End of sick chants signals new era

BY foxsports • September 24, 2012

Was this the weekend when English soccer finally began to grow up? One might think so — we witnessed the most wholesome atmosphere at a game between Liverpool and Manchester United in memory.

The result mattered. Of course it did. United won 2-1, considerably strengthening its title challenge while keeping Liverpool among the Premier League's lower ranks.

But a start was also made — let's accept it with the most cautious optimism — to the task of ridding the game of its sick streak, which has seldom been more evident than when the great Northwestern rivals have collided and sections of their fans responded with chants so low as to mock the dead.

Liverpool and United have a lot in common. American ownership is the least of it; Liverpool were once the most consistently successful institution in the history of the English game and now, since Sir Alex Ferguson established his regime at Old Trafford, that description belongs to United.

The clubs are also linked by histories that include terrible tragedies. United lost most of its most potent team ever when the aircraft carrying the club back from a European tie crashed shortly after take-off from Munich in 1958. Liverpool lost 96 supporters in a crush before and in the early stages of an FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough, Sheffield, in 1989.

Four years before the latter of these appalling occurrences, the Merseyside club's support had been less innocently involved in the Heysel crush that caused the death of 39 mainly Italian supporters of Juventus, but this has received hardly a mention amid the long and painful campaign by the Hillsborough survivors and bereaved for a just accounting of the terrible events that day. It came, at long last, when a government-sponsored independent inquiry ruled recently that there had been a cover-up by police and other authorities, which had allowed the impression to linger that fan misbehavior had contributed to the deaths.

Somehow, everyone recognized that it was time to lose patience with the sickos: those with short memories and low empathy who exchanged their doltish ditties at every opportunity. They were not heard Sunday as the teams met for the first time since the inquiry report.

The tone was set in the pre-match interviews, the last of which was done for television by Ferguson and Liverpool coach Brendan Rodgers together in the bowels of Anfield, and, in a memorable scene shortly before the teams came out, the United legend Sir Bobby Charlton carried a bouquet of 96 red roses to his counterpart Ian Rush.

When the players did eventually appear, Luis Suarez, who has borne a long-standing (if dubious) grudge against United defender Patrice Evra since the disciplinary case that ended in the Uruguayan being suspended for eight matches for racially flavored abuse, shook hands with his adversary during the customary ceremony.

A line was well and truly drawn and, although many United supporters subsequently disrupted the most heartfelt singing of the Anfield anthem You'll Never Walk Alone, the rivalry was purely soccer now and for the ensuing 90 minutes. Raucous minutes they were too. After 38 of them, largely ruled by Liverpool, the home side was reduced to 10 men when Jonjo Shelvey launched a two-footed scissor tackle at Jonny Evans and referee Mark Halsey, one of England's most merciful and sympathetic officials, felt impelled to reach for the red card, almost imperceptively wincing as he did so.

Sadly, young Shelvey cut a less attractive figure as he trudged off shaking his head, then pointing an impudent finger at Ferguson just before he reached the tunnel. Yet the depleted Liverpool showed a spirit that matched the occasion and took the lead soon after half-time through captain Steven Gerrard, who expertly aligned his body and stroked a bobbling ball beyond United goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard, who had been selected ahead of David de Gea for the third Premier League match in succession.

Liverpool's advantage lasted a mere four minutes, until the Brazilian full-back Rafael left Pepe Reina helpless with a curler that went in off the far post. But any idea that the numerically superior visitors would take control was swiftly contradicted, even if Liverpool's response included a penalty appeal by Suarez that Halsey had no doubt about rejecting. It took time for United to steady themselves and collect all three points with a penalty from Robin van Persie after Antonio Valencia had been fouled by Glen Johnson. The matter was compounded by an injury to Daniel Agger, whose subsequent removal on the stretcher added to Liverpool's woes.

"Going down, going down," the United fans chanted in a reference to Liverpool's miserable early points total of two from five matches, which leaves Rodgers's men in the bottom three. "Have you ever seen Gerrard win the League?" (to the tune of She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain) seemed almost superfluous.

It was banter. It was chaff. It might even have hurt a bit — and was definitely intended to.

But it wasn't sick.