The day began with the Greater Manchester Police confiscating copies of Red Issue outside Old Trafford, and ended with Sir Alex Ferguson finally coming out fighting on the issue of racism. In between Patrice Evra wildly celebrated a Manchester United victory in front of the Stretford End, while Luis Suárez and Kenny Dalglish brought further embarrassment to their club. Just your average United versus Liverpool clash, then.
Barely two weeks on from the disgraceful scenes at Anfield, where 40,000 Liverpudlians sought to set race relations back a generation by victimising Patrice Evra, United exacted a modicum of revenge in Manchester. United won comfortably enough, but there was far more to this occasion than the odd goal in three. Set in the context of Suárez culpability over racially abusing Evra last October, the clash sparked into life before a ball had even been kicked when the Uruguayan refused the United captain’s pre-match handshake. The striker’s snub ensured a testy encounter, with players on both sides confronting each other in the tunnel at half-time, and then again at the final whistle.
But tensions were raised long before the players entered the field, with the GMP confiscating copies of Red Issue, t-shirts mocking Suárez, and arresting supporters selling the fanzine pre-match. The crime? Including a satirical, albeit tasteless, picture of a Klu Klux Klan hood on the back cover, with the words “Suarez is innocent” emboldened in red. So much for freedom of speech, then.
GMP accused the long-running fanzine of ‘inciting racial hatred’ in what is surely a massive over-reaction against an image that sought to mock Liverpool’s lack of action over racism. Inside the stadium fans reported that both fanzines and t-shirts were confiscated by stewards, although when contacted by Rant, the club insisted that it had not asked the police to seize the fanzines.
“Officers are now seizing the fanzines and in consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service we will take appropriate action against anyone either found selling this particular fanzine or provocatively displaying the image in public,” said Chief Superintendent Mark Roberts.
“I have taken this cause of action as both items are potentially offensive and we cannot be in a situation where hundreds or thousands of people were displaying offensive images at a football match. The consequences of taking no action could have resulted in public order incidents inside or outside the ground.”
Sadly police took no action against the deeply offensive image of Suárez lauding it inside Old Trafford, or for that matter, broadcast to millions via television.
Tensions were further increased before kick off when Liverpool’s star striker refused to shake Evra’s hand, resulting in an frustrated reaction from the Frenchman, and a counter snub from Rio Ferdinand. Suárez’ refusal came after Liverpool manager Dalglish had promised, on Thursday, that the matter was now behind his errant player and a handshake would take place.
Indeed, the Uruguayan’s deliberate provocation almost brought dividends for the visitors, with Evra flying into a tackle with the striker barely 30 seconds into the game. Referee Dowd was saved a difficult decision when the Frenchman flipped Ferdinand on his heading, missing Suárez in the process. Had the striker’s pre-match snub been as apparent to fans inside the stadium, as it was to those watching on TV, anger may well have spilled over from the pitch and into the stands.
To those watching the Uruguayan’s actions were little more than a premeditated act of insensitivity – another in a long line of indelibly offensive behaviour by the striker. It is also likely to backfire; an act so immature that even Dalglish’s one-eye defiance can hold no water. One wonders what Liverpool owner John Henry, still silent after all these months, must be thinking over in Boston.
“I could not believe it, I just could not believe it,” Ferguson told Sky Sports.
“We had a chat this morning and Patrice said: ‘I’m going to shake his hand, I have nothing to be ashamed of, I’m going to keep my dignity.’ And he [Suárez] refuses. He’s a disgrace to Liverpool Football Club, that certain player should not be allowed to play for Liverpool again.
“The history that club’s got and he does that and in a situation like today could have caused a riot. I was really disappointed in that guy, it was terrible what he did. It created a tension, you’ve seen the referee didn’t know what to do about it. It was a terrible start to the game, a terrible atmosphere it created.
“We’ve got to get our house in order in terms of fighting racism. It’s an important issue in this country. Football’s come a long way from the days of John Barnes when they were throwing bananas at him to where we are today. We can’t go back. We have to go forward in a positive way and ban it altogether.”
By half-time opposing players were at each others’ throats as Evra sought to confront Suárez, and those on both sides engaged in what Sky Sports euphemistically called “shenanigans” – it could have been a lot more serious than a few minutes of pushing in the Old Trafford tunnel.
Meanwhile, in the studio Gary Neville and Darren Fletcher clashed with Jamie Redknapp. The former Liverpool player placed blame for the incident on the Football Association’s insistence that the normal pre-match routine take place, while Neville called the striker’s snub “embarrassing”.
Then came the moment United fans hoped for as Wayne Rooney scored twice within five minutes of the re-start to put the Reds in control and top of the Premier League table. With no little drama Suárez bundled in a goal for the visitors, but anything less than victory would have been an injustice for the hosts in a match that United thoroughly dominated.
Once again football seemed the back-drop to a bigger story though. Evra’s joyous victory celebration in front of the Stretford End was just yards from Suárez as the Uruguayan trudged off the pitch, head hung low. Pepe Reina and Martin Skrtel were only prevented from confronting the United captain by the rapid intervention of referee Dowd.
Over to Kenny for an apology? Not likely, as Dalglish once again failed to confront the issue of racism, instead blaming the media for increasing the tension surrounding the match. Laughably, the Liverpool manager also pretended that he was unaware of Suárez’ non-handshake. It is, seemingly, never Liverpool’s fault.
“I never knew he never shook his hand,” claimed the increasingly befuddled Dalglish.
“I’ll take your word for it. But I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I never saw it. That is contrary to what I was told. I think you are very severe and are bang out of order to blame Luis Suárez for anything that happened here today. You know something else, when we had the FA Cup tie, because there wasn’t a 24-hour news channel in the build-up to the game, nothing like this happened.”
The striker continued in a similar vein, taking to Twitter to claim that “everything is not as it seems.” Noises coming from the Liverpool dressing room, leaked via the media, suggested that Suárez had not rejected Evra’s hand, but that the Frenchman had withdrawn the offer. There has been a long-line of ludicrous statements emanating from Anfield since October, but this one surely tops them all. It is not, seemingly, ever Liverpool’s fault.
Meanwhile, at GMP headquarters the police continue to hold more than 1,600 copies of Red Issue as “evidence” of a potential offence under the Race Act. It was a day in which football leapt from myopic denial, to the police state, all in one short afternoon.