Shortly before 12.45 this afternoon at Wembley Stadium almost ninety thousand people fell silent in memory of the Hillsborough disaster, which happened twenty-three years ago this weekend. It was a moment to bring a lump to the throat, a moment to pause and reflect upon the lives and deaths of ninety-six people, of whom seventy-seven were under the age of thirty years old at the time that they died. It was a moment to cast aside club loyalties, and to wish silently for justice for these people and their relatives. Yet with the end of the minute’s silence came a familiar roar. For all the commemoration today, this afternoon was about the twenty-first century, the fraternal rivalry between Liverpool and Everton and the conclusion of what has been, in various idiosyncratic ways, a remarkable season for both of these clubs.
In amongst the traditions and the history surrounding this afternoons match, however, certain prosaic truths about the game of football remain as constant as the laws of physics and not very far from the top of that list are the words, “Get rid of it!”. Twenty-four minutes into this afternoon’s match, that basic rule went out of the window, as far as Liverpool’s defence was concerned. It had been a quiet opening to the match, with both times feeling each other out, prodding and poking for a weakness at the heart of the opposition defence to the extent that it was almost a quarter of an hour before anybody managed as much as a shot on target. When the goal came though, it was self-inflicted from a Liverpool perspective, a harmless looking ball that fell for Jamie Carragher which the defender dithered over as Daniel Agger looked on, before clearing the ball straight at Tim Cahill’s shins. The ball bounced fortuitously for Nikica Jelavić, whose low shot beat the Liverpool goalkeeper Brad Jones to give Everton the lead.
Otherwise, this was a first half of intrigue and suspense rather than thrills and excitement. The opening chapter of a good play rather than an action movie. Clear-cut chances were thin on the ground, with Evertons central defensive pairing of John Heitinga and Sylvain Distin were superb in their marshalling of the defence, seldom allowing Liverpool’s forwards a clear route towards their goal. Everton, meanwhile, attacked in fits and starts throughout the first half without often looking like causing greater damage to the scoreline. It was a controlled performance for forty-five minutes from Everton, but it didn’t feel as if the only goal of the first half was going to be enough to win this match.
Barely two minutes into the second half, the Andy Carroll show rolled into town again. Carroll has become a joke within a joke this season, with millions watching his every move to see what comedy capers he will come up with next. Today, it was a header from a slight angle and five yards out which flew wide of Tim Howard’s right-hand post when it might have been easier to put the ball either side of the goalkeeper. This, however, proved to be a temporary respite for Everton and after sixty-two minutes Liverpool were level. To err, they say, is human, and if Jamie Carragher had displayed his humanity in rather too graphic a manner in the first half, then it was the turn of Sylvain Distan to return the favour that Liverpool had paid his team.
It is possible that lesson one of the Rules Of Being A Defender reads, “If you have to play a back-pass from the half-way line, make sure you both look up first and put enough strength behind the pass.” Distin, presumably, had not been reading from the manual when he attempted to play the ball to – presumably – either his goalkeeper or a fellow defender, but his woeful pass only found Luis Suarez, who rolled the ball past Howard to bring Liverpool level, a goal that they deserved for their endeavours, but there was more to come. Shortly after the goal, Carroll shot across the face of goal and wide. Everton, though, continued to stutter and stall and the feeling continued to grow that if this match was going to be won in ninety or one hundred and twenty minutes, it would be the red half of the city that would celebrating this afternoon.
It has started to feel in recent weeks as if Carroll is a player that takes eighty minutes to get himself going, and with three minutes of the match left to play, he planted his head on a free-kick from the left-hand side to send Liverpool to Wembley. It is a curious characteristic of modern football that a players reputation can pivot upon one movement of his neck. Criticism of Carroll has bordered upon hysterical in some corners of the media this season. Some of it has been justified, though, and he hasn’t suddenly become one of Liverpool’s greatest strikers with this goal. If there is a road to redemption for him, however, both inside of Anfield and out, a late winning goal in an FA Cup semi-final is as good a place as any to start.
Everton supporters contemplating todays events will likely do with a considerable reference to what might have been. Liverpool did not play brilliantly today, but after a controlled first half performance David Moyes’ team offered little in the second half, defended intemperately and threw away as good a chance as they might ever get again to bring a major trophy back to Goodison Park. They may yet finish above Liverpool in the Premier League this season – which would be an achievement in itself – but there will be no silverware heading to Goodison Park this season. On Grand National day, Everton fell at the second to last, and it’s difficult to escape the conviction that they only have themselves to blame.
In the weeks time, Liverpool will face off against either Tottenham Hotspur or Chelsea in the FA Cup final and they will have cause for considerable optimism whoever they play. After all, Spurs’ form over the last couple of months has been dreadful beyond dreadful and Chelsea may yet be distracted by the battle for fourth place in the Premier League. Today’s match, though, was about more than just an FA Cup semi-final. Today’s match was about remembrance, and about a continuing fight for justice for those that died twenty-three years ago this weekend. As such, the silence before kick-off today was as important as any of the noise that followed it. A battle may have been won on the pitch by the men in red this afternoon, but the bigger, longer-term victory remains a work in progress. When silence falls over Anfield in commemoration of their deaths tomorrow afternoon, though, those present will at least be able to reflect upon an off-the-field performance from both clubs which did their memories proud.
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