Monday 18 December 2017

James Lawton: A Sunday of sorrow

Luis Suarez refuses to shake hands with Patrice Evra ahead of the game between Manchester United and Liverpool
Luis Suarez refuses to shake hands with Patrice Evra ahead of the game between Manchester United and Liverpool
James Lawton

James Lawton

No one died at Old Trafford on Saturday but in all other respects it was football's version of ground zero. It was where any relish for the game, any love of it for its own sake, its skills and sometimes beautiful rhythm, was likely to be tracked down and wilfully desecrated.

After Luis Suarez had chilled the blood with the coldness of his decision to wreck hopes that this occasion might have carried some semblance of a new start by ignoring the offer of Patrice Evra's hand, and Evra later milked the situation with all the reflective power of a self-congratulatory lemming as he postured beside the departing Uruguayan, Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish made a statement so evasive, so detached from the reality of how it had been in the stadium, it was almost beyond belief.

Certainly it left, where we had hoped for some spontaneous decency, a vacuum that was hardly filled yesterday by the apologies from Suarez, Dalglish and Liverpool managing director Ian Ayre, which came in response to outrage which had never been so intense or widespread at any point in the whole desperate episode.

Dalglish declared: "I think that predominately both sets of fans behaved really well. They had a bit of banter between each other, no problem, right. How many bookings were there? End of story."

The dictionary definition of banter, it may be necessary to remind ourselves, is "good-natured teasing".

For a moment let us forget that a United fanzine was confiscated by police for its inflammatory images of racism. Or that the black armbands worn by United players on the anniversary of the Munich tragedy could not, for the most practical of reasons, be accompanied by a minute's silence in memory of the lost but magically unforgettable young team.


Such a tribute would have been an invitation to some of the profanity besieging Wayne Rooney right up to the moments he destroyed Liverpool soon after half-time. No, put on one side those depressing facts and consider how it was standing, for just a few minutes before kick-off, in the concourse beneath the main stand, a place filled with fans of both clubs, including many young boys and girls. There you could hear what Dalglish would later pass off as banter.

You could hear United's fans chanting "murderers" in reference to that other tragedy in the Heysel Stadium. You could hear the riposte, "Munich scum". There were cries of "racist b*****ds" and "always the victims, never to blame". And of Evra, from the Liverpool fans: "One lying b*****d."

Suarez's doomsday behaviour was almost beyond comment, more a provocation to seek out a cold shower, but Alex Ferguson said, anyway, that it was a disgrace to the game and that Liverpool should kick him out.

He would say that, wouldn't he, but to be fair this was a day that couldn't simply be passed into the great maw of the game's tribal hatred and the growing sense that no one, and least of all some of football's best rewarded players, has either the wit or the grace to cry halt.

Ferguson did at least sigh and disapprove when Evra's behaviour, on the very shoulder of Suarez as he trooped off the field, was described.

This was in sharp contrast to another of Dalglish's statements, the one addressed to a television interviewer, which said: "I think you are bang out of order to blame Luis Suarez for anything that happened here today."

We cannot blame Suarez for the historic hatred between the two most successful clubs in English history, no more than the notable rabble-rousing of Gary Neville in the past, but we can say that in less than a year at Anfield he is surely responsible for its most ferocious and wrenching expression.

Suarez, who left Dutch football with the nickname 'Cannibal of Ajax' after biting into the shoulder of an opponent, on Saturday held a day vital to the good health of his adopted football in the palm of his right hand. Having been found guilty of racial abuse, having served his sentence, a simple, universally understood gesture could have indeed signalled a fresh start.

Instead he chose to re-admit all the demons that have congregated so rapaciously in recent months and without any hint of censure from Liverpool, the club of Shankly and Liddell and of a tradition which at its zenith was, both on the field and the terraces, a monument to the most warming spirit of battle and open-hearted love of the great carnival of football.

Bobby Charlton would regularly scrounge a ticket to Anfield and consider the ribbing he suffered as the cheapest price. But that was a time when banter was not undisguised venom. The disfigurement which came at Old Trafford on Saturday had its origins and momentum, of course, in the behaviour of Suarez.

And even at this desperately late hour it is surely incumbent on his club, and his manager -- if on this issue he has retained any ability to distinguish right from wrong -- to do what was so clearly beyond the player when his contempt for the man he claimed to have addressed affectionately as "negrito" was so palpable it was as though he didn't exist.

Hopefully, the call of the players' union chief Gordon Taylor for the game to take some long-needed steps to heal itself will be heeded.

Certainly it is not hard to imagine something more likely to encourage a new mood than a meeting that would have far more relevance than the British Government's mooted 'Racism in Sport' summit.

It is the idea of an authentic football summit meeting between Ferguson and Dalglish.

Older differences than those created by the Suarez affair would have to buried --or at least suspended.

There would have to be an understanding that a joint communique between the two leaders of their tribes should carry a genuine note of two vastly experienced and iconic football men, saying it was time to do something on behalf not of petty interests but the entire game.

If you were in Old Trafford at the weekend you would have seen that short of such an initiative the poison is running hard into a high tide. You could not forget how it was when the masters of Anfield and Old Trafford, Shankly and Busby, sparred so affectionately -- and when both men spoke of their duty to enhance the lives of their people. It was not about how many trophies their teams might win but how much pleasure and distraction they created for working men and women.

Suarez, principally, and Evra to a large extent, have proved that they are incapable of understanding the nature of the problem that had been created. It means the requirement is for bigger, more experienced men, who have gained huge reward and recognition down the years.

Men, obviously, like Ferguson and Dalglish, who might just stand shoulder to shoulder and say that they are ready to move the game they profess to love back from ground zero. If they can't do it, who can? (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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