Certain numbers have, through time and repetition, been carved into the Hillsborough tragedy. April 15th, 1989. 54,000. Six minutes. 96. 3.15pm. 27 years.
Anyone who has followed the extraordinary pilgrimage of the Hillsborough families will know those numbers by heart. But among the rainstorm of details published after this week's inquest in Liverpool was the fact it cost six pounds to get into that FA Cup semi-final.
In a small way, it said so much about the utter transformation of English football since that terrible Saturday when the victims, living and dead, were not just betrayed and besmirched by the authorities responsible for their safety but, in the days, weeks and decades afterwards by the shapers of English society. Now that the full evidence has come to light along with the verdict that victims were just that; innocent people unlawfully killed, it seems unthinkable the Hillsborough families might not have heard the truth told. Of course, it was far from inevitable.
The powerful and dignified evening vigil in St George’s Square on Wednesday begged the question: how many cities would have had the resilience and sense of solidarity to see this through?
In the end, the push for justice became too big to ignore. But go back to 1989, when the authorities were actively trying to place the burden of responsibility onto the victims and the fans. Go back to the meeting of two Margarets and you get an inkling of what the relatives were facing into. Margaret Aspinall was a mother grieving the death of her teenage son James – Hillsborough was his first Liverpool away game – when she met Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister. It must have taken some gumption for Mrs Aspinall, after hearing Thatcher's assurances there were sufficient police officers on duty at Hillsborough that afternoon to ask: Please tell me what they were doing.
“Their job, my dear, their job.”
There is something contained within the airiness of that dismissal which screams out the fact Liverpool was regarded as a second-class city by the ruling class. Hillsborough occurred just eight years after the Toxteth riots; just eight years after then chancellor Geoffrey Howe had written to the PM suggesting governmental investment in the city was futile: that "the option of managed decline is one we should not forget altogether. We must not expend all our limited resources in trying to make water flow uphill".
Mrs Thatcher returned to Downing Street after her encounter with Mrs Aspinall, who presumably returned to her home and her heartbreak. Mrs Aspinall and the other relatives were supposed to accept their lot. The brutally insensitive treatment of victims and relatives in the hours after the tragedy helped to reinforce the impression they didn’t matter.
The years of official stonewalling and lies; the infamous Sun report and the suppression of evidence forced the victims' loved ones to relive that day. They have endured a living hell. As one relative said: "I don't live, I exist". There must have been times when it would have been easier to crumble, to quit.
And it is worth noting the passage on Liverpool in the editorial in the Spectator when it was edited by would-be Tory leader Boris Johnson, and circulating again in recent days. "A combination of economic misfortune – its docks were, fundamentally, on the wrong side of England when Britain entered what is now the European Union – and an excessive predilection for welfarism have created a peculiar, and deeply unattractive psyche, among many Liverpudlians. They see themselves whenever possible as victims, and resent their victim status; yet at the same time they wallow in it. The deaths of more than 50 Liverpool football supporters at Hillsborough in 1989 was undeniably a greater tragedy than a single death . . . but that is no excuse for Liverpool's failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon. The police became a convenient scapegoat, and the Sun a whipping-boy, for daring, albeit in a tasteless fashion, to hint at the wider causes of the incident . . ."
Johnson was reprimanded and later apologised. But so what? That was written in 2004, by which time it was blatantly clear Hillsborough has been subject to an orchestrated cover-up. And it might have stayed covered except for the persistent voices of the Hillsborough relatives.
Liverpool occupies a curious place in England. It is the birthplace of Gladstone, one of the most influential British prime ministers. It gave the world one of the most charismatic front men of all time and, of course, the Fab Four. It is the home of one of England's move evocative football clubs, namely Liverpool FC. And yet it is steadfastly outside of England in its sense of self. And, yes, it has a sentimental streak. When Terence Davies released his dreamy emotional Time and the City in 2008, there was talk that it outdid the new Bond movie at the box office in Liverpool. The film was lauded as a masterpiece and dismissed as risible. That didn't matter: what is important is that it was an intense engagement with the city by a native son and other Liverpudlian's responded to it.
A friend who lives in the city and attended the vigil on Wednesday described the mood as “dignified with a simmering anger beneath it”. And he pointed out how Liverpool people still feel the establishment regards their city with contempt: “If 96 rugby fans had been crushed in Twickenham it would have been very different.”
That may be at the heart of it. The victims, their families, other fans at the game and, by extension, the people of the city, had to fight against the fact the establishment had made up its mind about Liverpool as a place and a society. They had to fight the sickening allegations that the fans had caused those deaths. It is only now, after 27 years, they can be at peace with the fact the world knows the victims were blameless and that the other fans, those who found themselves in that appalling crush, behaved with extraordinary courage, compassion and dignity: under extreme stress and fear, they exhibited all of the qualities to which any society would aspire.
The Liverpool terrace heroes of ’89 have grown softer, greyer, toddling through middle age. Liverpool football teams, some mediocre, some mercurial, have come and gone since. Like the city, the club holds fast to past glories.
This year's team lost 0-1 in Villarreal on Thursday night. At the return leg, the home fans will sing You'll Never Walk Alone many times during the evening. They would have sung it in Sheffield, too, had things been different. But that rendition was delayed by 27 years until their relatives appeared outside the inquest hall for what might be Liverpool's finest hour.