I relish our rivalry, but it's never an excuse to go beyond bounds of decency
21:15 GMT, 22 September 2012
When I grew up watching Manchester
United in the Eighties, sitting with my dad in the ‘K-stand’, where
some of the most passionate fans would be, there were times when we left
the ground and it was a battle zone outside.
I vividly remember my dad having to
shield me past fighting fans to get me away safely. But once we were in
the car, it was never mentioned: it was all about the game. That was how
football was and we accepted it. It existed in a ghetto, where
behaviour that would seem totally out of place in normal society was
It felt as though anything went, not
just in terms of hooliganism but also in insults and chanting. That was
the culture I grew up in as a supporter. And as a player it was the
same. It was as though we lived in a vacuum, where you could trade vile
insults with other players and receive any amount of abuse on any topic
from the terraces.
In the early Nineties, as football
became more popular with the advent of the Premier League, some elements
of crowd behaviour became unacceptable. It is only 25 years ago that
bananas were still being thrown on the pitch at black players but racist
chanting slowly became a thing of the past.
Passion: Howard Webb separates Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher in 2010
Hooliganism, too, was reduced with
better policing and running battles outside grounds became a rarity. And
in recent months, even the insults that players exchange have come
under scrutiny, with the John Terry and Luis Suarez cases.
But the authorities went only part of
the way and in the grounds there were instances where football
continued to act as though it was divorced from social norms. Scream and
shout violently in Manchester city centre on a Saturday night and
you’ll likely be arrested: do it in a football ground and you’ll
probably be ignored. Football can still have the feel of going to a
gladiatorial contest from 2,000 years ago, where civilised behaviour
goes out the window. And let’s not forget this has always been part of
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This week, though, it seems we have
reached a turning point. The publication of the Hillsborough
Independent Panel’s findings, regarding the cover-up after the death of
those 96 Liverpool fans, brought such shock to the whole country that
the game and fans have had to reflect on what has been tolerated in the
past. In particular, it has thrown the spotlight on the fixture
between Liverpool and Manchester United and how both clubs respond to
their respective tragedies of Hillsborough and Munich, where 23 people
died as a result of the 1958 air crash, including eight United players
and three club officials.
Over the years, I could hardly be
said to have been a peacemaker when it came to the rivalry between
United and Liverpool. My story is well known, how I grew up a Manchester
United fan resenting the fact that Liverpool were winning all their
The dreadful feeling I had as I watched Liverpool winning all those titles is a strong childhood memory. I couldn’t bear to hear You’ll Never Walk Alone when I played against them. Liverpool have always been United’s greatest rivals and it has always been the game I wanted to win more than any other. So I don’t mean to get on my moral high horse now.
However, the thought that I or any United fan could take pleasure in the young men and women of Liverpool being crushed to death, or that any Liverpool fan could sing about those young players dying in a plane crash, is something I can’t get my head round.
I relish this rivalry more than anyone but I’m also a sane human being with feelings and a family. As a husband and a father, that level of hatred is beyond my comprehension.
When I read the Hillsborough findings about police editing their evidence and about their attempts to smear the dead, I was disgusted. That’s an issue that goes beyond football. And I don’t really believe those fans who sing those songs truly want their rivals to die and would celebrate that. There may be a very twisted few who feel that way but I think most of those fans think it is just a way of baiting their rivals to get a reaction.
Remember: Tributes are left on the memorial at Hillsborough before Sheffield Wednesday's match with Bolton
But, as Sir Alex Ferguson wrote so eloquently this week: ‘What happened to them [the Hillsborough victims] should wake the conscience of everyone connected with the game. Our great club stands with our great neighbours, Liverpool, today to remember that loss and pay tribute to their campaign for justice.’
No one will put it better than that. I know there are United fans who are unhappy that there is so much talk about their chanting because they have had to put up with decades of songs about the Munich disaster. And nothing hurts a United fan more than being called a ‘Munich’. But it’s time to let go. It can’t be a case of always having the last punch. This is the moment to recognise the boundaries of rivalry.
Liverpool and Manchester are two great northern cities, born out of the Industrial Revolution. The two clubs have strong working-class roots and have been an inspiration to their fans more than 100 years and especially in times of economic hardships, which both communities have experienced. The cities and the football clubs have so much in common, as do the fans.
This should be an enjoyable rivalry. I don’t want to lose the excitement or the hostility. This fixture should be about Steven Gerrard clattering into Paul Scholes, just as in the past it was about Bryan Robson smashing into Graeme Souness, or Norman Whiteside going in hard on Alan Hansen.
Respect: Everton paid tribute to the 96 at Goodison Park on Monday
It should be about wild celebrations and fans being up for every corner and every hard challenge and about goading each other with the number of titles you’ve won or the number of European Cups.
I don’t want this to become like an exhibition match. But don’t allow that to be an excuse for behaviour that crosses acceptable lines. Know the boundaries of support.
I don’t believe we will see a repeat of those chants. The majority of United fans will be motivated to represent their club well. And Liverpool fans are too raw with grief to resurrect Munich chants.
But the challenge isn’t for now, when everyone will be on their best behaviour. It’s how football reacts over the next few years. Let’s use this as a springboard to take away vile chanting of all kinds — the songs about a great football man like Arsene Wenger, or fine players such as Sol Campbell or John Terry — that can be as offensive as chanting about tragedies.
We have to make sure our rivalries are within the bounds of civilised behaviour. Football’s challenge is to emerge completely from the ghetto, to consign that era to the past without losing the passion and intensity of the English game. We’ve done it before, with hooliganism and racist chanting. There’s no reason why we can’t do this now.