Monday 19 February 2018

Liverpool lose on the double by pouring fuel on the fire

The pre-match handshake ritual between Premier League teams has been an empty gesture from the beginning, an exercise in contrived sportsmanship that was all about marketing and public relations.

In more recent times it has become another tool in the ratings game, an opportunity to milk the enmity between players who had publicly fallen out and would now be obliged to partake in this staged charade.

Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra were the latest pawns in this nasty little piece of mob-theatre that would be filmed live at Old Trafford yesterday and broadcast around the world. The racial abuse that was at the heart of this controversy would be repackaged as mass entertainment, with multiple cameras on hand to record it from every conceivable angle.

The two players in question knew what was coming. Everyone with an interest in the clash between Manchester United and Liverpool knew what was coming. It had been part of the background noise all week.

It was therefore inconceivable that the players in question wouldn't be coached and prepared to deal properly with the moment. The obvious solution was to defuse it, to go through with the hollow gesture and move on.

Alex Ferguson said afterwards that Evra and he had discussed it yesterday morning. Evra had been on the receiving end of Suarez's racist comments last October; it was his complaint that led to the bitter stand-off between the two clubs. But he had his mind made up, according to his manager, about how he was going to approach the moment. "He said, 'I'm going to shake his hand, I've got nothing to be ashamed of, I'm going to keep my dignity'."

If Ferguson's counterpart, Kenny Dalglish, had prepared Suarez for his part in the proceedings, he made a bad job of it. Dalglish, or someone at Liverpool, should have left Suarez with no choice but to shake Evra's hand and move on. They should have insisted upon the gesture that would've taken the heat out of the atmosphere there and then.

Maybe they did, and maybe he ignored them. Either way, he made a decision that has now thrown an almighty amount of fuel on the fire. It was only a second in time, but its poisonous repercussions are now set to endure well into the future.

The United players stood in the receiving line. Evra held out his hand, Suarez blanked him and moved on to shake hands with David de Gea, the United goalkeeper. Evra looked stunned and hurt. He grabbed Suarez's forearm while the Uruguayan was still shaking hands with De Gea. He gestured to Phil Dowd, the referee, who was standing next to him. Next to the goalkeeper was Rio Ferdinand. Suarez held out his hand; Ferdinand withheld his.

In those seconds, another chapter was opened in a story that has already been too spiteful and too ugly. It could and should have gone the other way. It would have been too much to expect some sort of reconciliation, but the least that should have happened was that a hateful situation wasn't further aggravated. But Suarez did exactly that. The man had obviously no sense at all of his responsibility, either on a personal level, or towards the bigger picture. He didn't seem to know or care that he was about to inflame the already volatile tribes of Liverpool and Manchester.

Ferguson afterwards called Suarez "a disgrace" and he was right. He was found to have been the guilty party in this issue but has behaved since as if he was the victim. It seems that Liverpool Football Club have done little to persuade him of his own fault in this. If anything, they seemed to have enabled him in his ongoing sense of his own victimhood. Dalglish, as recently as last week, was still clinging to the line that Suarez should never have been suspended in the first place.

The Liverpool manager has looked and sounded out of touch with the race issue since the controversy first erupted. He has been in defensive mode from the start. There was the abysmal sight of the Liverpool players all wearing T-shirts in support of Suarez after he was first exposed for his comments to Evra. The club has lost a lot of its traditional standing in the months since.

It took Ferguson yesterday in his post-match comments to remind Liverpool FC of its stature. "That player should not be allowed to play for Liverpool again. The history that that club has got, and he does that, and in a situation like today, (it) could've caused a riot. It was terrible."

Dalglish, for his part, remained deep in denial afterwards. He hadn't seen the incident, he said, it was the first he'd heard of it. There'd been a confrontation in the tunnel at half-time between the players. Dalglish denied it had anything to do with his player.

United have had the high moral ground on this issue from the start. It will gall Liverpool fans to admit it but their team was second best on the field yesterday and have seen their reputation lowered off it.

Ferguson continued to win the argument when he conceded that Evra should not have celebrated the win so brazenly after the final whistle.

But far more serious damage had been done before a ball had even been kicked.

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