THE old saying is true. Never meet your heroes.
For every Titan from your youth who you’d watch week in, week out and wondered just how they could cope with being in their own skin, there’s the embarrassment of idiotic pundits, casual racists or those possessing shockingly out of kilter views. If only players would keep their mouths shut once they retired.
Sadly, this is the case for a great many Liverpool players of old. The examples given above concern three of my favourite Liverpool players. Mark Lawrenson, a man who finds himself hilarious without justification, was easily one of the greatest centre backs of his generation. Tommy Smith was the definition of an uncompromising defender, who would sacrifice limbs for the badge but the interview he gave to Dave Hill for his book Out of his Skin was as shocking as it was odious. Meanwhile, Emlyn Hughes, the royal hugging, Thatcher kissing Conservative, was the embodiment of LFC enthusiasm and energy. I used to love them all. Two of them were handpicked by Shankly himself. Three great servants, three vital players in our history but three very awkward nights out if you met them in a pub and got them off e subject of football. Such a shame. In some cases, less is definitely more.
Of these three it’s Emlyn’s legacy that hurts the most but while I’d happily stroll past Lawrenson and Smith without so much as making eye contact, if he were still with us I’d have no problem with shaking Emlyn’s hand.
We want our heroes to be complete and without flaws. John Barnes, for example, is a wise and eloquent man who befits the statesman role so needed at the club. Great on the pitch and arguably greater off it, as the issues he speaks on are far more important than the game itself. Likewise Jamie Carragher appeals to the Scouse everyman on the pitch. What he lacked in pace he more than made up for in tireless work rate while offering a no-nonsense approach, a ‘Scouse’ approach possibly, to modern life off the pitch. These men don’t have ideas above their station, seem unaffected by their fame and are not easily blustered by private interests. It’s just who they are. These are the men you want playing for Liverpool AND behaving in a fashion that isn’t alien to the people on the terraces.
Not all players are like that – it would be a strange game if they were – and many don’t care about the chasm between the man and the player. ‘Do it on the pitch and you can do and say what the hell you like as far as we’re concerned,’ goes the argument.
It’s a nice standpoint but it does weaken the armour of adoration. I loved Tommy Smith when I was young. Absolutely loved him. He was like a hard-nosed uncle who kicked the hell out of your enemies on your behalf. He was not the sort of player who should score in European Cup finals but he did just that. He’s the man you’d hate if he played elsewhere. If he left Anfield in his pomp he would have been just another dirty bastard, a moaner, a bit of a twat – but he was none of those things because Liverpool Football Club and that beautiful blood red kit always resided in his heart. What’s not to like about Tommy Smith if you’re on the same side? Then he gave that interview about John Barnes and black players in the game and his statue crumbled in my heart. The quotes attributed to him by Dave Hill find no retractions, no denials, apologies or indeed any comment in his autobiography. For me, it was the moment when you realise that your heroic uncle was nothing more than a mouthy gobshite.
Emlyn’s ‘crime’ isn’t anywhere close to that. He always struck me as a likeable fella if a bit irritating but kissing Thatcher on the cheek, while the city he once represented was declining at her hand, still rankled. I can’t pretend it didn’t. Keegan was with him at the time but he was England’s man by then and had already left the European Champions to join a lesser side, as all sides were lesser then, for money. As much as I tried to justify the two Emlyn’s in my heart it was a crushing blow to see him kowtow to that woman of all people.
But, does it matter? After all, he did do this …
How can you be disappointed at that man? Is that enough to wash away the stain of a man’s political beliefs? It should be and yet…
Age forms part of this. I was only eight years old in 1977 and Hughes was a major part of my life. I was a kid and he was a bigger one. His celebration was so ridiculous, so stupid that it was glorious. His voice, arguably higher than mine even back then, was easy to emulate as was his silly arms-over-the-head gallop around the streets of L11. I didn’t give a shit what his politics were back then. I didn’t know what they meant. I was only interested in LFC. It was only later when my own life was affected by government policies that I began to sneer at the golfing jumpers, the panel shows and his uneasy pallyness with the Princess Royal.
That said, he still gets a pass. I bloody love Emlyn Hughes. I just wish he’d kept silent the second he drove out of Melwood to make my life easier and my hypocrisy less pointed.
Tommy Smith can still sod off though. That will never change.
Heroes become less important as you get older. It’d still be good to have a chat with them but you wouldn’t go home with ‘that’ feeling of euphoria that we felt as kids. I can remember seeing Sammy Lee standing outside Lewis’ in the early 80s and for me and my mates it was like God himself had sat next to us in class. And that was only Sammy Lee.
Unlike those times, the club encourages the team to interact more with the fans now, be it on website questions from fans or club and charity events. The empathy between player and fans may have evaporated – why, if we met, would Jordan Henderson be interested in my life – but there’s more PR about now. These are times of Michael Owen brand values rather than posters of Jimmy Case yokerring on the pitch (I had one). There is also twenty-four hour news services and social media to consider along with clubs selling at us relentlessly. ‘Meet Adam Morgan and Mighty Red when you enter a Warrior competition’ or whatever. Yes, they could be heroes to some kids now but you’re met with trained and brainwashed players now who have been coached into saying nothing. Is that better than Tommy Smith’s racism? Certainly, but the characters have been eroded too. Maybe that’s the price you pay.
The one remaining hero now is Gerrard, but once he goes it’s hard to see who excited kids are going to take to. One by one the patriarchs of the club have been whittled away. This is no one’s fault but it’s sad in a way. Robbie, Sami, Carra have all gone. Will the next generation gibber at a chance meeting with Joe Allen? I hope so. It’s unlikely, but I hope so.
Earlier this year I stood next to Jonjo Shelvey in a motorway service station. My chief concern was the amount of time it took him to choose which burger he wanted. I did not feel blessed that a man who wore my shirt that afternoon was picking his straw from the same plastic beaker as me. Four years earlier I was at a supporters’ do in the same room as Ian Callaghan – the idea being that you could just go over and talk to him. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. What if he told me to sod off? What if he wasn’t the same Ian Callaghan I knew and loved from 76-77? What if he was human? I’m uneasy now, thinking back on it.
The old saying is true. Never meet your heroes.