The demise of Sander Westerveld’s Anfield career is probably the most unfortunate thing to happen to Liverpool since we chucked away a cast-iron Champions League spot in the denouement of the 1999/2000 season. Some will say good riddance to bad rubbish. Personally I always rated him, feeling that had the same rigorous scrutiny been applied to the blunders of other goalies then every team would be revealed to possess a butter-fingered, ten-thumbed clown between the sticks. The howlers committed in recent weeks by Fabien Barthez seem to have slid silently by the gaze of a supposedly hyper-attentive media, who will continue to rate him as the best goalie in the world, no matter how many times he gives multiple coronaries to the Mancs. And yes, that is a good thing, so maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on Monsieur Slaphead. Let’s not forget that other ‘best goalie in the world’, Oliver Kahn, who recently gave a good impression of a man being crucified as each Owen strike left him flapping his arms around in despair.
No, the thing that is sad about Sander’s impending departure is the loss of a dedicated servant of Liverpool Football Club. No matter what your opinion on Sander’s ability, it was obvious to everyone that he did his very best. He always seemed to enjoy being a Red – witness his volcanic joy at his penalty save which won us the Worthington Cup against Birmingham – and the chant “he’s big, he’s Dutch, we like him very much” reflected the affection with which he was held by a large amount of the Anfield faithful, again something that his detractors cannot deny. He has reacted to his ejection from the club with great dignity, even going as far as to give his successor a starter course in English on the plane from Holland (“Everton are known as ‘the ‘Blueshite.'”) So let’s raise a silent toast to Sander Westerveld. He will never be forgotten.
Hang on a sec, you’re asking me who this Westerveld character is? He was our goalie, of course. He’s on the Treble winning poster hanging in my room, clutching the aforementioned Worthington Cup above his head. You’ve never heard of him, have you? As far as you are concerned, the only goalie at Anfield is Jerzy Dudek. Christ almighty, how quickly we forget.
What was that? What’s my opinion on Dudek? Well, I will admit that I lustily roared his name when he twice kept Kevin Campbell at bay in the most recent Merseyside derby. And yes, I gave him a thunderous round of applause as he jogged towards the Anfield Road end for his debut game against Aston Villa. But my blatant hypocrisy is not the issue here…
Actually, that is the issue. We like to think that we are somehow more discerning than other football fans, that we support our players and staff through thick and thin in the certain knowledge that continuity of personnel will deliver up the success we crave, as it did so gloriously last season. Abandoning players and managers after two successive league defeats is the kind of thing that soft Southerners do. But when Gerard Houllier decided to dispense with the services of a player who only a few weeks previously we had lauded as the hero of Cardiff Mk III against Man Ure in the Charity Shield, we displayed an ability to perform a piece of mental gymnastics that would have earned an 9.9 from the Soviet judges.
To continue the Olympic metaphor, it took us so little time to clutch Jerzy Dudek to our bosom (although it might take slightly longer to come up with a decent chant) that we probably would have left Maurice Greene in our wake. We’re no different to the fickle Brummies who almost certainly howled for Peter Schmeichel’s racist (allegedly) blood when he was a Manc but now convince themselves that they liked him all along. Hypocrites the lot of us.
Now, before you start preparing your poisonous emails to the editors of this august site asking why some blow-in is given space to vent such sacrilegious claptrap, I’ll get to the ultimate point (at last; never has so much been written by so few about so little – the Editors), which is this: far from being fickle, fans are the only constant that exists. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the fans, and only the fans, are the club.
A lot of you may shrug and say that that is stating the obvious, but it’s a point that needs restating. These thoughts crystallised in my mind during the first home game of the season, when Robbie Fowler passed only a few yards in front of me near the end of the game. His departure did not pass unnoticed, least of all by my friend in the seat next to me who bounded down to God to quietly exhort him not to leave. Meanwhile the Kop chanted his name, a clear message from them that they don’t want him to go anywhere either. And so say, er, most of us.
But, and let’s deal in hypotheticals for a moment, what if Robbie were to leave? This player, who provided at least 75% of the truly uplifting moments throughout the dreary 90’s, would instantly become a non-person, airbrushed from history with all the ruthlessness of a Stalinist censor. If you don’t believe me, consider the case of Steve McManaman. Another player who shone light into the darkened, depressed edifice of Liverpool throughout the lean years, his departure for Real Madrid saw him virtually forgotten about. Time has a way of eradicating some awkward realities from our minds, especially if aided by the amnesiac that is Success.
Another example of the duplicity of fans is the (alleged) hostility towards Michael Owen. This is a topic that has exercised many commentators, particularly Chris Bascombe in the Echo. Supposedly we lavish less praise on Michael Owen than on Robbie Fowler because Owen cares more about England than Liverpool and Fowler is a Toxteth scally while St Michael is, quite frankly, a drip. And they are half right. There was a time when Babigol – as he was christened post-France 98 by an adoring Brazilian press – got on my nerves with his “I’ll be ready for England” antics and his bland Shearer-style non sequiturs to the hacks. The reason I make no apologies for this is that the onus was on Owen to prove himself to the fans, not vice versa. He’s only an employee and he has to earn our affection, not assume he has it just because he has a biography to sell.
And to be fair to Michael, he buried any doubts I had about him with a couple of goals in a devastating four-minute spell last May. Watch out for that golden rocket coming past you, Lee!
There’s nothing the least bit sinister or underhanded about this ostensibly one-dimensional state of mind. There are a few players who transcend being mere servants – Steven Gerrard being an obvious example – but most of them are mercenaries, slaves to the bottom line which is trophies and money. Few of us had heard of Jerzy Dudek before he was linked with Arsenal during the close season, and even fewer knew if he was any good. But once he becomes the last line of Liverpool’s defence, we cheer for him with all the gusto that we previously reserved for Tommy Lawrence, Ray Clemence, Bruce Grobbelaar, David James, Sander Westerveld et al.
The players are simply marionettes, corporeal expressions of our hopes and dreams. Look at the pre-match huddle. Am I the only one who thinks it to be cornier than East Anglia? When the players crouched together against Aston Villa, Sander Westerveld (remember him?) was gone and Jerzy Dudek, whose only word of English at that time was probably ‘Gaffer’, was there in his stead. Yet we cheer raucously when it happens, fervently hoping that the huddle will bring about an enhanced feeling of togetherness and lead them to victory. We’ll cheer anything that we think will get us a win because we are so hopelessly in love with Liverpool.
When Steven Gerrard retires, hopefully at the age of 37 after a glittering career with his boyhood team, a split will occur in his existence. One part of him will become the hero of past battles, the fading but still stirring memory of previous glories. But the part of him that will exist in that future present will revert to being an ordinary fan like us, and he will cheer a new breed of heroes from his regular seat in the Paddock. Players and managers come and go but the fans remain, the only constant in the multi-faceted creation that is Liverpool Football Club.