Brief fans' exchange should not overshadow fitting tribute
The mosaics had been removed and the 96 red balloons had long since flown away from Anfield when the truce agreed in exchange for decency was briefly broken.
Liverpool and Manchester United - the clubs and their supporters - offered up so much that was good on a day when the separation between unity brought by injustice and tribalism associated with a football match was marked by clearly defined lines.
The old differences between English football's two most successful clubs were put to one side in support of the families and victims of the Hillsborough disaster which claimed 96 lives at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in 1989.
The release of the findings of an independent panel that cleared Liverpool's fans of blame and exposed a cover-up allowed these fiercest of rivals to find common ground. They stood firmly upon it as they met in the Premier League at Anfield on Sunday.
It was a day heavily laden with poignancy and only seriously marred in the minutes after the final whistle when Anfield was deserted except for a few stray Liverpool fans and the Manchester United supporters kept behind.
Manchester United legend Sir Bobby Charlton presented flowers to Liverpool's record goalscorer Ian Rush as a tribute. Photo: Reuters
Even this weight of emotion did not stop a brief exchange that prevents us from declaring this occasion the unqualified success all right-thinking Liverpool and Manchester United people had hoped it would be.
Apparently provoked by Liverpool fans making aeroplane gestures in relation to the 1958 Munich air crash, United's supporters responded loudly with the antagonistic chorus: "Always the victims - It's never your fault."
It went almost as soon as it came, but was audible enough to create a stir and take just a little of the gloss off a day that otherwise reflected so much credit on these two great clubs.
This was a moment for commemorating those who died at Hillsborough, the loved ones they left behind and their continuing fight for justice after winning the right to hear the truth.
And, despite that bitter exchange in a near-deserted Anfield, it must not be allowed to overshadow so much of what went before. The famous stadium reflected the tone of empathy and respect required, but also managed to fit in a typically frantic and fiercely contested game that was somewhat fortuitously won 2-1 by United.
This was how it should have been.
The work of Liverpool and United in the build-up and the manner in which Sir Alex Ferguson embraced the mood was exemplary. The Scot soon reverted to the role of Anfield's enemy as he was on the receiving end of needless finger-jabbing rebuke from Liverpool's Jonjo Shelvey after his red card but there will be renewed, although perhaps unspoken, respect for the Scot on Merseyside now.
Liverpool put perfectly pitched ceremonials in place to mark the day while Ferguson spoke of the importance of respect, had a letter handed to United's fans on arrival at Anfield and stood alongside his Anfield opposite number Brendan Rodgers in a pre-match interview to underscore the message.
United's followers, packed into their familiar corner of Anfield Road, applauded warmly on several occasions as Liverpool acknowledged the landmark developments of the last 10 days.
And United's determination to play their part was illustrated instantly when they emerged with the number "96" emblazoned on the back of their tracksuits. Patrice Evra and Luis Suarez this time shook hands without hesitation following the Uruguayan's refusal at Old Trafford last season after he was found guilty of racially abusing the defender.
Against the charged backdrop of the mosaics "The Truth" on The Kop and "Justice" along the length of the Centenary Stand, two legends whose great deeds will be forever written into the history of Liverpool and United took centre stage.
Sir Bobby Charlton felt the warmth of Anfield as he handed flowers to former Liverpool striker Ian Rush and opposing captains Steven Gerrard and Ryan Giggs released the symbolic balloons.
Even the kick-off was respectfully held up as Anfield resounded to a version of "You'll Never Walk Alone" that seemed to carry even more than the usual volume and significance.
After subdued early exchanges, a roar suddenly rose from the Kop in recognition that a sporting battle had been declared - and from then on normal football business was resumed.
If Liverpool were hoping to offer extra comfort to their supporters with victory it was not to be, defeat leaving them without a win in Rodgers's first five league games and in the bottom three.
Fittingly it was captain Gerrard who gave them the lead, clutching at his Liverpool badge and signalling towards the heavens, thoughts perhaps with his 10-year-old cousin Jon-Paul Gilhooley, who died at Hillsborough.
By this time Shelvey had gone for a reckless red card and Liverpool were up against a numerical disadvantage and a United side that had moved up a gear from mediocre to average.
Rafael's brilliant curling equaliser was followed by Robin van Persie's late penalty that left Rodgers insisting referee Mark Halsey had done Liverpool a major disservice by penalising Glen Johnson for his challenge on Antonio Valencia.
The win Liverpool wanted for so many reasons was not forthcoming but there were signs of promise in this performance. The Rodgers philosophy is clear to see but this is a philosophy with a missing page.
For all the passing that Rodgers is keen to preach, it is no use to a team without a punch and this appears to be something he will not be able to solve until January. Displays against Manchester City and United have brought things to admire but only one point. Not good enough.
Ferguson was honest enough to recognise the paucity of United's performance, but he will take wins at Anfield all day every day and worry about the quality later.
This was a day when so many other things mattered apart from the football - although that mattered enough - and Liverpool and Manchester United, as well as the vast majority of their supporters, ensured they were all well served.