24 years ago today, 96 Liverpool fans set out for an FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough, the home of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club. Nottingham Forest would provide the opposition and although Brian Clough's team were a formidable outfit, those 96 fans and their companions would have harboured dreams of a second Double in four seasons.
Tragically, as a result of the arrogant negligence, incompetence and disdain of those entrusted with the safety of the supporters, all football-related issues were rendered utterly insignificant, as those 96 men, women and children were lost to their families forever. It was the darkest day in the history of Liverpool.
It is almost incomprehensible to anyone with a heart and a rudimentary grasp of the concept of justice, that only in this calendar year, have the families of the 96 seen the truth emerge about the events that led to the deaths of their loved ones and the gross injustices that occurred in the aftermath of the tragedy. The reputations of the dead smeared by cynical authorities, along with those of the survivors, the club they supported and the city most of them hailed from.
The findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel offered, after more than two decades of suffering and frustration, a modicum of comfort to the grieving families, as the lack of adequate safety provisions and the inadequate response of the emergency services were found to have been the root causes of the disaster.
Distressingly, according to the panel's report, up to 41 of the victims might have survived, had the the response of the emergency services been more efficient. Of the 164 police statements taken in the aftermath, 116 were proven to have been changed in order to show the police in a more positive light. Similarly, statements made by members of the South Yorkshire ambulance service were also altered. Verdicts of accidental death were quashed, a new inquest was ordered and an inquiry into police culpability and malpractice was initiated by The Independent Police Complaints Commission.
Against this background, the commemorations this year were even more poignant. At Liverpool Town Hall, Mayor Joe Anderson led a ceremony in which a special clock was dedicated to the victims. The clock will reside in the council chamber and in a fitting gesture, the hands of the clock are frozen at 3.06pm, the time at which the game was stopped, 24 years ago. Anderson commiserated with the families and was scathing in his assessment of the authorities.
"Ninety six people robbed of life, families robbed of loved ones. Ninety six people who became victims, robbed of their dignity by people in authority who, rather than admitting their mistakes, conspired to create a tissue of lies and deceit. The city shares that pain."
"You pursued the truth," Anderson told the families, "they peddled lies. The authorities' role in Hillsborough is our country's shame, our national disgrace."
At the same event, Margaret Aspinall, chair of The Hillsborough Family Support Group, described the clock as a "fabulous" gesture which would be "a lasting tribute to the 96." She spoke eloquently of how the last year has brought some solace in an ongoing struggle.
"It's been a hell of a journey but it's been well worth it. At the end of it, last year, we got the truth out for the fans and survivors and that was very, very important. In December we got the inquest verdicts quashed. And we have got to try and look forward now to getting the right verdict on the death certificates."
Later on, a monument by the sculptor Tom Murphy, which had been commisioned by the Hillsborough Justice Committee was formally donated to the city. The monument which was paid for from donations collected by the HJC, locally and across the world, is drum-shaped and bears the names of all the victims, along with the words 'Hillsborough Disaster - we will remember them' and a poem by local writer David Charters.
"It is a very proud day for us," said HJC spokesperson Sheila Coleman. "This is something we've started and finished and it's been done for all the right reasons. We set about creating something not only for the dead but for the survivors which anyone coming to this city can see and see it as the fine work of art that it is."
The unusual drum shape of the monument is intended to encourage people to walk around it, study it and contemplate its significance. In the future, it may serve as a kind of capsule into which the families can put mementos and people can place letters or poems. It will be located in St. John's Garden, near William Brown Street in the city and will no doubt be a popular point of reference for thousands visiting Liverpool annually.
The idea for a monument came about, according to Coleman, when a young Liverpudlian, Rosie Fitzpatrick, asked why there was no memorial in the city to commemorate those lost at Hillsborough. Following the speeches, members of the families approached the monument and wept openly as they touched the names of their loved ones and consoled each other.
No words can adequately express the hardship endured by the families of the 96. Some of us, over these 24 years, have felt, in some miniscule way, the sting of scorn and the disdain of dismissal from those who would not see the truth. The denizens of Liverpool have borne the heavy burden of injustice since 1989, but only the families have had the injury of loss added to the insult of slander. As they embark on what will hopefully be the last leg of their long and heart-breaking journey, we can only join with them, clear in our earnest hope that there will finally be, justice for the 96.