Nemanja Vidic: 'Both Liverpool and Manchester United have had tragedies, now it is the time for respect'
United captain, who grew up in war-torn Serbia and lost his best friend at 20, calls on supporters to honour the Hillsborough victims and rebuild ties at Anfield
Nemanja Vidic has lived enough and seen enough to know about other people's tragedies. When his home town of Uzice was bombarded in the Balkan conflict, he only managed to escape being drafted into the army because he played for Red Star Belgrade, a source of national pride. He was 20 when he lost his best friend Vladimir Dimitrijevic to a heart attack sustained on the pitch when they were both playing for the team.
All of which means that the Manchester United captain, who with Liverpool counterpart Steven Gerrard will release 96 balloons across the Anfield turf when their two teams meet on Sunday, can talk with meaning about how the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel elevate a football match between two inveterate foes beyond the realm of petty chants and rivalries.
"Football is important but it is never more important than life, any life," Vidic said. "It doesn't matter if it's in England or Serbia or any part of the world. I think, over the years, supporters in England have come across with respect after the many tragedies. I think we are on a test again. I think Man United fans are always an example of how they should behave."
The proof that eloquence is not guaranteed to provide a lead for others to follow came at Old Trafford six days ago when Sir Alex Ferguson's reminder that "there are always opportunities to show your greatness and I think this is another one" came to nothing. The Old Trafford chants about Liverpool victimhood during the game against Wigan a mere 24 hours later were wretched.
Yet there is growing cause for optimism where Sunday's game – the first at Anfield since the panel report laid bare 23 years of institutional failings and cover-up – is concerned. Far more than this week's dialogue between the United chief executive, David Gill, and the Liverpool managing director, Ian Ayre, the signals from supporter representatives reflect how any who take Hillsborough in vain will find themselves ostracised.
An editorial in the September issue of United magazine Red Issue, published this week, states that "every time the police, CPS [Crown Prosecution Service], FA, media and establishment try it on in future, the words 'Hillsborough enquiry' will ensure the world will have to cock a more sympathetic ear, because it has been proved beyond doubt what these dark forces are capable of trying to do, in concert, to save their own hides and feather their own nests, at football supporters' expense."
The message is clear and the award-winning Anfield Wrap podcast's inclusion of a Manchester United fan, Steve Anderson, in its own broadcast this week underlined how the key people are delivering the messages. The Manchester United Supporters' Trust reminded supporters yesterday that the '"always the victim" chant "may be perceived" by Liverpool supporters and others as "inappropriate on Sunday".
For some of the United players a disaster which occurred nearly quarter of a century ago is too distant to comprehend. Luis Nani did not seem much aware when tackled on the topic late on Wednesday night. "You what? I heard something," he said. "I don't know. Maybe," scurrying off with half a reply to the question of whether the emotion of the occasion may give Brendan Rodgers' side strength.
Vidic knows the significance, even though he was a seven-year-old and Uzice belonged to a peaceful Yugoslavia in April 1989. "I have read more about that," he said. "It's a long time ago and I don't want to [go] back that far but I think most important is that we have to respect any life. We [would] love some people to respect the players."
Sunday's layers of potential conflict are uncomfortably deep. The presence of Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra on the same pitch is another of them. It will be up to the referee, the two captains and two managers in their 12.30pm pre-match meeting on Sunday to decide whether Liverpool will walk "across" Man United to shake hands or whether they stand still and United walk down the Liverpool line. The custom is for the home team to do the walk "to welcome the visitors to their home." At Old Trafford last season, it was decided to reverse this and for visitors Liverpool to do the walk – because there is less chance of a "moving" player – Suarez – being embarrassed than a static one, who could get a number of people refusing to shake. Evra was escorted around Wednesday night's mixed zone by a United official, just in case he was tempted to talk.
"If they shake hands, they shake hands – I don't think it's the most important thing in the world," Vidic said. "I think it's important to not do any stupid things in the game, to go there and play football."
He has his own history with Liverpool. He was dismissed three times in 13 months against Rafael Benitez's side, from September 2008, when Fernando Torres had the mark on him. The selection of Mark Halsey as Sunday's referee – a man highly capable of the necessary perspective and sense – is deeply gratifying, though Vidic still harbours some indignation about those dismissals.
"I have had two or three times two yellow cards," he said. "I think the referees are under big pressure there because the stadium is tight and it's hostile. Obviously one good thing was two yellows I had in 87 and 89 minutes, which was not that bad."
Vidic questions whether the panel's publication has damaged the image of football. "I don't know why we have to talk at all about the 'bad image'," he said and the Football Association certainly feels United could have done no more to ensure respect on Sunday. Some things fall beyond anyone's control, though.
"There is a lot of history with these two clubs," Vidic reflected. "We have some history as well. We have some tragedies – and they have too. We should respect each other... We have to show an example, be on top of the bad situation, behave well."
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