Beside the Shankly Gates at Anfield stands a modest brown shrine, the memorial stone to the Liverpool supporters killed at Hillsborough. Whenever I look at that roll-call of lost lives, arranged in alphabetical order, my eye inevitably drifts to two names: Philip John Steele, 15, and David Leonard Thomas, 23. On a cold afternoon in January, I stood and looked at those two names again, and gently ran my finger over the half-inch of stone between them. I will never know how close my name came to being inscribed between those of Philip and David on that memorial. At one point, I was seconds away from losing consciousness, and perhaps my life, in the crush on the Leppings Lane. It is those terrifying seconds that have kept me from returning to Anfield for almost 20 years.
A year after Hillsborough, I was struggling with a recurring nightmare - of watching people having the life squeezed out of them, of the screaming, the crying and the sound of bones breaking. So in March 1990, I made my way to Anfield for the first time since the disaster. Some of my friends were heading to a poll tax demonstration in London, but I needed to see if there was still a place for football in my life.
Liverpool chalked up a routine victory over a team I can't remember, but the Kop felt full of ghosts. There were scarves still tied to crush barriers in memory of the dead, and faltering messages to Eric, and Tony, and Paula, penned and scratched on the back wall and on the barriers. On the pitch, the players seemed to be playing by memory and, in the dugout, Kenny Dalglish was losing his love of the game. I walked out of the stadium and away from football for ever.
Then, three months ago, I met Anne Williams. I was writing a story for the Observer Magazine on how the Hillsborough disaster had changed so many people's lives. Anne told me how she had travelled to Sheffield on the night of 15 April 1989 to identify the body of her 15-year-old son, Kevin, who had been trampled to death on the Leppings Lane. She told me of the pain of burying her little boy, of losing her marriage and half her body weight, and of spending 18 years in court battling, in vain, to have the dubious inquest into Kevin's death reopened. Then she leant forward, and her eyes lit up for the first time. "I went to Anfield the other day for the match, Adrian. I was on the Kop." She shook her head in wonder. "It was blimmin' brilliant."
On Wednesday night, after 20 years, I went back. Damian and Peter, two fellow survivors, had been urging me to get back on the bike. It had been essential to their own healing, and, in that irrepressible Scouse way, they had taken me into their city and under their wing.
At six o'clock on Wednesday night, the pavements outside the pubs of Kirkdale and Anfield were teeming with Reds. The spring sunshine was glowing. Chelsea were coming. And the common consent in the Halfway House and the Stanley was that the Russians were going to get battered.
"We're gonna do this lot," Damian said as I walked into the pub. I leant over to give him a hug, but he tensed a little. Damian Kavanagh had escaped from pen 4 on the Leppings Lane, narrowly evading the clutches of a policeman who tried to throw him back into the pen. The day after, Damian's mother noticed a handprint on his back. It was an adult hand, and it was there for a week. He's more of a handshake man these days.
Peter Carney is different. Peter likes a hug almost as much as he likes to talk. He could talk the chewing gum off the pavement. Peter had a near-death experience in pen 3, a matter of feet behind me. As he talks, he is often reaching for contact, hugging, gesticulating, patting arms. Peter has never learnt who picked him up off the terrace and carried him out of the crush, almost certainly saving his life. He knows only that it was a fellow fan, and he moves among them with an easy generosity.
Damian and Peter are not big drinkers, and before long we've joined the thousands of people moving towards Anfield. It's a night on which football, they sense, could quietly change my life again. Every survivor I've spoken to, and bereaved families too, is adamant that being in Liverpool 20 years ago, in a city consumed by grief, helped them come to terms with the personal trauma of Hillsborough. Damian and Peter are telling me that I've been away too long.
And here it is. This is Anfield. The place where my love affair with the game began. For a kid who grew up in the south east, in a new town not much older than me, it was the raw working-class spit and ale spirit on the Kop that hooked me into the game. To be part of the 23,000 people on that terrace, moving around like a cornfield in the breeze, laughing and shouting and singing the most beautiful songs in football, was an education money couldn't buy.
But then came Hillsborough. To spend a minute paralysed from the neck down and preparing myself to die while 22 people chased after a football seemed a lesson too far. Next came the all-seater stadia, and the Premiership. It was football's year zero. I didn't need it, and it didn't seem to need fans like me.
But on Wednesday night, at 7 o'clock, I seem to be floating up the Walton Breck Road towards the ground. As the back of the Kop looms, I instinctively make to head straight in. But Peter is moving among the throng, shaking hands stuck out from all angles, greeting old friends.
As we approach the turnstiles, I notice my ticket is not for the Spion Kop, the name given to the stand in memory of the hill where so many Liverpudlians fought in the Boer war, but something called the Kop Grandstand.
I don't remember hearing it had been renamed. The makeover has extended to the concourse beneath the famous old stand: decent-looking burgers and beers are being dismantled and people are moving around in acres of space. The facilities here would not disappoint the members at Lord's.
My sniffiness evaporates as we take our seats, just behind and above the goal. As I turn round to face the rest of the Kop, I almost stop breathing. Rising above me, like the sails of a small armada, are dozens of flags: some are 10ft high, some are 30ft long, some are minor works of art. There's Fagan and Paisley, and there's Shankly - the Che Guevara of football, his arms raised like a general rousing the troops.
There's a Scouse Solidarnosc, a Belgian tricolour, and lavish red silks with the names of cities conquered by Keegan and Kennedy and Gerrard. This isn't just Liverpool's history, I'm thinking, this is part of my life. I was there in Rome in 1977, at Wembley in '78 and Paris in '81. Well, OK, not there exactly, but I remember vividly watching those European Cup finals on television as a child. Those fans conquering Europe were our fans, and their sons and grandchildren are here now, still with dreams and songs to sing.
As the players line up, the tinkly Champions League anthem on the PA is drowned by a rendition of You'll Never Walk Alone that seems to go on for ever. As Peter is laying out his Hillsborough banner, he points to the front of the Kop. "Here," he shouts, over the crescendo, "down here at the front is where I stood the first season after Hillsborough. There were about eight of us down here, survivors. We stood there cos we could just jump over the boards if it got a bit uncomfortable."
Those eight survivors of the Leppings Lane included a children's care worker, a policeman and one of Britain's leading neuro-psychologists. My mind wanders to the memorial at the Shankly Gates: a list simply of names and ages. There is nothing to indicate what those 96 people gave to society, or what they might have gone on to do.
Peter, in his quiet way, is still doing things for other people. Tonight, he is settling Bernard down in the seat beside me. Bernard has learning difficulties, but he loves the game, and it doesn't bother him that he is the only person sitting down on the Kop. Peter tells me that we can stand throughout the game only on European nights; it's not allowed during league matches. I've paid £38 for this seat: no one's going to make me sit on it.
Besides, I want to bounce. Every 15 minutes or so the Kop sends out the signal "we're gonna bounce in a minute" and, after a lusty tribute to Fernando Torres ("Turning Kopites gay since 2007", according to one banner), we're off: tens of thousands of us, jumping up and down in an energetic, wildly uncoordinated display of pogo-ing. Even Bernard grabs my arm and sways happily on his feet, without leaving the floor. It might not have been safe for Bernard on the Kop in the 1980s. Not every change in the game has been a backwards step.
As those flags fly, and as the thousands bounce the stadium into a climax, we're on top of Chelsea. With trophies and managers and tributes to the dead billowing above my head, overlooking that jewel of a pitch, I feel as if I'm standing on the bow of an ocean liner coming into port. The Chelsea fans are bouncing, too. I look across the Kop to where I used to stand as a teenager, just to the right of the goal. The same spot I took on pen 3 of the Leppings Lane 20 years ago this week.
On Wednesday, we were well beaten by an excellent Chelsea side. But in the Stanley afterwards, the result is soon forgotten.
As the Kop erupted after kick-off, two texts came through on my mobile. One was from my brother, a Forest fan who'd watched helplessly at Hillsborough as I was carrying the dying across the pitch on advertising boards: "Feel like you've come home?" he winked. The second was from Damian, at the other end of the ground. "Welcome home, Adrian," it said.
It's good to be back.
Copyright - Adrian Tempany - first published in the Observer