Gerrard: This is our chance to deliver a message to football. The sick chants have to stop
22:15 GMT, 22 September 2012
Shortly before half-past one at an
Anfield heaving with emotion, Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard will step
forward with his Manchester United counterpart, Nemanja Vidic, and
release 96 red balloons, each one representing a victim of the
Hillsborough tragedy 23 years ago.
It will be a public act of unity
witnessed by hundreds of millions of people around the world, from the
inner cities of Manchester and Liverpool to prime-time television
viewers in Beijing, Bangkok and Singapore.
Yet for 32-year-old Gerrard, it will
be an intensely personal moment, too, as he remembers his cousin,
Jon-Paul Gilhooley, who died at Hillsborough aged just 10, the youngest
of all the fatalities.
Big responsibility: Steven Gerrard will lead his Liverpool team out against Manchester United
'He was the same as me, a Liverpool fan from a council estate who loved his footy and kicked a ball around in the street,' said Gerrard, as he struggled to control his feelings.
The publication of the long-awaited report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel 11 days ago, absolving Liverpool fans of blame in the tragedy, has heightened dark memories for many, including Liverpool's iconic leader.
One of the most harrowing segments of the report revealed how the body of Gerrard's cousin was subjected to tests for alcohol as the police sought scapegoats for the disaster.
At Anfield …United fans entering the ground will receive a letter from Sir Alex Ferguson asking for respect Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton will lay wreaths in front of The Kop Both teams will come out for the match wearing tracksuits bearing the number 96Rival captains Steven Gerrard and Nemanja Vidic to release 96 balloons in memory of those who died Fans will unveil mosaics on three sides of the stadium reading 'Justice', 'The Truth' and '96'
Gerrard admits that he cannot bring himself to read what happened to his cousin.
'I'm delighted that people around the world now know how the tragedy came about, but I don't want to read it myself,' he said. 'It is difficult for my family and all the families.
'Every time Hillsborough comes up in a conversation or I see it in the paper or TV, you automatically think about Jon-Paul, the other victims and the disaster itself. It could have happened to anyone, any Liverpool fan. I was a year younger than Jon- Paul and I'd stood on the Kop many times when it was still terraced.'
Against such an emotional backdrop, it is little wonder that there have been calls from managers Brendan Rodgers and Sir Alex Ferguson for supporters to end the hostility between that has developed in recent times, particularly since the notorious Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra race abuse case last season.
Liverpool fans have sung disrespectfully about the 1958 Munich air crash that resulted in the death of eight United players. Last weekend, a minority of United supporters provocatively chanted 'Always the victims, it's never your fault' just a few days after the Hillsborough report came out.
Yet none of the appeals carries as much resonance as the one from Gerrard, partly because of his status on Merseyside but also because of his personal connection with the tragedy and an innate honesty that does not try to hide the fact that both sets of supporters have been at fault in the past.
'I'm hoping human decency breaks out. It's a great opportunity for both sets of fans to put the sick chants to bed,' said Gerrard. 'This is the perfect chance to send a message to all supporters around the world who may be singing about the wrong things. If it's a fantastic match, there's a handshake (between Suarez and Evra) before the game and there's no vile chanting during it, it will be a great advert to everyone watching. This is more important than football.
'Munich and Hillsborough are not the only two disasters to have happened. There are all different kinds of chants, including racist ones, that need to stop. And if two big clubs send out the right message that it has no place in football, then everyone else will take note.'
Memorial: Fans left tributes to the 96 at Hillsborough before Sheffield Wednesday's game
Gerrard is prepared to get involved personally to make sure the headlines from the game are about football. As captain, he will have a private word with striker Suarez to ask him to shake Evra's hand before the kick-off and end a feud that has added bitterness to the great rivalry between the clubs.
The Liverpool forward was banned for eight games for racially abusing Evra but the Uruguayan has always maintained his innocence and he refused to shake the Frenchman's hand when the clubs last met in February.
'My advice to him (Suarez) will be to shake hands and move on,' said Gerrard. 'Those two players could be the key. That's going to be at the beginning of the game, the handshake, and they've got a responsibility to start the day off on a good note.'
Respect: Luis Suarez (right) refused to shake Patrice Evra's hand in the last fixture between the teams
Above all, Gerrard wants the game to maintain the passion and rivalry of English football's biggest club fixture without crossing into bad taste.
'Liverpool players and Manchester United players are not all of a sudden going to start liking each other. That's fine,' he said. 'These rivalries make the Premier League the best in the world. It is why we all love football. That can't stop but there is a line you can't go over.'
In full agreement will be Kenny Dalglish, who was in his first spell as Liverpool manager at the time of the Hillsborough disaster and who returns to Anfield for the first time since being sacked in the summer, to witness the balloons being released and a crowd mosaic formed on three sides of the ground reading The Truth, Justice and 96.
The perfect tribute would be a cracking game of football and for Liverpool, in particular, the three points at stake carry huge significance.
Personal: Steven Gerrard, whose cousin died at Hillsborough, attends the 23rd anniversary service, along with Kenny Dalglish (right)
New manager Brendan Rodgers is still looking for his first Premier League win after hastily breaking up Dalglish's team and allowing his big signings, Charlie Adam and Andy Carroll, to leave.
Police warn fans: We'll punish abuse
Merseyside Police have promised to act against fans who chant about Munich or Hillsborough.
Abusive chants will be treated as an arrestable public order offence and supporters who make offensive gestures towards rival fans will also face police action.
Having fired Dalglish for not finishing in the top four last season, the club are embarrassingly stuck near the foot of the table and must cling to the fact that United have not won at Anfield since 2007.
'It's a great opportunity for us to win our first game in the league and kickstart the season,' said Gerrard. 'We've been inconsistent in the opening four games. We were fantastic against Manchester City and Sunderland and very disappointing against West Bromwich and Arsenal. If we were to take the points, it would give us the confidence we need.'
Ferguson might have something to say about that, but even the United manager senses the result is not the only thing that matters.
A letter from Ferguson will be handed to every visiting fan at Anfield, reminding them of their responsibilities.
Wise words: Sir Alex Ferguson has called on Manchester United fans to be respectful
And the 71- year-old has even offered warm words for The Kop to build the mood of respect.
'When I go to Liverpool to watch a game, the fans are brilliant to me,' he said. 'A bit of joking and that kind of thing but never any abuse. Not a bit. Never.'
All right-minded people will hope that applies. None more so than Gerrard as he puts on his red shirt and thinks of the 10-year-old cousin who never had the chance to grow up.