25 years on, English football recalls Hillsborough

LONDON (AP) By the Wembley pitch, 96 seats remained empty on Saturday. Just a Liverpool scarf draped over each of them: a powerful tribute to the 96 Liverpool fans who went to an FA Cup semifinal 25 years earlier but never returned home.

The Liverpool-Nottingham Forest match lasted just six minutes before being halted at Hillsborough in 1989 as the magnitude of the deadly crush became apparent. A quarter of a century on, matches on Saturday – from the Arsenal-Wigan semifinal at Wembley Stadium to grounds across England – started at seven minutes past the hour.

The Hillsborough disaster changed the face of English football, and the treatment of the grieving families by authorities remains a scar on the nation that is yet to be fully healed. Even as the April 15, 1989 disaster is being remembered, families are back fighting in court in a bid to get the deaths officially described as unlawful killings after the controversial original accidental death verdicts were overturned.

”I have been privileged to meet with some of the families in recent months,” Football Association chairman Greg Dyke wrote in Saturday’s Wembley program. ”And I am in awe of their courage and resilience.”

It’s been a long fight for justice by the families, with many anniversaries passing until the fans themselves were finally, officially, exonerated of wrongdoing in 2012 after the release of previously-secret documents. It took until then for the FA to also apologize for staging one of its showpiece events at a ground without a valid safety certificate and with well-known previous crowd-safety issues.

The disaster led to the introduction of all-seater stadiums that made matches in England among the safest in the world. The deadly crush at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground unfolded after police officers moved 2,000 Liverpool fans into standing-only, caged-in enclosures that were already full. Authorities sought to place the blame on the victims by characterizing the disaster as a result of hooliganism, but the 2012 documents uncovered a sophisticated attempt by police to blame innocent supporters by instructing officers to change statements and insinuate that many fans were drunk and had histories of violence or criminality.

”We are not fighting for something that was wrong, that was not truthful, and to have to be fighting for 25 years for that has been one hell of a journey,” said Margaret Aspinall, chairman of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, who lost her son James in the tragedy. ”This city needs closure … and that is hopefully to get what is right, proper and just and what we should have had 25 years ago and then everyone hopefully can move on.”

There will be further tributes at Anfield when Liverpool hosts Manchester City on Sunday, a poignant occasion for the club and an important game for a team closing in on its first English championship since 1990.

After a memorial service at Anfield on the anniversary on Tuesday, the families’ focus will return to the specially-constructed courtroom near Liverpool in Warrington where the new inquests into the 96 deaths are being heard by a jury.

”We still have got a long way to go,” Aspinall said. ”We’ve had no accountability and no one knows what is going to happen through these inquests but we feel it is time, especially with it being the 25th anniversary, to be united.”

Just as the whole of English football seems to be this weekend as it remembers the country’s worst sporting disaster. At Wembley, soon after a minute’s silence began, some Arsenal fans began chanting ”Justice for the 96.”

”We are a lot closer to that now than we were 25 years ago,” Kenny Dalglish, who was Liverpool manager at Hillsborough, said ahead of the anniversary.

”It was a horrendous experience and something that should have never happened.”

The message from across English football this weekend is that it will be never be forgotten.

Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris