It was only right and proper that Liverpool and Manchester United should honour the 96 who died at Hillsborough with a dignified and genuine tribute. It was comforting to see supporters of both clubs pay their respects, before the first match at Anfield since the findings of an independent panel investigating the disaster at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest cleared fans of blame.
Bitter rivalries were forgotten as United legend Sir Bobby Charlton presented flowers to former Liverpool striker Ian Rush and opposing captains Steven Gerrard and Ryan Giggs released 96 red balloons in memory of those who died. Previous feuds were rightly buried in the past as Patrice Evra and Luis Suarez warmly shook hands in the pre-match ritual that has all too often overshadowed matches on other occasions.
There is always a small minority who are too stupid to understand that great rivals can share respect and mutual admiration. But this time the majority who represent all true football fans were heard loud and clear and this was the image and the message that we wanted to be beamed around the world.
Respect does not take away the burning desire to beat your rivals. The intensity of this fixture between the two greatest clubs in British football will never die. And this match was no exception. It was unfortunate for Liverpool that they were reduced to 10 men when Jonjo Shelvey was sent off for a first-half foul on United defender Jonny Evans. When the dust settles and the reality sets in, Liverpool’s guilty man will surely be embarrassed by the snarling abuse he directed at Sir Alex Ferguson as he made the walk of shame down the Anfield tunnel.
But there were moments to cherish. Man-of-the-match Steven Gerrard gave Liverpool’s 10-men the lead with a quality strike at the start of the second half, and Rafael Da Silva’s beautiful equaliser was a flash of Brazilian magic. When the decisive penalty from Robin van Persie sealed the points for United, there was no hiding the joy of the traveling fans or their heroes.
The intensity of the battle only goes to underline the fact that this is still the biggest rivalry in British football – and long may that continue.