By Georgina Turner
September 21, 2012

On Sunday afternoon, 96 red balloons will float up and out of Anfield, each one released by the captains of Liverpool and Manchester United to symbolize one of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster. It is more than 23 years since they died, but the match will be Anfield's first chance to mark their passing since a report from the Hillsborough Independent Panel finally and formally allocated blame for the tragedy this month. After two decades of campaigning, it took a matter of moments for the chair, the Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, to confirm that a catalog of poor decisions by the authorities had caused the deaths.

Also on Sunday you will see three sides of Anfield holding cards aloft to create a mosaic. In the Anfield Road end, it will read "96." In the Kop, supporters will spell out "The Truth." Last week's report, backed up by tens of thousands of documents released to the panel, showed that claims that Liverpool supporters had been drunk, had arrived late for the 1989 FA Cup semifinal against Nottingham Forest at Sheffield Wednesday's ground, and had forced open an exit gate, were fabricated by senior police officers looking to spare themselves. In fact they had opened the gate to relieve pressure in a crowd they had failed to filter or manage. Of 164 statements taken from officers, 116 were altered to remove criticism of the way the force had handled things.

They also claimed Liverpool fans had obstructed attempts to help those caught in the lethal crush in the Leppings Lane end, and had defiled the dead. In fact it was on police orders that ambulances queued outside the ground, unable to reach the victims, more than 40 of whom may have responded to treatment after the 3:15 p.m. cut-off point imposed by the coroner at the original inquest. It was the fans who made desperate attempts to care for the injured and the dying.

In the Centenary Stand the mosaic will read "Justice." The release of the report must force new inquests, and there are calls for South Yorkshire police, Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, Sheffield City Council and the FA to face corporate manslaughter charges. Hillsborough's safety certificate had not been renewed since 1979, and modifications had actually seen conditions deteriorate in that regard. A crush injured 38 fans during the 1981 FA Cup final between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur. Articles in fanzines and letters to the FA warned of a tragedy in a stand that had become "a death trap," but the semifinals in 1988 and 1989 went ahead anyway.

Even after two decades of extraordinary grief, this has been an emotional fortnight for the families of those who died, and Liverpool supporters as a whole. It is either the best time or the worst time to play Manchester United.

The fixture is one of the most prominent on the calendar, but it has been some time since the occasion matched its billing; the 3-3 draw in January 1994 was probably the last great meeting between these two clubs. "Every minute lived up to expectation," reported The Guardian, at the start of an account of 90 breathless minutes in which United -- 12 points clear at the top of the table and 21 ahead of Liverpool -- had established a 3-0 lead then been pegged back before halftime by two goals from Nigel Clough. When the teams emerged for the second half, the Liverpool manager Graeme Souness responded to questions of a recovery simply by pointing to the famous "This is Anfield" sign that beckons players out of the tunnel and on to the turf. "The crowd had them at fever pitch," said Alex Ferguson, a long-standing admirer of the atmosphere at Anfield, as he digested Neil Ruddock's 79th minute equalizer.

That match had been promised as a one-off cup-final style encounter on account of the teams' unusually distant league positions, yet it capped off a sequence of entertaining matches, several of them high-scoring draws, going back to the 1950s. Though each set of supporters delighted in ruining the other's celebrations, as Liverpool did by beating title-chasing United 2-0 in April 1992, league standings often meant nothing. Anfield hosted a 4-4 draw in August 1953, and Liverpool was relegated in April 1954, while United finished fourth; after a 3-3 draw at Old Trafford in 1962-63, Liverpool finished eighth and United stood just three points from relegation. The pair led the first division in 1988, when United came back to secure a 3-3 draw, but by then Liverpool's lead at the top of the table was too much to overhaul.

It is an understatement to point out that there has always been an edge to these contests -- a police line had to contain the Kop when United scored its controversial fourth goal in 1953. Ruddock's other contribution, in 1994, was to boot Roy Keane up in the air and concede the free kick from which Dennis Irwin scored United's third. In the 1988 match, Norman Whiteside came off the bench, elbowed John Barnes, and then trod on the man who had previously been running the midfield, Steve McMahon, long after the ball had gone. "I think I stood on his little toe or something like that," explained Whiteside. "I thought his little toe was around about his shin though, didn't I?"

It was the sort of filth that provided plenty viewers with guilt-ridden thrills, yet the fractiousness has almost consumed these meetings now. The results may remain significant (try telling a Liverpool fan otherwise about that 4-1 win at Old Trafford a few years ago), but the hyperbole of the modern era appears to have produced affairs of rampant indiscipline. Since 2005 the league matches between Liverpool and United have produced seven red cards and 64 yellows. When you compare the respectful competition between Bill Shankly and Matt Busby in the 1960s to the sniping between Ferguson and Rafa Benitez in the 2000s, there has been an obvious souring of relations.

Sunday comes with the mushroom-cloud from the Patrice Evra-Luis Suarez row still to disperse, and with no one quite sure how the pair might engage if selected (there's a fair chance Ferguson could opt for Alex Büttner, who played so well versus Wigan last week, and avoid any handshake-related nonsense). There are questions, too, as to what might happen in the stands. A minority of supporters on both sides have mocked the tragedies that mark one another's histories, Liverpool fans chanting "Munich" as a reminder of the plane crash that killed eight of Busby's great Manchester United side, while United fans shout "96 was not enough."

At Old Trafford last weekend, some fans chanted "Always the victims, it's never your fault." It was ostensibly a reaction to Liverpool's handling of the Suarez case, the implied reference to past events is clear and the timing of this rendition led to condemnation from a number of senior figures at United. Ferguson, along with the Manchester United Supports Trust, has urged fans to behave respectfully.

"It is going to be a very emotional day and we will support them in every way we can," Ferguson said. In the summer of 1989, with his position being discussed in precarious terms by the media following three years without success, Ferguson had urged Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards to spend far more than he could recoup from player sales in order to show "that we are not going to accept Liverpool's dominance." According to Patrick Barclay in his biography of Ferguson, he celebrated Michael Thomas' goal, which denied Liverpool the 1989 title with seconds of the season remaining, as if he was north London born and bred. Yet he has always maintained a keen sense of the line between sport and all else. A month earlier he had been one of the first people to call Kenny Dalglish following the events at Hillsborough. "As a club we are totally supportive of Liverpool," Ferguson said. "We understand what those families must have felt when they got that report."

"We're expecting Liverpool to bring their best game and we'll have to bring ours," said Michael Carrick, whose goal helped United to beat Galatasaray in the Champions League in midweek, the 1-0 win giving United two clean sheets in a row after a leaky start to the season. Liverpool is still looking for its first win in the Premier League. United follows Manchester City and Arsenal to Anfield, where Liverpool has conceded four goals and taken one point, against Arsene Wenger's side. It is almost five years since Manchester United recorded a league win at Anfield, however, and Liverpool is starting to look like a side of Brendan Rodgers' imagination.

The manager is unlikely to field so young a squad as he did in Thursday's Europa League tie against Young Boys, which finished 5-3 thanks to two late goals by Jonjo Shelvey. But there is potential for another high-scoring crowd-pleaser. "What we dream of [is] to play that derby and to be all about the football," said United defender Nemanja Vidic. "That would be a wonderful way to mark the occasion."

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