fateful game was stopped, a bell tolls across Merseyside. Red and blue unite. The phrase ‘brotherhood’ overpowers that of ‘Red-shi*e’ or ‘bitter’.
These past twelve months have been monumental for the families of Hillsborough, with the files finally being released and now the truth is out, justice must now prevail.
Only days after the big news back in September, Liverpool faced Manchester United at Anfield. Many quarters of the footballing world worried whether or not the rivals would behave and respect not only a historic week for Liverpool Football Club, but in the history of the city.
For me it was never in doubt. Manchester United Football Club acted with real class, despite the rivalry, the tributes were respected, and Sir Bobby Charlton laid a wreath on the turf and with Ian Rush, released 96 balloons into the foggy September sky before kick-off.
As a fan I stood there on the terraces overcome with emotion. 45,000 Liverpool fans broke into a rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” That day those words rang true, not just from Scousers, but in terms of tragedy, a footballing world walked together towards the golden sky with hope in their hearts for justice.
The images of the Kop and the Centenary stand with mosaics spelling out “Truth” and “Justice” are images which will fill sporting books forever. It was the “Bastion of invincibility” which Bill Shankly fought to build many years ago. It matters not what people throw at them, and maybe success on the pitch is a thing of the past at the moment, in the stands, Liverpool remain unbeatable as ever.
A Steven Gerrard goal at the Kop end, who’d lost a cousin at Hillsborough, with a celebration pointing to the sky, would have been the fairy tale many people hoped for, but it wasn’t meant to be. It was ultimately United’s day on the pitch, but in the grand scheme of things, the result mattered little, this day wasn’t about one-upmanship, it was a day to celebrate and to commemorate.
I left the ground with my tear stained face and blood-shot eyes with my heart pumping Liverpool. I was yet to be born when Hillsborough occurred, but despite this I felt part of the history and it’s a day which will stay with me forever.
It didn’t have to happen to Liverpool back in 1989, it could have been anyone. No matter the team, silences would be observed, armbands would be worn and we would remember them. For all of footballs imperfections it does, in times like this bring out the very best. And this is why it still is the beautiful game.