x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

UK government action is long overdue in Liverpool's pursuit of justice

That the UK government has finally acted on the Hillsborough tragedy by releasing all records and uncensored cabinet minutes is long overdue.

It was past midnight by the time the buses started leaving the Ataturk Stadium to return to the heart of Istanbul on May 26, 2005.

Despite the chill in the air, the Liverpool fans that had just witnessed one of the most improbable comebacks in the history of sport couldn't stop singing.

Some fans leaned out of the window, while others slumped on seats exhausted. In one corner, a middle-aged man sobbed quietly. At first, I thought nothing of it. Most of us had shed tears after Andrei Shevchenko's penalty miss had ensured that Liverpool would keep the European Cup for posterity as five-time winners.

It soon became apparent though that his were not tears of joy. As more and more people started to look at him, a fan whispered: "He buried his best friend after Hillsborough."

No other explanation was needed.

There were few songs after that. As sweet as winning the cup was, the emotion could not compare to the pain associated with the worst disaster in English football history.

While negotiating to buy a ticket in Sultanahmet on the eve of the final, a Besiktas fan had asked me why so many of the red flags said 'JFT96'. When it was explained that it meant Justice for the 96 that died in Sheffield on April 15, 1989, he expressed amazement that no one had been held culpable for the tragedy.

There was also curiosity about the absence of malice between Liverpool and AC Milan fans. Five days after Hillsborough, Milan played Real Madrid in a European Cup semi-final. Three minutes and six seconds into the game, the referee stopped play for a minute's silence. Halfway through it, Milan fans started singing You'll Never Walk Alone as a mark of respect. It was a gesture that will never be forgotten.

The Taylor Report, which was published in January 1990 and eventually led to all-seater stadia, had concluded that the Hillsborough disaster was "the failure of police control". Yet, despite the families of those that died spending the best part of two decades seeking justice, there have been no answers from those in power.

The sense of anger was apparent even during a pre-season friendly against Valencia in August. Next to the Shankly Gates is the Hillsborough Memorial. Groups of fans gathered in front of it and the banners were out in force urging the government to act.

The Shankly statue inside the gates - with the inscription "He made the people happy" - often reduces supporters, many of who weren't even born when the Scot managed Liverpool, to silence. But it's the memorial to the 96, their ages next to the names, that is the poignant heart of any Anfield visit.

In the 22 years since that horrendous afternoon, "never forget" has become as much a catchphrase as "You'll Never Walk Alone".

That the UK government has finally acted is long overdue. Hundreds of thousands of signatures and media coverage undoubtedly had an impact, and there has been support from iconic players at Liverpool's greatest rivals, like Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand and Everton's Tim Cahill.

On Monday, Theresa May, the home secretary, promised that all government records - including uncensored cabinet minutes - would be handed over to an independent panel headed by James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool.

What will justice mean to those that had to carry on with the wreckage of their lives? It might mean a measure of compensation for the slurs and lies published in newspapers like The Sun. Hopefully, it will lead to punitive action against politicians and policemen who tried to subvert the truth. What it won't do is bring back the soul of a sport that has been gentrified since.

The public mood was summed up by Andy Burnham, the former culture secretary, whose support has been instrumental in getting to this stage.

"Has there ever been a situation where 96 people died and immediately the public authorities sought to denigrate the victims, their families, their friends and their fellow supporters?" he asked. "That for me is what makes Hillsborough truly unprecedented."

No one struck a chord like Steve Rotheram though. The MP for Walton was at Hillsborough all those years ago and his voice quivered with emotion as he read out every single one of the victims' names in parliament. Of those that died, 79 were under the age of 30. The youngest, Jon-Paul Gilhooley, was 10. His cousin, Steven Gerrard, now has the captain's armband.

He'll be the first to tell you that some tears will never dry.


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