Saturday, 3 March 2012

Never Be The Same Again

Anfield.  May.  1989.  Words that unleash so many emotions amongst anybody from the red half of North London.  For many it was also the beginning of a special relationship between the two clubs.  They appreciated the flowers the players had presented to the crowd prior to the game to honour the 96 fans who had died at the Hillsborough disaster. We appreciated the fact that the Liverpool fans, devastated at the traumatic nature of losing the League title in the final moments of the 1988/89 season, showed such dignity in defeat. 

They beat us six months later, John Barnes scoring an immaculate free kick in a 2-1 victory in unquestionably the most eagerly awaited match of that season, a win which ultimately removed us from the summit and we never were to be top again that season as Liverpool cruised to their then 18th record breaking title. 

Gutted?  I was nine years old and thought Arsenal were going to win the league for the next ten years, it felt as if the sky had fallen down.  But there was a respect for a great club, an incredible achievement and on reflection I was fortunate to have witnessed a golden chapter of football history written.

At the head of this slick operation was Kenny Dalglish, a young manager who had demonstrated a leadership and strength of character which belied his relative managerial inexperience.  His support of the grief stricken families from the Hillsborough tragedy struck a chord with many outside Liverpool, although I am sure the Evertonians and United fans would perhaps beg to differ.  I really did feel sorry for him when he stepped down as Liverpool boss in 1991 and I couldn’t help feeling happy for him when he led Blackburn to the league title a few years later, even if in doing so they went against everything I believed in regarding buying success.

Of all the players to pull on the red shirt of Manchester United, Patrice Evra has always managed to irritate me more than most.  I think it goes back to the fact that originally he was meant to be an Arsenal player, but its definitely compounded by his “babies” comments about my team a few years ago.  How I enjoyed us kicking him off the park a few days later, even if they did get the point needed to secure the title that season.

More annoying was the fact he was actually an exceptional player, emphasised even more every time we played against United.  Nobody likes United players, but here was somebody who truly did annoy me.  He was good, but boy did he know it!  He also knew his United side were better than us.  And deep down we knew it too.

When I heard that Luis Suarez had been accused of racially abusing Evra, I was astonished.  I have to admit that owing to the antics of Suarez during the last World Cup, he was never one of my most favourite people anyway.  Some will say it was intelligent, and yes if it was an Arsenal player, I’d probably argue the same.  But it didn’t sit well with any of us did it?  Yet a handball on the line and his childish tormenting moments later were nothing compared to Evra and his continual attacks on my beloved Gunners.

So when this story broke I was initially biased. 

Against Evra. 

I guess I just put it down to a few throwaway comments and that it was more as a reaction to dropping two points in pursuit of Manchester City as opposed to a credible and authentic allegation that he had been racially abused.

Liverpool as a club stood by Suarez, which was understandable.  A process was under way and ultimately we would get to the bottom of what really happened.  But the more that started to leak to the press, the more we started to realise that Suarez had used the n-word when addressing Evra during an exchange.  An exchange which as the FA report eventually outlined, was neither friendly nor conciliatory.

Suarez and Evra’s exchange took place in Spanish, and both the club and player have continually protested that the word has a different context to that which is interpreted here in Britain.  I wouldn’t consider myself to be culturally ignorant, and I am aware that the term does have a different meaning.  The defence to this allegation was that the term was used during a warm hearted exchange of friendly pleasantries, a form of endearment if you will. 

This is not correct. The exchange was anything but friendly. The players were arguing.  This was no time to use language which can be regarded as racist and had such deeply offensive connotations.  If you deny this then can anybody please explain what on earth Suarez was thinking when he said I don’t speak to black’s.

Suarez was found guilty and banned but the player, club and fans refuse to acknowledge that he has done anything wrong.  Kenny Dalglish, the man I held in such high regard, the most culpable of all by questioning everything from the legitimacy of the process to the punishment eventually sanctioned. 

That verdict changed so much in football, and for me personally too.  Since that announcement I have spent the last two Manchester United v Liverpool games supporting United.  An unthinkable prospect only six months ago.  When Liverpool played Tottenham, I was supporting Tottenham in a pub in North London on the very corner of the junction of Lordship Lane and White Hart Lane.  My football world had been turned upside down.  It will never be the same again.

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