24 years on…

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Warning: This blog post is laden with expletives, as most posts on football should be. Do not read if you wish to keep your wudhu.

I’ve not written anything in a long, long while. But I suppose recent developments in English football make it worthwhile for me to crawl out from under the rock I’ve been hiding.

When you’re a Liverpool fan, life can be cruel. Let me rephrase that. When you’re a Liverpool fan who only started supporting the club around 20 years ago, AFTER the heyday it enjoyed under the likes of Shankly, Paisley, Fagan and Dalglish, around the time it began its steady descent into the abysmal unknown of a post-first division football league era, life can be very cruel.

You know this because you carry with you scars that will never fully heal. Scars you will bring to the grave, borne from the numerous cuts to the ego you had to endure because of your guilty association with the Merseyside club.

You know this because at one point in your life, it felt like everybody around you was a Manchester United fan. Well, everybody in school that is.

You know how politicians, community leaders, academics, parents and teachers are starting to actually give a rat’s ass about bullying in school? Well, I’m sorry, but you bastards are fifteen years too late. You’ll need a time machine to save this boy and the millions of other Liverpool fans, who went to school every Monday morning hoping nobody would remember they supported Roy Evans’ sorry band of faggoty Spice Boys.

Absolute rubbish.

Absolute rubbish.

This was the late 90s, when the likes of Phil Babb, David James and Jamie Redknapp were more interested modelling underwear than actually putting in a proper shift on the football field. This was the time Liverpool would lose every time they met United, partly because their defenders would be shitting bricks whenever Cantona had the ball.

You’d argue your case against your devil-worshipping classmates, but it’d be to no avail. They would simply refuse to understand why you would ever want to root for such losers, and ones with such a rich history at that. Better to support a shitty team that was never any good, than one who actually allowed themselves this unbelievable downward slide into mediocrity.

You know their taunts all too well. Liverfool. You’ll always walk alone. You’d be a mid-table team if not for Owen/Torres/Suarez.

At night the last thing you’d see before you close your eyes to sleep would be their pimpled adolescent faces, contorted to form a facial expression that could only mean an intense Schadenfreude, so happy they were at your pain of being a Liverpool fan. They were the stuff of nightmares, these Manchester United fans, and it seemed with every passing week their numbers would grow, like zombies in an apocalyptic future.

You’d console yourself with the thought that perhaps supporting Liverpool helped you develop a spine, because how else would you have stood up against all the MU fans in school, which was just about everybody. Them bandwagon-hopping bitches.

Furthermore, supporting Liverpool steeled you against the many curveballs life threw at you, which in the case of yours truly, perhaps too many to mention.

Supporting Liverpool. Mastering the art of Zen.

Supporting Liverpool meant mastering the art of Zen.

Of course there would be rare instances of happiness. As the spoilt, overpaid stars of the Roy Evans era made way for the industrious unknowns brought in via Houllier, then Benitez, the results began to improve. A win over United no longer seemed impossible, though they continued to ratchet up Premier League titles, while we had to make do with smaller victories, like winning the League Cup.

Rafa did bring us the holy grail in 2005, but magical nights like that one in Istanbul are few and far between. Since that miraculous comeback against Milan nine years ago, the club has only won one FA Cup (again under Benitez) and one League Cup (King Kenny’s parting gift before he was asked to leave).

In that same period of time, United have won 5 league titles, 3 league cups, and the Champions’ League themselves. They’ve not just knocked Liverpool right off their fucking perch. They’ve damn well mauled them.

Well, not quite. While Liverpool were certainly at their lowest during the 2010-11 season, with the appointment of Darth Sidious lookalike Roy Hodgson, and the subsequent crowning of United for a 19th time (which meant they had overtaken Liverpool in terms of league titles won), the arrival of Fenway Sports Group in October 2010 brought about a slow, steady change to Anfield.

Only one of the managers pictured in this blog post is rubbish. See if you can figure out who. Hint: He's shown here.

Only one of the two managers pictured in this blog post is rubbish. See if you can figure out who. Hint: He’s shown here.

The rest, as the old adage goes, is history. Today, more than three years on, Liverpool are top of the league, with three games to go. Chelsea and Newcastle at home, Crystal Palace away. They need seven points from a possible nine. The Premier League title is theirs to lose. After 24 years, greatness is, once more, within reach.

United’s season, on the other hand, could not have been more different. They are 7th in the table, a whopping 23 points behind Liverpool. United fans may lay the blame squarely on the currently unemployed David Moyes, but in truth, the club’s players have not played at the level they are capable of.

A good friend.

A good friend.

Now it’s a Liverpool’s fan turn to enjoy his time in the sun, while his past nemeses grovel in the Old Trafford dirt. In schools all over the country, it is the United fan who now stands alone, as the Liverpool one did many eons ago.

The Gentleman’s Game

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A friend’s wife said something about football the other day during the Liverpool-United clash, and it made me take a pensive look at the game I have devoted much time and energy to. Perhaps too much time and energy.

“It’s a ‘dirty’ game,” she muttered, afraid her comments would rile up the already rowdy crowd, incensed by the decisions of Andre Marriner, the match referee. Mr. Marriner was wrong, as referees often are in matches such as this. Depending on which side of the fence you stood, it was either for having been taken in by the manner of Charlie Adam’s tumble from a Rio Ferdinand-tackle, leading to Pool’s first goal (from a Stevie G freekick), or for not having dismissed Rio Ferdinand on a 2nd bookable offence for said tackle.

I thought of telling her I distinctly remember her husband being the captain of our school’s football team, but decided against it. After all, she was partly right. My school’s football team was made up of a ragtag bunch of ‘dirty’ hooligans who were only saved from expulsion because of the things they could do with a football. The last I heard, the lot of them are either imprisoned, dead or working for a bank somewhere. George Orwell once said,

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”

Something strange happens whenever a group of fans watches a match. I don’t drink but I reckon it’s the closest equivalent to a night out with alcohol. Inhibitions get thrown out the window. Passions get inflamed. Tongues let loose. The evening usually segues into one of these two events: a) poor sods exchanging high-fives and backslaps, convinced they’re the best of friends, ready and willing to lay down their lives for one another; b) poor sods exchanging kicks and punches, convinced they’re the worse of enemies, ready and willing to take the lives of one another.

There’s nothing in this country that will unite or divide people quicker than English football. Nothing like a highly-charged ninety minutes to turn even the most rational, bipartisan observer into a passionate, drivel-spewing zealot.

Perhaps, in that sense, the game is ‘dirty’. There are no places for gentlemen in football. A supporter of Liverpool is firmly expected to loathe Manchester United, and vice versa. This bias influences reactions to refereeing decisions as well. Liverpool fans were screaming bloody murder when Marriner failed to award a penalty when Johnny Evans handled from a Dirk Kuty header, but were conspicuously silent when Jose Enrique seemed to have used his upper arm to control the ball near his goal.

It’s probably stretching it a little bit, but I’m tempted to believe the obsession we’ve had with “serious sport”, televised to us for the last 50 years has blunted our ability to understand and appreciate the nuances of each side’s argument. This inevtiably leads to polarisation, with any semblance of compromise seen as a moral weakness. We see it in American politics, where beauracratic wrangling amongst Republicans and Democrats has kept the US financial landscape seemingly headed for another meltdown. We see it here at home, in petty cyberspace arguments over governmental policies.

But back to football. It’s this inability to understand the nuances in a particular refereeing decision, or behind a team’s victory or defeat that produces resentment in the watching fan, and manager. Both Dalglish and Ferguson have rallied against the perceived sense of unfairness at the hand of match officials, though, and they know this, the number of decisions for and against them usually evens out in the run of a season.

Managers sure are a funny bunch. When a controversial decision goes against their team, it’s as if all the referees in the world are in a clandestine operation against them. Hear them make a case for the use of television replays, or goal-line technology. Watch them when a controversial decision does go their way however. “I’m sure the referee had a good look from where he stood. I was standing in the dugout area, so I don’t really know.”

I know, it’s extremely idealistic and naive to think that professional managers would actually hold their hands up and admit the mistakes of their players or be more forgiving when referees do cost them points, but it would certainly be a refreshing change from the status quo. In a world where lines are often too quickly drawn in the sand, we sometimes hope that football can be the last vestige of our gentlemanly ways.