Liverpool's fans turn a whiter shade of pale

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The Independent Online
John Barnes and Stan Collymore wearing coloured boots; the unselected ponced up in cream suits; Neil Ruddock carefully adjusting dark shades - when Liverpool took the field at Wembley it was enough to have turned Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley a whiter shade of pale.

Times are a-changing, with football becoming as much showbusiness as sport, but surely not enough to intrude upon the Liverpool ethos: nothing flash, and the priorities of touch, pass and calculated togetherness. Surely they, more than any other English club, would stoutly resist the more extravagant commercial blandishments.

Saturday made you wonder about this, and think perhaps that in his stout efforts to restore values that made Liverpool internationally famous (even in Manchester United's present ascendancy, four European Cups in seven years is beyond sensible prophesy), Roy Evans has conceded more to modern tastes than suits his nature. "You grow stronger from disappointment," he said.

The disappointment for Evans was not so much the result, but collective under-achievement. Before a loss to Manchester United in the 1977 final, Paisley confided anger at the Football Association's blunt refusal to defer a replay until after Liverpool's first appearance in the European Cup final. "It means changing the way we play, going all out to win," he said.

Nobody should think the remark curious. Patience then was the key to success for Liverpool. In normal circumstances, not just over 90 minutes at Wembley, but through extra time and, if necessary, another match. If, for a long time, it looked as though Saturday's unsatisfactory encounter would not provide a winner, there was always a sense that the cup would return to Manchester, not Merseyside.

The idea of a brilliant game to top off an exciting season was, of course, in ignorance of history. Few finals have lived up to billing, made more misleading today by the incessant stridency of television, so what we saw did not surprise this grizzled reporter. To suppose that another League championship would encourage Manchester United to explore the limits of their potential paid no account to Alex Ferguson's sense of destiny, and what achievement meant to his club and its supporters.

When United live up to his expectations, one of Ferguson's favourite sayings is: "They played their football." But a work ethic, fostered in the Govan shipyards, is strong in him, too. In common with so many before him, and others to come, Ferguson put the result above the performance: "We were not at our best, but it was marvellous for our supporters." A repeated double, and Europe is again spreading out before them.

One statistic was completely revealing: only two offsides in the match. It speaks of getting numbers behind the ball, space at a premium. Inevitably, this brought complaints from customers, some paying pounds 115 for the experience. Thought by some to be in its Golden Age, with attendances increasing, the English game, to my mind, is in a strange phase, more to do with modern tribalism than traditional perceptions. Thousands could be observed at Wembley not watching the game but shouting insults from segregated bastions, supremacy their only consideration.

From the beginning, Liverpool played as though they had only recently been introduced to each other, their traditional care of the ball suddenly deserting them. One of the advantages United possess over contemporary combinations is Roy Keane's energetic presence in midfield. There are more accomplished members of Ferguson's team, but it is doubtful if he considers any, Eric Cantona included, to be more important. If Keane stood out, deservedly collecting the Littlewoods trophy as man of the match, it was appropriate Cantona should have the final say.

Phil Babb's unnecessarily wild clearance when David James could have comfortably picked up the ball brought United a corner that did for Liverpool with five minutes left to play. David Beckham's outswinger lured James into his first error of the game, and Cantona, taking two steps back, fired in an unstoppable volley. What a season it has been for the Frenchman at United.

As for Liverpool, a good idea might be to dump the suits on Oxfam and order a uniform set of footwear.