ON Sunday, Manchester United go to Anfield for Liverpool’s first home game since the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s devastating findings. The report shocked a Prime Minister and most of the nation. It looks like one of those unhappy quirks of fate that the Kop’s most bitter rivals will be in town on what will be an extremely emotional occasion at Anfield.
After all, a section of United fans sang songs aimed at Liverpool on Saturday. The Merseyside club was the focus of the Stretford End’s disdain, even though United were playing Wigan Athletic.
The words, “Always the victim, it’s never your fault,” are a snide reference to Liverpool supporters’ role in the 1989 disaster, coated with the flimsiest veneer of deniability. Claims that the lyrics refer specifically to the Luis Suárez-Patrice Evra affair are disingenuous. It has caused concern that Liverpool’s tribute to the families who fought relentlessly for justice for 23 years will be upstaged by bile-filled nastiness emanating from the away support.
There were similar fears when Manchester City went to Old Trafford on the day United commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster four years ago. They proved completely unfounded. City supporters observed the silence impeccably. And United fans will show the same decency.
The overwhelming majority of football supporters value their humanity over sectarian point-scoring at the expense of the dead. To believe that the noisy minority is anywhere close to being representative of fandom at large is to fall into the same trap as South Yorkshire Police.
Some people were asking why the United fans singing on Saturday were not identified by CCTV, ejected and banned from the stadium. It is dangerous territory. On what basis, would such actions be justified? On this occasion, the chants were ambiguous enough to provide a legal line of defence.
Yes, some supporters look and act like brutish members of the underclass. But making assumptions is dangerous. Let’s remember that the people responsible for the Hillsborough disaster were not the sort of people you would cross the road to avoid. On the contrary, they were men of status, wealth and power. They covered up their own culpability and their influence allowed them to evade their responsibilities for 23 years until the truth finally caught up with them.
They had little or no respect for football fans. They would expect United supporters to misbehave at Anfield. They would plan for it and imagine no other possible outcome. They would criminalise them in advance.
They should have been at a Hillsborough Justice Campaign fundraiser in London on Saturday night. They would have met United fans, seen that a City fan sent memorabilia to raffle and encountered supporters of a dozen clubs.
Most people who go to matches understand the enormity of Hillsborough, United fans more than most. They were beaten by Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup quarter-final in 1989 and it does not take too much of a leap of imagination for older supporters to envisage a series of results that might have put them in the semi-final, and in the Leppings Lane end.
The hierarchy at United understands this, too. It is keen to make a gesture of solidarity with the families and it is not beyond possibility that a United shirt will carry a tribute to the 96. A few rogue voices at Old Trafford on Saturday should not obscure the level of solidarity between the clubs on this.
Every club is followed by a small number of unpalatable people. There have even been Liverpool fans who saw nothing incongruous about singing songs lauding Harold Shipman — “the man who’s killing the Mancs” — while wearing Hillsborough Justice Campaign badges. Just about every club have this sort of element.
They are mostly young, immature and desperate to show off. Most of them grow up and do no lasting damage.
Yet using the lowest common denominator to formulate policy about how to deal with fans is what happened in the 1980s. It created the environment where police jumped to the wrong conclusions with fatal consequences. We must never let that happen again.
If the price to pay is a few nasty songs, we can live with it with a wince. After all, 96 people paid the ultimate price because a police force was more concerned about hooliganism than their safety.
The above piece was first featured in The Times and has been reproduced with permission.