The Nick Townsend column: Liverpool's the city of censure as fans delude themselves
First they blasted Rafa's tactics and rolled out the red carpet for the Yanks – now Anfield crowd's huge U-turn is dubious at best
Sunday 27 January 2008
Maybe the results weren't authenticated by the Electoral Reform Society, but there was no doubt that the voting was near-unanimous. Most Liverpool supporters wanted the club's American owners tohightail it out of town.
In the same poll, Rafa Benitez, notwithstanding another home draw, on Monday against Aston Villa, in which his team's fire failed to match the supporters' ire at events off the field, is virtually guaranteed the freedom of Merseyside. Which, Messrs Hicks and Gillett might maintain, is kinda curious – if, that is, they haven't already discovered that football followers can be a well-intentioned but capricious bunch.
For most of the past year, if this observer recalls correctly, Liverpool supporters have been very happy to hitch themselves to the Americans' wagon train. And earlier this season, you couldn't turn on your radio without another phone-in domin-ated by the indignant bellowing of irate Scousers demanding Benitez's removal for crimes against tactical logic.
Now it's all about-turn. Not for a moment would this column suggest: we told you so. But it did at least counsel caution at the coming of the good ol' boys. Nearly a year ago, it included the view that, though Liverpool FC and Dubai International Capital appeared unlikely bedfellows, Sheikh Mohammed's name was a byword for honourable dealings. "Whether Liverpool, and chairman David Moores, live to rue the day that they lost the opportunity of a takeover by Sheikh Mohammed's DIC when the board considered an enhanced bid for their shares by an alliance of the American tycoon George Gillett and Tom Hicks, the George Bush-backing Texan, remains to be seen," the item concluded.
Slogans daubed on many a mum's old bedsheets and the contempt rolling down the Kop confirm that, indeed, they have lived to regret the day. How swiftly has the 2008 City of Culture become the city of censure. It brings to mind that Oscar-nominated film No Country for Old Men. Liverpool's answer would be: No City For Old Americans On The Make, as many of the faithful perceive them.
Whether the completion by Hicks and Gillett on Friday of a £350 million refinancing package, allied to their pledge of "continuing and enthusiastic support [for Benitez] as the club's manager", the go-ahead for a new stadium and £45m for future player transfers alters the pair's profile among the city's Red-skins is uncertain. At best, one imagines, there will be an uneasy stand-off.
Undoubtedly there will be those who insist that Hicks and Gillett can never emerge from the dark side of their affections; particularly those who delude themselves that Liverpool can again become the club they remember so fondly, and, indeed, football recalls so respectfully, under Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley. A campaign group, Reclaim the Kop, promote the club's "traditional values", and their spokesman claims that Hicks and Gillett have "underestimated us badly, and badly underestimatedour love for Rafa".
They have certainly eschewed "the Liverpool way" in preference for doing things the Tottenham way; namely, identifying a possible successor, Jürgen Klinsmann, to follow Benitez, while the Spaniard is still in post. Even Sir Alex Ferguson has stuck his not-inconsiderable oar in, insisting that the Klinsmann talks had been "a bad piece of business on Liverpool's part".
However, though the co-owners may indeed have committed a naïve and, in some eyes, near-treasonable, act, why the corresponding support for Benitez? The Spaniard was given the resources to acquire FernandoTorres and several others, yet he has singularly failed to satisfy the pre-season expectations. Even qualification for next season's Champions League is under threat from, of all rivals, Everton.
For the moment, the supporters attribute the club's shortcomings primarily to the Americans, whom they regard as having merely purchased the club as an investment vehicle. They lament the loss of Anfield's soul in the process. Hicks and Gillett may dispute that claim, yet there's a simple moral here: if you harbourgreat expectations of your team – Europe and the higher echelonsof the Premier League – don't expect the club's owners to be local, benign benefactors, the kind of men who in the past sought glory by association and if necessary, at cost. They still exist – but in the lower leagues.
Seven of the top half of the Premier League owners and chairman are foreign; many are only occasional visitors. Remove Arsenal and Everton from the top eight and they are, in descending order, American (Manchester United), Russian (Chelsea), American (Liverpool), American (Aston Villa), Thai (Manchester City), and the Israel-based son of a Russian-born Lithuanian (Portsmouth).
Those high achievers sail under a flag of convenience, and if that happens to be the Stars and Stripes, so be it. That's the deal when you metamorphose from community club to global institution, as Liverpool have done. You accept the fact that those involved will be remote, possibly absentee landlords; men, at least partly, if not primarily, lured by the prospect of profit, for whom tradition and history don't count for an awful lot.
Villa's Randy Lerner appears a rare exception to that rule. But isn't the truth that, for all followers' demands for someone who will maintain and respect their club's tradition, the underlying desire is for financial largesse? If Liverpool were about to breast the Premier League title tape, that glorious past would simply be consigned to nostalgia, along with the Cavern and Freddie and the Dreamers. And never mind whose dollar bills were behind it.
Time has come for a minute's serious reflection on tribal hatred
Manchester United have refused to surrender. The 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster, in which eight Busby Babes, including Duncan Edwards, were killed, will be remembered with an act of solemnity, rather than one more appropriate to the leading players at the theatre (you know, that curious place Kevin Keegan claims people "Down South" prefer to go on their days off rather than football).
Some will say sanity has prevailed. The disquieting part is that there should have been any discussion to be had in the first place over United's plans to hold a minute's silence at the Manchester derby in two weeks' time.
Some of the utterances have defied belief. No doubt Kevin Parker, secretary of the official Manchester City Supporters' Club, would argue he was being realistic in suggesting a minute's applause instead, saying, "unfortunately we have to accept that, although there is some friendly rivalry between supporters, there is also a great deal of hatred".
Maybe, on reflection, he will appreciate how crass, insensitive and irresponsible his words were. We are speaking of the deaths of 23 people; an event that overwhelmed a nation, is still in the living memory of many, particularly in the city itself, and will certainly be in the minds of many relatives. Yet rather than offer a belief that all genuine City supporters will join with those of United in respecting the poignancy of the moment, he idly employs the word "hatred".
Still, at least the truth is out. In suggesting a minute's applause with the explanation "in this way, any idiot who doesn't share these views will be drowned out rather than be highlighted", there was an acceptance by Parker that this irritating modern phenomenon is a cop-out; a corruption of an age-old tradition merely to accommodate the few who may possibly attempt to ruin it.
The FA, of course, cravenly opted out of their responsibility, promising "images" but no minute's silence or even applause, on the anniversary itself at Wembley on Wednesday week, when England face Switzerland. Presumably they too are concerned about anti-United "hatred".
Perhaps it is time, as one of Liverpool's finest philosophers said, for all concerned to give peace a chance.
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