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By Matthew Handley
On Wednesday afternoon the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel were released. After over two decades, the truth that had been so desperately sought by the families of the 96 Liverpool fans who lost their lives during the club’s 1989 FA Cup Semi Final, was delivered. The panel’s report completely exonerated Liverpool fans from the blame that had been attributed to them for the tragedy; first by The Sun newspaper in conjunction with corrupt police officers seeking to cover-up their complicity in the catastrophe, and then in the minds of many in the country ever since. The fiction that the Liverpool fans caught up in the disaster were to blame for the death and injury of their own number was dismissed once and for all; that fiction, which tarred the dead as hooligans, and for so long brought anger to the people of Liverpool was finally shown up for what it was. As the report definitively displayed that inadequate stadium security and police incompetence were to blame for the initial crush, that many of the dead could have been saved had emergency services responded quicker, and that a wide and deep reaching corruption sought to cover this up in the days and weeks after April 15th 1989, the nation learnt what the people of Liverpool had known all along. ‘Justice’ and the ‘truth’, words which have become inextricably associated with the Hillsborough disaster upon Merseyside, seemed to have finally have been delivered upon.
On Saturday afternoon, chants emanated from pockets of Old Trafford during Manchester United’s match against Wigan Athletic which seemed to suggest that this message hadn’t permeated as thoroughly as many in the media suggested. From the typically crass and malicious “96 was not enough”, to the more suggestive and sarcastic “It’s never your fault, it’s never your fault, always the victims, it’s never your fault”, sections of Manchester United’s support seemed not to share in the solidarity with Liverpool as a club and as a city that had been expressed by many throughout the week (and indeed, commendably, by both Sir Alex Ferguson and the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust who supported the findings of the report and condemned the chanting).
The chants have, predictably and rightfully, been decried as disrespectful and sickening. But there is a hypocrisy that needs to be addressed by Liverpool fans. For those who express the most indignation at the Hillsborough chants are often those who are all too happy to sing songs mocking Manchester United’s greatest tragedy, the Munich Air Disaster. There is a tit-for-tat atmosphere between elements of the clubs’ supporters which both use to justify their exchanges. And ultimately, they’ll probably never be eliminated. For all its commercialisation and supposed dilution by corporate hospitality and the increasing distancing between fan and player, many British footballing rivalries retain that tribalistic intensity that, when it simmers just below its boiling point has the capacity to create wonderful atmospheres and matches which, treading that line between order and chaos, are deliciously dangerous. However it is when knuckleheaded elements of support allow that intensity to take over rational thought that gratuitously offensive chants emerge (chants are meant to be derisory, but to mock innocent dead crosses a line), and at its ugliest leads to violence (as countless Old Firm riots and the attacks on Alam Smith’s ambulance as the United player was escorted from Anfield after a leg break in 2006 bear testament to). This is a rivalry that has always been hotly contested, and has been rendered even more combustible since Luis Suarez was found guilty of racially insulting Patrice Evra last season. Given last week’s findings, Liverpool is a highly emotionally charged club at present; Hillsborough chanting would not be met kindly…
Ultimately the chants on Saturday aren’t really about Hillsborough. They’re about a shared animosity between two great rivals that is allowed to be taken too far. To entirely remove that animosity would be to neuter football. To allow it to remain entirely can lead to horrendously ugly scenes; to the genuine hooliganism which, proven at last to have been absent in Hillsborough, was nonetheless prevalent in 1980’s football as a whole. Ahead of Saturday’s game, and in future, Manchester United should place anti-Hillsborough chants in the same bracket as racist or homophobic singing and expel fans who sing such songs. Liverpool should do the same for Munich. It’s possible to be rivals without wishing the others were dead; Alex Ferguson and the Supporters’ Trust realise that, as do most supporters. Football clubs in general would be best served by articulating that to those who don’t yet accept this message, in order to preserve the elements of rivalry that make sport so great, and to eliminate those which threaten its stability.
PHOTO// Ben Sutherland