By Josh Reich
April 15 (Reuters) - Thousands gathered at Liverpool's Anfield Stadium on Tuesday to mark the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster in which 96 of their fans died during an FA Cup semi-final, one of the darkest days in the history of English soccer.
The supporters lost their lives in a crush at the Leppings Lane End of Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough ground at the start of the match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on April 15, 1989.
Over 20,000 people attended the memorial service, where the number 96 was spelled out on the pitch using scarves donated by fans from around the world following an appeal by Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool's manager at the time of the disaster.
The names of the 96 victims were read aloud, the youngest being 10-year-old Jon-Paul Gilhooley, the cousin of current Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, who attended the ceremony along with his team mates.
After reading the psalm "The Lord is my Shepherd", current manager Brendan Rodgers said his biggest match-day inspiration was the Hillsborough memorial featuring the names of those killed.
"Ninety-six individuals that were all loved, cherished and all went too soon," he said.
"Those who we lost, and for those of you who have fought and campaigned tirelessly on their behalf and on behalf of the survivors, you are the real true inspiration for us."
He paid tribute to Dalglish, saying he helped hold the club together in the aftermath of the disaster.
"Liverpool Football Club and the city of Liverpool were so blessed to have a man of his qualities leading the club at such a time, and although he personally seeks no credit or acclaim, without doubt his help and support both at the time and afterwards has been critical to the families and the survivors," Rodgers said.
"The leadership, the human dignity and courage shown by Kenny at that time was more inspiring than any goal scored or any trophy won and I think it serves as an example to us all."
Despite their fierce rivalry on the pitch, Everton have offered their neighbours unwavering support over Hillsborough and the club's current manager Roberto Martinez recalled hearing the news as a 15-year-old in his native Spain.
"As a family we couldn't believe the pain and horror the families would get by receiving the news that their loved ones wouldn't be coming home, wouldn't be coming home from a football match," Martinez said.
"How can anyone die watching the game they love? That isn't right, that isn't fair.
"What happened after wasn't right or fair either, to have to fight for the good names of the ones you lost was appalling.
"But as my chairman said a year ago, the authorities took on the wrong city if they thought they were going to get away with that."
Martinez also hailed the Hillsborough Family Support Group, and said a permanent memorial would be installed at Goodison Park later this year.
"Everton remembers. We always will," he added.
Matches in England's top eight tiers started seven minutes late at the weekend to commemorate Hillsborough, where the game was abandoned after six minutes, while 96 seats were left empty except for Liverpool scarves at the FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley.
Liverpool are currently top of the table, two points clear of Chelsea with four matches remaining, and within touching distance of a first English title since 1990.
New inquests into the deaths started last month after a 2012 High Court decision quashed accidental death verdicts from 21 years ago after an independent inquiry found new evidence and absolved the fans of any responsibility.
The inquests, being held in Warrington, have been adjourned for a week because of the anniversary.
The tragedy shocked the world and led to a new era of modern stadiums across Britain, with banks of terracing and metal fences around pitches disappearing to be replaced by seating and better security.
The disaster, in which 766 people were injured, is also the subject of two other investigations, with the government setting up a new police probe in 2012 in a victory for victims' families who never accepted the official version of events, which had sought to place blame on the fans themselves.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission is also looking into allegations arising from the aftermath, and will review allegations surrounding amendments to statements and the actions of police officers. (Editing by Ed Osmond)