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Captain's Blog: Time To Trust Football Fans Again

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Yesterday's historic and long overdue Hillsborough verdict will live long in the memory. Finally the truth emerged. On 15 April 1989, the people who were supposed to protect others caused the deaths of 96 people and then callously issued a dagger to grieving hearts by instigating a sickening cover-up to try protect themselves instead.

As the chilling details came to the surface and for the first time, football had rarely, if ever, stood more united in satisfaction. Though football is the winner, the victory unequivocally belongs to one club, and Sunderland and all us fans should feel privileged that we get to share, in however small a part, in Liverpool's moment this Saturday as they take to a football pitch for the first time in over two decades as club free from that aforementioned dagger.

The Hillsborough cloud has hung over football for so long that it is almost difficult to know what to expect without it. It has been a dark influence on our national game for such a length of time that there are whole generations of fans who didn't even realise it was there because it was just an accepted part of their reality.

I include myself in that to some extent. I was nine years old when the Hillsborough disaster happened. I can remember the imagery on TV vividly, particularly people using advertising boards as stretchers and people being pulled up into the upper tier. I didn't understand what was happening. As I got older and learned more about it, not understanding what happening was replaced with not understanding how it happened. I suspect the next time I see the footage it will be anger that I feel about why it happened.

Now that Liverpool finally have the truth, their fight will start for justice, and it is only right that now accountability has been established, not just for the needless deaths but for hiding from the law following them, that the perpetrators are punished accordingly. I wish the families of the 96 and Liverpool as a whole all the very best in that.

On a personal note, however, I can't help but hope that this will effect positive change for all of football by making the authorities accept that enjoying football is not a crime, and a passion for the game does not instantly transform otherwise respectable people into hooligans.

When I was at a summer music concerts at the Stadium of Light, no one stopped me from standing in my seat. No one stopped me taking alcohol into the stand either. There was no giant and highly visible police presence. Before long, there were people jovially stumbling down the aisles, only to be helped on their way back to the bar by smiling stewards. All harmless fun, apparently.

At the Stadium of Light for a League Cup fixture against Morecambe, meanwhile, the police couldn't wait to rush up an aisle to kick out a group of young lads who were persistently standing in the newly formed singing section of the stadium. No harmless fun there, it seems.

The Tory Sports Minister at the time of Hillsborough, Colin Moynihan, once snarled of football fans that it was 'too kind' to compare them to animals because he 'knows of no animal that would act this way'. It was a statement made during the hooligan culture of the 80s, which was unquestionably a shameful episode in football's past, but it was still a quite appalling generalization to make. Since then, society has changed, football fans have changed, but it doesn't feel like the perception has.

It has always been the Hillsborough disaster, however, which has been the stick with which football fans have been beaten since. Although the Taylor Report didn't say that standing was intrinsically unsafe, the opportunity was leapt upon to eliminate it for the simple reason that seating made fans easier to control and subdue. How could anyone argue? They were just trying to stop fans from causing another Hillsborough, they said.

But now we know the truth. Now we know that football fans didn't cause the Hillsborough disaster. Now we know that inadequate policing did.

Apologies are all well and good and, for the record, I thought Prime Minister David Cameron was flawless in his address to parliament following the release of the Independent Panel's verdicts. At the moment, however, words are all they are, even if they were hugely welcome ones. If the government and those other authorities who have issued apologies are truly sorry and if they want to ask the public to trust again, is it too much to ask that they give a little back? Is it too much to ask that they trust football fans to prove that the hooliganism of the 80s was a product of society, not football? Is it too much to ask that they start allowing fans to enjoy their football again?

The opportunity is there. Last month, Sunderland's safety manager Paul Weir publicly backed calls for safe standing. Weir told our friends at A Love Supreme: "As a club we would like to give fans who want to stand the opportunity to do so in a safe, appropriately designated area. The rail seats concept looks interesting and if the rules allowed it I'd be happy to manage standing fans in such areas."

Officials at Peterborough United, Arsenal, Aston Villa have echoed those sentiments, and Wembley architect John Barrow has also said there would be no difficulties in introducing standing areas. Derby County manager Nigel Clough, who was on the pitch as the Hillsborough Disaster was unfolding, has also thrown his support behind the scheme.

Ensuring the families of the 96 finally get a sense of justice will always be the priority here. We should never lose sight of that. But if safe-standing and a general improved treatment of football fans free from discrimination also came out of it, I don't think it would be a bad by-product at all. There can certainly be no more excuses now for it not to happen.


If you support the campaign for safe standing, be sure to register it with The Football Supporters' Federation. You can also follow them at twitter HERE.

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