Breakfast Percy on burning shirts..

Posted by Hinesy on July 7, 2013, 10:01:13 AM

By Breakfast Percy: RAWK Writer:
After several attempts, a mini inferno springs from a BIC lighter and around a quickly disappearing synthetic red shirt. The camera pans back to a reporter then cuts to the Sky Sports studio. Liverpool ‘fans’ are burning the kit of a soon to be departing star, as they have done for time immemorial. Well, since television started fanning the flames at least.

Of course there’s nothing to tell us they’re Liverpool fans, except for what Jim White says between gulps of liquid nitrogen. The Premier League does not yet micro-chip its customers.  In fact, as long as you can make fire- and have at some point been wanton enough to spend £40 on a footy shirt- there’s every chance you could star in the next televised kit burning.

There’s an inherent sense of embarrassment with this gesture, because setting your own property alight is very rarely the best way to take revenge. Unless your name’s Joe Cole, the property is twenty Lucky Strike, and it’s the entire Liverpool fan base you wish to inflame, there’s a certain degree of futility to self-inflicted arson. It might be idiotic if you stand too close.

But whilst the protest might be misguided, what we often ignore is whether the sentiment itself is ever right. How should fans behave when a badge-kissing, knee-sliding, false Jesus goes elsewhere to fatten his bank account? Is this not just football’s own version of burning the flag in protest? Football demands good behaviour but has no guidebook, just the silhouette of Margaret Thatcher’s sneer.

In the relatively placid, temperate countryside of Great Britain, a flag burning is not something you see often, if ever. The St George’s Cross is rarely used as anything other than a baton for intimidation, whilst the Union Jack is soiled by a heap of Andy Murray jokes. In Britain, a football team is often the nearest thing to a cause; the shirt a flag, and it’s likely the only thing you’ll ever see burnt in protest.

Switch on the news, and you’ll frequently see grainy images of a harsh, desolate backwater- not unlike Manchester- where repressed civilians frazzle the flag of their occupier. Nobody would suggest being freed from years of tyranny under Saddam Hussein is comparable to football, though Alex Ferguson was marginally more difficult to depose. However, for a long time football has been motivated by politics, class and belonging. Fans need to be able to air their grievances and take a stand. In some ways they are sustained by it. There are symbols and sentiments that traverse politics and football: there are similarities between the burning of the kit and the burning of the flag.

Perhaps burning a football shirt is, in itself, not quite the moral shame it is always portrayed as. Perhaps in the over-sanitized Premier League, a bit of political motivation might do the sickly child that is British football fans some good. But wariness remains, because trouble doesn’t lie with an artifact that is no longer sacred. The outrage isn’t focussed on the ashes of some half-plastic, half-fabric representation of an overseas conglomerate putting the price of the pies up. The problem with kit-burning is the name on the back of the shirt, and how that turns it from protest into effigy.

When Borussia Dortmund was forced to admit that Mario Götze had been poached by arch rivals Bayern Munich earlier this year, the otherwise happy-go-lucky Dortmund fans staged several of their own shirt burnings. But they were mingled with a more sinister anger towards Götze, whose brother was taunted at school and whose family home was spray-painted by Dortmund ‘ultras’. This was as much about pain and revenge as it was protest. There’s something almost plucky about supporters taking a stand against the powers that be, there is something altogether more upsetting about intimidating an individual. Unfortunately, Liverpool fans know this more than most.

Immediately after the Champions League Final in 2005, Steven Gerrard was ambushed with questions of his future. “How can I think of leaving Liverpool after a night like this?” he effused, genuinely no doubt. But as the summer wore on so did speculation of his future, until circumstances brought a transfer request and the prospect of a bitter departure to Chelsea.

Whilst Gerrard received unequivocal support on the pitch against TNS in Liverpool’s early Champions League Qualifier, there was an air of desperation; of menace. In his autobiography, Liverpool’s captain spoke of the trauma the prospect of leaving Liverpool caused him, and in particular how seeing fans burn his old shirt hurt him:

“Madness broke out. I was sitting dazed at home, watching the TV, and when I saw fans burning an old No 17 shirt by the Shankly Gates, it did my head in. Show some respect. Don't you know how this is tearing me apart?

"Dad begged me not to go, but I replied, 'look at the TV, fans are burning my shirt, the club aren't stopping them, Liverpool don't want me any more'.

"I stared at the TV through flowing tears. I was suffocated by stress. My head was banging, and I was eating paracetamol like Smarties.”

It is not Liverpool’s finest moment. It was caused by love and loyalty and panic, yet it’s impossible to deny that pressure from supporters, in particular the burning of his shirt, helped intimidate Gerrard into staying at Anfield. The behavior- if not the motives-of fans, blurred what was humane and acceptable, what was sinister and what was passion.

Both Liverpool Football Club and Steven Gerrard would tell you with absolute conviction that- in the end- the decision to stay was right. However, ends-justifies-means thinking is dangerous, and doesn’t allow for those players less strong-willed than Gerrard who are equally less happy to stay at their clubs. Burning the shirt has its place, burning the player’s name flirts precariously with keeping somebody against their will. Liverpool Football Club is meant to be a family, not a prison.

But none of that alters that need to give fans a voice, and to provide a method for their madness. The vexillologists might have already spotted a solution. Though you’d be forgiven for thinking that flying a flag upside down is a similar show of disrespect to burning it, a kind of diluted Michael Owen equivalent, in fact it has long been a signal of distress in times of emergency.

Instead of encouraging Liverpool fans to burn their replica shirts when little Luis goes, we should consider our maritime past and turn them upside down, wearing our jerseys over increasingly wobbly undercarriages as we wave for help. When it comes to Suarez, a dirty protest would not be entirely unbefitting, and you might at least get to keep your eyebrows.

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