A Plea For Good Football

ShanklyGates.co.uk

Those who know me, or those who have followed this column since its inception back in January 2000 – something that’s only possible if they have access to PC’s in the loony bin – will know that I am quite strident on the subject of divided loyalties in English football. You can’t have two masters, so sayeth the Gospel according to deiseach. None of this “oh, I love Sunderland, so I do” for me. They’re all scum. And that’s the last word on the matter.

Obviously some teams are more scummy than others. And yes, I know I said that it was the last word on the matter, but that is the smallest of blatant hypocrisies you’re going to read today. But there is no room in my heart for more than one team in England. Look at Sunderland. Quite a few people confess to having a ‘soft spot’ for Sunderland, a statement that makes me want to give them a few more soft spots. If ever you needed proof of how loathsome Sunderland are, the report on their Rivals site about last season’s match at Anfield should have provided it. It was a despicable hatchet job, one that hopefully embarrasses the writer when he reads it now. The reason for it was not anything that went on in that game After all, the game featured the wretched sending-off of Dietmar Hamann, a decision that may have proved pivotal to the destination of the Premiership title, or it’s non-destiny at Anfield. No, the reason the Sunderland hack was getting in such a lather was a preposterous sense of grievance over the penalty that shouldn’t have been in the previous, Treble-winning, season’s game at the Stadium of Light (snigger). Put aside the realities of that game (McAllister slipped into the area, he didn’t dive, the Sunderland player should have been sent off, Fowler’s wrongly disallowed winner) and concentrate on the small-minded mentality that harps on about a game at least seven months after the event. Hanging’s too good for them.

I’m being unnecessarily hard on Sunderland, sez he, hastily trying to avoid civil war on the Rivals network. They’re not all bad. But having a soft spot for a team leaves you open to situations where this team turns on you with a vengeance. How can those people who profess to having a soft spot for Sunderland reconcile this belief with the tirade of abuse they served up in the aforementioned match report? To support a team, even for a second, other than Liverpool, is to compromise your religious beliefs.

But using the deiseach world view, it is possible to have, er, exceptions to this Anfieldocentric reality. Celtic are a good example. Up until a few years back, I would have called myself a Celtic fan. Now I would say that I merely have a soft spot for the Bhoys, the Uefa Cup match against Liverpool back in 1997 demonstrating that I couldn’t truly be a Celtic ‘fan’, as each attack by them led to a stream of invective from my lips and Steve McManaman’s glorious equalizer causing much gleeful cavorting around the living room.

Nevertheless, the dreaded soft spot exists, and its existence is rationalised on the basis that they play in a different league. Some might say a different country, but we can argue the toss on that one until Scotland gets independence. Oops, must not get political, unless I want to be accused of being a member of a certain proscribed organisation.

There’s the international element, whereby I cheer noisily for a certain English football team but would sooner appear in a pornography video featuring bestiality than cheer for David Beckham et al when they have the Three Lions on their shirt. Funnily enough, I cheer when Michael Owen or Emile Heskey scores. But not for too long, because no matter where he is on the pitch when England score, Lord Beckspam will be on the scene quicker than you can say camera.

And then there’s other sports. I’ve banged on about the Munster rugby team in the past, so cruelly denied a deserved European Cup triumph by some cheating English BAS . . . sorry, don’t know what came over me there. It’s okay to cheer for teams not-of-Anfield-Road because they are never likely to encounter the Reds. And some of them, like Munster, wear red shirts. So that’s okay as well, innit?

For all of that, Liverpool consume the vast majority of my reservoir of support. Even when I wasn’t a frequent visitor to the ground, whole days would be devoured by the relentless lure of Liverpool FC. Hours at a time would be spent arguing some nonsensical point on the message board. Hearing Liverpool’s name being mentioned on the radio, television or in a nearby conversation would instantly bring my head tilting towards the source of that sweet, sweet collection of syllables.

Obviously this habit became really awkward when I moved here.

But there are moments when even Liverpool doesn’t seem sufficiently thrilling, when other events take place that still your childish play more forcefully than the Mighty Reds. One of those events took place on June 30 of this year, when the Waterford hurlers won their first trophy in 39 years.

‘The wha’?’ you may ask. The Waterford hurlers, that team from the county in Ireland from which I hail, that plays the game of hurling. You may have seen hurling flit across your vision once or twice in the past, and dismissed it as mad Irishmen running around with sticks. And you’d be right, but it’s so much more as well. It’s fast and it’s skilful and it’s exciting. It must also be admitted that the sight of two grown men tussling for the ball with big sticks, what we call ‘the clash of the ash’, gives the game an added potency that other sports – not least football – cannot match.

There are other elements which are added to the intoxicating hurling mix. The players are unpaid. There are all manner of benefits-in-kind and under the counter payments, but very few could make even a half decent living from the sport. Almost all the players and all the fans of a particular county come from that county. Even the supposedly ethnically homogenous Bluenoses might blink at the extent to which people remain loyal to their own county.

And for all my life, the only team that mattered to me have been pure rubbish. In the late 90’s, a phenomenon swept through the sport where teams long starved of success threw off the shackles of failure. Blackburn Rovers won the top prize in 1914 and would not repeat the trick until 1995. The same fate befell Clare, who also went from 1914 to 1995 without winning the title. A spate of new winners followed, with the exception of Waterford, who went close in 1998, but most emphatically failed to get a cigar.

I didn’t entertain any hopes of ending this famine when I went home to see Waterford play Cork back in May. Our record against Cork was Played 44 Won 8 Drew 3 Lost 33, a history so wretched that my fiancé couldn’t understand why I was bothering travelling home for the privilege of seeing them being trashed. The answer is simple: you do it because you love them, for all of the heartache they might inflict on you. And when you’re hungry, the odd morsel seems tastier than the finest caviar.

Sometimes miracles happen as well, and they did that day, with Waterford stealing victory after it had looked like Cork were going to undeservedly take the honours. Then five weeks later, on the aforementioned June 30, Waterford knocked seven bells out of Tipperary, a county against whom we had a similar record to Cork. The 39-year wait for the Munster Championship was over, and to say we all went absolutely mental would have been understating understatement.

The relevance of this to you lot as Liverpool fans is twofold; threefold if you allow for your indulging my flights of fancy. Supporting Waterford (or their ilk) does make you appreciate Liverpool all the more. No sneering at Worthington Cups, no feeling that finishing second after a thirty-eight game slog is inherently a failure. Success is a precious commodity, and it’s a finite one. There’s only so much of it to go around, and when it comes along you should mine it like Cecil Rhodes.

More pertinently to the present day Liverpool, Waterford won the Munster title in style. They didn’t just win it, they did so playing a brand of hurling that had the whole country buzzing. This was Liverpool ’88, except it was being produced by the hurling equivalent of Manchester City. All last season I defended Liverpool’s slightly robust style of play on the basis that victory is all that counts. That’s still true. After all, no amount of quality hurling could have made that day a memorable one had Waterford lost. But travelling home that evening, it struck me that style does matter. We speak of that team in 1988 in hushed tones, even though they won less than the Double winning outfit of two years before, the first Treble team or in no fewer than four of Bob Paisley’s seasons as manager. But by golly, they are still the touchstone for every team that plays the game nowadays. No one has even come close to touching the heavens in the manner that team did, and that wasn’t because they won a lot or won easily, but because they won in style.

It’s one of sports most enduring clichés, that no one remembers who finished second. But sports fans have very long memories. Arsenal fans gloating at the spectacular manner in which they won the Double last season have been known to sneer at the likes of Liverpool with their less expansive game. The answer to this is to hurl the George Graham team in their face, a team that was as successful as Kenny’s team of ’88 in terms of trophies, but is remembered mostly with disdain for its soul-destroying approach to the game. No one may remember who finished second, but we all remember how it was won, and it’s important that posterity remembers you with pride.

So come on Ged. Let’s win it first, but try and win it with a certain joie de vivre. Who knows, if the Reds win the title this season they might have done it with such brio that they would be elevated to a place in the pantheon of legends alongside the Waterford hurling team. Liverpool would want to be pretty incredible to do that, but as Le Boss might put it, aim for the moon and you might just end up among the stars.

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