It did not take long for the most dazzling of Premier League title races to be plunged into a row between Liverpool and Manchester City supporters, over a City supporters’ song being taken up on a plane carrying players and staff on their gleeful flight back from Brighton with the trophy.
It was then startling to learn the club had issued a statement wholly defending the song, which glories in Liverpool misfortune, including their supporters being “battered in the streets” and being “victims of it all”.
“Any suggestion the lyrics relate to Sean Cox [the Liverpool supporter who was battered before last season’s Champions League semi-final with Roma at Anfield, suffering life-changing injuries] or the Hillsborough tragedy is entirely without foundation,” City’s statement said. As if that is enough to give the song official sanction, and can anyway be said so absolutely, when such needless offence has been caused.
In the Liverpool Echo, the football correspondent James Pearce denounced as “classless” and “disgusting” City staff singing that mocking version of the signature Anfield Allez, Allez‚ Allez song and said: “As for the reference to ‘victims’, the connotations of that word need no explanation.” Outside of Liverpool, perhaps, a little explanation of the loaded and wounding nature of that word is needed. Liverpool supporters feel it to be a clear, insulting reference to the Hillsborough disaster, having its roots in the nasty ditty: “Always the victim, never your fault.”
Vague as it is, that has been taken to be a reference to Hillsborough, where 96 Liverpool supporters lost their lives in a crush, and Heysel four years earlier, where 39 Juventus supporters were killed following disorder from some Liverpool supporters. Fourteen Liverpool fans were convicted of involuntary manslaughter following the terrible scenes at Heysel, so there is a puzzle over the “never your fault” part of the insult.
The word “victims”, sung as a sneer at a match, does not just voice a cold lack of empathy for the victims of Hillsborough and their families. It is also aimed at doubting their genuineness as victims, which has been deeply hurtful given the 30-year justice process, with legal proceedings still continuing.
By issuing their statement totally defending the right of City staff to sing this song, the club is saying the phrase “victims of all that” relates only to this song, about Kyiv last season, celebrating Liverpool losing in the Champions League final, Sergio Ramos injuring Mohamed Salah and fans being “battered in the streets”.
Pearce’s point, and that of many Liverpool supporters, has been that they have put up with City fans singing this all season but to see staff take up the song and the club defend it has elevated all this to near-official approval.
After a marvellous football contest and a sporting finale, with due compliments paid by both clubs’ managers, it hardly shows football’s best face.
Songs that cross a line of hate speech or racism are now rightly condemned and outlawed but this episode could be valuable if it allows an opportunity to make a plea for general sporting values and respect. I grew up in Manchester as a City fan, captivated by the spectacle and atmosphere, but I was also told as a small boy about the terrible Munich air crash and can always remember being shocked the first time I heard the song mocking the deaths of the United players and the suffering of Matt Busby.
The singing of that song has been explicitly addressed and condemned by City and other clubs in recent years, in a concerted way on the 50th anniversary in 2008, for which the fixture schedule sent City to play a derby at Old Trafford. In advance of the game, great old United players who survived the crash, and the former secretary Ken Ramsden who was already working at the club in 1958, remembered the awful loss of life, and the legacy.
The Munich song came up as a problem and Ramsden lamented he never heard it until the late 1960s or 70s, remembering how supportive City and their supporters had been of United at that traumatic time. He then nostalgically recalled that era of football before rivalries grew so venomous, when segregation was not needed or considered, when, he said, it was a lot friendlier and “supporters of opposing clubs used to walk to matches together”.
Football has always reflected a country’s culture and times, and England in the Brexit crisis can be viewed through some of the nastiness in football and on social media. We are sadly a long way from all watching matches together again but we could surely be better than this.