On Wednesday afternoon I had an appointment at Anfield for which I was 20 minutes early, so to fill the time I mooched around the Liverpool FC museum – not a wholly comfortable experience for an Evertonian – and was interested to find that most of my fellow moochers were Spanish. Later, I encountered a party being shown around the stadium. Again, they were all Spanish. And outside, having their photographs taken in front of the statue of Bill Shankly, more Spaniards.
Now, I know that Liverpool under Rafa Benitez are flavoured more of tapas than Toxteth, but that didn't explain the Iberian presence at Anfield on Wednesday. What did, of course, was the previous evening's Champions League tie against Real Madrid, in which Real were humbled 4-0. Yet here were all these Madridistas, presumably still shell-shocked after being ejected so forcefully from the competition that their beloved club has won a record nine times, wandering around Anfield quite cheerfully. In the museum, six or seven of them watched with palpable fascination a video of Emlyn Hughes lifting the 1974 FA Cup.
Later that day, I took myself for a swift pint of Cains bitter at Liverpool's famous Philharmonic pub. Next to me at the bar, two middle-aged Spanish couples ordered four double brandies and, as far as their fractured English would permit, had some banter with the barmaid. They might have been drinking to drown their sorrows, but rarely have sorrows been so perkily drowned. I tried to deploy my O-level Spanish to eavesdrop, and heard something about the Beatles museum. Clearly, they were making the most of their trip, and weren't going to let a 5-0 aggregate thrashing ruin things.
At around about the same time in Rome, it later emerged, an Arsenal fan was being stabbed by a Roma supporter. That made the news; the hordes of Real Madrid fans having a lovely time in Liverpool didn't. It was ever thus. Football has always been more of a force for understanding and friendship between different nationalities than for animosity and violence. I wouldn't necessarily try to convince the stabbed Gooner, or the families of the two Leeds United fans murdered in Istanbul nine years ago, or indeed the families of the 39 people, mostly Juventus fans, killed at Heysel as they retreated from rampaging Liverpool fans in 1985, but it's a fact, nonetheless.
All of which brings me to today's Premier League showdown between Manchester United and Liverpool. Two days ago, Wayne Rooney said that "I grew up hating Liverpool, and that hasn't changed." Now, like Rooney I grew up an ardent Everton fan and, unlike Rooney, I still am. All that taunting I had to endure from gloating Koppite friends throughout my time at secondary school has left its mark, hence my discomfort in front of all those glittering medals and trophies in the Anfield museum.
I'm not overly fond of Liverpool, either. But influential young men like Rooney should never, ever use the word "hate" in reference to football, whether jokingly or not. I don't know whether he's bright enough to understand the reasons why, but someone at Old Trafford should try to explain.
'New Don' rises from the ashes in Australia's hour of need
While England's cricketers were labouring to a 1-0 series defeat against the West Indies, a series that they not-so-secretly expected to win, Australia were beating South Africa in South Africa, a series they were predicted, even by the gung-ho Aussie media, to lose. They did so, moreover, with three bowlers playing their first full series, and a 20-year-old debutant as opening batsman. Reports of Australia's demise as Test cricket's supreme power have, it seems, been grievously exaggerated.
As for that youthful opener, Phil Hughes is already fending off comparisons with Sir Donald Bradman, having become, in Durban this week, the youngest batsman ever to score a century in both innings of a Test match. These comparisons are odious, of course, and yet inevitable. Although left-handed, Hughes (below) is a bit of a shrimp, as Bradman was. And like the Don, he has an idiosyncratic batting technique.
Two months ago, when the youngster's predecessor Matthew Hayden announced his retirement from international cricket, I asked Andrew Flintoff how, with this summer's Ashes in mind, he had received the news.
"I was quite pleased," he said. "He's horrible to bowl at when he gets going. But Australia'll find someone else, won't they? They'll have someone waiting in the wings."
I'm not sure how much Flintoff knew about young Hughes at the time, but they were prescient words. Like that mystical fly-half factory of yore, hidden somewhere deep in the Welsh valleys, the Aussies sometimes seem to have world-class batsmen and bowlers rolling off an endless conveyor belt.
Walcott spot on
Theo Walcott, the only Englishman on the pitch, later reported a dry throat as he placed the ball on the spot in his first ever penalty shoot-out on Wednesday night in Rome. It was hardly surprising, in that fevered environment. But he scored, which is good news not just for all Arsenal fans but, with the World Cup on the horizon, for all England supporters too.Reuse content