'The 96' remembered as 25,000 attend Anfield service on 25th anniversary of Hillsborough disaster
Published 15/04/2014 | 17:41
A sombre memorial service has been held to mark 25 years since the Hillsborough disaster claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool football fans.
Loved ones of those who died were joined at Liverpool's Anfield home by players, club officials and ordinary fans among the 24,000 attending to mark the emotional anniversary.
The 96 Liverpool fans died in the crush on the Leppings Lane terraces at Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough stadium after going to see their team play Nottingham Forest in an FA Cup semi-final on April 15 1989.
As the families of those who did not return home took their places in reserved seats on Anfield's famous Spion Kop for the start of the service, the crowd got to their feet as one with a roar of approval and a huge ovation from all four sides of the ground.
There were also loud cheers and clapping for the gathering of past and present Anfield greats who took their seats, including current club manger Brendan Rodgers and captain Steven Gerrard, Kenny Dalglish, manager at the time of the disaster, Ian Rush, Phil Thompson, Alan Hansen and Graeme Souness.
More recent stars Jamie Carragher, Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman were also in attendance, along with Howard Kendall, Everton's manager in 1989, and current Everton boss Roberto Martinez, who gave a reading.
On the pitch, thousands of football scarves were laid out in the shape of "96", donated from fans and clubs across the UK and beyond after an appeal from Liverpool FC for scarves to show a symbol of unity across fan rivalries.
The Rev Kelvin Bolton, from the local parish of Christ Church and Holy Trinity, began the service with a welcome and introduction.
Mr Bolton said it was Easter, a time when Jesus was treated as a criminal "yet innocent in every way".
He said: "Twenty-five years, a quarter of a century, a lifetime. Thank you for the example you have given to us of refusing to give up."
Some of those present at the memorial are witnesses in the new inquest into Britain's worst sporting disaster, which began last month and resumes next week.
The original accidental deaths verdicts in 1991 were quashed in the High Court in 2012 after a long campaign by the fans' families.
Traditional football hymn Abide With Me was sung before the names of the 96 fans were read out.
At each name a light was lit, one by one, on a large piece of sculpture entitled the Band of Life, until all the lights were illuminated.
As the time reached 3.06pm, the exact moment the match was abandoned while the tragedy unfolded, a minute's silence began.
In the city's main streets and shopping thoroughfares, public transport stopped.
The hum and noise from outside the ground faded as a hush fell across the city while Anfield, often a cauldron of noise, also fell into a sombre stillness.
Heads bowed, some fans wiped away silent tears as they remembered the scores of lives lost in Britain's worst sporting disaster.
The minute's silence ended with a round of applause, as across the city bells tolled 96 times at churches and civic buildings.
The first reading was given by Martinez, who read from St John 14:1. In a short address afterwards, he said he was 15 at the time of the disaster, a football-mad kid in a football-mad family, when he heard the news.
He said: "We could not believe the pain and horror that the families would get by receiving the news that their loved ones would not be coming home, would not be coming home from a football match. How can you die by watching a football match?
"That was not right or fair what happened and afterwards was not right or fair either."
To a huge cheer, Martinez added: "The authorities took on the wrong city if they thought they were going to get away with it."
He said the Hillsborough Family Support Group, which led the campaign for new inquests, was a remarkable group of people.
He said: "I know, I don't have to tell you, Everton are with you, you know that."
Rodgers gave a reading of Psalm 23 before addressing the Hillsborough families themselves.
Rodgers said his biggest inspiration as manager was each time he came to Anfield and seeing the names of the 96 on the Hillsborough Memorial.
"I feel very humble to be in your company," he said. "You are the real inspiration for us. Your courage, fortitude, resilience and love for the people you lost, it's what inspires me, every day, as the manager of Liverpool Football Club.
"Thank you for the inspiration you give us all. You'll never walk alone."
Hymns and gospel music were sung and prayers read for those still suffering from their loss before MP Andy Burnham addressed the service.
He was booed and jeered at the 20th memorial service in 2009 and he went back to Parliament and became instrumental in the process of securing new inquests.
Today the politician was cheered and received a standing ovation.
He said: "Five years ago things changed, not because of me but because of you.
"You helped me find the political courage to do something.
"You have made this city stronger and you will make our country fairer.
"What was your call five years is mine today - Justice for the 96."
Trevor Hicks, president of the Hillsborough Family Support Group (HFSG), said Mr Burnham's involvement led to the Independent Panel Report and the quashing of the original inquest verdicts.
Mr Hicks, who lost his daughters, Victoria, 15, and Sarah, 19, in the tragedy, said it had led to a change in not only Britain, but the world in the understanding about what Hillsborough truly was.
Mr Hicks paid tribute to the families involved.
"We made it all happen," he said, "we stood together. We pulled, we pushed we refused to lie down, we refused to go away, which is something that annoyed an awful lot of people.
"We made all this happen, we the families of the 96."
Margaret Aspinall, chair of the HFSG, thanked the crowd for their support through the years.
Mrs Aspinall, who lost her son James, 18, at Hillsborough, said she was mindful of legal restrictions on what could now be said as a jury was hearing the current inquests.
But she added to cheers: "We all know what we have been fighting for!"
The service concluded with the gospel choir and the entire crowd on its feet to sing the fans' anthem, You'll Never Walk Alone as 96 red balloons were released to float into the sky.
The Hillsborough Inquest resumes next week.