United Liverpool

Posted by Rushian on August 14, 2004, 12:03:38 AM

With the men and boys of Liverpool, like in every other town and city in the country having been starved of their football for the last two months, I'm sure few of us would have missed last weekend's Charity Shield.  The encounter means very little, even for those competing, but few of us spending the summer within the confines of the city gates would have failed to flick on the box to catch Arsenal's comfortable win.

With the result largely irrelevant I'm sure most Liverpudlians, myself included, would have focussed attention on the fans present, and therefore no doubt would have looked on mockingly at the woeful collection of banners on display at Cardiff from the red corners of Manchester and North London.  And quite rightly so - it was an embarrassment to see so much of the advertisement boards - charity shield or not.

But that one glaring weakness should not cloud the lesson that Arsenal fans taught us that day, a lesson that was for me, almost as significant as the one their team gave us on the field last season. 

Real Madrid as I write, squeezed into the seat of a flight home from Graz, look set to claim two of the Premierships most prize assets in Owen and Vieira.  Both clubs are set to lose out significantly in terms of quality on the park.  Although this loss, if the previous record of either manager is anything to go by, could well prove only temporary.  Faith is with the men at the helm.  But nevertheless both clubs went into their last game respectively with the star man in question absent from the playing staff.  And it was this fact, together with the mounting speculation on the issue, that caused their respective admissions to serve as the focus of both games.

Now Vieira was not even in the same country as his team for the first match in question.  And yet the Arsenal fans bellowed out his name for all to hear.  As short and simple chants go, Vieira's in my book is one of the best in the modern era.  This is principally due to the ferocity in which it is exclaimed whenever and wherever Arsenal are playing.  He is their leader, their idol, their inspiration.  And despite his signature seemingly having been all but applied to his Real Madrid contract, the Arsenal faithful, unperturbed, were still heard loud and clear. And here is lies the lesson.

It may have meant as a desperate attempt to lure him back to London to continue his Highbury career, or maybe merely as a thank you and farewell to the man whom Arsenal have based their team around with such success since his introduction in 1996.  Whatever the reason for the song of adulation last weekend, the fact is, it echoed out continuously for the world and indeed the man himself to hear.  He is unlikely to get singled out for such personal praise at the Bernabeau, despite the noise the Madrid faithful are known to be able to muster.

And now on to the second protagonist. Conversely the game in question for Michael Owen was one that he was actually at. Yes that's right, he had the cheek to do the decent thing and show up for the club to whom he was still contracted. How very Michael Owen of him. He was never going to start or come off the bench, we all knew that. But he was there, in a Liverpool jersey, perhaps for the last time. And what a chance therefore for the fans present at the match to finally show one of the most under appreciated footballers ever to have played for this club what he's meant to us. I suppose on reflection however, it was fitting that, one last time the Liverpool fans failed to do just that.

There was never anyway a likelihood of a protest against the move being voiced by the fans at the game in Graz. After bursting on to the scene at a similar time to Vieira, like the Arsenal captain, he has remained one of Europe's best players. Unlike Vieira however, he has not been so in one of Europe's best teams.  2001/02 aside, it's been a high level of mediocrity at best during Owen's Liverpool career. Add his time as a youth player with us, and his loyalty to us is further reinforced. It is also noteworthy that many of our bright moments during those years often featured the number 10. Doubles in Roma and Cardiff to name but two from an extensive list. He is not Keegan, leaving the European Champions claiming he is 'furthering his career'. Or McManaman, setting sail for Madrid having left Liverpool on a free to line his own pockets. Michael has been a ray of light in an at times cloudy Liverpool sky for eight years - even in the way he is dealing with the initial stages of his seemingly inevitable departure. He now deserves the chance to move on with our blessing.

But the situation is not as simple as that is it? Indeed you could write a book detailing the non-committal relations between Michael and the fans, and I'm not going to delve deeply into the subject here. But I can remember seeing Owen's expression as we faced Arsenal in the cup at Highbury the year after his dramatic brace in the '01 final, when he heard his song detailing the events of that glorious day in May 2001. He was completely taken aback when he heard those words, pride oozing from every orifice. Sadly, it's a look that I've rarely seen since. Gary Mac got a few cracking songs, and rightly so, but where were Michael's?

I wasn't in favour of the 'O-wen' song  - saved for Liverpool legends, from St John to Fowler - principally because it was too late and indecisive in coming. It merely served as a token gesture to at last facilitate a more meaningful connection, and a fairly pitiful one at that. Had it come immediately following Robbie's departure and adopted by everyone, not just a few stragglers, I would I'm sure have adopted an antithetical viewpoint, for he was certainly deserving of it. As it was we became in danger of selling the song short, and almost offending Michael by the very evident divide the song exhibited amongst the supporters.

But it is too late for such meaningless debate, and on such a complex issue, one spread over several years and involving numerous facts. If a culture is a continuously involving state, not a static one, at least we can hope, as a body of fans, to learn from this. 

For one isolated incident we must now reflect on with disappointment is the last time Michael was named in a Liverpool squad. It didn't need an announcement over the tannoy to tell us it was his final appearance in a Liverpool shirt. Tragically however, we once again lacked a collective voice. I know with all these lower key European away days, we've all had a skinfull, often sat in the hot sun. But let's just take a moment to consider why get bevvied in Bucharest and Moscow, as opposed to Benidorm and Magaluf, like the blue half of the city. It's a privilege for us to see our team play in such places, and with privilege comes responsibility.

With a pathetically silent home crowd, Tuesday's game in Austria was made to measure for an away support, and particularly for those present, to give Michael a proper send off. We may have had only 700 fans there, but we are supposed to be the hardcore. Four lads from Coventry singing 'You can stick your Real Madrid up your arse' doesn't really do the lad justice in my book. Here was an ideal opportunity to say thanks and goodbye. He's been a loyal servant, and doesn't understand why talking about England all the time is a problem for us Scousers, together with the other issues which have prevented a closer bond being formed. He has been an excellent player for us, and hasn't been an ounce of trouble either. 

And our reaction during this final sighting of Owen in the red of Liverpool? A half-hearted song or two and a couple of lads exchanging words and a few blows in the stands relating to the issue. The latter incident was strangely pleasing to see, for it showed the passion that we all know is there - it burns inside us. It's about time however that we rediscovered an outlet, a way of communicating these feelings. For you'd struggle to find a bigger football city, in Europe especially. And yet we just don't always seem that collective in expressing our views, during matches at least.

Half of us are too busy looking around to see who's started a song before deciding whether to join in or not. Yep, it's a sad old state of affairs. (I didn't see too many Arsenal fans looking at each other wondering whether to sing the name of their captain last weekend). The reason for this, those involved I'm sure could discuss at length. I'm not going to offend anyone by looking into it here. But let's just sort it out now. To do so, maybe we could consider three rules of European away games:

1.    Know your place. If you're inexperienced, leave the starting of songs for those more in the know. Don't get cocky because your number of away trips has reached double figures. Look around you. Any Scouser with a few grey hairs at such a trip is likely to have clocked up more games on the continent than you and your mates put together. Leave it to the masters.

2.    If you do start a song, do it properly. Don't just repeat what we've heard five minutes earlier. We all know which song I'm referring to in particular here - start the wrong song out of turn and you set a negative climate. And then the real hardcore have lost interest and the futility of getting an atmosphere going is there for all to hear.

3.    If 1 & 2 are adhered to, and you hear a song started, just bloody sing.

It's not some revolutionary ideas I'm putting forward here. It's just the way it is in my book. Michael Owen is about to leave Liverpool for pastures new, and in our part to encourage him to stay, few would say that we were successful. I love the fact we idolise our manager above any player and that the more humble team members, from Joey Jones to Cara are loved more than most. But let's not forget our top players. We need, as a body of support, to make sure this doesn't happen again.  That a player we want to keep doesn't leave thinking he wasn't appreciated. For there's nothing more depressing than getting taught a lesson by a load of cockneys, not to mention losing one of your best players.   

© Joel Rookwood 2004

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