The Last Word: Why Hillsborough will mean Liverpool never walk alone
The Anfield club have their detractors, but not when it comes to the search for truth and justice
Sunday 23 December 2012
The achievement might be devalued in this age of emotional incontinence and the ephemeral, but there will be something strangely reassuring about a song dedicated to the Hillsborough families being unveiled as the Christmas No 1 this evening.
The cover of the single features the most striking image of football's year, Liverpool and Everton mascots holding hands in a simple gesture of faith, trust and communal understanding. Truth has been prised out of the system. Justice, and a degree of closure, beckon.
That is something to hold on to as the game's annus horribilis staggers to a close. Liverpool, the club rather than the city, have been uncannily involved in its central themes and issues.
The tone for 2012 was set in the final hours of 2011 when, in an all too typical attempt at news management, the Football Association released their Luis Suarez report. New Year's Eve, for many observers, was spent in a moral maze. Racism remains the dominant topic on an agenda scoured by guilt and soured by ambiguity.
Liverpool Football Club lost their bearings, and then their legend, this year. There was an awful irony in the fundamentalism which resulted in the sacking of Kenny Dalglish, an apparently inconceivable act of disregard for a man who was a conduit of so much pain in the immediate aftermath of disaster. Hillsborough retains a unique resonance, 23 years on.
I shared a radio studio with Ray Houghton this week. He played in that FA Cup semi-final, and its burden was reflected in the emotional extremes of anger and compassion which defined our conversation. When he mourned "the families will never be free", I noticed the moistness in his eyes.
Liverpool supporters are similarly scarred. They are inherently tribal, instinctively protective of what they perceive as disrespect.
Dalglish failed to move with the times, which have changed since Bill Shankly asserted: "At a football club, there's a holy trinity – the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don't come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques."
Conventional wisdom once suggested football was doomed when the casual fan knew the name of the club's chairman. They now know his company profile, the email address of his PR consultant and they live-blog the shareholders meeting. A new breed of owner has taken superficial familiarity to new levels. The open letter, a form of mass communication favoured by Liverpool's John W Henry, is football's equivalent of a Papal address.
The rituals are joyless, and the laws of economics prevail. Liverpool fans who would have once playfully mocked the eccentricity and inadequacy of a Jimmy Traoré now blame the club's lack of clout on an inability to monetise the brand name in North America and Asia.
Liverpool cannot compete financially, so they have invested in the inherent decency of Brendan Rodgers. His personal qualities will win him time, but while there is an acceptance of the legitimacy of his tactical principles, his recruitment policy has yet to convince.
His determination to resist the unsustainable demands of Daniel Sturridge's agents is admirable, yet fails to explain why he is ready to risk limited resources on the flawed personality of a young player who typifies the current insistence on exploiting success before it is achieved. Signing Raheem Sterling on a long-term contract is significant, because of the club's culture of developing their own talent. They are an institution worth cherishing for what they represent. Liverpool are for life, not just for Christmas.
Draper's job is just a tennis racket
When Roger Draper was in charge of Sport England, the grass-roots quango, his staff referred to him as Ken, after Barbie's plastic boyfriend.
I worked in a parallel role in elite sport and understood the thinly veiled insult. In my opinion Draper lacked intellectual rigour and authenticity of purpose. His apparent obsession with image projection hinted at vanity and vulnerability.
He receives £640,000 a year and yet the Lawn Tennis Association are the most derided organisation in British sport. They have had three years' Lottery funding withdrawn, yet still waste the £30m a year they siphon off Wimbledon profits. Their development system did not
produce Andy Murray, Laura Robson or Heather Watson.
Draper does not deign to respond to criticism – the Labour peer Baroness Billingham called the LTA "useless" – but left several hostages to fortune in his latest interview, insisting: "We want to make sure we leave a legacy". That would be a decline in weekly participation from 487,500 to 445,100 over the last four years, then.
He added: "It is all about being ready for the key moments." This may explain his fondness for wearing Davis Cup tracksuits.
He embodies a central problem in British sport, the apparent invulnerability of self-promoting executives. He should lose his job but will probably survive in superannuated comfort.
It is sometimes hard to accentuate the positives in football. But the wide support for Barcelona's coach, Tito Vilanova, whose cancer has recurred, is a redeeming factor. At this of all times of the year we need to be reminded that football is not a life-or-death business.
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