Liverpool, Manchester United and trying to understand the impact of tragedy chanting

For the second time in a month of domestic club fixtures, Manchester United host Liverpool, this time in a game that is likely to have a huge bearing on the destination of the Premier League title.

While the visitors are attempting to become champions for the second time in the Jurgen Klopp era, their regional rivals would like nothing better than to play a major role in stopping them.

In March, United knocked Liverpool out of the FA Cup at Old Trafford after Amad Diallo’s strike in the last minute of added time secured a 4-3 victory.

The occasion was marred by the arrest of two United fans for alleged tragedy chanting in relation to the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, where 97 Liverpool fans were unlawfully killed.

Chants of “murderers”, quickly followed by “always the victim, it’s never your fault”, came from the Stretford End shortly before the hour mark of the tie.

Meanwhile, a photograph showed a Liverpool fan appearing to make different offensive gestures, only these related to the Munich air disaster in 1958, which killed 23 passengers including eight United players and three staff.

The community foundations of both clubs have since joined forces to try to educate young fans about the tragedies.

Klopp and United manager Erik ten Hag have since asked supporters to think carefully about their actions.

On Friday, Ten Hag suggested the game should “not be used as an excuse for abusing rival fans about Hillsborough, Heysel, or any other historic tragedies.”

“This is one of the truly great rivalries in world sport, for so many right reasons, and it is our responsibility to keep it that way,” Ten Hag added.

April 15 will mark the 35th anniversary of Hillsborough. It is a particularly difficult month for anyone who is still dealing with the consequences of the disaster.

To try to understand the impact of such hurtful chanting, The Athletic has interviewed Peter Scarfe from the Hillsborough Survivors Support Alliance, along with Andy Mitten, an Athletic writer, and the founder of the United We Stand fanzine.

What is the impact of tragedy chanting?

Scarfe: I gave my season ticket up after Hillsborough but I know survivors who pay for a season ticket and don’t go to certain fixtures. They’ll avoid the Merseyside derby, each of the games against the Manchester clubs, as well as Chelsea and Leicester. They don’t go because of the increasing likelihood of tragedy chanting and the anger, anxiety and stress that it triggers. They give their tickets to someone else.

When you hear it, bad memories come flooding back. You think of Hillsborough, but you also think of Paris in 2022 (the Champions League final), where there could have been another disaster. It was a really terrible time. We set up a WhatsApp group as a point of contact to try to help people. Since Paris, we have helped more than 100 people due to traumas and re-triggers, while around 50 people have accessed therapy after contacting us.

For survivors, the beginning of April is when it’s at its worst but the build-up for a lot of people affected by Hillsborough starts in January. They want to shut themselves into a cave, cutting themselves off from the world. It’s a particularly difficult time for survivors. Some will reflect on the loss of their loved ones and focus on the guilt of surviving, asking themselves if they didn’t do enough. They need to be reminded that they did. It gets forgotten that a lot more people would have died at Hillsborough had fans not acted on instinct to save those around them.

Fans outside the stadium at the Champions League final in Paris in 2022 (Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

Mitten: Ask those who lost loved ones or who were there when Hillsborough happened. Or Munich, Ibrox, Bradford, Istanbul, Heysel et al. I did ask Steven, an Evertonian who lost his brother Michael. It was horrendous listening to him for nearly two hours. Steven was not even allowed by police to kiss his dead brother as he lay on a tray near Hillsborough.

Michael loved Liverpool, but the two brothers also idolised George Best. And Steven told me: “I want people to be educated that it’s not right to sing about disasters — about Hillsborough or Munich — all fans.

“Those opposition fans, including Liverpool fans, who sang about Munich were equally misguided. I’ve heard Evertonians sing songs which for me are about Hillsborough and felt ashamed. I just want to go to the match and not hear these songs. I’d sit next to any Man United fan, or any fan of any club. I have no axe to grind. Our Mike didn’t do anything to harm Man United. We loved Bestie.”

Is that too much to ask?

Why is the “always the victim” song particularly hurtful?

Scarfe: It strikes against the truth of Hillsborough and supports the lies that were told by the authorities. Over the years, the families affected by the disaster have tried to defend themselves by embarking on one of the longest legal battles in history. Unfortunately, a lot of people were all too willing to accept the official version of events rather than question the establishment, who in the fullness of time were found to cover up what really happened in the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report.

How soon after Hillsborough did tragedy chanting start?

Scarfe: It wasn’t straight away. For many years, Liverpool struggled to match the achievements of the past on the pitch. Manchester United became the most successful club, followed by Arsenal and then Chelsea and Manchester City. Since Jurgen Klopp’s appointment as manager, though, Liverpool have started to challenge both domestically and in Europe.

During this period, it feels as though the club has become a target for hatred — and not just from traditional rivals. It has been particularly bad against United, but City too. Leicester City have become particularly bad for tragedy chanting as well; it feels like some sets of fans see what the bigger clubs do and parrot what they hear.

Mitten: I grew up in an area where chants about the Munich air disaster were common from Liverpool (and other) fans, where you’d see an inflatable aeroplane bouncing around the away fans in Old Trafford’s Scoreboard Paddock. United fans had their own sick chants too — about Liverpool’s great manager Bill Shankly having a heart attack. It was vicious at games and, while much has changed, it still can be. In 2006, when I was in the Anfield Road, a cup of human excrement was thrown from the upper tier into the United fans below.

At Anfield in September 1990, many of the 3,000 United fans sang, ‘Where’s your famous Munich song?’ There remains resentment from old United fans about this — that Liverpool fans sang it for decades, that they had a flag with ‘Munich ’58’ on displayed at games when they were the best team in Europe. Yet United fans didn’t sing about Hillsborough for years. There were references, but not like in recent years.

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Fans paying their respects to Mark Jones, a victim of the Munich plane crash (Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

When and why did chanting about the Munich air disaster become less prevalent among Liverpool supporters?

Scarfe: This happened a lot in the 1980s especially. I was guilty of singing it. Many, including me, did it without understanding the impact of it and the pain it inflicted on people. We shouldn’t be mocking any death.

There has been a lot less tragedy chanting from Liverpool supporters since the release of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report in 2012. Twelve years later, it has almost gone away. You don’t hear it at Anfield during United games, or at Old Trafford. If it happened, videos would be circulating on the internet but as far as I’m aware, they don’t exist. That said, when Liverpool went to Old Trafford in the FA Cup, an image of a man emerged online who appeared to be making an aeroplane gesture to United fans. Upon seeing that, we reported it to the police. As a fanbase, we need to have a zero-tolerance policy towards death-mocking of any kind.

I was at the Arsenal game last season when the Kop started singing the chorus to “Maggie in the mud…” My son joined in and I stopped him. Now I don’t like Margaret Thatcher at all. I went through Thatcherism, which was particularly hard on the city of Liverpool. I was forced to leave home. I couldn’t afford to pay the poll tax. I left the city, living in Nottingham for nearly two years, working as a joiner. My dad wasn’t well and, at that time, he died. It all means I have a hatred of Thatcherism. But I still don’t think we should be celebrating the death of anyone, regardless of how we feel about them.

What can be done to stop tragedy chanting?

Scarfe: There are plenty of players who could make a difference. Jamie Carragher is the only player as far as I’m aware to call out tragedy chanting (when Liverpool played Luton Town at Kenilworth Road earlier this season). The same message hasn’t been sent by anyone else. I think it would be particularly powerful if someone like Gary Neville spoke about what is happening on the terraces when United meet Liverpool and it happens. If he turned around and said, ‘This needs to stop — all fans need to unite,’ I am sure people would listen. Even if it made a few of the people who are doing it think twice, it would be worth it.

I don’t believe that banning fans is the answer. They should be made to go on an awareness course where they have to study the subject they have been mocking before answering questions about their findings in front of a panel. If they answer those questions successfully, they should be allowed back into the stadium.

Mitten: Education. The chanting is not right, so don’t do it. The vast majority of United fans would never sing songs relating to the Hillsborough disaster. I know United fans who were there that day. We’ve regularly published their words since 1989. One was a young journalist, who said: “As we made our way back to the car, we came across another of the images that will stay with me: a line of 20 or 30 people snaking back from a red telephone box in absolute silence, queuing to phone home and tell their family quite simply that they were still alive.”

Another wrote: “I’m sure that everyone who witnessed the events but didn’t actually help, wishes they had done more. My regret is that I didn’t climb down to the lower tier and get to that police box, telling them there was an emergency and they had to deal with it. There was a dreadful feeling of helplessness all around me, it is the most haunting aspect of the day.’

Do you think either of them sing those s***ty songs? And if you do, is it really worth a Section 5 criminal charge, potentially losing your job, being banned from going to games and public humiliation if your name gets out for singing about disasters?

Forest fans Hillsborough banner

A banner held by Nottingham Forest fans last year (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Yet some take that risk, they enjoy it. Too many people derive satisfaction from them for that to happen. Some even think it’s funny. I found thousands of United fans singing, “The Sun was right, you’re murderers” at the recent cup game utterly depressing and infantile.

It should be possible to have a brilliant rivalry between two of the best football clubs in the world — even one with an edge — without mocking the deaths of 97 innocent football fans, including children. They should not be the butt of jokes. I hate all this They started it!” playground stuff and whataboutery. And if there are Liverpool fans who try to lead United fans on by singing, “Fergie’s right, your fans are shite”, knowing the pathetic Pavlovian response that will follow, then shame on you, too.

But I also fear that you won’t stop some. They thrive off it. They hide anonymously in the dark corners of the internet justifying what they do. Hillsborough was an attack by the government, the police and much of the media — not just on Liverpool fans, but on football fans and the working class. The government thought football fans were scum. It’s a reason we started our fanzine in 1989. We were not scum.

But we were conditioned to believe it normal to travel to the other end of England, pay money to stand on an overcrowded filthy strip of concrete and try to watch a game of football through a steel fence. Some fences, like at Hillsborough, were mainly mesh; others were rails which you could put your legs through. Pitchside vendors would sell you a drink or pie and pass them through the gaps.

Football fans were treated like second-class citizens, with decisions made on their behalf by people who’d never attended a game in their life.

The British government even considered introducing identification cards before fans could attend games. It was against that backdrop that I started to write about football and began United We Stand.

After Hillsborough, I heard many United fans say “That could have been us”. United used to take up to 20,000 to that famous old stadium in northern Sheffield for league games, even more for cup semi-finals.

Liverpool and United fans have a complicated history, yet there was compassion after Hillsborough. The United chairman Martin Edwards telephoned the Liverpool director Peter Robinson. Edwards explained that he and Alex Ferguson would like to come to Anfield to see the flowers already covering half the pitch in the wake of the disaster. They wanted the visit to be private. They drove to Liverpool, paid their respects and, as they left Anfield, wrote a substantial cheque for the Hillsborough appeal. That wasn’t made public for decades.

In 2012, United fans applauded as a tribute was read out to the Hillsborough families. On that day, Ryan Giggs and Steven Gerrard released 96 balloons in memory of the victims, and Sir Bobby Charlton, who was warmly greeted when he arrived at Anfield, presented flowers to Liverpool legend Ian Rush. Even the most bitter rivalries are capable of moments of compassion.



The Munich air disaster: The crash – ‘Christ… we aren’t going to make it’

(Photos: Getty Images)

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