By Alex Netherton & Andi Thomas
If there’s anything that should cheer up any football fan, or indeed human being, then the increasing transparency on the Hillsborough tragedy and conspiracy should be close to the top. Given that ninety-six people died, pointlessly and unnecessarily, and their families have been denied both the truth and justice, nobody can resent the recent developments. The Hillsborough report last week laid bare the lies, conspiracies and wilful failures of the government, press and police in England. Nobody was surprised, despite the revelations that at least forty-live lives might have been saved had people been aware of their responsibilities. Nobody was surprised, despite the extensive miscarriage of justice carried out by the South Yorkshire police force. Nobody was surprised, despite the callous treatment of football fans from Liverpool by a rampantly despicable Conservative party.
Miserably, the coverage of the report was interrupted by football itself. Ordinarily, it would be no awful thing, but this time it was a meeting of Liverpool and Manchester United, among the most bitter rivals in English football. Manchester United and Liverpool have a history of grim behaviour towards one another that runs the gamut of the lowest common denominator. There are chants about the deaths at Heysel, Hillsborough and Munich. There’s human faeces and the rocking of ambulances. There are golf balls adorned with nails and there’s racial abuse. There are jokes about state benefits and people eating rats. If you wanted to show people the worst aspects of football (besides Alan Shearer), it’s this fixture. If you wanted to demonstrate some of the best football in England ever played, you’d probably point to these two sides’ pasts as well.
But not their presents. If you like entertaining football, then United were not the side to watch on Sunday. They have a hole in their midfield which has been apparent for the past three years, a spinelessness apparent since the release of Carlos Tevez, and a fragility apparent since the Glazers took over United and oversaw the destruction of one of Europe’s most resilient squads. A Liverpool victory seemed inevitable. When Jonjo Shelvey was sent off for his completely unacceptable name, victory seemed no less likely. If you were told Manchester United were playing against ten men, you’re reaction would not have been, ‘I thought it was the other way around,’ it would have been, ‘Oh. They’re still terrible, gutless wimps who deserve defeat.’
A few minutes into the second half, Liverpool took a deserved lead, and then United did was they usually do. While Barcelona really ought to start all games with a one goal handicap to make things interesting, United only ever seem to bother when they give themselves the one goal handicap. Rafael scored a belter, a half-fluke that made the Brazilian sexpot the most attractive he has ever been since he became legal. Twenty minutes later, Robin Van Persie bothered to score a penalty, and that was it. It was a terrible game that Manchester United deserved to win because of numerical advantage and a reserve of talent that Liverpool had no way of matching. Liverpool played better, but they made a worse fist of the game overall. This benefits nobody. United still cannot play to their potential unless desperate to, and have an utterly rotten balance to their side, approach and squad. Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool seem lost, unable to raise their game unless outside forces dictate that they transcend their talent.
One of us watched the game at a pub in London. Two minutes in, a Scouser with a slash mark on his cheek started making Munich gestures. At half time, Hillsborough jokes. It wasn’t especially dignified, but there was at least a sense that these actions had to be done relatively secretly. Fans’ misbehaviour at the ground was at least kept to mostly after the final whistle. It’s not much cop, but, given the last five years, it’s a start. Let’s stop mocking the dead. Apart from anything else, both of these sides are so utterly wretched that fans’ dignity doesn’t need any extra help to suffer.
Mark Halsey was the unfortunate sod given responsibility for refereeing Sunday’s game, and it’s fair to say that a couple of his decisions distressed the supporters of the home side. Shelvey’s dismissal, while relatively inarguable on its own merits, might well have been accompanied with similar for an also-aerial Evans, while the same defender’s tackle on Luis Suarez in the second half could well have been a foul in the box. (Though Luis, if you’re reading – and you probably are, everyone else is in on this hot ticket – you’ve developed a peculiar habit of looking like you’re diving even when you’ve been caught. The arched-back, the howl of pain, the far-flung arms – might want to dial it down a bit.)
The point is not: these decisions were right. Or wrong. If we’re going to have decisions made by just the one person using just the two eyes, plus two assistants and their four eyes, then errors will happen. The point is that any criticism of these decisions based on replays is fundamentally and straightforwardly untenable. If you’ve only been able to see that it was a penalty based on super-duper slow-motion and
image-magnification, or that Evans should have gone based on a still from a television camera on the other side of the pitch, then triumphantly proclaiming a man without any of this help to be a corrupt cheat is less than fair. ‘Man makes incorrect decision after failing to consider evidence he couldn’t possibly have access to’. What a bastard.