Earlier this week the jury in the Hillsborough Inquest delivered the verdict that survivors and families have been waiting for nearly three decades to hear— that the 96 who died that terrible day were unlawfully killed and that they did not contribute to their own deaths. The families fought for 27 years to get to this day, to clear the good names of their parents and spouses and children and friends. They weren’t motivated by money or revenge. They just wanted the truth to come out, and for it to be reflected in the public record.
The stories of the survivors and family members have been told elsewhere, more eloquently than I ever could. Their stories are worth hearing in order to understand, however fleetingly, the scope and depth of the dread they experienced. And then one must grapple with the fact that the world did not stop for the Hillsborough families; that life went on and they must go on with it. How one can even think about work or grocery shopping or, God forbid, football, after going through something like that defies comprehension. But these families, this city, did. They had to.
And so, a little over a month after the disaster, an FA Cup Final was held at Wembley, because life doesn’t stop for anyone. And of course, the Final was a Merseyside Derby.
This week, we look back at the 1989 FA Cup Final, and the first step on a long and painful journey for a city trying to make sense of inexplicable horror.
The odds of this Final being a Merseyside Derby weren’t that long. It was about a one in four chance, once things progressed to the semifinals. It wasn’t that far-fetched. Still, you could be forgiven for looking at this match-up and not seeing fingerprints from the hand of Fate.
Both semifinals were scheduled for the same day, April 15th. Everton and Norwich City faced off at Villa Park, and the Toffees booked their place in the Final thanks to a goal from Pat Nevin. The other semifinal, of course, was abandoned in the sixth minute. The replay happened three weeks later at Old Trafford; Liverpool won comfortably 3-1, with a brace from John Aldridge and a Brian Laws own goal.
And so, with an entire city still reeling from the disaster the month before, a Merseyside Derby was booked for the Cup Final. And it turned out to be exactly what many people needed.
The lead-up to the game was as emotional as you’d expect. Gerry Marsden performing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” in person, a song which had taken on a very different tenor post-Hillsborough. The usual singing of Abide With Me. The minute of silence. All Wembley Finals hit a high emotional pitch before kickoff but this. This was something else.
And then, the football. Because life doesn’t stop, and this was still a Derby, and the FA Cup meant something.
You can’t say the game was beside the point. Not this game. Not these teams. Even after what happened. In spite of what happened.
John Aldridge slotted home in the fourth minute to give the Reds a shock early lead. They had plenty of chances to increase the lead in extra time but Aldridge and company just couldn’t find the back of the net. With time running out and Liverpool perhaps just wanting to get this over with, substitute Stuart McCall shocked everyone with an 89th minute equalizer to force the game into extra time (and a pitch invasion from Everton fans— I mean, wouldn’t you?).
Extra time was much more frantic. Ian Rush puts Liverpool back in the lead with a pivot-and-volley at close range in the 95th minute. McCall notched a second equalizer in the 102nd minute with a looping shot from outside the box. And two minutes later, Rush settled the tab with a sliding header. Neil McDonald almost found a third equalizer right before the whistle with a free kick that just barely sailed over. The clocked ticked on to 120 minutes and the whistle confirmed what was, perhaps, the most symbolically resonant result possible.
The game didn’t really change anything. 95 people were still dead (with one on life support). The police were still trying to make it out to be the victims’ fault. An entire country became accomplices to a gross injustice against a group of people that had been dehumanized by the government and the media, who were seen not as people but as drunkards and petty thieves and welfare cheats. Liverpool won their fourth FA Cup, and the fans drank in the moment as any of us would, but many still had to go home knowing that their loved ones wouldn’t be there to greet them when they got there.
It would be ghoulish to think that football could ever possibly heal the wounds of unspeakable tragedy. Yet the FA Cup Final that year did bring the city together for something other than mourning. For 27 years (this will be the last year services are held) Anfield was transformed into a cathedral to honor and remember the dead every April 15th. Rival hold their fire for a few moments every year out of respect. Every club has history, every club has memorials installed to honor famous players and managers in their history. Very few have memorials for the extended family of fans on the ground.
Football doesn’t matter, not in the greater scheme of things. Certainly not in the face of mass death. But football is the thing that linked those 96 people together, and football is the thing that linked their families together for 27 years as they fought for the truth. It was a lit candle when cursing the darkness seemed so very tempting. So maybe the cosmic significance of football is beside the point. It mattered to the 96. It mattered to their families. It mattered to a city.