Like all great football rivalries, United and Liverpool’s stems from decades of mutual, on and off-pitch loathing: we don’t like them and they don’t like us. You can explore the sociopolitical identities of our two cities and find we have much in common, but in football terms – it’s fair to say Mancs and Scousers breathe different air and exist on different planets.
That said however, like some twisted sibling rivalry, the existence of one helps define and dictate the identity of the other. You’ll do well to meet a United fan who could honestly claim to pay Liverpool no attention and consider their fortunes an irrelevance. We’re in opposition to them on a daily basis, whether it be whilst celebrating moving ahead of them in terms of titles won or by simply sniggering at their unwavering devotion to that rotund oaf, Benitez.
As football supporters, we sport blinkers instinctively as part of our matchday attire. Question is: how much do we let an entrenched dislike of ‘the other’ invade our real lives? Taking football out of the equation, does the old adage of ‘never trust a Scouser’ (or Manc) ring true to the point it shapes opinions or influences relationships at home, socially or at work? The sensible answer to give is ‘no’, of course. That’s a line that reasonable, rational people don’t cross…but as we’ve witnessed recently, football rivalries can transcend what’s reasonable and rational and take us onto extremely dodgy terrain.
“We would rather have it done and dusted, out in the open. Whoever is the guilty party – the person who said it or the accuser – (should) get their due punishment.”
So uttered Kenny Dalglish back on the 28th October, in his familiar, self-righteously indignant mode. Fully supportive of the FA’s decision to launch an independent enquiry into the events at Anfield – where just in case you’ve been away on another planet somewhere, Patrice Evra recently got into ‘a bit of a heated debate’ with Liverpool’s Luis Suárez.
Sadly for Kenny and advocates of racial intolerance everywhere, 9 weeks later, the 3 man independent panel appointed to investigate the matter found Suárez guilty, resulting in a fine of £40,000 and an 8 match suspension. Having steadfastly refused to contemplate anything other than the Uruguayan’s innocence from the start, this wasn’t part of the script at all as far as Kenny was concerned. Within minutes, Liverpool had released an official statement that made for incredible reading.
“We find it extraordinary that Luis can be found guilty on the word of Patrice Evra alone when no-one else on the field of play – including Evra’s own Manchester United teammates and all the match officials – heard the alleged conversation between the two players…”
In reality of course, the 2nd part of that extract was superfluous. Liverpool were unable to grasp that Suárez could be found guilty at all – how could an independent panel listen to all the evidence in what was a highly emotive, sensitive case and reach an informed and considered decision against them? How dare they.
“LFC considers racism in any form to be unacceptable – without compromise…It is our opinion that the accusation by this particular player was not credible – certainly no more credible than his prior unfounded accusations.”
“In any form”…“without compromise”. Seriously?! This seemed slightly at odds with their assertion that Evra was an unreliable character, a truculent upstart ‘with previous’ for playing the race card.
“It is key to note that Patrice Evra himself in his written statement in this case said ‘I don’t think Luis Suárez is racist’. The FA in their opening remarks accepted that Luis Suárez was not racist.”
Hang on, I’m getting confused here – so are we to take notice of what Evra says or not? In the last paragraph they were claiming he wasn’t in any way credible, remember? Clearly we must disregard the part of Evra’s testimony that is damning towards Suárez, but take careful note of the part in which he states he doesn’t believe the guy is racist. That’s all a bit conveniently contradictory, isn’t it?
No one thought for a minute that Suárez was a card carrying member of the BNP…or UNP…or whatever. The FA’s verdict wasn’t casting aspersions on his political views, it was delivered following an investigation into a one-off incident. To illustrate: I’m not an alcoholic, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get pissed and make a tit of myself.
“Luis himself is of a mixed race family background as his grandfather was black…He has played with black players and mixed with their families whilst with the Uruguay national side and was Captain at Ajax Amsterdam of a team with a proud multi-cultural profile, many of whom became good friends.”
“Luis is also a keen fan of dub reggae and once enjoyed a relaxing, family holiday in the Caribbean. He respects diversity so much that he’ll often request half-rice and half-chips. He prefers 1970’s Michael Jackson, when his skin was considerably darker than it was in later years.” Okay, okay, we geddit.
“We would also like to know when the FA intend to charge Patrice Evra with making abusive remarks…in the most objectionable of terms. Luis, to his credit, actually told the FA he had not heard the insult.”
Oh so we were to pay attention to this part of Evra’s statement as well, were we? Funny that. So Suárez hadn’t considered it relevant to mention a key mitigating fact – that he’d been incited? Despite the seriousness of the allegations and potential damage to his personal and professional reputation, he’d chosen not to mention the fact he was provoked? Very odd.
The statement was an incendiary development in a story that had been a quietly smouldering since the original incident, weeks earlier. With the decision to wear ‘Suárez 7’ shirts in support of their troubled colleague at Wigan, a day later – Liverpool may as well have chucked a can of petrol over proceedings.
Up to that point, press reaction to the original verdict had been fairly mixed – if anything, most commentators in the football world seemed taken aback by the severity of the punishment imposed. The t-shirts, however, led to widespread condemnation. Consensus of opinion interpreting Liverpool’s actions as somewhat crass, rather than the classy and dignified gesture of solidarity as was intended.
The siege mentality is a common managerial tool in football, with our own manager utilising it to stunning effect over the years. As well as helping bond a dressing room, it’s a useful (if obvious) trick for getting supporters onside too. You purposefully perpetuate a sense of injustice with the insinuation being that everyone (whether that be referees, the authorities or the rest of the world in general) is wishing nothing but ill on you. Hence, everyone unites behind a common cause with the intention of upsetting the odds and proving all outsiders wrong.
As United fans, we’re well versed in seeing the world contrary to public opinion. We defended Eric whilst some were calling for him to be imprisoned or extradited back in Jan ’95, and closed ranks around a number of our players during the fallouts of England’s repeated tournament failings. Similar posturing from Liverpool though, looked spectacularly ill-judged in this instance – pinned in a corner, fervently defending Suárez’s right to repeatedly call an opponent ‘negro’. Such battles aren’t worth fighting, one would reasonably assume.
Still, fight they did. Dalglish was unrepentant in his post-match press conference, sounding bewildered as to the fuss taking place. “It would be helpful to everyone if someone gave us some guidelines about what you can and cannot say.” Yeah, these politically correct types, eh Kenny? Bloody can’t say anything these days…ask Jeremy Clarkson. Meanwhile, Alan Hansen waded in and found himself dangerously close to Ron Atkinson waters on MOTD.
The list of people to boycott and complain to was growing and anyone speaking out of term (Livepool’s terms) was rounded on. Stan Collymore was subjected to all kinds of abuse on twitter for daring to condemn the club’s stance, much of this coming from black and Asian LFC fans for whom misplaced loyalty to the club had taken precedence over common sense. John Barnes played it safe, peddling the ‘cultural differences’ line whilst Paul McGrath gave a withering assessment of Glen Johnson’s compliance in the t-shirt stunt during an interview on Talksport.
Ever the astute social commentator and nemesis of good grammar, Rio Ferdinand blundered in with a knee-high challenge on twitter. “I’m seeing sooo many BOUNTY’s!! I hate them personally!!” Either that, or he’d just opened a tin of Celebrations.
Liverpool must have known this was all going pear-shaped for them on Christmas Eve, when after a mad few days, events took on an air of the surreal. In a PR move worthy of Brass Eye, a picture appeared in the Daily Mail of John Terry posing with a black baby. Well that was me convinced, he’s obviously NOT racist then. Chelsea also attempted to gather kudos points by revealing they kyboshed attempts by their players to wear t-shirts in support of the lionhearted one, deeming the plan “inappropriate and unhelpful”.
The first sign that anyone connected to LFC was uncomfortable with the stance the club had adopted, came via a Times article penned by respected Scouse journo, Tony Evans. Evans dared to suggest that Liverpool had made grave errors of judgement in their handling of the case and were entirely wrong in attempting to shift focus of the blame onto Evra. Fair play.
Still, it appeared no one thought it wise to brief Dalglish on this development. The FA subsequently published their detailed, 115 page report on the case. In response, Liverpool issued a holding statement – vowing to “digest and properly consider” the content before making further comment.
After 3 days of reflection, LFC and Suárez each released statements that demonstrated their stance hadn’t altered. Whilst deciding not to appeal the ban – Liverpool considered the report to be “highly subjective”, maintained the FA had treated them unfairly and even suggested United had set out to deliberately secure a ban for the player. Suárez meanwhile, showed a similar lack of contrition, instead choosing to remind us how he was “born into a very humble family, in a working class neighbourhood, in a small country” and throwing in a couple of crowd pleasing YNWA’s for good measure.
After the poorly received statements, Dalglish’s press conference following the City game that evening proved simultaneously ludicrous and gripping, upping the ante further and revealing the true extent of the man’s bitterness.
“There’s a lot of things we’d like to say and a lot we could say but we would only get ourselves in trouble. We are not trying to be evasive…well, we are being evasive because we don’t like getting ourselves in trouble. But we know what has gone on. We know what is not in the report and that’s important for us. So without me getting ourselves in trouble, I think that’s it finished.”
No hint of an apology or remorse, just sulky belligerence and a self-pitying refusal to accept that Suárez was out of order. “Wrong place, wrong time”, according to Kenny. Evra, the FA, the 9 week independent investigation, Manchester United…everyone seemed to be in cahoots against Liverpool Football Club.
2 days later and 10 weeks too late, Suárez did, finally, choose to apologise. Well, it was an apology of sorts. A terse, 2 line statement delivered with all the grace and sincerity of a recently admonished pre-schooler. In doing so, he still managed to protest his innocence and pointedly made no reference to any offence that Patrice Evra might have been caused. Class and dignity.
Discussing the case weeks earlier, the question came up ‘imagine the outcry from Liverpool if all of this had been the other way round?’ Say if Javier Hernandez, in a spat with Glen Johnson, had used insulting remarks with racist connotations then sought to discredit Johnson at every opportunity and claim it was all a cultural misunderstanding.
How would we have reacted? Instinct would have led us to defend our boy, wouldn’t it? One would hope that collectively, we (and I’m talking everyone with an interest in Manchester United) might have responded differently. I’m pretty sure the club would have handled things better than Liverpool did, but would United fans have been able to see through the red-tinted specs and accept that a punishment was merited? I seriously doubt it. Most people, I’m certain would have reacted exactly as Liverpool fans had done and blindly followed the party line being dictated by the club. Football supporters are sheep-like by nature, aren’t we?
In true soap-opera fashion, Liverpool were to face the consequences of their handling of the Suárez case within days. 10 minutes to go in an innocuous looking FA Cup tie vs Oldham and 20 year old, Latics player Tom Adeyemi was called a ‘black bastard’ by a single voice on the Kop. After he turned to remonstrate with the perpetrator, the crowd (as they’d been doing throughout the evening) chose that moment to rise as one and re-affirm their support for Suárez. A baying crowd facing a black kid in tears? I’m not deliberately trying to over dramatise things, but this all looked a bit ‘Nuremberg rally’ and made for very uncomfortable viewing.
Of course it was only one dickhead in a crowd of thousands, and noone seriously doubts LFC when they claim to oppose racism and discrimination in all forms. However, due to the timing of the incident, it’s clear the individual concerned had been influenced by the club’s implicit support of Suárez’s conduct towards a black opponent. Even if it was only one supporter, it was one too many. Racism + sheep-like mentality = extremely dodgy terrain. One would hope this provides food for thought when the Liverpool board takes time to reflect on their handling of the Suárez-Evra affair.
Copyright Red News – January 2012