Strange thing, morality. Set in stone, yet so easily swayed by the prevailing wind. This week’s events at Old Trafford are a case in point after the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report into the disaster in which 96 Liverpool supporters lost their lives 23 years ago.
More than two decades after the event, the Panel’s report rightly exonerates Liverpool supporters of any blame in the crush at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium, while uncovering an extraordinary police conspiracy to bury the truth from public view. It is a modicum of justice for the 96, far too late for families that have suffered more than 20 years.
Rivalries wait for no grief though, and on Saturday after manager Sir Alex Ferguson called for ‘a line to be drawn in the sand’ regarding hostilities between Manchester United and Liverpool fans, a section of the Old Trafford chanted an oft-sung refrain; the ditty claiming Liverpool supporters are ‘always the victim’ and ‘never at fault’. You know the one.
The song, which taps into a long-held and patently offensive stereotype of Liverpudlians, does not mention Hillsborough, nor will United supporters recognise it as ever having related to the tragedy. Yet, in the context of the week, and an upcoming match at Anfield, it was morally and ethically wrong of fans to have given this particular song an airing, at this particular time.
United had little choice but to condemn the chant on Saturday night, claiming in a statement that “the manager has made the club’s position very clear on this matter. It is now up to the fans to respect that”.
Media outrage from the fourth estate is predictable; so too a misunderstanding of the song’s origins and meaning to the point of crass misinformation. Repeatedly, broadsheet, broadcast and tabloids alike have painted the chant, and United supporters as a whole, as seeking to besmirch the memories of Hillsborough’s victims. Neither claim is remotely valid, and the untruth, together with selective coverage, has irked plenty of Reds this weekend.
Good though that the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust joined the condemnation party, while clarify a hugely misrepresented event.
“Following this week’s developments and release of revelatory information on the Hillsborough tragedy, MUST wishes to make it absolutely clear that just as we condemn chants mocking the Munich air disaster we also condemn any chants relating to Hillsborough or indeed any other human tragedy,” said MUST chief executive Duncan Drasdo.
“We did hear the usual anti-Liverpool chants at the match today but we’re pleased to say, despite some reports to the contrary, there was nothing that was specifically referencing Hillsborough. Any attempt to suggest otherwise is irresponsible given the forthcoming fixture between the clubs and furthermore risks needlessly upsetting the bereaved families further at a time when they are understandably trying to find closure. We enjoy a fierce rivalry but these issues transcend that rivalry.”
Yet, United fans must also be honest about why the chant, which has received an airing at almost every match, without media comment, since the Suarez-Evra race affair erupted last year, was sung once again on Saturday. Defiance and offence the design.
In the wake of this weekend’s drama collective responsibility is a watch-word United supporters must now heed, especially with tensions likely to be high at Anfield next weekend.
But amid the media’s moral outrage our nation’s press also bears a weight. Media shapes opinion as much it reflects it. Misinformation serves only to raise tensions, while failing readers in a duty of truth. The press cannot, as some have suggested this weekend, absolve itself of partial culpability for the febrile atmosphere between two of the world’s most venerated clubs.
And the truth is this: there are genuinely few Reds who wish to offend the friends and family of Liverpool’s departed. The masses caged, supporters of football in the 1980s know only too well there but for the grace went they. More to the point, tragedy is a subject so very close to home for those starboard of the East Lancashire Road.
In the wake of renewed interest in Hillsborough it is more important than ever that supporters show restraint at Anfield next weekend. There will, no doubt, be provocation from the Kop, with Patrice Evra, a victim of racist abuse, likely to bear the brunt of it. So too will references to Munich be heard or seen.
But this is absolutely no time for moral relativism. It is a time for United supporters to remember the great institution that they follow, and behave in a manner more fitting. The same, some might add, could be said for sections of the media this weekend.
Even so, few can genuinely expect hands across the water on Sunday, and not because of what United fans sang or meant during the Reds’ 4-0 victory over Wigan Athletic at the weekend. Rivalry between United and Liverpool has suffered nothing in intensity despite the Merseyside outfit’s fall from domestic hegemony.
Of more pertinence still is the degradation in football’s moral compass, where there are no longer boundaries in lowbrow opportunism. And that’s a candle that can be held to supporters of all denominations. United, Liverpool and others alike.