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Friday Free Kick: Remembering Hillsborough

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I contribute to The Liverpool Offside on occasion. They are SB Nation's Liverpool blog and I provide some #fun #social #content for them during their matches and through the week. This week was a strange one to try and complete that task.

27 years ago, one of the biggest tragedies in sports history occurred in Sheffield, England. Six minutes into an FA Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Nottingham Forrest at Hillsborough Stadium, play was halted as fans began flowing onto the field. Unlike most disturbances of the sort, this one was not intentional or unruly. It soon became apparent there was something very serious happening.

Back then sections of the stadiums, at least at that particular one, were divided by steel pens with a cage-like structure in between the fans and the field. On that fateful day, plans to get the fans in their proper section in an orderly and timely fashion were nonexistent. Hoards of Liverpool fans began pouring into the stadium hoping to get into the most desired section behind the goal.

Without any security or plans in place, the crowd just kept cramming into the same section causing a crush among the Liverpool supporters at one end of the ground. By the time the match kicked off there was already panic among the section as fans closest to the cage had nowhere to go. Six minutes later the match was stopped as the rescue attempts finally began. Police and fans a like tried to pull fans to safety either by lifting them over the cage, helping them through the gate to the field that was finally opened, or up into the upper levels of the stadium.

After all was said and done, 96 people died as a result from that horrific day.

In the 27 years following the incident blame and responsibility for the Hillsborough tragedy has been a hot topic of debate. Police initially blamed the drunkenness of the Liverpool supporters for the incident. English tabloid newspaper The Sun published a front-page story falsely accusing the fans of despicable actions towards the police.

Nearly two years after the incident, the coroner in charge of investigating the case ruled that all the deaths were accidental. Seeking justice for the victims and their families, Liverpool supporters rallied for years with the cry of 'Justice for the 96'. Finally, on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, The Hillsborough Independent Panel was set up.

Soon after, papers and statements of the initial investigation were released to the public showing a collective effort by the police to cover up their role in the incident and to shift blame onto the victims themselves. The findings of the panel reveal that 41 fans could have been saved if appropriate measures would have been taken during the rescue efforts. The Liverpool supporters are cleared of any wrongdoings in the incident according to the panel.

A new inquest into the deaths of 'The 96' began in 2014 with the longest case heard by a jury in British legal history. Finally, earlier this week, 11 days after the 27th anniversary of the tragedy, a jury returned a verdict of "unlawful killing," blaming the police's actions and stadium designs for the deaths and officially clearing the Liverpool supporters of any blame. Finally, justice for the 96.

Still to this day it's one of the darkest days in sports history. It's also a reminder of how much things have changed for soccer fans in the last few decades. The Hillsborough tragedy brought about wholesale changes in the way supporters are treated and the way stadiums are designed.

This incident happened when I was only two months old. I probably didn't even learn about it until several years ago when the "Justice for the 96" pleas piqued my interest. Still, as soccer fans, it's our duty to learn about the history of the sport. ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary on the tragedy is must-see viewing if you want to get the full context of what exactly happened.

Even though I'm far removed for the incident, it's hard to watch or hear any news of it and not get a lump in my throat. Just imagine how those close to it must have felt all those years. Thankfully, they finally got their peace of mind this week.