James Lawton: Red roses and balloons – but the old hatreds refuse to die


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The Independent Online

It was always going to be an extremely small handshake for mankind, the one brusquely exchanged between Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra here yesterday, but the point of it was supposed to be a leap for the poisoned spirit of football.

That it wasn't in the end, that all the efforts to mark closure on 23 years of a smearing denial of justice for the victims of Hillsborough, met the reward of a large group of Manchester United fans chanting into a stadium now empty but for their police escorts, "Always the victims, never your fault", left football pretty much back to where it started after a week of churning emotion and so many good intentions. A roll call of great names from both clubs had made their cries for decency – and then held their breath.

Sir Bobby Charlton even walked on to the pitch with a huge bouquet of red roses to present to the great Anfield hero Ian Rush.

It was supposed to be the day when the supporters of English football's two most successful clubs made a pact against the worst of their past, when they saw that two sets of minorities had to accept finally that they not only disfigured themselves but the whole game with their sneering references to the tragedies of Hillsborough and Munich.

The worst of the obscenity went missing, it is true. Early in the game some United fans made chanted inquiries about the whereabouts of the "Munich songs".

There was a relatively mild riposte from the Kop, but then at the finish, when referee Mark Halsey left the field under a tide of booing for his decision to dismiss Liverpool's Jonjo Shelvey for a reckless tackle on United defender Jonny Evans, we were back in the old routines of tribal warfare.

It was probably inevitable in all but the return of the "victimhood" chants which surged again – as they had in the wake of the Independent Panel report which had so completely absolved the Hillsborough victims of any contribution to their own fate – as the United fans waited to be marched from the ground.

But the old charge grew in volume and force and it made you suspect that in some corners of this ancient rivalry the hatred will continue to be nourished. What we had was a match most memorable for a relentlessly growing bad temper, on the field and the terraces.

It might have been different if Steven Gerrard had been able to hold on to his status as the day's most conspicuous guardian of the best spirit of his football club.

Gerrard, apparently, had persuaded Suarez to shake the hand of the man whose charges of racism had led to an eight-match ban and one of the most inflaming rows in the history of English football.

He had said that it was a day when players had to look beyond their own prejudices – and maybe privileges – and see there was a somewhat wider issue.

They had to say that this was a day which demanded only the best of performance and a commitment to what was left of the game's good name.

Gerrard could not have done much more. He ran with bite, scored a goal which briefly threatened to carry the 10 men to the season's first league victory. But some tasks were beyond him, of course.

He couldn't sanitise his team-mate Shelvey's tackles – either on Rafael da Silva or Evans. He couldn't sustain Liverpool's edge for any longer than that little while when they justified Brendan Rodgers' claim that the best team lost.

He couldn't turn back the pressure from numerically superior opponents whose victory, through goals from Rafael and Robin van Persie, became as inevitable as the descent of that first bright hope that this indeed might be a new football day.

No, Gerrard couldn't do any of those things, hard though he tried, and then when you heard suggestions that the hardcore United fans had taken up their old stance in response to some Liverpool fans making aeroplane gestures you wondered who could. Who could break the cycle of football hatred? In the dusk old friends, and ferocious rivals, like Ian Callaghan of Liverpool and Charlton of United, made their farewells and naturally they put on the bravest of faces.

They had done their best, right down to some of the youngest of the old guard, Robbie Fowler. They had made their pleas and there had been red roses and balloons.

It was just unfortunate that there appeared to be strain of hatred in football which might just never die.