We reach the denouement of a painful, poignant and monumentally important week for Liverpool FC, their fans, all football supporters, and humanity in general. The atmosphere at today's Premier League match between Sunderland and Liverpool at the Stadium of Light promises to be "highly charged because of what happened on Wednesday," says Martin O'Neill, the home manager respectfully referring to the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, which this week vindicated those brave and decent women and men forced into a 23-year struggle for the truth behind a disaster which claimed the lives of 96 innocent football fans.
Much has been written in the wake of the report, which detailed an appalling and systematic establishment cover-up that viciously wronged the victims, the survivors, their families, a community, and by extension the entire country. All of it - including the report itself - is essential reading. But you might only have time, or the emotional strength, to make it through one or two pieces, so here's the reaction of journalist Adrian Tempany, a survivor of that awful day in April 1989, and David Conn's tale of Phil and Hilda Hammond, whose 14-year-old son Philip went to watch a game of football but never came back.
With the truth uncovered, it's now time for justice. You can show your support for the righteous fight by downloading You'll Never Walk Alone, with Gerry Marsden donating all proceeds from the sales to the Hillsborough charities. "We need to keep the momentum going and if we could get You'll Never Walk Alone to No1 this would send a really positive message," says Walton MP Steve Rotheram. "It will not bring the 96 back but since the release of the report the dark cloud that was hanging over Liverpool and its people has been lifted."
There's only one way to wrap up this subject...
If there's ever been a more eloquent piece of broadcasting than this impromptu eulogy by the legendary BBC reporter Peter Jones, delivered in a moment of appalling emotional trauma, I'd love to hear it.
Segueing from such a harrowing topic into today's game is nigh-on impossible, so forgive me for the following, deliberately self-conscious, clunk. Clunk. Self-conscious clunk. There's no point me pretending there was any other way.
Now then, all the pressure appears to be on struggling Liverpool, but Sunderland aren't shoo-ins for the three points this evening. They've started the season solidly enough, with two staunch away draws at Arsenal and high-flying Swansea. And their new star striker Steven Fletcher has already started filling his boots, with two goals at the Liberty Stadium a fortnight ago. But on the flip side, they're without a victory in their past ten league matches, and have failed to win their first home game of the season in any of the previous four campaigns.
Which may explain why the bookies have Liverpool down as slight favourites. But wins are hard to come by when you've got the worst conversion rate (5.6%) and the lowest shooting accuracy (25%) in the entire division. The Brendan Rodgers reign has suffered an awful, abortive start, with defeats at the hands of West Bromwich Albion and Arsenal, and a promising but defensively profligate draw against champions Manchester City. The heat's on, because if they lose today, it'll be one point from four matches - with on-fire Manchester United to come at Anfield next weekend. But their is hope for the visitors, as their record at Sunderland isn't bad: they've won on four of their last six Premier League visits to Mackem Country. For the record, the other two games saw them lose to a Nicklaus Bendtner strike here in March, and to a goal scored by a beach ball in October 2009. Oh Pepe!
Kick off: 5.30pm.
Sunderland, without Adam Johnson, who misses out on a league home debut after failing to get rid of a thigh injury: Mignolet, Gardner, Cuellar, O'Shea, Rose, Larsson, Colback, Cattermole, McClean, Sessegnon, Fletcher.
Subs: Westwood, Campbell, Kilgallon, Ji, Meyler, Bramble, Saha.
Liverpool, making two changes to the side beaten at home by Arsenal, with Martin Kelly and Jonjo Shelvey replacing Jose Enrique and Nuri Sahin: Reina, Kelly, Skrtel, Agger, Johnson, Gerrard, Allen, Shelvey, Borini, Suarez, Sterling.
Subs: Jones, Jose Enrique, Sahin, Assaidi, Henderson, Downing, Carragher.
Referee: Martin Atkinson (W Yorkshire)
The teams are out, which at the Stadium of Light means it's time for a blast of ...
Is there more portentous running-out music than this? Marvellous. He's not bad, the lad Prokofiev. Sunderland are in their trademark red-and-white shirts with black shorts, Liverpool in their all-black away strip. The players shake hands nicely. We'll be underway very soon.
And we're off! Sunderland's Steven Fletcher, wearing a pair of shocking, in the best 1981 dayglo sense, boots, get the ball rolling. There's a chorus of "Justice for the 96" from the travelling fans, while Sunderland flash an official message of support and understanding on the big screen. A classy touch.
2 min: It's a bitty, scrappy start. Sunderland are seeing more of the ball in the very early exchanges, but to little effect.
4 min: Suarez - to a chorus of boos from the home support, some things will never change no matter the circumstances - advances towards the Sunderland area down the inside left. He nudges the ball inside to Shelvey, who drags a hilariously inept shot wide left from a very decent position.
5 min: Johnson dinks and diddles down the left, and finds a good deal of space as he reaches the byline. His pullback into the centre reaches nobody, but Gerrard eventually nicks it away and sets Suarez off down the same wing. Suarez's dink inside is read by Sessegnon, who scoots away from danger, buys a foul, and Sunderland relax.
6 min: Apropos Hillsborough, seems there had been pre-match talk of a supportive chorus of You'll Never Walk Alone on the symbolic six-minute mark. If there had been any such plan, it hadn't reached the travelling Liverpool contingent. That's if the ESPN microphones are anything to go by, of course.
9 min: A rare moment during which Scotland manager Craig Levein can enjoy a smile, as Steven Fletcher is rolling around on the floor in agony after being clattered by Skrtel. He'll be OK, by the looks of it, writes resident Guardian quack Dr Murray, but for the moment there's a bit of grimacing and swearing to be done.
11 min: Allen, in the centre circle, slides a ball straight down the middle for Suarez, who spins in from the inside-left channel, takes the ball a wee bit to the right, and advances towards the area, before dragging a Shelveyesque shot wide left. A lovely move by Liverpool, followed by a terrible finish, and how many times have we said that over the last 18 months or so.
14 min: Liverpool are beginning to dominate possession. Sterling slides a ball down the right for Borini, who wallops a low cross into Mignolet's hands at the near post. That was a good take by the keeper, because the ball was skelped in at speed, and Suarez was lurking.
16 min: Sunderland get back into it with a spot of possession football themselves. Sessegnon is this close to breaking clear down the right with a savvy change of pace, but Johnson sticks to him well, and forces him out of play down the wing for a goal kick.
18 min: An appalling header back to his keeper down the inside-right channel by Cuellar, letting Borini in. The young Liverpool striker has a rush of blood, blasting the ball straight at Mignolet when a clever dink would have surely resulted in the opener. Shelvey screws a weak follow up wide right, which at least shows he's prepared to mix it up a bit, if nothing else.
20 min: A free kick to Sunderland midway in the Liverpool half, down the left. Larsson swings it towards the far post, the ball bouncing out of play an inch or so wide. Reina was absurdly confident in leaving that ball to fly out under its own steam, especially as one of Sunderland's players, having packed the box, really should have been attacking that. What an opportunity.
23 min: Sterling buys a free kick down the right with some fancy footwork. Skrtel comes up looking to replicate his feat in the Manchester City game, but the ball's flicked away from him at the last by O'Shea. Suarez attempts to go again down the left, but dances out of play. Goal kick. "Can someone please nail up barn doors on either side of the goal so Luis Suarez can miss them instead?" pleads Hubert O'Hearn. And you think he'll miss them on the inside?!
25 min: Shelvey cuts in from the right and plays a diagonal ball towards Suarez, on the left of the D. Suarez cushions a first-time pass inside for Borini, who looks to guide a strong sidefoot into the bottom-right corner. His effort is too close to Mignolet, though, and the keeper parries well. That's better from Liverpool; neither side have got going so far.
27 min: A magnificent run by Suarez down the right, latching onto a poor pass from McClean, with O'Shea all over the shop. He reaches the area, then rolls the ball inside for Shelvey, who can't quite get a shot away. The ball breaks left to Johnson, who spins through 360 degrees as he tries to squeeze between Gardner and Cuellar, and is nudged a wee bit by the former. He crashes to the floor demanding a penalty, but that would have been a very soft award, and a soft award's not what he's getting here. What he's getting here is nowt.
29 min: GOAL!!! Sunderland 1-0 Liverpool. Steven Fletcher, a boyhood Liverpool fan, is the sort of striker his former heroes need. He's just scored his third goal of the season, sidefooting home from close range after Gardner burst down the inside-right channel and zipped a low ball into the danger zone. Not sure either Reina or Skrtel will be particularly happy with their positioning there. Like Sunderland won't care; that was a crisp move, with a finish to match.
31 min: After soaking up a wee bit of pressure, then landing the opening blow, Sunderland have their tails up now. McClean bursts down the left, and flies another dangerous low ball into the centre. Johnson is on hand to hack out on the right for a corner. The only danger to Liverpool from the resulting set piece comes from their own ranks, Skrtel accidentally hoofing Kelly in the head.
34 min: Sterling brushes past Rose down the inside-right channel and hits the turf, winning a free kick just to the left of the D. Suarez steps up, and looks to curl the ball into the top right. It only hits the top right of the wall, which wasn't anywhere near ten yards away, but then how many walls are these days? Nothing comes from the corner kick. "The plan was to sing 'Justice for the 96' at the now discredited 15-minute mark," explains Tim Byron. Not going to be much help here, I'm afraid. I didn't hear it, but then I wasn't listening out for it, and the ESPN microphones may not have picked it up.
37 min: Suarez dances down the right and reaches the byline. O'Shea tracks him, and sticks his leg out. Suarez launches himself over it. It's a saucy dive, and very well executed, but the referee is quite rightly having none of it, and shows the striker a yellow card. Suarez has the decency to grin sheepishly as he wanders off back upfield.
40 min: Colback busts into the Liverpool area down the right. He's got a chance to shoot from a far-from-prohibitive angle, but decides to pause and look for someone in the middle instead. And the chance is gone. "Dear Dr Murray," begins Phil Sawyer. "A friend of mine has a problem with their love life. The evening always starts well. For the first thirty minutes it's all smart moves and attractive strokes. Then they inevitably do something stupid and spend the rest of the evening running around like a headless chicken desperately trying to make amends but ultimately failing to score. What advice do you have?" A wait and see policy, is my suggestion. If they can't get, and furthermore keep, it up next week for the visit of local saucepots Manchester United, then we can safely say they've got a problem. In which case I'll be prescribing several liquid balls of single malt, which will make it easier to ignore.
43 min: Liverpool were sliding the ball around with some confidence before the goal, but now they're a shapeless mess. Such is the brittle nature of confidence when you're struggling. Sunderland are enjoying more of the ball, winning it back efficiently and without fuss whenever they lose it. Colback, McClean and Fletcher are all taking turns to run at the Liverpool back line, who are far from enjoying the experience.
HALF TIME: Sunderland 1-0 Liverpool. Sterling looks to make ground down the right, but he's easily battered off the ball by Rose. And that's that for the opening period, one which Sunderland ultimately deserved to shade. It's going to be a big 45 minutes for Liverpool, who are currently in 19th position in the league, and a big half time for Brendan Rodgers.
HALF TIME ENTERTAINMENT: The ludicrous Being: Liverpool documentary will be screened on Channel 5 next month, and when asked for his take on it, Martin O'Neill's eyebrows started pinging up and down so quickly he should have issued a strobe warning for epileptics. "The documentary couldn't have been done without Brendan Rodgers' consent," he said. "I wouldn't be up for that but, whatever way he does things, is entirely up to him." O'Neill went on to reel off a list of similar documentaries he has loved over the years: "I liked Peter Reid's one here [Premier Passions], the one at Leyton Orient a couple of years ago, where the manager [John Sitton] went ballistic, loved it. The best one I have ever seen though was the final days of Malcolm Allison and Manchester City. It was fantastic. Played out to Stevie Winwood's music in around 1981, with John Bond coming in to take over. Really, really great. That's brilliant. But I wouldn't want to do it myself. I couldn't deal with any of my cohorts saying: 'Yes boss, no boss,' like Phil Neal in the Graham Taylor documentary." Three of those O'Neill referenced were also mentioned in this Joy of Six: Football Documentaries. And if you haven't seen O'Neill's fave, City!, we beg you to start watching it now:
If it means you getting addicted, and missing the second half, so be it.
And we're off again! Liverpool get the ball rolling. They're as they were. Sunderland have made one change, though: the hamstrung Cuellar makes way for Bramble, whose presence may or may not offer the visitors some hope.
46 min: "I have a different interpretation of Suarez's grin (37 mins)," writes JR in Illinois. "I think it was because he feels he was actually fouled and that (due to his reputation) he is never going to get a call. Seeing it again I'm not sure if he was fouled or not but like Mr. Atkinson I am never going to be predisposed to believing anything Senor Suarez is trying to sell me." And, well, here you go, JR. Because extreme slow-motion replays reveal light contact between the striker and O'Shea's standing leg, just as he was about to sail over it. That's a fair shout for a penalty - the softest of soft penalties, admittedly, but a fair shout nonetheless - and never a yellow card. Sunderland, with Gardner in particular coming over to give Suarez verbals for his cheek, certainly helped the referee make his decision there. But I'll not be criticising the official for it, having thought it was a dive at the time myself. I'm not too sure Liverpool can complain too much about the non-award, but the subsequent yellow card was a bit much.
47 min: Shelvey gets a shot on target, finally. Cutting in from the right, he sends a daisycutter straight down Mignolet's throat. Liverpool really need to come firing out of the blocks here.
48 min: Sterling wins a corner down the right, from which the ball's sent to Skrtel, ten yards out level with the far post. The big defender executes a Cruyff Turn, but his resulting ball inside clanks off Suarez and out for a goal kick.
49 min: Johnson makes space down the left, and sends a delicious ball along the corridor of uncertainty. There's nobody in Liverpool black to attack the ball. Very poor. "I really do have faith in Brendan Rodgers and I know it will take two more transfer windows to sort out the squad," writes Hubert O'Hearn, "but right now it's like taking the first rehearsal of a grade school play and saying it's ready for Broadway. Ah well, gin was invented for a reason."
51 min: Johnson is so unlucky here. He scampers down the left, eases out to the wing, then cuts back inside. Upon entering the area, he curls a magnificent effort towards the top-right corner, the ball twanging off the crossbar and away. That deserved nothing less than a goal, it was a magnificent effort. Mignolet was nowhere. But Liverpool's woodwork woes continue.
53 min: Gerrard curls a free kick from the right wing into the Sunderland area, but it's easily cleared. Suarez looks to confuse down the same flank, but is stopped in his tracks by Rose. Liverpool already look a wee bit frustrated, though it's a bit early for that, as they've been the only team pressing in this half. Sunderland have yet to re-emerge from the dressing room.
56 min: Sunderland re-emerge from the dressing room. Sessegnon teases Johnson down the inside-right. He's robbed of the ball, but Liverpool can't clear, and it's soon coming back at them. Sessegnon once again romps down the right, and wins a corner. From which Gardner belabours an effort goalwards from the edge of the area. Kelly takes a hit for the team, cushioning the effort with his coupon.
58 min: Now it's Liverpool on the back foot. McClean curls a dangerous ball into the middle from the left, with Fletcher lurking. Agger is forced to clear in the most desperate fashion for a corner. But the flag goes up, as Fletcher was standing around in the middle, yards offside, with the carefree insouciance of a man with pint and fag on. But the rest of the home team have categorically awoken from their post-break slumber.
59 min: Colback attempts to clear the stand behind Reina's goal. And by God he nearly manages it. "That City! documentary is brilliant!" chirps Alex Hanton, who isn't wrong. "Takes me back to the late 70s (and let's be honest the early 80s where the late 70s in the same way that about half of the 60s were really the 50s) An era when the world was wood-panelled, rogue exclamation points roamed the streets and haircuts were something that happened to Americans. Also why was Malc shirtless during his pregame talk?" Well, why not?
61 min: It's just not happening for Liverpool. Sterling, down the right, whips a ball towards the near post. Borini can't quite reach it, but Mignolet's desperate parry only flies out to Shelvey, on the edge of the area. Shelvey rolls a first-time pass inside for the onrushing Gerrard, the Liverpool captain threading a sidefooted effort through a crowded box and just wide right of goal. In fact, I think that may have brushed the post. Liverpool might not be clicking, but it's also true that they do not deserve to be losing this game.
63 min: Skrtel is booked for a late slide on Sessegnon. Liverpool can have no arguments about that booking. "Okay, so Suarez will miss the barn doors (23 mins) to the outside," admits Hubert O'Hearn. "Theory 2 or Plan B! Spray paint the silhouette of an opponent's leg on the netting - THAT Luis Suarez will hit every time! (I actually like Suarez. On the international level, you could argue he's Lionel Messi; domestically ... Carlton Cole.)"
64 min: A first change by Liverpool, who swop Borini for Downing. "I've just spent the day helping out a friend, greasing the underside of static caravans," begins Matt Dony. "Rust issues, apparently. It was quite comfortably the worst day of my life. Please can you tell me that Liverpool are a silky football machine, scoring goals at will, throughout the second half. I don't need it to be true, I just want to hear the words." Can't do that, I'm afraid. The caravans should have a couple more years holidaying in them, though. Something's better than nothing, surely?
66 min: Another Liverpool corner. They never scored from these things in the 1980s, there's no reason why they'll be doing so now. The ball's cleared. From the inside right, Gerrard lumps it back into the area. The home defence has been slow to push out, and the lurking Skrtel can come in from the left and guide a clever header towards the bottom right. It's a decent effort, but there's not quite enough power there, and Mignolet snaffles.
67 min: Sterling comes in from the right and drags an awful effort well wide left. He's been hanging about with that Jonjo far too much.
69 min: Sterling twinkles down the right and evades two challenges as he breaks into the area. Suarez can't convert the chance. And then...
71 min: GOAL!!! Sunderland 1-1 Liverpool. ... the pair combine again. Sterling discos down the right, then slides the ball in to Suarez at the near post. Suarez can't guide an effort goalwards with a first-time snatch, but Bramble kindly cushions a sidefoot back to him, and the striker makes no mistake second time, blasting a low shot into the net. No more than Liverpool deserve, and Suarez's relief is palpable in his celebration.
72 min: Rose, who has some minor ailment or other, is replaced by Campbell.
75 min: Sterling is looking extremely dangerous now. He isn't far close from reaching the byline down the right with a blistering change of pace, but Colback is older and wiser, and escorts him out of play without fuss. "Isn't the thing that really stands out about City! not the period clothes and furniture but the fact that during Malcolm Allison's team talk, nobody is listening?" wonders Justin Horton. Haw. They'd obviously got his number by then. Although at least they're still showing him a sliver of respect. I'm assuming that, by the time John Bond's first full season came around, people started actively breezing out of the room when the manager began chuntering on.
78 min: Liverpool are pushing Sunderland back for a series of corners. Is two enough of a series? Nothing comes from the entire run. It's the most pointless series since they remade Reggie Perrin. "I'm not a Liverpool supporter but I liked them back when they were great (the 70s and 80s which apparently were the same decade in terms of something)," begins Ben Dunn. "But could they just hurry up and be something more than the team that might be good this year and return to former glories? They're becoming the Spurs of the 70s and 80s and 90s - decades which etc and so on - a team which win something now and again but are not that good. A shame." Spurs went down the 70s. Is this what you're trying to say?
80 min: A brilliant run into the area down the right by Shelvey, who then swans past three Sunderland shirts and, when in a central position, hits a shot low and hard from 12 yards. Mignolet is right behind it, and Suarez can't head the rebound back on target, the ball sailing well over the bar. That was less than half a chance for Suarez, under a high ball, so for once can't be blamed for profligacy.
82 min: Larsson scythes Sterling down as the young winger looks to break down the left. That's a booking, and rightly so.
83 min: Sessegnon zips down the middle in space. He eventually shuttles the ball wide left to McClean, who has options in the middle, but needlessly blooters an over-ambitious effort miles over the bar.
84 min: Now it's Johnson's turn to foolishly reach for the stars. Which is where the ball is heading, the full back having come inside from the left and hoicked a risible effort into the skies to the right of goal.
86 min: Fletcher limps off to be replaced by the former Everton and Manchester United striker Loius Saha.
87 min: Sterling is upended twice in quick succession down the left. Gerrard swings a hopeless free kick into the area. "At last!" writes Matt Dony. "Something finally comes together for Liverpool, but I was busy in the shower with a huge tub of swarfega. At least now I'm lemon fresh."
90 min: Suarez flies off on a buzzing run down the inside-right channel. Shelvey makes a decoy run to open up some space, and Suarez should shoot upon cutting inside and reaching the edge of the box, but he elects to pass inside to Sterling, who miscontrols, and the chance is gone. One other observation from that City! doc from Alex Hanton: "Did Paul Power have the best name in football history? He sounds like a promotional superhero designed to sell breakfast cereal."
90 min +1: There will be three added minutes, and the first has already elapsed.
90 min +2: Saha drops a shoulder and unleashes a rising drive that only just misses the top-left corner.
FULL TIME: Sunderland 1-1 Liverpool. Allen, Suarez and Downing combine down the right. Corner. Johnson meets the set piece with a harmless header, the ball floating wide right of goal. And that's that. Sunderland would have robbed a victory had
Titus Bramble Luis Suarez not equalised late on, but that's still their worst start to a league campaign since 1911. Liverpool move ahead of Southampton, Reading and QPR into 17th place, while Sunderland nestle three places above them with an extra point in their kitty. Both teams are still looking for their first win, but you sense the home team will be a far happier clan than the visiting one. "Matt Dony's been busy in the shower with a huge tub of swarfega?" splutters Phil Sawyer, leaving us with an image to take away. "The mind fair boggles."