James Lawton: Ugly chants born of misplaced hatred and not of passion

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The Liverpool fans who shouted "Munich scum" at the Manchester United supporters who were being marched into Anfield between columns of Merseyside riot police were standing just a few yards from the main gates, where an eternal flame burns on the memorial stone to those who died at Hillsborough.

They seemed oblivious to the hateful irony, and when later some United fans shouted their insults to the memory of the Hillsborough dead there were more shouts of "Munich" from Liverpool ranks.

The left-hand corner of the main stand, from where Liverpool fans traded the most sickening taunts with the United contingent facing The Kop for the 90 minutes of what should have been an absorbing Cup tie, was a place where hatred was expressed in varying degrees of intensity, but its disfiguring presence was never absent.

Liverpool fans celebrated the crash which destroyed the cream of English football who just happened to play for Manchester United. The United riposte was gloating cries over the deaths of innocent Merseysiders. At one point there was a chant from the United fans of "There's only one Michael Shields." Shields is the Liverpool fan held in Bulgaria over an assault on a local barman. He maintains his innocence.

There would, you knew, be other claims at the end of this scabrous afternoon. The principal one was that the incessant hatred is simply a fact of football life; it is out there, it is unshakeable and anyone who still cares about the game, for all its diving and grabbing and general cheating, is obliged to live with it.

This, presumably, included the gut-churning amusement at the disaster that befell United's Alan Smith.

The Liverpool fans wanted to know how their hero John Arne Riise had broken Smith's leg and dislocated his ankle so hideously some team-mates and opponents could not stand to look as the medics attempted to secure his injuries before lifting him on to a stretcher. In fact, in trying to block Riise's free-kick, Smith had fallen back and inflicted the injuries on himself.

Later someone tried to draw the Liverpool manager, Rafael Benitez, into some reaction to the cries of the fans. His reply was one that sometimes provokes accusations of evasion, even hypocrisy. But when Benitez said his English was not so good that he could quite understand what the Liverpool fans were chanting he was surely beyond criticism.

Benitez is building a team and lurching into ancient hatreds is no part of his brief. However, it did make you think of some of the pre-match comments in defence of the United captain, Gary Neville.

The only acceptable one might have been that Neville, 31 years old and one of the most experienced professionals in England, was utterly oblivious to the filthy undercurrents on the terraces whenever United and Liverpool meet on the field. What did Neville imagine he was brewing when he ran down the Old Trafford pitch a few weeks ago and postured before the Liverpool fans after United's late winner?

On Saturday morning we had been treated to the "overview" of Rio Ferdinand, who declared: "There's no way on earth Gary should have been charged. Do we really want to kill off all the passion in the game and make it like going to the cinema? Why shouldn't he celebrate when his own Manchester United score a goal? I'd rather Gary than a cold fish who just walks off the park or ties his bootlaces on the centre line while everyone else is celebrating."

Ferdinand - no more than Neville - seems not to understand how easy it is to stoke up sickeningly heightened emotion when it is commonplace to gloat over tragic death, when the response to Wayne Rooney touching the ball is a volley of "fat bastard, fat bastard". That was another little formality on Saturday.

Aggravating the spirit still further was that this was a proper Cup tie. United's midfield remained woeful and Liverpool might have added two goals to Peter Crouch's if the otherwise excellent Steve Finnan had pulled the trigger with a little more authority when Steve Gerrard found him alone on the right side of the box. Harry Kewell also snatched at what should have been, for a player of his skill, a comfortable opportunity. However, there was an edge to the contest right until the last kick, one that in another football age would have guaranteed a compelling need for attention on the terraces.

Instead we had the fusillades of grievous, grotesque insult. We had the mockery of sport. We had the need for every high-earning pro to look at his responsibilities, to his employers and those decent supporters who have not been engulfed by the tides of hate.

Hours after the game riot wagons roared down Scotland Road. Mostly preventive action, no doubt, but it still brought more poison to an afternoon that should have been memorable for much better reasons. "Do we really want to kill off passion?" Rio Ferdinand asked. No, not passion, but the hatred borne by malignant lemmings.

The fallen Smith has known his moments of controversy, but he has one overwhelming characteristic. It is to play with every scrap of ability. Once he was despised by United fans for no better reason than he had played for Leeds. Now, at Anfield, the worst moment of his career was a matter for mockery because he played for United. It was especially sad to note he had made his debut in this ground. He came on as a substitute and scored. Now his career might be over and some fans thought it amusing. One shouted: "Get the shite off the field."

Ferdinand warned that we shouldn't kill off football passion. But what did passion have to do with it?