Liverpool challenges for Premier League title as scars from Hillsborough begin to heal

Martin Rogers
Yahoo Sports
Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge is swamped by jubilant teammates including Jon Flanagan, top, after scoring against Sunderland during their English Premier League soccer match at Anfield Stadium, Liverpool, England, Wednesday March 26, 2014
Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge is swamped by jubilant teammates including Jon Flanagan, top, after scoring against Sunderland during their English Premier League soccer match at Anfield Stadium, Liverpool, England, Wednesday March 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

It doesn't matter which English soccer team you support or even if you follow one at all. It doesn't matter if you are a diehard fan of Liverpool's neighborhood rival Everton or its historically avowed enemy Manchester United.

Regardless of affection or affiliation, no matter if you're watching on television or stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the red-clad thronged masses in the Anfield stands, the minutes before any Liverpool home game are among the most moving in sports, the kind of thing that makes your neck hairs rise and unexplained lumps lodge in the back of your throat.

It is the time when more than 40,000 untrained voices bellow out the tune to the Gerry and the Pacemakers' 1960s hit “You'll Never Walk Alone" in seamless harmony. Just like they have for decades.

It is moving because it is a great tune with a powerful message that is compelling enough for Elvis and Ol' Blue Eyes and Doris Day to all lend their tones to it at different times. You'll be hard-pressed to find someone who dislikes it. But in this place, in this context, it means so much more.

They've sung the song for half a century but with every word, it has come to symbolize Liverpool's eternal mourning of April 15, 1989, the fateful afternoon of the Hillsborough stadium catastrophe, when 96 fans were killed in a horrific crush after police at Liverpool's FA Cup semifinal against Nottingham Forest ordered the gates to an already overcrowded section to be opened.

The disaster haunts Britain to this day. And it changed British soccer forever.

Metal fences designed to prevent fans from entering the field were torn down, not just at Hillsborough but around the country. Safety and policing at soccer grounds became a priority. The tragedy would eventually even lead to a landmark legal precedent when the family of victim Tony Bland, who had been left in a permanent vegetative state as a result of his injuries, was allowed to order doctors to let him "die with dignity” instead of keeping him on permanent life support.

Inevitably, Liverpool found it hard to move forward after Hillsborough. As if the pain of the 96 deaths was not enough, a disgraceful police cover-up that falsely blamed the fans for a stampede exacerbated the torment further for the victims' families, the survivors, the club and by extension the city of Liverpool itself.

On the field, the team's fortunes dipped. The dominant club of the 1980s, Liverpool has not won the English league title since 1990 and despite a dramatic and unexpected victory in the 2005 Champions League final, the club has not been considered among the elite of English soccer for years, placing no higher than sixth since 2009.

Finally, that seems about to change. With seven games to go in the present Premier League campaign, Liverpool's current squad has shown it is the real deal and sits just one point behind leaders Chelsea.

Head coach Brendan Rodgers has overcome a shaky start and now has his name chanted by the fans. American owner John Henry is seen as an integral part of the rejuvenation. Club captain Steven Gerrard is nearly 33 but is performing as well as ever.

And, in Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, Liverpool boasts the most dangerous strike partnership in the Premier League. Suarez is arguably among the top five players on the planet right now and embodies the new Liverpool, one that is so much like the old Liverpool of decades past: bold, fearless, and expectant rather than hopeful in its view of success.

The revival could have come at no better time. Next month will signal the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough and while the tragedy still emotes pain, for many there is no longer the same sense of burning injustice. British prime minister David Cameron issued an unequivocal apology to those wrongly blamed following an investigation in 2012.

The scars may be healing and you can hear it in the song, which has a more joyous tone to it these days. The flame for those who died still burns, literally (at a shrine in Anfield Road) and metaphorically. But Liverpool is learning to smile again and that in itself is a tribute to those who were lost.

Even after this season, the long wait for the league title may continue; Liverpool is locked in a three-way battle that could just as easily fall the way of Chelsea or Manchester City. Liverpool hosts City on April 13 and Chelsea two weeks later in a pair of games that may decide the outcome of the trophy.

On form alone, Liverpool is in strong shape, having won seven straight and gone undefeated in Premier League action in 2014. But whatever happens, the club is back where it wants to be. And as things stand, it seems like Liverpool can look to a brighter future while never forgetting its tragic past.