Liverpool and Man Utd honour Hillsborough dead

Players and fans from Liverpool and their arch-rivals Manchester United paid a poignant tribute to the victims of the Hillsborough disaster ahead of their match on Sunday.

The words "The Truth", "Justice" and "96" were spelled out by spectators holding red and white cards in Liverpool's first home match since a report absolved their fans of blame for the 1989 disaster in which 96 supporters died.

The tone was set when Manchester United's players emerged on to the pitch at Anfield with "96" on the backs of their tracksuits, earning loud applause from the 44,000-strong crowd.

Manchester United legend Bobby Charlton presented ex-Liverpool striker Ian Rush with red roses before Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard and United counterpart Ryan Giggs released 96 red balloons, one for each of the dead.

Liverpool forward Luis Suarez shook hands in the pre-match lineup with United's Senegalese-born French defender Patrice Evra whom he racially abused last season, ensuring the incident did not overshadow the commemorations.

United won the Premier League match 2-1 after a typically contentious encounter between the two sides, but manager Sir Alex Ferguson said the afternoon had been about far more than football.

"Liverpool did a fantastic job today, the fans were terrific and I don't think there can be any complaint on that part," he said.

"It was a nice touch Bobby Charlton giving the bouquet to Ian Rush and it demonstrates these two clubs can do things with unity and then we got on with the game.

"There was ferocity and it was intense and it has been a good day for football."

Ferguson and Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers had appealed for calm ahead of the match amid fears the tensions which always accompany the meeting of England's two most successful teams would spill over.

The United manager wrote to his club's fans urging them to show respect to the Hillsborough dead, saying the clubs' intense rivalry "should never be based on personal hatred".

Fans were largely well-behaved during the game but after the final whistle, when most Liverpool fans had left the ground, a few home supporters ran to where United followers remained on police orders and started making airplane signals.

These related to the 1958 Munich air disaster, which killed 21 people including eight United players, the famed "Busby Babes".

Some United fans responded with chants of "Always the Victims" and "Murderers", referring to the fact that Liverpool were playing during both the 1985 Heysel disaster in Brussels, where 39 fans lost their lives during a European Cup final against Juventus, and Hillsborough.

Rodgers said he could not comment on the incident as he was not present, but added: "The work that has gone on in the last couple of weeks is something I am very proud of and the tributes today were fantastic."

The long-awaited independent probe into what happened at Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough stadium 23 years ago absolved Liverpool supporters of any responsibility for the disaster, and was heavily critical of the police.

It found that the accounts of some officers had been changed in an attempt to deflect blame on to the Liverpool fans, and that dozens of the dead might have survived if they had been treated more quickly.

The report was the result of a long campaign for justice by relatives of the dead after the police at the time blamed drunken fans for causing the overcrowding which led to the disaster.

Gerrard's own cousin, 10-year-old Jon-Paul Gilhooley, was the youngest fan to die in the disaster at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.

Outside Anfield, flowers were laid at a memorial to the dead and a Manchester United shirt was attached to the railings. On it was written: "For the Hillsborough families. Justice at last."