By David Lynch
Sir Alex Ferguson has so often revelled in being painted as a man with a cold, ruthless disposition during an unparalleled 25-year stint at Manchester United.
The Scot has rarely let his guard down in front of journalists – those who impart judgements on his character to the world – meaning this representation is an unchallenged assumption amongst football fans. However, on Friday morning, ahead of the weekend’s clash with Liverpool, the 70-year-old released a letter which appealed to the hearts of the club’s supporters.
In it, Sir Alex claimed the recent report from the Hillsborough Independent Panel should “wake the conscience” of football fans everywhere and called for “personal hatred” to be put aside when the two teams meet at Anfield on Sunday. The former Aberdeen boss also insisted a rivalry which has reached a concerning intensity must be put in perspective following the recent shocking revelations surrounding the tragic events of April 15 1989.
Though he did not explicitly reference the chants which have plagued these fixtures for many years, the implication was clear for all to see.
The context is apparent; the HIP’s report did not just expose a police cover-up, it humanised the dead. The sick chants which have long echoed around Anfield and Old Trafford cannot survive in that environment, as they seek only to belittle the loss of life – whether referencing Hillsborough or the Munich Air Disaster.
And so the Ferguson letter is a welcome rallying cry not just to his own club’s fans, but to those of the opposition. The exchanging of insults which reference the deceased between two clubs who have led the way in English football for so long is mindless; now is the time for it to end.
The timing of the correspondence also has particular gravitas, with the clubs’ rivalry having undoubtedly reached its zenith last year. The enmity appeared to hit new heights following the Anfield edition of the fixture during the 2011-12 campaign, as the start of a grubby, long-running race row between Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra cast a dark shadow over the game.
Every nuance of the Football Association’s findings on the matter and each player’s contribution to the affair was analysed to microscopic level, with disagreements played out on television, radio & social networking website Twitter. Yet, as bizarre as it sounds, at least there was an upside to the row. The problem of racism in football was cast back into public consciousness and efforts to eradicate it from sport and wider society have stepped up since.
However, the added antipathy it brought to this North-West derby simply resulted in the memories of the dead being further stained.
The songs chirped up with added gusto, leading to the invention of the “always the victim, it’s never your fault” chant which was strongly condemned following the Red Devils’ recent win over Wigan. There have been attempts to disguise the ditty as solely based on the Suarez/Evra situation since of course, though the word ‘always’ betrays the sinister connotations it holds.
Of course, it is perhaps sad that the backlash against Hillsborough chants has only been deemed a worthy cause at the denouement of a 23-year fight for the truth. That those referencing the Munich disaster were not also decried years before hints at the fact that such behaviour had seemingly been deemed reasonable even amongst right-thinking people.
Now though, if football is truly to move on from rivalries built on hatred, then the trivialising of matters which are rooted in tragedy, not tribalism, must end. Sir Alex Ferguson speaking out with such passion is a start to that, a watershed moment in repainting the face of a fixture which has become abhorrent to look at in recent times.
Oh, to hear the thoughts of Sir Matt Busby – a former Liverpool player of some distinction and a survivor of the Munich Air Disaster as United manager – on what the game has become. That two proud cities he once called home have abandoned everything that unites them in order to embrace the needless mocking of the dead is yet another tragedy.
So when Ferguson, a calculated Glaswegian who embodies Busby’s spirit as a winner, allowed observers that rarest glimpse at the humanist which lies beneath, United fans had little choice but to take notice. Though accusations of champagne socialism are often thrown his way, Sir Alex can doubtless identify with the city of Liverpool, its football clubs’ working class roots and the struggle many of its residents have faced over the last two decades.
Now it is time for fans of both clubs to show that, even in this sanitised Premier League era, they can also still reflect those near-identical, humble beginnings, built on respect.
Follow David Lynch on