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Hillsborough tragedy still resonates

FOR the hundreds of thousands of fans passing through Liverpool's Anfield stadium every season, the memories of the 96 supporters killed 20 years ago in England's worst football disaster remain ever-present.

By the Shankly Gates, floral tributes are replenished throughout the year and an eternal flame burns between the red marble tablets immortalizing the dead men, women and children who were crushed to death in 1989 during an FA Cup semifinal match at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield.

Intertwined into that grieving process is the ongoing struggle to protect the reputations of the victims of Britain's worst sporting disaster. Behind the Kop, the Hillsborough Justice Campaign Shop is maintained and inside "Justice for the 96" banners are displayed prominently at every match.

Even now, the specter of the events of April 15, 1989, that irrevocably changed the face of English football loom large. And not just on noteworthy anniversaries that reawaken the world to the horrors that developed on the Leppings Lane terraces behind high, wired-topped fences.

Even players not born before that day just need to glance across the dressing room and seek out their captain, whose career was inspired by Hillsborough and the tragedy. Steven Gerrard's cousin, Jon-Paul Gilhooley, was the youngest fatality at the age of 10.

"Time has gone by, but the scars will never ever be healed," Gerrard said.

Gilhooley had joined the mass exodus of fans traveling east for the second successive season to witness Liverpool playing Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup semifinals at the neutral home stadium of Sheffield Wednesday.

Back in Liverpool - before live TV coverage of major matches became commonplace - a 9-year-old Gerrard had readied himself by the radio to hear his heroes Alan Hansen, Ian Rush and John Barnes vying for a Wembley final.

What Gerrard couldn't see was the police management and inadequate communication at a stadium without a safety certificate.

As 2,000 more fans surged through into the central pens in the Leppings Lane end, police failed to ease congestion by cutting off access or opening exit gates - "a blunder of the first magnitude," Lord Justice Peter Taylor concluded in his inquiry, which led to all-seater stadiums in England's top football leagues.

Appeals for the kickoff to be delayed went unheeded.

"It will always anger me that they didn't wait for the fans," said Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool's manager that day. "There were all these people arriving late, desperate to get inside Hillsborough so as not to miss any of the game.

"Having so many hundreds of people rushing into the ground caused the terrifying crush which squeezed the life out of 96 poor Liverpool supporters."

Hundreds of fans already in Pen 3 - official capacity 2,000 - were crushed against the metal fences or concrete floors and walls. This was compounded by the police failing to realize the magnitude of the disaster unfolding. With officers suspecting a pitch invasion, fans trying to escape by climbing the spike-topped fences were pushed back into the stands.

What jars those still grieving is that no one was ever held accountable for the deaths.

"It should never have happened. It's as easy as that," said John Aldridge, the former striker who is now 50. "You go on a lovely April day to watch the FA Cup and your loved ones don't come home.

"Football died that time in a certain way, football as we knew it. It's a different type of football now."


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