TWENTY THREE years. Or 8,401 days. Or 201, 624 hours.

Whatever way you look at it, it’s a heck of a long time to go without the truth about why a loved one needlessly died.

A son, a daughter, a brother, a sister, a dad, a grandad. Cruelly snatched away by a preventable crime. Because that’s what Hillsborough was. A crime.

A crime for which now, more than two decades on, nobody has been made to pay for. No-one’s even said sorry.

Lord Justice Taylor blamed police for the loss of 96 lives. But no policeman has ever lost his job because of it. No policeman has been prosecuted. Some policeman have been compensated for Hillsborough.

One officer on duty that day is believed to have been awarded £330,000 for post-traumatic stress. Phil Hammond, who lost his son Philip, 14, at Hillsborough received £3,500 compensation for his death.

How can that be right? How can that be justified? And how can the families, as so many of the ignorant suggest, ‘Just leave it’?

It was the police that allocated the smaller end of Hillsborough to Liverpool. It was the police who put Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield in charge of his first major match. It was Duckenfield that gave the signal to open Gate C, allowing 2,000 fans to flood into areas already desperately overcrowded without stewards to guide them to less-populated side pens of the Leppings Lane end.

It was the police that ignored cries for help from dying fans. It was the police that battered down supporters that tried to climb the perimeter fence. It was the police that watched from the control room, showing criminal inaction as the tragedy unfolded on CCTV cameras. It was police that later claimed that CCTV on Leppings Lane was out of order. The ground engineer later swore an affidavit that police had been lying when they told the inquest they couldn’t see the extent of the crush from the control box.

It was the police that claimed CCTV tapes from the day were “stolen” and it was the police who have never explained how that crime could take place on the day of a disaster of the magnitude of Hillsborough in a locked and alarmed control room.

It was the police whose indecision meant perimeter gates remained locked as fans lost their lives. It was the police that moved in with dogs when a gate was forced open and fans spilled on to the pitch, gasping for air. Liverpool supporters paid a heavy price for the Establishment culture which labelled football fans as hooligans.

Gates were finally opened at 3.06pm when a policeman signalled the match should be stopped. But it was police who prevented 44 ambulances from helping dying and injured fans.

“You can’t go on the pitch, they’re still fighting,” the police told Tony Edwards, the only professional ambulance attendant to reach the Leppings Lane end.

Edwards was never interviewed by the Taylor inquiry – his ambulance never existed as far as the investigation was concerned. It was the police that engineered a smear campaign against supporters.

“Black propaganda,” Liverpool MP Maria Eagle called it. Police quizzed survivors as to how much they had drunk and whether they had tickets. Even corpses were tested for alcohol levels. The police have never explained why they thought people having a drink, or trying to buy a ticket outside a football match, was a new phenomenon. It happened then, it happens now.

It was the police – Duckenfield to be exact – who minutes after the disaster lied as he told FA chief executive Graham Kelly that supporters had forced Gate C open. So began a smear campaign that has hindered the fight for justice and still taints perception of the disaster to this day.

The Sun is boycotted to this day in Liverpool after the cretinous decision by then editor Kelvin Mackenzie to run disgusting lies about Liverpool fans on the front page:

“The Truth; some fans picked pockets of victims; some fans urinated on the brave cops; some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life.”

Mackenzie still defends his decision. In 2006, he said: “I was not sorry then and I’m not sorry now. All I did wrong there was tell the truth.”

His source? The police.

It wasn’t just The Sun, either. The police spread its lies far and wide. Across the country, lies were being manifested into the national conscience.

The Sheffield Star reported: “Many supporters were still propping up the bars at 2.30pm. They raced to the stadium arriving at the Leppings Lane end at the height of the crush. Some of them were the worse for drink; others without tickets were hoping to sneak in.”

The Evening Standard wrote: “How long will it take for it publicly to be acknowledged that fans themselves share the blame? The catastrophe was caused first and foremost by violent enthusiasm for soccer, in this case the tribal passions of Liverpool supporters. They literally killed themselves and others to be at the game.”

The smear campaign gathered momentum.

Jacques Georges, President of UEFA, jumped on board: “One had the impression that they were beasts waiting to charge into the arena.”

The view of the then Tory government was also clear. The day after the disaster, Margaret Thatcher went to Hillsborough, and was briefed by police. Thatcher’s press secretary, Bernard Ingham, said he “learned on the day” that the deaths were caused by a “tanked up mob” of Liverpool fans.

Lord Justice Taylor saw through it all. He blamed the police.

In his official report he said the principal cause of the disaster had been the police’s “blunder of the first magnitude” to open an exit gate without directing fans away from overcrowded central “pens.”

Lord Taylor also highlighted the police’s planning failure which allowed “dangerous congestion at the turnstiles”. He hit out at the police’s “sluggish reaction and response when the crush occurred” and on Duckenfield’s lies said: “He could not face the enormity of [his own] decision to open the gates and all that flowed there from.”

Taylor recognised that from moment there was a concerted effort to blacken the reputation of fans.

The defaming of supporters has helped to hide the truth. Families and supporters alike have since faced a dual battle – to defend their name and fight for justice.

No evidence to back up the succession of police lies has ever emerged – no pictures, no witness accounts, no video footage. That hasn’t stopped people believing it, either through ignorance or bigotry towards Liverpool – the people, the city, the club.

The inquests, held before a Sheffield jury, and a coroner who was in the pay of Sheffield Council, delivered verdicts of accidental death.

The coroner had imposed a 3.15pm cut- off time, claiming that every victim would have been brain-dead by then and ruling out any evidence relating to events after it.

That let the emergency services off the hook, making it that much harder to prove there had been criminal neglect.

All charges against the police were thrown out on grounds of insufficient evidence. No senior officer was prosecuted and a disciplinary case against Duckenfield was stopped when he took early retirement at 46 on medical grounds, with a full pension.

In 1997 Home Secretary Jack Straw appointed Lord Justice Stuart- Smith to look at new evidence to see if it merited a fresh public inquiry.

When there was a delay at the start of proceedings, due to the absence of some family members, Stuart-Smith turned to Phil Hammond and said: ” Are they like the Liverpool fans, turning up at the last minute?”

The Lord Justice discovered that 183 police statements had been edited to remove criticism of senior police management. But staggeringly he ruled there was not enough evidence to merit a fresh inquiry.

The families took out private prosecutions against Duckenfield and his deputy on the day, Supt Bernard Murray. They went on trial charged with manslaughter and wilful neglect of duty.

Murray was cleared of all charges and when the jury failed to reach a verdict on Duckenfield the judge halted the trial, cleared him, and ruled there could be no retrial.

At the 20th anniversary memorial service at Anfield, Margaret Aspinall, chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, whose 18-year-old son, James, died in the disaster, said: “All the families have ever wanted is the full truth, and an acknowledgement by those responsible.”

They are still waiting.