For The Wearing Of The Red

You’re supposed to let your football do the talking, and happily Liverpool seem to have stopped talking bollocks and started quoting Shakespearian sonnets again. It’s true, isn’t it? Nothing speaks more eloquently for Arsenal’s excellence than the league table (please ignore European form) and Liverpool only have to look to the Premiership to find a less-than-thrilling critique of their performance.

What is there left to a hack once we have established that playing the game, attending matches and the television (in that order) tops the written word for that authentic football experience? The answer is that we talk around football, not about it. The football itself is self-explanatory, so we write what are euphemistically called ‘colour pieces’ to somehow try and encapsulate the almost boundless football universe in a thousand words. Alternatively we take one pithy, perfectly serviceable sentence and stretch it into a thousand words. Which one this article is, I leave to the reader to decide.

The dream of every football writer is to find a story that transcends the humdrum of what the score was and who were the scorers in each of the 380 matches played in the Premiership each season and beyond into the nether regions of the Liechtenstein factory second XI challenge tourney. So when El Hadji Diouf spat at a Celtic fan last week, you could hear the word count being clocked up like petrol at a really dingy petrol station. In fairness to Jonathan Pearce and Ray Houghton, who spent fully five minutes venting their spleen on Channel Five – Ray calling it “the lowest of the low”; does he not remember the terraces in the Eighties at all? – it made a change for them to actually comment on a moment of off-field controversy. Sky are so determined to airbrush out the unsavoury that the film would be buried somewhere in Antarctica, while Barry “Oul Woman” Davies’ reaction would have been to po-facedly ignore it in much the same manner that the Beeb get all Victorian on us when a streaker runs onto the pitch. As for ITV, Man United weren’t involved so we would never have seen it at all. So we’ll give Channel Five a break. It must be a relief to occupy the high moral ground every once in a while when you spend most of your days wallowing in the televisual filth of Revenge of the Forbidden Lust She-Vampires VII and When the Klan Go A-Lynching.

The whys and wherefores of Diouf’s phlegm have been comprehensively raked over by others, and his excellent performance against Spurs, allied to the goldfish-with-Alzheimer’s attention span of the press, seems to have put a lid on the affair so I won’t drag it up again. But there was one curious by-product of the fallout from Diouf’s actions, and that was the relentless patter about what this might do to relations between Liverpool and Celtic.

It was clear, both from browsing opinion online and speaking to people ‘on the ground’ (as politicians say when all the opinion polls show a landslide victory for their opponents) that Diouf’s main crime was not the spitting in itself but the damage it might do to the beautiful harmonious relationship that exists Us and Them. This notion of a special relationship between Liverpool and Celtic seems to be founded on three things: 1) mutual love of You’ll Never Walk Alone; 2) friendships forged after the 1966 European Cup Winners Cup semi-final; and 3) the friendly after Hillsborough

Regarding the first supposed attraction, there’s no doubt that Celtic do a good rendition of YNWA, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But when they start claiming that Celtic were the first to sing this song, the bile is brought to the tip of my tongue. Celtic claims on the song, first brought into the popular consciousness by Gerry and the Pacemakers, come from two sources, and it’s hard to decipher which is the more absurd. One is that Mario Lanza, the rotund American tenor of the 1940’s sang a version which became very popular amongst old dears of Glasgow who liked the cut of his Catholic jib. Anyone who has ever heard the high-falutin’ Lanza rendition will be hard pressed to extract anything resembling a potential terrace chant from it, unless Celtic have tens of thousands of classically trained opera singers in their ranks. The other claim to YNWA lies in the adaptation peddled by Perry Como. Perry Como! It makes you wonder why Magic Moments didn’t become a popular terrace chant in the Jungle (“Mag-IC, Mo-MENTS, when Jimmy Johnstone’s scoring!”) The idea that the perennially unhip Como could inspire a crowd of dockers to burst into song would be dismissed by Salvador Dali as being too ludicrous for words.

Not that we should object to Celtic singing YNWA. There’s no copyright on a crowd singing a song, and the cringeworthy huddle that Liverpool engage in pre-match owes more than a little to Celtic. But when football fans around the world hear Celtic fans sing You’ll Never Walk Alone, they will immediately identify it with Liverpool, and that can’t be a bad thing.

Some say that the bond was created in 1966, after Liverpool triumphed in a tumultuous Battle of Britain (yawn) in the semi-final of the European Cup Winners Cup. But not many say that. The rest of us wouldn’t remember that one. The video coverage of the game, from which most of us derive our ‘memories’, was so bad it would have shamed the Albanian Amateur 8MM Porn Company – you may have seen some of their work on Channel Five. Besides, why Celtic? Liverpool played Borussia Moenchengladbach three times at advanced stages of European contest in the 1970’s, yielding our first European trophy, our first European Cup and a final at Wembley. All good memories, and yet no-one carries Borussia Moenchengladbach-Liverpool half-scarves to the game. It would be a very impressive scarf too.

(NB I’m well aware of the amount of Irish people who follow Celtic and Liverpool. Hell, I’m partially one myself, getting great satisfaction in the recent Old Firm derby prior to Liverpool playing Bolton. That’s a different phenomenon. I’m talking about the legions of people who are Liverpool fans alone, yet still get dewy-eyed at the mention of Celtic. The (in)famous Alan Edge is a good example. What’s more, there are plenty of Irish people who follow Rangers and Liverpool. You can catch several hundred of them at Speke and the Pier Head every day that Liverpool are playing. Nutters the lot of them – in a good way.)

The last bond, the one relating to Hillsborough, is in itself unarguable. People say that’s how they feel and who am I to disagree? But (getting ready to disagree) Celtic did nothing that any other club wouldn’t have done. Watching the derby match at Goodison that saw Liverpool get back into competitive action, the emotion of the whole occasion would have overwhelmed a zombie, yet our attitude towards Everton is such that the only benefit of close proximity to them seems to be that they’re twenty-five thousand miles away if you head in the other direction.

The only reason we played Celtic that night was that our manager was one KM Dalglish. And amidst all the burbling about how we share this special thing with Celtic, I wonder whether the bond is really with Dalglish.. I’ve seen grizzled veterans of multiple European Cup finals go gooey at the mention of his name. And if it weren’t for Celtic parting with him for the ludicrously low sum of £440,000 – a record at the time, but history has made it look like a bargain at one hundred times the price – we’d have never had him.

So having said all that – 1415 words later; definitely one sentence stretched beyond its elastic limit – that last one is a biggie. It’s only struck me as I’ve been writing. Kenny was, as still is, The Greatest. In the fourteen years he was at Anfield, a shade shorter than Bill Shankly, Liverpool won an astonishing seventeen trophies. In the twelve years since he left, we’ve won six, not one of which is the league or European Cup. Celtic FC may not have done much to earn the friendship of Liverpool FC. But for that one act alone, perhaps the hyperbole about a special relationship between Liverpool and Celtic is justified.