United in hope… but can fragile peace survive the Anfield showdown
13:15 GMT, 22 September 2012
On Sunday Anfield stages its first game since the revelations from the Hillsborough Independent Panel.
It is Liverpool v Manchester United, the greatest rivalry in English football.
Michael Walker has criss-crossed the North this week, talking, listening and watching to assess the mood in the build-up to an historic game…
United: It is hoped that Liverpool and Manchester United fans will respect the memories of those lost at Hillsborough and Munich on Sunday
For them: Steven Gerrard (centre) and Nemanja Vidic will release 96 balloons before the match
And so an anxious week begins. The morning papers carry reaction to last Saturday's chants at Old Trafford aimed at Liverpool by a small minority of Manchester United fans: 'Always the victim, it's never your fault.'
A fear is that a tone has been set. But it is also reported that Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra will shake hands at Anfield, and optimists note the list published by Liverpool of supportive actions over the weekend: at Arsenal, Brighton, Bristol City, Carlisle, Celtic, Charlton, Colchester, Norwich, Reading, Stoke, Sunderland and Port Talbot Town, there were either songs or messages of sympathy.
At Cardiff City v Leeds United, two sets of fans not always known for their empathy joined together for a chorus of 'Stand Up For LFC'. And that evening at Goodison Park, Sir Alex Ferguson makes his first trip of the week to Liverpool.
He is there to see Everton v Newcastle United; he also sees 'Merseyside United', a beautifully judged tribute from Everton to the victims of Hillsborough.
The music before kick-off is supplied by The Hollies, from Manchester: He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother.
Touching: Everton put on a tasteful display before their clash with Newcastle on Monday
Them too: Rangers remembered the Hillsborough victims and the 66 killed at the Ibrox disaster in 1971
Margaret Aspinall, chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, is in the stands. Her son James, 18, died at Hillsborough. She later recalls that James had bought The Hollies record for her.
'Everton didn't know,' she says. The song was first recorded in 1969, at Abbey Road studios, made famous of course by The Beatles. That same year The Beatles were recording their album Let It Be.
On it there is a song called Dig it. The song salutes three famous people: BB King, Doris Day and a former Liverpool player, Matt Busby.
Football and music are meant to divide Liverpool and Manchester. But there are connections everywhere: Leighton Baines opened the scoring against Newcastle and reveals that his father, John, a Liverpool fan, was in the Leppings Lane End in 1989.
The editor of The Star in Sheffield pens an open letter to 'the people of Liverpool' in which he writes of the paper's coverage of the events of April 1989, and the police cover-up afterwards: 'We are sorry we published some of those discredited allegations.'
There are other apologies from Sheffield, before and after this.
But the mood in Liverpool has changed: they accept apologies after 23 years, but y t justice.
The front page of the Liverpool Echo reveals that on behalf of Anne Williams, who lost her son Kevin aged just 15 at Hillsborough, lawyers are 'formally asking' the authorities 'to transparently investigate a number of criminal allegations, including manslaughter, perverting the course of justice and misconduct in public office.'
Over on the Wirral, Tranmere Rovers take the lead against Bury courtesy of Andy Robinson.
Last Saturday Robinson was booked for removing his jersey to display a T-shirt calling for 'Justice for the 96'.
Not tonight, but the 32-year-old from nearby Rock Ferry speaks afterwards.
'All the documentation is there for everyone to see,' Robinson says. 'People went to a football match and some didn't come back.
The truth: Tributes were left at the Bill Shankly gates after the report was published
'The gesture on Saturday was my small mark of respect for the 96. It's about justice now. Only one ambulance got on to the pitch. It's shocking, isn't it
'The whole city has been demonised. The stories and allegations that we've all seen, the city has been dragged through the mud.
'Things that police officers said, staff at the ground, I can't repeat them. But a perception of the Liverpool people has been put out there for 23 years.
'There's been a stain on the city. People now know the truth.
'Sunday's not about Manchester and Liverpool – people went to a game and never came back. So forget about rivalry, about United or Liverpool. The two cities will put it all aside. I believe that.'
There is confirmation of a plan on Sunday for Steven Gerrard and Nemanja Vidic to release 96 red balloons before kick-off at Anfield.
At Old Trafford (venue for the replayed Liverpool-Nottingham Forest FA Cup semi-final in 1989) there are black armbands for the two policewomen, Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone, murdered on Tuesday in Manchester.
Football has long been a vehicle for such demonstrations. As the Liverpool Daily Post reported of the Liverpool-Charlton game on February 10, 1958: 'The hush that descended on this so boisterous ground when the black armbanded players lined up for the two minutes' silence was almost uncanny.'
Manchester United had just lost eight players in the Munich air crash. Liverpool offered the devastated club two of theirs.
Rival respect: Sir Alex Ferguson (right) paid his respect when he attended the Everton v Newcastle match
Alan Pardew watched his Newcastle team from the stands and applauded before the match
And at Hillsborough on Wednesday night, the Leppings Lane end was open once again. It was filled with Huddersfield Town fans. They are on the upper tier only.
The stand is all-seated now but the configuration of this end of the ground feels older than 1989.
The cramped gangways are packed with fans at half-time and full-time. From the inside, Hillsborough still has a sprawling magnificence; from the outside, though, by the visiting fans' turnstiles, it looks tired and small.
The same could be said about the memorial to the 96 close to the main entrance – which it took Sheffield Wednesday, a club without a valid safety permit in 1989, 10 years to erect.
Tonight, Wednesday's many flags are at half-mast. The club's new regime say they have 'liaised with HFSG'.
There is a 'moment of reflection' for the 96, and also for Thomas Wroe, a Huddersfield-supporting soldier killed in Afghanistan last week.
It is solemn and respectful. Then a Yorkshire derby kicks off. Huddersfield win it 3-1 with Anthony Gerrard on as a substitute.
Gerrard is the cousin of Steven, and of Jon-Paul Gilhooley, who died aged 10, the youngest victim at Hillsborough.
Hopeful: Brendan Rodgers and Ferguson hope the fans will be respectful
But on the top tier at Leppings Lane, what is striking is the exuberance. They are singing 'I am a Huddersfield fan' to the tune of Anarchy in the UK.
The game is end-to-end and the thrill of it re-enforces the feeling on Merseyside that April 1989 was not a football disaster as such, but an organisational disaster that included policing, Football Association and club failings caused by a sneering culture of disregard.
All followed by a 23-year long cover-up.
In Berne in the Europa League, Liverpool are winning an eight-goal thriller.
In Altrincham, in the Manchester Senior Cup, United's reserves are missing a penalty against Bury.
Christian Dibble, son of former Manchester City keeper Andy, makes the save.
Behind Dibble, on Altrincham's terrace is a One Love banner and a few of the United hardcore.
Around the corner, one of them, Steve Black, is talking about the 'siege mentality' that exists at Old Trafford and Anfield.
Black, a home-and-away United fan since 1979, contributes to the United We Stand fanzine.
'I can't speak for all United fans, no-one can,' Black says.
'What I can say is that the “don't sing” message from Alex Ferguson will not be heeded by anti-Glazer fans. Against Galatasaray you could hear: “We're Man United, we'll sing what we want.”
'So I don't know what will happen on Sunday. Personally I'd love to hear us sing “Busby Babes” for 90 minutes and go home with three points.
Sheer terror: 96 people lost their lives at Hillsborough
Shocked: Managers Brian Clough (centre) and Kenny Dalglish (left) left the pitch looking distraught
'I could see a United fan bringing a “Justice for the 96” banner into the away end. I could see other United fans ripping it down.
'In the anti-United atmosphere of this week, people will be waiting to pounce if there's anything they don't like, to see who blinks first – an aeroplane gesture or runway song will spark an equally repugnant reply.
'I was at Hillsborough a couple of months before April '89. I was sat on the Leppings Lane top deck. My sister was below and said after that she'd never been so scared.
'We'd all been in “crushes” but she said this was different. United had 18,000 there that day.
'Forest were in that Liverpool semi-final because they beat us in the quarters. If we'd won that, it could have been us given the Leppings Lane end. It would have been our brothers, sisters, dads who lost their lives. United fans accept that. The Liverpool fans who died were innocent.
'We welcome the report; the fact that the pol ice and emergency services shamelessly re-wrote the truth sickens me – all football fans were treated like scum then.
'Of course we wanted justice for the families of those who died. That goes beyond football. Manchester and Liverpool have more in common politically than what separates us.
'But we will forever be divided by football and, to be honest, I don't think either side would want it any other way.'
In Manchester the Evening News has a back-page editorial: 'Show Respect'. There are two pictures, one of the Munich air crash, one of Hillsborough.
In Liverpool a cold morning wind blows around the Shankly Gates, disturbing freshly laid flowers at the Hillsborough memorial. A few Scandinavians take photographs. There are new scarves, new football jerseys from around the country here.
A new banner says: 'Justice at last'. There is a Rangers flag referring to the Ibrox disaster of 1971, when 66 people died. There is a candle from Bayern Munich.
There is a long letter from an Everton fan. There is a white cross with 'At the end of the storm is a golden sky' on it.
There are new messages from bereaved families – 'My brother', 'Dad', 'My beautiful son.' From the family of Peter McDonnell, who was 21 when he never returned from Hillsborough: 'We got them lad'.
Horrific: The disaster changed the landscape of football forever
Still losing: Margaret Aspinall, who lost her 18-year-old son, James, said that the report merely improved the quality of her grief
And everywhere one word recurs: truth.
As poet laureate – and Liverpool University graduate – Carol Ann Duffy wrote: 'Truth, the sweet silver song of the lark.'
One truth is that there were more than 96 victims. Last February – 22 years after he gave a friend his ticket for Hillsborough because he could not go – Stephen Whittle stepped in front of a train.
His friend had been killed on Leppings Lane. Whittle left the money in his will to the Hillsborough families.
'I still find it so hard,' said his heartbroken mother, Hilda, last weekend. All of those in Liverpool who fought for 23 years must have found it so hard.
And when the football enmity is set aside tomorrow, what we have are the grim words of Margaret Aspinall: 'We're still the losers in all this. All I've got today is a better quality of grieving.'