James Lawton: Grant's most haunting of pilgrimages a valuable reminder of football's real place

Many recoil at the idea of English football deserting its roots for profit
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The Independent Football

Frank Lampard scored a penalty and wept for his mother. His manager, Avram Grant, went to Auschwitz, where the mourning goes on for millions of mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts and all the children, some of whose faces look out in bewilderment and fear and, most heart-wrenchingly of all, in some cases hope, from the framed photographs which hang from what seems like the endless wall of a plain-washed corridor.

Lampard's situation was an integral part of the build-up to the Champions League semi-final with Liverpool – and the inevitable backcloth to one of his best performances for the club, one already striking in its control and perceptive passing long before his vital extra-time penalty.

Grant, prostrating himself on the field and wearing a Star of David armband, was the unexpected participant in extreme emotion.

Yet didn't both of them invite the same question: since the tragedies of Munich and Heysel and Hillsborough, has there ever been such an English football season so calculated to question the weight we give to the partisan obsessions of the game which Bill Shankly, however ironically, asserted was more important than life or death?

It is, after all, a season that started out amid a series of statements concerning the naked power of wealth – and not least among them the acquisition of Manchester City by a man reviled by no less than Amnesty International – but just cannot seem to shake off outbreaks of humanity. Or, if you prefer, repel something more than the usual ration of human feeling.

Irony? Where do you begin? Maybe with the outcry by supporters, some of whom now face ruinously expensive trips if they want to support their clubs in the Champions League final in Moscow, at the idea that the Premier League would willingly destroy its integrity by hawking itself in places like Kuala Lumpur and Sydney.

Even within the professional game, many recoiled at the idea of English football deserting its roots for moments of maximum profit.

Sir Alex Ferguson was so fearful that some of his young millionaire superstars had become so detached from the founding ethos of Manchester United, a concern that may have been provoked by a player-organised Christmas party that apparently had all the inherent dignity of a Roman orgy, he had Sir Bobby Charlton speak to them on the meaning of Munich at its 50th anniversary.

But then when Grant this week sat down to write a letter to an Israeli newspaper which recalled the night-time screams of his father, who as a young man was required to bury most of his family in a Russian forest, we could only speculate on the timing of his own acknowledgement of the Holocaust.

One plausible theory was emotional overload, which may have been the reason for his bizarre, strangled press conference with journalists who had found it as hard to keep the jeers out of their questions as they had in their commentaries on a Chelsea season which, had it happened under his user-friendly predecessor Jose Mourinho, might have been deemed a masterclass in cool acceptance of a football club as it was rather than how he would have liked it to be.

This, in Mourinho's case, was the equivalent of a royal court, but for Grant respect was not something to be gained easily in the dressing room. It was of course built, with no mind to the cost until he lost the owner's favour, by the "Special One" – and which his successor had inherited not as some revolutionary young football man but an obscure friend of the owner.

Grant put a lot of this into the margins when he flew to Poland. It was, surely, at the very least, a personal statement which might explain a certain phlegmatic air in the face of the worst that football can throw at a man, not that its aim at Grant has been particularly acute recently.

It has already been pointed out frequently enough that the name of Grant never reached the lips of chanting Chelsea supporters this week – and that captain John Terry was a lone incredulous voice questioning suggestions that the manager might still be dismissed even in the wake of some annihilation of United in Moscow or unlikely Premier League success at the finishing post.

But then if Grant had wanted to find a place more insulated than Auschwitz against the important and long-term value of preferment in football, from the terraces and the press box to the office of the oligarch, he could have walked to the ends of the earth without success.

Nor could he have caused more reflections among that generation of leading English footballers who, because of the frequency of national team and club visits to Katowice for games against Poland and Gornik, were so often invited to travel to the concentration camp that has been so rigorously preserved.

It is a drive of an hour or so through the old coalfields of Silesia and anyone who has taken the journey knows that in his mind at least he will return there many times, and, at least at first, often in the dog hours of the night.

Nobby Stiles, the hero of Manchester United and England, made it 40 years ago but he says that it might have been yesterday. He grew up in a Catholic corner of Collyhurst, not so far from the Jewish district of Cheetham Hill, but those intervening streets shrivelled on the day he went to Auschwitz.

He recalls: "Even though we had been warned about the bleakness of the place, the fact that you wouldn't hear a bird sing or avoid the terrible sense of what happened there, I wasn't prepared for the experience. I saw everything, the cells, the gas chambers, the rooms where human experiments were carried out, the wall where so many were lined up and shot, the piles of children's shoes, the little offices at the corner of the blocks, which still had the old telephones and the notepads for compiling the lists for the execution squads.

"You looked out of the window of a room where so many had faced death and you could see the barbed wire and the railway sidings where thousands were unloaded in what would be the last days of their lives. It seemed all the more terrible because it was a beautiful, clear winter's day.

"You wanted to rush out of there and go straight to the airport and fly home and hug your children. For a long time afterwards I had bad dreams about Auschwitz and for a little while at least the idea of losing a football game didn't seem like the end of the world."

So if Stiles, who didn't have the blood of the victims in his veins, was so deeply affected along with so many visiting English footballers, how do we assess the effect on Grant, who has lived so long with the cries of his father?

We can only imagine that it deepens the perspective he takes to a football game, including the one he is due to attend on the banks of the Moscow river in a few weeks' time.

The day I went to Auschwitz a small band of England "fans" were being led away by Polish police. Their visit had ended swiftly a few yards into the camp, and near where an inmate was regularly hanged in the dusk to underline the need for discipline and to support the legend above the gates that announced "Work Makes Free". They also had their cameras confiscated, which seemed reasonable enough after they had been caught posing Hitler salutes.

Such an incident was maybe not so relevant to the feelings of Grant when this week he hugged his son at the most haunting place of pilgrimage the world has ever known. But perhaps it reminds us a little how so many of the attitudes brought to a football ground can make such a grotesque parody of the passions and regrets of real life.

Certainly, though, it might help explain why Avram Grant so rarely mistakes a football match for the outbreak of the Third World War.

Grant the football genius or one of the luckiest survivors the game has ever known? You can take your pick but the truth is probably neither. No more than Jose Mourinho, if he had ever beaten Liverpool in the Champions League or made a pilgrimage that took him beyond the glow of his own image.

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