James Lawton: Sick chants at Anfield must be punished with life bans
Wherever you turn, there is big-name entreaty for an outbreak of decency
It doesn't seem so long ago but really it was another lifetime. Goodison Park, in November 1963, held a minute's silence the day after the assassination of President John F Kennedy. You could have heard a dog bark in Bootle.
Then there was a jeer and a shout. "Long live, Khrushchev," it said. Soon enough the author was led away by two police officers.
Normal service was resumed. Normal service then was football unpolluted by hatred among those who supported the game. There was no internet on which to say things which, if uttered in an average, peaceable pub, would have led to the swiftest slap in the mouth.
If there was any ridicule to be made it was directed at the professional entertainers. When Everton installed under-pitch heating one fan, exasperated by a poor performance from his heroes, yelled, "Switch it on and fry the f****rs."
That was about as extreme as it got. You mocked the players, your own long-tested faith in them, and some visiting star such as Denis Law or Jimmy Greaves had to be on top of his game to avoid the most scathing criticism.
You would have been considered either mentally unstable or unspeakably evil if you mocked anyone's dead.
No, 49 years is not so long ago in the general way of things but it is when you are looking for a time when going to a football match didn't require you to brave a most appalling breakdown in human feelings.
It is another age, certainly, when you add up all the column inches and the broadcast time that is being devoted to the almost certainly doomed attempt to prevent some fresh obscenities on the terraces of Anfield tomorrow when Liverpool meet Manchester United.
Wherever you turn, there is big-name entreaty for an outbreak of decency in the wake of the brilliantly systematic report that absolved so profoundly the Liverpool fans of any responsibility for the tragedy of their 96 Hillsborough dead. They are even flying pretty balloons to engender the right mood of accommodation. You wish all of them well, from Sir Alex Ferguson and Sandy Busby, son of Sir Matt, to Kenny Dalglish, who gave so much of himself – more than he may ever have reckoned, perhaps – during the worst of the Hillsborough days, and the once mischievous Anfield icon Robbie Fowler, but you wonder if the stout Christian, Bishop of Liverpool and leader of the Independent Panel, James Jones, might have one further contribution to make. Perhaps he could depute his crack exorcist to a place bracing itself against the prospect of some more of the devil's work.
Maybe Fowler, returning to the subject yesterday, is on the soundest ground when he urges a massive effort to isolate the hardcore of the chanters and then have them banned – for life.
It might be an exhaustive and expensive business, but how do you properly calculate the value of cleansing a multibillion pound industry which used to be about communal passion and joy and not a strain of virulence that seems beyond the cure of rational persuasion. Lowry's great picture, The Game, conveys wonderful expectation on the way to the ground. Tomorrow at Anfield there may well be some of that, but how much of it is clouded by the fear of some gut-deep revulsion at the first mention of Munich scum or Liverpool's Hillsborough victimhood? Too much, because the story is not Brendan Rodgers' attempt to remodel Liverpool in the most courageous fashion, or Ferguson's latest drive to reanimate his team, but whether or not two sets of malignant minorities can be silenced at least for a day.
United's Nemanja Vidic, who has the perspective of a bestial civil war in the Balkans, made his plea for sanity yesterday and it carried some impressive conviction. But then his appeal was essentially to the conscience and that doesn't work if a collective one does not exist.
Fowler is probably right. You ban the hate peddlers and perhaps even support the effort with the threat of ground closures. That might be difficult, and expensive, but what is the alternative? It is the toleration of hatred which appears to have no bounds, which trades on the grief and the pain of others, and if it was right for football to have been put on guard against racism and homophobia this week it is also necessary to attack this other cancer which has grown so strong down the years.
When hooliganism was such a threat to English football, when it was exported wherever we played the game, it was easy enough to diagnose the source of the problem. It was the desire for attention, the absurd proposition that by the worst of their behaviour the hooligans had achieved some kind of place within the raddled body of the game.
The hooligans reviewed their coverage, noted the depth of the headlines they had won with one outrage or another. After the sacking of the old harbour district in Marseilles, an apparently mild local citizen spat at the feet of an Englishman when he recognised his accent. It was the disfiguring of the image of an entire nation and, if there was disgust at the monkey chants produced by Lazio fans at White Hart Lane this week, what rage do we truly reserve for those who also spit, in this case on the memory of a brilliant young football team and 96 people of all ages who, despite being pronounced blameless from the dispatch box of the House of Commons, are still so casually, viciously abused?
For the last few days those who perpetrate such horror of the spirit, who are so proud to announce themselves as some tawdry little army of the night, have been the subject of quite relentless pleading. It has been more than enough. Fowler is right. If they are lost to decency, they are simply not worth the debate. They should be photographed, tracked down and weeded out.
The issue is not so much right or wrong but the need for some quite serious fumigation.
Adieu Brian Woolnough, a genuine football man
There have been many warm tributes this week to Brian Woolnough, not least from Sir Alex Ferguson, who praised the strength and sometimes uncomfortable relevance of his questioning.
It was a fine accolade for a brave and always affable sports writer who will be sorely missed by his family and colleagues and a wide circle of friends.
Woolnough made his impact at the hard edge of football reporting and also established himself as a successful television presenter. He learnt new tricks but at the heart of his career there was an enduring passion for football.
Once, while covering West Ham United in a Cup-Winners' Cup tie in Yerevan, Armenia, he took part in a post-training kick-about during which the excellent goalkeeper Mervyn Day effortlessly frustrated the best efforts of the fourth estate – except for Woolnough.
He arched the ball quite beautifully beyond Day and then bowed to the empty terracing in the big old stadium. It was hard to say how many scoops he would have traded for a bigger audience but it might have been a few.
Time to reclaim your cool and get the keeper onside, Roberto Mancini
The considerable charm of Roberto Mancini that evaporated so swiftly during his intemperate attack on his goalkeeper Joe Hart needs to be reactivated with some urgency.
Hart may have been unwise to question the resolve of Manchester City at such a fraught moment but the essence of his argument could hardly be faulted. By comparison, Mancini appeared both seriously rattled and eager to shift the blame.
Before his latest challenge, the City manager was most voluble about his desperate need for new players. In such circumstances, quite a clever trick is to make sure you get the best out of those you have. In Madrid, he did not produce exactly an impressive example.
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