Liverpool and United: Where they stand

August 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

First published on ESPN, 27 January 2012

As far as “random” FA Cup draws go, the fourth round had an almost comical inevitability about it. With scant regard for the nerves of police officers across Merseyside and greater Manchester — not to mention more than a few blazered men in Wembley offices — out came ball No. 26, and then: No. 3.

And so it came to pass that Manchester United would return to Anfield less than a month after an FA-appointed independent panel concluded that Luis Suarez had, more likely than not, made derogatory reference to the color of Patrice Evra‘s skin. Cursed are the Football Association, for they live in interesting times. 

Yet the man at the center of the tension won’t be involved; Suarez will be serving the seventh of his eight-game ban, a blessing for United if not for his team, which has lacked his slippery, unpredictable inspiration. In his absence, Andy Carroll (one goal in the six games Suarez has missed) and Dirk Kuyt (zero goals) have labored, with only Craig Bellamyand his questionably sturdy knees really excelling up front. (To take it a step further, LFC have managed nine goals sans Suarez, albeit skewed by a five-goal burst against League One’s Oldham Athletic.)

Certainly, Manchester United’s disrupted and disjointed defense — which should be led by Evra (if fit), who has been showing glimpses of his best form since the verdict — will be glad of Suarez’s absence.

United has had an odd season. It is bedeviled by injuries — Nani the latest,potentially copping a two-month spell on the bench after a heavy tackle against Arsenal (?!) — yet only three points off the top of the league. It’s been a case of high-class make-do-and-mend, with intermittently terrible results (see: Europe) interspersed among the usual relentlessness.Antonio Valencia will likely be creator-in-chief, though it’s worth noting thatJavier Hernandez has scored on both his previous trips to Anfield.

Meanwhile, Liverpool has been mixing the very good (League Cup final!) with the frankly awful (Bolton!), leaving any previewer at something of a loose end. It is virtually at full strength — missing only its best midfielder (Lucas) and its best like-for-like replacement (Spearing) — so everything depends on Kenny Dalglish’s selectorial whim. Given that Bellamy played 90 minutes Wednesday in the League Cup, and Jonny Evans has tended to struggle against genuinely physical forwards, don’t be too surprised if Carroll lumbers/struts his way onto the pitch for kickoff.

So that’s the game, but the bigger picture for these two beyond the FA Cup is far less clear.Liverpool’s initial response to the panel’s decision regarding Suarez was a strident assertion of total innocence, laced with the barely concealed insinuation that the FA and United had together arrived at “a template in which a club’s rival can bring about a significant ban for a top player without anything beyond an accusation.”

What subsequent de-escalation we’ve seen from Liverpool hasn’t included any apology for (or even a begrudging acknowledgement of the possibility that even by misunderstanding or accident, there may have been) any distress caused to Evra, a pointed oversight that has drawn contempt from United partisans and criticism from anti-racism campaign groups and much further afield. Fair or not, there is certainly a perception — and this not just among United fans — that Liverpool’s desire to protect its own could be taken as a tacit endorsement of discrimination.

There is, troublingly, a wider context, too: signs that racism, thought to be mostly kicked out, is resurgent in English football. As well as the forthcoming trial of the England captain,John Terry, recent weeks have seen the arrest of a Chelsea fan on suspicion of racial chanting on a public train, the arrest of nine Charlton fans on suspicion of racist chanting, Oldham Athletic’s Tom Adeyemi in tears after something shouted from Anfield’s Kop, an arrest over racist tweets aimed at Everton’s Louis Saha, and further vitriol slung at, among others, former Liverpool striker Stan Collymore and Blackburn’s Jason Roberts.

Whether this is just a passing eruption of objectionable stupidity, a genuine and sinister cultural relapse or a sad consequence of the idiot-amplifying Internet isn’t clear, but it all adds to the tension ahead of a weekend that also sees Chelsea visiting QPR for the first time since the Terry/Anton Ferdinand incident in October (and both clubs proactively urging calm from their respective fans).

Furthermore, shifting back to Anfield this Saturday, it’s not as if a game between Liverpool and Manchester United needs any more pressure. Even in placid times the fixture spits like hot oil, engendering madness on either side of the white line. Steven Gerrard was sent off in last season’s FA Cup third-round tie for a bewilderingly pointless lunge on Michael Carrick— Dalglish’s first full game back in charge at Anfield — and several news outlets reported that close to 20 arrests were made after the game.

The last time the two sides met at Anfield in the Cup — fifth round, 2006 — away fans complained that they were showered with urine by the home fans above, and an ambulance carrying United’s injured Alan Smith was attacked outside the stadium. More recently, an FA Youth Cup match — which featured four red cards, two for each team — wasfollowed by the arrest of six United fans, who had allegedly indulged themselves in chants concerning the tragedy at Hillsborough.

And that, of course, is just another problem for those who have an interest in keeping some kind of peace. Mocking your opponent’s history of grief is a long-standing tradition in English football — Leeds are still occasionally greeted on away trips with Turkey flags, for example, in reference to the murder in 2000 of two traveling fans in Istanbul — and games between United and Liverpool are particularly vulnerable to such morbid abuse. The tragedies at Munich and Hillsborough (and, in a different direction, Heysel) are so ingrained into the identities of each club that they become tempting targets for those deficient in soul and sense. In effect, both sets of fans have the nuclear option; they can strike directly to the heart of their rivals, and they know that a reaction is guaranteed.

But it’s not all this acidic, as recently there have been a few tiny steps toward rapprochement. Shortly after the draw was made, Liverpool made an offer of “peace talks.”Alex Ferguson gruffly and publicly rejected the idea — “I don’t see the point” — and while it has been suggested that United is privately persuaded of the necessity, it is unclear whether this extends to a concerted effort to defuse tensions, or simply the usual coordination on logistics, policing and so forth.

Certainly, there has been nothing specific and public from either side. Ferguson has written to United’s traveling fans to ask them to comply with ground regulations, but this has less to do with any worries about fallout and more to do with United’s consistently reduced ticket allocations.

In his letter, and without mentioning Evra or Suarez, Ferguson called on United’s fans to offer “the sort of support you are famous for — positive, witty and loud.” Whether Liverpool fans would agree with the characterization is debatable — all right, it probably isn’t — but they would certainly agree with him that this is “the biggest game around.” It just always, always matters. This is, after all, a rivalry and a loathing that can be traced beyond England’s two most successful clubs, and beyond the sport, right back to the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal, and the routing of trade money past Liverpool’s ports. As with all rivalries, it’s about identity. For both sets of fans, it’s the purest expression of the Them, hence the strongest sense of the Us.

My stepdad grew up in Warrington, roughly equidistant between Liverpool and Manchester. Lacking any major football presence of its own — it’s a rugby league town — the locals divide neatly to each city. At weekends, the two sets of fans would line up on the opposing platforms of Warrington’s central train station and hurl insults, and missiles, at one another until their trains arrived. And without seeking in any way to glamorize violence or vindicate the darker edges of the abuse, it would be a sad, strange and quietly pointless world if there were nothing between the two platforms but pure, unsullied air.

This is not and never should be a game between friends. This is a fixture that would make no sense without the mutual, visceral contempt. The clubs, the fans, the FA and the police have perhaps uniquely challenging circumstances, but they have a familiar question. How do you draw the worst of the venom, without taking the teeth as well? Is it even possible that everybody hate one another to the very limits of what’s acceptable, and no further?

Saturday lunchtime will likely see partisan excess (despite anything Dalglish and Ferguson might hope for) both on and off the pitch — red cards, arrests, you know the drill — so we can only hope it stays within the boundaries of acceptable horror; that the game reflects and expresses the valedictory strand of hatred, rather than the destructive or the diminishing; and that from somewhere, the two teams find it within themselves to summon a decent game of football. That, after all, is the only way to make anybody outside the loathing loop really appreciate the grandeur of the occasion.

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