Liverpool and Manchester United honoured the 96 Liverpool fans who died at Hillsborough on an emotional day at Anfield in which the visitors came out on top.
The home side fell to their third defeat in five league games by losing 2-1 in the Sunday lunchtime kick off, with both sides paying their respects to the 96 Liverpool fans who died in the Hillsborough stadium crush 23 years ago before the game got underway.
Officials and management from both clubs had spent the last few days working tirelessly to ensure unity from the fans, and an end to previous hostilites in the wake of the publication of Hillsborough Independent Panel report 11 days ago.
The occasion was by and large respectfully marked by both sides and their supporters.
But afterwards Manchester United fans, who were being kept back, briefly chanted “always the victims, it’s never your fault” according to BBC Sport’s Phil McNulty, who described it as “a blot on what was an otherwise solemn and dignified occasion”. Sky Sports News also broadcast footage of the chanting.
The game itself and the tributes finally brought about some closure to an emotional fortnight for the Merseyside club, with victims’ families and survivors having finally got many, if not all, of the answers they were looking for as the 450,000 papers related to the disaster were made available to them and to the wider public.
Much of the pre-match media attention had centred on whether or not the fans would be capable of putting aside differences and remembering that some things simply are bigger than football.
Liverpool decided to honour those who did not make it back from the FA Cup semi-final in April 1989 by creating three mosaics around the ground, one which read “96” in the Anfield Road end, another which said “The Truth” in the Kop and the entire Lower Centenary stand was transformed to read to word “Justice”.
In their pre-match press conferences both managers decided to highlight the need for respect with Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers saying: “The match must be about humanity and the players have an obligation to football”.
Sir Alex Ferguson reiterated that sentiment saying “everything had been done and the message had been put out to the supporters”. He had written an open letter to the fans of Manchester United calling for them to honour the pre-match services that Liverpool had planned.
In an unusual change to the pre-match coverage on Sky Sports, Rodgers appeared alongside Ferguson before the television cameras to underline their unity.
Those pleas did not fall on deaf ears and the fans of both clubs behaved impeccably before and during the game. As the players from both sides emerged from the tunnel with their tracksuits tops bearing the number 96 a warm applause rang out around the ground.
Fans from both sides began to cheer louder as the match day captains Steven Gerrard and Ryan Giggs released 96 balloons into the Liverpool air, and the noise grew as the players shook hands, particularly Reds striker Luis Suarez and United defender Patrice Evra, who cast aside their much-publicised spat last season.
In the final act before kick-off there was yet more cheering as United legend Sir Bobby Charlton walked out onto the field and presented flowers to former Liverpool striker Ian Rush, who later placed the tribute at the Hillsborough memorial outside Anfield. This gesture was a well-orchestrated one from the away team who chose their club ambassador, Charlton, who was involved in the biggest disaster in Manchester United’s history, the Munich air crash in 1958.
During the match itself, passion oozed from both set of fans. After a promising start the home side suffered a setback when Jonjo Shelvey was red carded but they went head through Gerrard early in the second half. The Reds skipper pointed to the sky as he wheeled away in celebration, a tribute to his cousin, Jon-Paul Gilhooley, who at 10 years’ old was the youngest victim at Hillsborough.
But the visitors soon equalised through Rafael and went ahead through a late penalty by Robin Van Persie before going onto win the game.
Aside from the post-match chanting from United fans – which was a result of provocation according to some unconfirmed reports – the scenes today showed that there is some genuine respect amongst the greatest of rivalries.