On a night when the blue half of Merseyside displayed every last drop of the class, dignity and compassion which defines it, football was always likely to take a back seat. Nevertheless, there will be plenty of frustration that Everton were unable to cap an emotional evening with three points, with a combination of slipshod officiating, profligate finishing and a fired-up Demba Ba denying David Moyes’ side a victory they had more than merited.
It ended as a night of high drama at Goodison, though it had begun with the most moving of scenes, as Everton paid its own, unique tribute to the victims of the Hillsborough disaster and their ongoing fight for justice. Nobody at Goodison will ever forget the scene as, prior to kick-off, two child mascots, one in Everton blue, one in Liverpool red, led out the sides hand in hand. The young pair’s shirt numbers had been arranged to read ‘96’ whilst the sound of The Hollies’ ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’ rang around the ground, and the names of the victims were displayed on the big screen. Watching from the sidelines were members of the Hillsborough Families Support Group, invited as guests of Blues chairman Bill Kenwright.
Dry eyes? There wasn’t a chance. The image of Beth Garner-Watt, 11, and Mikey Clarke, 8, is assured of its place among the most iconic in this great city’s history, their unity a life-defining show of strength between two football clubs who, more than anyone, know the meaning of solidarity, of empathy, of compassion. Red and Blue fans may not sing ‘Merseyside, Merseyside’ as they once did, and they may disagree on most things football, but they never allow the other to suffer alone. On Hillsborough, they have stood together for 23 years. They always will.
The game itself, of course, was always likely to be something of a sideshow, but with four goals, two of them in the dying minutes, a host of missed chances and a series of controversial decisions from the match officials, at least it was an entertaining one.