Have we always been at war with Eastasia?

In conversation recently, I made the observation that it is impossible or even churlish to ignore the season Manchester United have had. Winning the League, the European Cup, plus the incredible goal-scoring feats of Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo excepted, there were very few if any United players, I maintained, who were head and shoulders better than their counterparts on any other sides. Therefore there also had to be a recognition that Ferguson had not just gotten it right tactically, but that he had a squad of 17 players playing greater as a whole than the sum of its parts. I am certainly no fan of United – think the other Red team about 60 miles to the west.

One of the group was a twenty-something who, knowing my affiliation, immediately launched into a broadside about how I couldn’t be a real Liverpool fan because I had committed the mortal sin in these Internet days of acknowledging a rival. It is not good enough any more, apparently, to support Liverpool; one must actively despise United or Arsenal or Everton. Sad to say this sort of George Bush with-us-or-against-us style of thinking is becoming all too prevalent amongst football supporters. Gone, it would appear, are the days when one can be upset at losing while admiring, or at least acknowledging, the victor. Now it’s all insults and epithets hurled at the opposition with the obligatory statement of absolute, undeniable fact that the ref (and often the powers that be) wanted to see one team lose.

In April of ’69, Leeds arrived on Merseyside needing only a draw to win the League while extinguishing Liverpool’s hopes of the same. The usual hard-fought English game ensued with neither side getting that vital goal. 0-0. Leeds were 1st Division champions and Liverpool were not. Initially the Leeds players raced to their fans in the away end to celebrate; then a tentative lap of honour. Unsure of the reception, they stayed well away from the touchline. As they reached the Kop, that epicenter of the seething, passionate Scouse support, the cry of “Champions!” suddenly rang out, then over and over. The better side had won, the lion had been bearded in his den. Equally, May of 1989 and Michael Thomas lives long in the memories of both Arsenal and Liverpool fans and similar accolades were afforded Arsenal on that epic night. It was possible, then, to support a team and be generous in defeat. But no longer.

I was struck in 2005, during Liverpool’s run to the Champions League, when Juventus came to Anfield, by something a little strange. The dreadful Heysel disaster, caused by Liverpool fans, obviously loomed large and both sides knew that it was the elephant on the table. Not looking to excuse or deflect, Liverpool arranged for Ian Rush, amongst others, to carry a memorial to the Juve fans as an apology, as an admission, as a tribute, as a way to facilitate the healing. But what struck me was the reaction of a sizeable minority of the Juve fans. They turned their backs, saying, we do not accept. Fair enough, they were entitled. Almost to a man, however, every one of the recalcitrants appeared to be in their twenties, and some only just. Heysel happened in 1985, 23 years ago. Few of them would have had any memory; indeed some were not even born on that dreadful night.

I co-produce and present a podcast, MP Red, which we describe as a Liverpool-centric podcast with a wider look at the world of football without the mindless shouting. Our philosophy is that Liverpool don’t just play Liverpool every week; what happens at Old Trafford, Ewood Park and the back- and boardrooms of football affect Liverpool. Yet whenever we look at Chelsea or AC Milan or the transfer policies of Arsenal, we get the inevitable emails, many telling us that they’ve come to listen to a Liverpool podcast and are not interested in anything else; there are others that excoriate us for having the temerity to praise or even discuss any player or team that’s not Liverpool. Have fans really become that one-eyed? That they require almost an Orwellian adherence to the propaganda? Have we always been at war with Eastasia?

To imply, however, that the fans of football in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties were full of bonhomie for their fellow opposing fans would be disingenuous. Plainly they weren’t, and we can all remember what the Italians (ironically now) called the ‘English disease.’ Hooliganism was a huge problem in English football for the better part of twenty-five years, maybe more, only disappearing from the mainstream when the mavens that run the Premier League recognized changing demographics and the necessity of selling family fare to Sky. Hooliganism still inhabits the outskirts of the English game, no doubt. Off camera. In many respects it has been replaced by this incredible my-team-right-or-wrong attitude, where erstwhile intelligent people convince themselves of the inherent evil of the opposition, labyrinthine conspiracies and a refusal to look facts in the face. Actually, yes, if Leeds do win the Championship on your turf, they are better than your team, they are champions.

I’m convinced that these extreme, one-eyed attitudes come from they way in which we get our information and entertainment. Internet message boards, 24-hour constantly updated TV (‘Frank Lampard has in fact gone for dinner in the same restaurant as Jose Mourihno’s agent did last week. More after the break.’), call in radio shows where the hosts and callers are encouraged to express more and more extreme opinions, all in the guise of ratings and entertainment. For all the capacity of the Internet, it appears that opinions, rather than being enhanced by available information, are devolving into us-versus-them. Liverpool fans populate Liverpool sites and boards, Arsenal fans, Arsenal boards and when United fans call in to a radio show, it’s de rigueur that a shot must be taken at Chelsea, Liverpool, City or whoever. Woe betide an interloper, an Arsenal fan who wanders onto a Chelsea board. And it’s always easier be angry over perceived slights and anything that detracts form your team.

I would not argue that the Juve fans at Liverpool did not have a right to turn their backs; had those fans been of an age to have remembered Heysel or been there, it would have had more resonance. But it’s no longer acceptable to support Juve; you must now actively despise any team and any fan that’s not Juve. It’s what comes of listening to and reading chatter that only reinforces and never challenges.

An email we received to MP Red some time ago in response to a piece on Arsene Wenger asked us (expletives removed) why we thought ‘any Liverpool fan would be interested in a [French] manager of a [useless] north London team that had never done anything?’

You really hardly know where to begin with this, do you? If nothing else I would think that Liverpool and pretty much every other club in England would love to replicate the Arsenal youth system. But that’s not why I bring this email to light; it’s indicative of a state of mind.

The fault here is the mindset of the terrible twins – the keyboard warrior and talk radio habitué which the Internet and talk radio has cultivated. I’m sure our correspondent thought he was striking a blow for Liverpool fans everywhere. The Internet and talk radio encourage an anonymous, adversarial ethos from behind a keyboard or a phone. But when one steps from behind those keyboards and screens, the adversarial nature of the anonymous keyboards and call-in shows manifest themselves as the mean-spiritedness of insular small-minded people.

The tabloid, Internet manner in which football is now covered and followed probably has precluded the Kop ever chanting “Champions!” to a visiting team again. My twenty-something acquaintance from the beginning of this article probably never will understand why the Kop did it in the first place and would think them weak. That’s the problem when you’re always at war with Eastasia — it only allows for one perspective. And football is all the poorer for it.

Written by Conor Brennan.

Conor is the co-producer and presenter of MP Red, a Liverpool-centric, football related podcast. It can be found here on iTunes.

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