Football: Merseyside on defence over Fowler furore

Casting Graeme Le Saux as the innocent party has left Scousers seeing red. By Guy Hodgson
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The Independent Online
TO LISTEN to the radio stations in Merseyside these past 10 days you would think you were in a different country where values have become separated if not divorced from the rest of the UK. Alienation is the word.

The subject that has levered Liverpool off the mainland and into the Irish Sea is Robbie Fowler, who opinion formers have cast as the indefensible since his childish spat with Graeme Le Saux two weekends ago. Well his own are defending him and doing so vigorously.

Not because they have any truck with Fowler's homophobic gestures at Le Saux - even drinkers in pubs in the streets surrounding Anfield where sympathy ought to run deepest found his behaviour unsavoury - but because they perceive the incident has been used as a convenient stick to whack the nation's favourite punchbag: the Scouser. A siege mentality is developing if it has not already erected walls and a moat.

"Reading and hearing the views of many people you'd think Graeme Le Saux deserved the OBE for putting violence where it belongs," Chris Bascombe wrote in the Liverpool Echo. "From now on every time a player is insulted by another, a flying elbow should be meted out. And when the FA investigate the guilty party should hold up his hands and say, `sorry, but he called me a nancy boy.'

"It should be put straight from the outset that what Fowler did was childish. No one could dispute that. Prejudice, in any form, is a particularly vile vice. However, for the FA to accuse him of misconduct when he has been the victim of a pre-meditated, and let's be honest here, underhand attack defies belief. Fowler's actions were the result of lack of thought, rather than prejudice."

That is the flavour of the mood and articulated less fluently almost to a man and woman by callers to local radio phone-ins. The gist being that Le Saux has won sympathy because he is middle class, intelligent and out of the mainstream of dressing-room philosophy. Most of all, they believe, he has been lucky that the man crudely calling his sexuality into question is a Scally.

"We do think we're being got at," one supporter said, tapping the torrent of grievance, "and, okay, maybe we've got chips on our shoulders but southern journalists like having a go. You can't deny that." An Everton fan added: "If you're a Scouser you're scum; it's as simple as that."

Given that 35 years ago even some Mancunians tried to ape the Scouse accent made trendy by the Beatles, this is a massive turnaround in perception socially and culturally. Maybe it is payback time for when Liverpool was as trendy as Carnaby Street or when the football club that carries the city's name dominated Europe. The feeling flourished with newspaper coverage of Hillsborough and was compounded by the Jamie Bulger murder, where the whole city was made to feel guilty, so suspicion of journalistic motives is rife.

"Every club in the country will say the media is against them," said Bascombe, who also edits The Kop magazine. "But people seem to be almost gloating in Liverpool's decline. And the team is identified with the city. The view has almost become `Robbie's a Scouser so he must be a bigot', which is complete nonsense. Merseyside has its idiots and its louts but it's not better or worse than any other city in this country."

Alan Edge, the author of Faith Of Our Fathers - Football As A Religion and a season ticket holder at Anfield, admits Scousers are raw-nerved but argues they have good reason when some of the cliches attached to Liverpool would be classed as racist if they were levelled at other communities. The Fowler incident, he believes, was jumped upon because it fitted the stereotype of the Scouser as the "anti-social, anti-bourgeois Scally".

"There are ancient slurs," he said, "which paint Liverpudlians as lazy, casual and thieving and more recent ones about us being mawkish and and whining. It does get up our noses, especially those of us who know these accusations could be levelled at anyone, anywhere.

"The floodgates of criticism opened with Militant and since then we've had Heysel, Hillsborough, Jamie Bulger and widespread misrepresentation in the media painting a city in decline. There is a tendency among the media to target Scousers and there is also the compensatory tendency in the city to see offence where none has been intended."

Certainly offence has been perceived this time and on Merseyside the suspicion is that if the two protagonists had swapped roles Fowler would still have been cast as the villain for cowardly elbowing Le Saux. Tommy Smith, the former Liverpool captain, subscribes to that view saying the controversy has escalated "with more than a little bit of southern spin".

He says a one-sided picture has been painted "of loutish behaviour on the part of the lad from the north against sheer frustration on the part of an unfortunate family man from the south.

"Le Saux has been cast as the innocent. Sneaking up behind an opponent and elbowing him in the back of the head is clearly an irrelevance when weighed up against the accusations against Fowler. It seems he should be hung, drawn and quartered with his head displayed on a spike at the Tower of London."

That is the voice of Merseyside calling and its echoes of alienation has implications that go beyond football. Just because you are paranoid, as the saying goes, it does not mean someone isn't trying to get you - and Liverpool believes the knives are out.