Ronnie Whelan and Ray Houghton were last night under intense pressure from Liverpool supporters to withdraw from an RTE television programme sponsored by The Irish Sun newspaper.
The two former Liverpool and Ireland players are being criticised by supporters of the club because of their involvement in the planned live screening of Premier Soccer Sunday on May 1, sponsored by the paper.
The Sun is still held in contempt by Liverpool supporters for the manner in which it reported the deaths of 96 fans at Hillsborough, 22 years ago last Friday.
Four days after the tragedy, the newspaper ran a front page story with the headline 'The Truth' alleging that fans had picked the pockets of victims, urinated on police and beat up a policeman trying to resuscitate a victim. Those allegations were subsequently retracted and an apology issued 15 years later, but the feelings still run deep and a large-scale boycott of the newspaper continues in the city to this day.
Liverpool fans have been using supporter websites and social media outlets to express their anger and disappointment that two players who were in the Liverpool side that day would allow themselves to be associated with a programme so closely linked to the newspaper.
"Their appearance says to Liverpool supporters that there has been a softening of the stance when there hasn't been any softening," Jim Boardman of anfieldroad.com told the Sunday Independent.
"We've boycotted The Sun for 22 years. We're still waiting for justice for the 96 fans who died and I believe that the stories that appeared in The Sun in 1989 have contributed to the families not receiving justice. I would have expected better from a couple of our old heroes."
Ger Kane, a Liverpool fan from Summerhill, Co Meath, echoed those views: "To have two Liverpool players who played that day in Hillsborough to be associated with The Sun really hurts. Ronnie Whelan was captain that day. He knows what this means. They both attended funerals of those who died. I would be amazed if they weren't aware of it. They shouldn't have anything to do with that paper."
Fans have been discussing possible actions they might take in the event of the show going ahead with Whelan and Houghton, including staging a protest outside RTE's Montrose studios on the night. A number of complaints have been sent to RTE's press department and Kane tried to contact Garston Entertainments, the agency that represents Whelan, but received no reply.
Whelan was on his way to Dubai yesterday and when contacted he said he was not aware of the programme's link with The Sun or of the storm it had caused among supporters and did not wish to make any further comment. "Thanks for letting me know," he said. "I will have to speak to RTE first."
Houghton, in Dublin yesterday to appear on last night's Premier Soccer Saturday, also said it was the first he had heard about it. "I haven't a clue," he said. "I'll obviously have to think about it. I'll have to speak to RTE about it and see what's going on. I'll have to find out about that."
And though neither Whelan nor Houghton need lessons on the extreme emotions aroused by Hillsborough more than 20 years on and the ongoing aftermath in which victims' families still fight for the justice they feel has been denied them, they will be all too aware that the eyes of the Liverpool supporting community are on them, passionately urging them to do what they believe is the right thing.
"Ronnie Whelan was our captain that day and Ray Houghton was a player," added Kane. "Both players attended many of the victims' funerals so to see them associated with a show sponsored by The Sun is sickening to most Liverpool fans and surely it would be unwise for them to go ahead with their appearance."
"As it's a one-off show I would definitely say they should pull out and it would really help the cause," said Boardman. "I can understand that ex-players need to make a living but this is a one-off show so I'd like to see them pull out. Liverpool's support is so strong in Ireland that I think their withdrawal would send a powerful message to The Sun."