This weekend’s match at Anfield between Liverpool and Manchester United is important both on and off the field.
Brendan Rodgers’ side are still searching for a league win and getting it against their biggest rivals would be a huge catalyst for the club. Meanwhile United are still far from their best and doubtless Alex Ferguson will be looking to step up a gear and capitalize on any lack of confidence in Liverpool’s squad.
But arguably the most important events are away from the match action. This is the first match at Anfield since the release of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report which finally exonerated all Liverpool fans of blame and laid bare the disgusting nature and size of the establishment cover-up that has been going on since that day in April 1989. The families of the 96 who lost their lives that day will be present as guests of honour and there will be a tribute to the memory of those who went to watch a game and never came home.
Unfortunately what should be a moment of reflection for Liverpool in particular and football in general has become the centre of a number of people’s concerns regarding the behaviour of fans. Manchester United fans have been known to sing vile songs about Hillsborough and likewise Liverpool fans about the Munich Air Crash in 1958 and there is genuine concern that the match or even the tribute itself may be tainted by some of these chants.
United captain Nemanja Vidic has today called for all United fans to respect the tribute and put an end to the hatred. This is fine and the sort of behaviour one expects from a captain but it saddens me that a captain should have to plea with his own fans for them to respect the memory of fellow fans who lost their lives through no fault of their own whilst they simply tried to watch a game of football.
Tribal loyalty is one of the best things about football. The feeling of belonging that it gives to fans is what makes people follow a club for their whole lives. But it is not the be all and end all. Football is only a game and when tragedy strikes as it did at Hillsborough it affects everyone involved with the game. It is not just Liverpool fans who want justice for those who died and it will not just be Liverpool who pays their respects to them on Sunday, it will be all football fans with a heart.
The reaction of the fans at the match this weekend is important for football, or at least it is as far as I can see. Any sign of trouble or disrespect will, in my eyes, mark a low point for football not seen since the hooligan era.
Sport is meant to be a way of escaping the stresses and strains of the real world. It is meant to be a place where people respect one another and the passion for their team should always stay within moral boundaries. All too often of late football appears to have become a moral dead zone with fans losing all sense of what is right and wrong.
This is a real chance for the real voices of football to be heard above the vocal minority who risk further damaging football’s reputation. After a summer that has seen people fall back in love with the ideals of sport for sports sake thanks to the Olympics, it is time for right thinking football fans to step up and take back ownership of their clubs identity before all is lost in a war of horrific chanting and disrespectful behaviour.