There was always something that left an uneasy feeling in the pit of the stomach about the post-Olympic craze for slating ‘football’ for its attitudes and behaviour, and there is still discomfort whenever anyone starts to discuss ‘decency’ with regard to the moral vacuum that is a professional sport-cum-business. Last night at Goodison Park, however, we saw a perfectly pitched tribute to the dead of Hillsborough which left barely a dry eye in the house and reminded all watching that if this game and its institutions can be described as having a soul, then that soul is worth hanging onto.
The fulsome tribute from Everton FC was a timely reminder that we are capable of setting aside our tribalism out of respect to the dead and that yes, there are some things in life that are more important than our allegiances, loves and hates.
Perhaps, though, this was merely the hors d’oeuvre ahead of the main event on the subject of whether attitudes have changed with regard to English football’s worst disaster. This weekend, all eyes will be fixed on Anfield as Liverpool play Manchester United in a fixture that will, whether rightly or wrongly, be treated as a litmus test for whether supporters can be entrusted with the task of behaving themselves under such a glare. The reaction to the behaviour of some during Saturdays match between Manchester United and Wigan Athletic offers us hope that this match won’t be the car crash that some are anticipating and some, doubtlessly, are hoping it will be. The singing of a charmless song called ‘Always The Victims’ during the early stages of that match might have been a moment for the palm of the hands to smack against our collective foreheads, but clearly audible though it was on Saturday evenings Match Of The Day, to seek to describe this as a symbol of the decline and fall of western civilisation would be somewhat wide of the mark.
Perusing Manchester United forums since the match has shown that, while there remains a minority that would seek to continue leap through linguistic and semantic hoops in order to defend the appearance of this song at Old Trafford, a majority – to the extent that such perusal can be considered in any way scientific – of United supporters were unhappy with the appearance of this song at this time. There will always be a minority for whom blind rage will cloud judgement, but if one sound has been evident over the last six days then that sound has been of a collective penny dropping that singing songs at matches mocking – or could be construed as mocking – the dead of Hillsborough is at best distasteful and worst abhorrent. There is no way of knowing in advance of the match taking place how this might all play out, but the early signs are that any minority will be exactly that. Perhaps it is down to the sensible majority amongst the away support at Anfield this weekend to be self-policing in this respect.
The reaction of a small part of Old Trafford on Saturday and of the whole of Goodison Park last night served to remind us of the extent to which divide and rule remains a part of the culture of football. The dehumanisation of football supporters in the media during the 1980s was a wearyingly regular phenomenon, and although the Hillsborough cover-up looks shocking to the eyes of those of us looking back from 2012, it was considerably less so at the time. This, after all, was a government that had seriously attempted to issue ID cards to all football supporters, which had a leader that was openly hostile to all football supporters and one of whose acolytes – the Luton Town chairman and MP David Evans – had completely banned away supporters from his clubs ground. In the weeks after Hillsborough, the “otherness” of football supporters and the “otherness” of Liverpudlians were both ramped up to levels that might have been considered worthy of pantomime were they regurgitated as “The Truth” in the mainstream media. In the very different technological world of 1989 – without smartphones, social media and widely owned digital cameras – the lies were allowed bed in and proved surprisingly hardy amongst some.
Ahead of this weekends match, there may well be those who seek to keep that game of divide and rule going for just a little longer, who simply don’t see that the never-ending circle of what-aboutery, frothing at the mouth loathing and dehumanisation of people that support a different football team to them. No-one would suggest that a woolly, liberal world in which all football supporters sing and dance with each other is either likely or even desirable. The rivalry of football clubs is so raw because it feels so real rather than imagined by so many, and it is a part of the very fabric of the game that we should not destroy. There comes a point, however, when any sane human being has to see that football itself is a pantomime, acted out in front of live audiences of millions, and that matters of there is a line in the sand to be drawn, that these hostilities are based on something that is but a mere trifle in comparison with the lives of human beings. An overwhelming majority of us already know that. The question is, perhaps, whether the minority, which continues to diminish in size, credibility and influence, can be persuaded to change their opinions, or at least keep quiet about them out of respect. It’s not an easy question to answer.
The rivalry between Manchester United and Liverpool is at the summit of football rivalry because of the size and scale of the clubs concerned, but to outsiders they can appear similar in many respects. They are both clubs pulled up by their bootstraps by men from the same area of the same city during almost the same era. Both grew during the formative years of televised football and became nationwide brands. Both have histories inflected with tragedy, bestrewn with trophies and inhabited by icons and legends. Both have had their ups, and both have had their downs. They glower at each other along thirty-four miles of motorway, each the devil incarnate in each others eyes. The scale of that rivalry and the poison that it has previously summoned forth means that it will be under the spotlight again. It’s up to those that will be at Anfield, watching in the pubs, at home on television sets and using illegal internet streams to decide how they want to be perceived this weekend, but after the reaction of the last week or so, they can be left with little clue of what the majority of us will be thinking if their rivalry turns into bile this weekend. For now, though, cautious optimism reigns.
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