It’s 8.30pm on Saturday the 11th of February and hey – guess what?! It’s Groundhog Day, that’s what.
Why even bother going over the finer points of it? I have the privilege of an account on this increasingly esteemed site, and I have a lot of things to get off my chest, so if it’s OK with you, I’m just going to blurt it all out. If you’ve already read some of it elsewhere, then I apologise for boring you, but it’s my genuine feeling on the whole situation we find ourselves in right now, for better or worse.
We have two football clubs. In fact, we have hundreds and thousands of football clubs. Those football clubs are, for the most part, supported or hated or met with bemused indifference by the billions of people who inhabit the planet. If you drew an enormous venn diagram of it all, you’d probably quickly establish that liking, nay, loving one club means hating another. Why that is, well, there are a million reasons, but if you had to sum it up in a paragraph, it’d go something like this.
“We’re pretty simple, us humans. We’re capable of selflessness, compassion, bravery, joy, altruism, devotion and love – love for things apart from ourselves, based on community, and on shared goals, and on our higher beliefs. But group us together under any arbitrary banner, and there’s just as much chance we’ll be even simpler than we are as individuals. And uglier. And less inclined to think independently for ourselves. And not only that; even if we’re capable of the most precise abstract thought and given the full evidence to weigh, we’re less inclined to know right from wrong, and the grey areas between. If we’re aligned with a group, we’re more than happy to set that to one side if it means it fits in with our group’s agenda.”
A wordy bollocks of a paragraph. So let’s sum it up in a sentence.
“We’re all scared of being alone, and we need to belong.”
Violence. Religion. Justice. Death. Paninaro-o-o-o.
So we find ourselves in a situation where a simple handshake, or the lack of one, is capable of detonating a nationwide – no, scratch that – worldwide shitstorm that’s so entangled with so many different agendas – a superstructure of complementary agendas, if you like, that it feels like the whole fucking universe is going to implode. As the result of one single swerved handshake.
For what it’s worth, Suarez should have shaken the fella’s hand, even if he had to go looking for it. Make him suffer on the pitch. But equally, it’s a damn shame that the presence or absence of a handshake is such an issue, particularly given recent events. Some handshakes are more significant than others I guess.
The game kicked off and Evra nearly put Ferdinand out of the game within seconds… but after that, it was reasonably cagey til half time, with the worry for both sides the free runners the midfield players didn’t track, and the way the player wide right got space as a result of the disruption it caused. Johnson on the Liverpool right; Valencia on the Man United right. Two very effective players facing two left backs who were looking a little exposed.
But in football terms, Liverpool were pretty comfortable up to half time I felt. There was scope to build on it if they kept their heads.
But of course, as is never a surprise with a Ferguson team (I’ve seen it happen for over 30 years now after all), a ruck developed in the tunnel, and while the visiting side looked by no means blameless, a little pattern the older heads should have become accustomed to ran its course. The visiting side rattled, Keown elbowing Van Nistelrooy on the back of the head, Willie Miller taking someone by the throat, whatever.
Five minutes into the second half the game was over – two gift wrapped goals with a pretty bow on top to a finisher who needs no second invitation. It was as if we’d been in a rage-based stupour after the half time break, and our focus had gone to pot. It was followed by nigh on 30 minutes of aimless football that only improved and regained some tempo and urgency when Bellamy and Adam were added to the fold. Some may have felt it should have happened earlier; but hey ho. Liverpool almost drew it in the end.
But then of course the nonsense really started. And despite the noises from the ground, and the confiscated fanzines and t-shirts (very creative, admittedly), we were treated to a little blood sharpening stuff from certain players before they left the park, followed by – quite frankly – a few jokes passing themselves off as post-match interviews, overheard dressing room songs, and so forth.
And now of course the second wave of player tweets, media indignation, calls for heads, and blah blah blah. All in the name of fighting the anti-racism cause, of course.
But of course, while that’s the case, nobody can remember the facts of the original case, the grey areas floating around, the fact that people were at pains *not* to accuse anyone of racism. The oily machinery of our establishment once more cranks into gear, leaving the inevitable smears in its wake. But the smears are the smears of righteous justice. Their blinding light burns the eyes of the sinners among us. They can’t handle the truth. “Stop embarrassing yourselves.”, they chastise the non-believers.
Christ, on the morning the Mirror ran a picture of Suarez facing Evra with the words “RACE FOR THE TITLE” superimposed between them, we even had Oliver Holt planting his flag on the top of the moral midden suggesting his paper was purer than pure for not running with the story about Pearce, Ince and Taylor. Brave Knight, custodian of Truth and Justice. Oliver Holt.
Not much later of course, Suarez, who is not much heavier than wood, is taken as a proven witch, and Oliver Holt, the Terry Jones in our modern day Holy Grail, is only too happy to start the blaze. Burn him!
But of course, equally, those starting on Evra beyond the scope of the established facts are just as ridiculous. Very few people have come out of this with anything they can really look back and be proud of. And some have even found themselves in handcuffs as a result; but most are a hop and a skip short of a libel suit.
And here’s the thing – it’s all we should really reasonably expect. This whole ‘perfect storm of smear’ is the direct result of human nature, combined with established groups with established agendas doing simply what comes naturally to them. It’s just a shame it’s happened with an issue like racial equality.
Leave that to be dealt with by football people, and in a footballing context, those with competitive and tribal agendas in mind, and we were always going to end up where we are now. And of course, that begs the question – where have the ‘leaders’ been? The FA. The campaigns promoting racial equality in our game, so prominent at the moment. Where were they? Were they working with the players concerned? Were they engaging with fans? Were they mediating? Building bridges? Establishing any kind of constructive dialogue?
Well, they were probably at some kind of champagne reception and throwing in the odd self-righteous put down, or worse.
It’s horribly reminiscent of the whole issue of sectarianism North of the border. I remember getting into an argument with Laurence Donegan of the Guardian (and formerly of Lloyd Cole and The Commotions) last year on that very subject, when he suggested sectarianism was all of Scotland’s problem. I objected to that, having never had a sectarian thought I was conscious of in my life. But I’m beginning to see what he means.
This racial equality issue – it’s not ‘my problem’ – at least not in any way I’m personally conscious of. It’s a problem that lies between the ears and in the souls of what I hope is a fucked up and randomly scattered minority. It’s a problem that’s both misunderstood and mixed up in people’s minds. All you can do is refer people to truly balanced content on the subject – like Gabriele Marcotti’s wonderful article in Issue 4 of the equally wonderful Blizzard. And in the process, maybe people would get an insight into the motives of some who cover sporting events on our behalf.
“Kick Tabloid Journalism Out Of Football” read a reworked banner by Kit Nelson this afternoon. If you read Marcotti’s piece, you’ll see his point. It opens with a game at Stamford Bridge between Chelsea and Lazio, and tells the gruesome tale of a reporter who misrepresented the Lazio fans as racially abusing William Gallas, when in fact they were booing Chelsea for not giving the ball back after an injury stoppage – something that, at the time, was de rigeur in Italy, but not yet in England.
Marcotti painted an unsettling scene.
“All this, of course, was lost on my colleague… At half-time he picked up the phone again to call his boss. He was positively glowing with glee as he told tales of “vile racist chants.” …And I’m not surprised that this guy seemed to have been despatched to Stamford Bridge with the sole purpose of finding “a racist fan angle”. Nor is it much of a shock he was so happy when he found it.”
We can’t expect the media to pursue the betterment of our society in these circumstances. The media – the papers in particular – are on the ropes in terms of the revenue they generate. They tend to be ambitious young ‘uns out to make a name for themselves, or jaded, agenda-laden hacks from whome we should all know exactly what to expect. We should never be surprised, against that backdrop, that they’ll do whatever it takes to make a buzz – to increase the click-throughs – to boost the ad revenue. It’s all they have any incentive to do. That some of them don’t is to each individual’s eternal credit – and there are a good few – if they’re honest, they know which camp they fall into. But they’re not often honest.
As Gareth McKenna put it earlier – “The Mirror of John Pilger and the Killing Fields is now the tabloid of Ollie Holt and Dave Maddock.”
So don’t expect it from them. If they sicken you, go elsewhere. There are plenty of other sources of content.
Likewise, don’t expect much more than snidey, ill-advised, imbalanced comment from the heads of equality groups and figures at the head of the game’s joke governance – comment that only polarises things more. That increases the likelihood of more, and worse, instances of racial abuse and tribalism across the piece. All at a time when they could be truly asserting their agenda and establishing a genuinely inspiring vision for the game.
And the same goes for us as fans of whatever clubs we support collectively, and for each and every one of us. Me very much included.
The songs we sing, the way we act, both in our footballing lives and our everyday lives. We should know where the line is between something that’s funny or edgy and something that’s downright unacceptable. We should know, honestly, when we’re being disingenuous. We need to be honest now. People seem to be stating a lot in all this that they’re “standing up against racism”. But I’d suggest they need to have a good hard think about what that involves.
We all do.
And that includes, most pointedly, everyone – and I mean *everyone* at Liverpool Football Club. Looking at it from a brutal ‘business-only’ perspective, the club has a massive and imminent PR and ‘brand’ problem right now. So what does it do? Does it cow to the pressure and meekly offer up its player and/or manager to Brave Sir Holt’s witch burning pyre?
Or does it take a longer view. Does it look inward to its own integrity and knowledge that, contrary to smear and such, it has no place for racism; indeed, it’s the club that’s taken a genuine lead in engaging the views of minority groups in the way it’s run. As long as I can remember, people have slung mud at Scousers and at the football club. It’s nothing new. The older fans among us have seen far worse, and they’ve seen the club come out the other side intact.
The club, while taking solace from its own tradition, must learn the lessons it needs to from this whole sorry episode and move on. Slowly and calculatedly. It should be under no illusions as to the risks it faces when exposed in legal and PR terms. It should be making sure that these things never happen again. And it should be taking its first steps in building its own long-term image according to its own terms – not reacting to some half-baked media agenda masquerading as a fight for what’s right and proper.
A long, consistent, congruent message that says to the world what the club’s all about.
To do that, we don’t need big money, and we don’t need big words from our owner and chairman. We just need some quiet resolve and commitment and a sprinkling of those New England smarts. Let’s see how crafty you can be fellas.