Football must raise its sights above the gutter
21:16 GMT, 22 September 2012
When the fans come bustling down Anfield Road on Sunday lunchtime, they will carry a conventional cargo of emotions.
Liverpool against Manchester United
always provokes acute anticipation, extravagant optimism and a
lip-biting dread of defeat. But this contest holds a sharper, more
It asks questions which invite disturbing answers.
Remember them: Tributes left at the Hillsborough Memorial outside the football ground at Anfield
And the most important questions concern the fans themselves.
Over the past week, the various
parties have behaved impeccably. The players at large, and the captains
in particular, have demonstrated intelligent responsibility.
The two managers, Brendan Rodgers and Sir Alex Ferguson, have preached sensitive restraint.
The executives of both clubs have
worked to lower the temperature. In short, all that could be done has
been done. Now they are at the mercy of their followers.
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For passions have been running high on Merseyside since the publication of the independent Hillsborough report.
Disgraceful revelations have made an entire community newly aware of how viciously their dead were defamed.
For their part, United's followers
retain the folk memory of Munich '58, of the icy runway and the February
dusk and of how glorious promise was erased in a catastrophic
So the questions come crowding in.
What if a handful of fools from either camp should seek to sabotage today's encounter
What if their chants, songs and poisonous jeers should reduce the contest to a squalid exchange of tribal invective
Suddenly, what was once dismissed as discourtesy would become a matter of genuine depravity.
And, given the scrutiny this match will receive, how could the game at large show its face in the wake of such shame
Of course, this is not a new dilemma. It is depressingly simplistic to suggest that English football is at the crossroads, for the reality is that the game lives at those crossroads, eternally evading the onrushing traffic.
Its crises arrive like municipal buses; erratically, unpredictably. But it can call upon deep resources of genuine affection, of gratitude for decades of delight and enchantment.
Yet from time to time, it needs to take two or three steps back and consider how it appears to the millions who are not besotted by its charms.
Sunday is such an occasion.
On Sunday, the national sport is praying that one of its showpiece events will not be defaced by the spectacle of a group of fans celebrating the death of 96 innocent people, or another group jeering at the memory of a devastating air disaster.
Call for clam: Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers
It is as banal and as wicked as that.
And those uncommitted millions can neither accept nor understand it.
In fairness to football, it is trying to offset the witless malice of its tribal fringe.
Those captains I mentioned, Steven Gerrard, of Liverpool and Nemanja Vidic, of United, have spoken out strongly for sanity and today they will release 96 balloons in a pleasing tribute to the dead of Hillsborough.
Others would go further.
Robbie Fowler, the former Liverpool striker, suggests that a Liverpool and a United player should each lay a floral tribute at the opposing end of the ground.
He nominates Luis Suarez, at the United end, and Patrice Evra, in front of the Kop.
He may be risibly deluded but I'm sure he means well.
The fact is that if Suarez and Evra can somehow be persuaded to shake hands before the match, then the afternoon will be off to a heartening start.
In the event, United's respect will be conveyed by Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton, and there could be no more appropriate choices.
But the fear remains that the unspeakable will find its voice, that a few outbursts of ugliness will reinforce a host of hostile perceptions.
With the exhilaration of the Olympic summer still fresh in the mind of the nation, the contrast with football would be more damning than ever.
So Sunday's game has acquired an importance which far exceeds its result.
At a time when old certainties are wavering and doubts loom large, football must hope that its coarsest followers somehow discover a measure of decent respect.
It must also pray that its clubs will enforce those standards by naming and banning the culprits.
A few months ago, Liverpool could not have been entrusted with such a task.
We don't need this: Luis Suarez refused to shake hands with Patrice Evra in February
Their behaviour during the Suarez race hearing – the same Suarez, by the way, whom Fowler would entrust with appeasing flowers – smacked of arrogant intransigence.
But the direction at Anfield has changed, and saner, more enlightened attitudes prevail. No longer can spurious loyalty expect to stifle vigorous reform.
So we cross our fingers and hope against hope; for a fine match, certainly, but much more for a sane, well-ordered occasion of the kind which will do justice to two of our greatest clubs.
We do not demand anything exceptional, we simply ask that football should lift its sights above the gutter and observe the kind of standards which in the outside world are mundane and unexceptional.
The immediate onus lies with those lunchtime fans on Anfield Road. We must pray that they are equal to the challenge.
Keen for change: Blackburn fans protest against their manager Steve Kean
It's time for a change of tune at Blackburn
At Newcastle they sing Blaydon Races, at West Ham it's Bubbles and at Anfield, well, need I tell you
But at Blackburn, for the past 21 months, they favour something more pointed.
'Kean Out!' they bawl, while the bald guy in the dugout frowns at the pitch and pretends not to hear. It is a saga from which nobody emerges with much credit.
The fans have occasionally appeared shrill and bullying, the manager has seemed out of his depth and, as for the owners, there are no words.
Venky's stewardship of Rovers has been an extended comedy of errors.
One of the principal mistakes was the appointment as 'global adviser' of one Shebby Singh, described as a 'onetime Malaysian defender and television pundit'.
The game's up: Steve Kean doesn't need the aggro
Singh has consistently undermined the manager and is thought to be responsible for the ludicrous target of 16 points from the first seven games.
Kean fell two points short but still led the Championship pack at that point and must now await his fate.
No doubt Venky's would like him to jump, while he, presumably, has expectations of compensation.
No matter, it is time to end the humiliation, time for Steve Kean to heed the singers and high time that Blackburn found another song.
Moyes makes a difference
Football managers are a fascinating bunch; many are gifted, a few are chancers and one or two defy description.
But the best of them are exceptional individuals, and David Moyes is among that distinguished group.
Impressive: David Moyes
His achievements at Everton are well known, producing a team who are both successful and attractive on a budget which richer clubs would scorn.
But more important than results is what the man represents. He seems to stand for important standards.
Of all the words inspired by the Hillsborough report this past week, Moyes's statement was perhaps the most impressive.
He reached across the city of Liverpool and spoke from the heart, as 'a football manager, a football supporter and a father'.
They were the moving words of a decent man.
Kevin Pietersen insulted his captain, abandoned international one-day cricket and threw a series of charmless strops.
Then, when England dropped him, he promptly recanted. He had been misunderstood.
England were dear to his heart.
Which is why, as he goes about his lavishly-rewarded television punditry in Colombo, he wears a pair of Union Flag cufflinks.
Honestly, I am not making this up.
It is Pietersen being fiendishly subtle. I don't know who's advising him but I do hope they keep those Big Ideas coming.