To mark the 10th anniversary of RoM, there will be several articles remembering some of the best moments for Manchester United fans over the past decade. Ed Barker has spoken about one of his favourite memories.
11 February 2012. Of the more farcical episodes in the long-running Luis Suárez vs Patrice Evra affair, perhaps the most ridiculous was the sight of the Greater Manchester Police confiscating 1,600 copies of Red Issue fanzine on Sir Matt Busby Way. The fanzines, said GMP, were “evidence” of a potential offence under the Race Act. It was the only judicial involvement in an episode that brought honour to so very few. Four years on, Suárez vs Evra still brings out the worst in many.
Red Issue’s crime? Including a satirical, albeit tasteless, cut-out-and-keep picture of a Klu Klux Klan hood on the back cover, with the words “Suárez is innocent” emboldened in red. So much for freedom of speech, so much for football’s maturity, so much for the game’s self-respect and dignity.
That February clash began with football leaping from myopic denial of a burning problem to the beginnings of a police state. It ended with Evra wildly celebrating a Manchester United victory in front of the Stretford End. This was Evra’s moment of vindication after months of intense media debate, an FA hearing, and incredulous Liverpudlian vitriol. It was both visceral in its intensity and meaningful in its opprobrium.
This was also, if you recall, the day on which Suárez refused the United captain’s pre-match handshake, tipping over the edge an age-old rivalry before a ball had even been kicked. Players on both sides confronted each other in the tunnel at half-time and again at the final whistle. Evra went flying into a tackle with the Uruguayan barely 30 seconds into the game. Referee Phil Dowd was saved a difficult decision when the Frenchman flipped Rio Ferdinand on his head, completely missing Suárez in the process.
On-the-pitch, Wayne Rooney scored twice in the second half to hand the Reds victory, although football was always the backdrop to a bigger story months in the making. 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, defeated. There was so very little on either side that veered from the provocative.
Had the striker’s pre-match snub been as clear 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, Suárez’ actions were little more than a premeditated act – another in a long line of inscrutably offensive behaviour by the now Barcelona striker.
“I could not believe it, I just could not believe it,” Ferguson said of the handshake that never was. “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 Suárez refuses. He’s a disgrace to Liverpool Football Club. He should not be allowed to play for Liverpool again.”
Over to Kenny Dalglish for an apology? Not likely, with Dalglish blaming the media for increasing the tension surrounding the match and denying Suárez’ culpability. It “Twas always the way on Merseyside,” as one journalist dryly noted.
“I never knew he never shook his hand. That is contrary to what I was told,” claimed an increasingly befuddled Dalglish. “I think you are bang out of order to blame Luis Suárez for anything that happened here today.”
It was the latest in a line of ludicrous statements emanating from Anfield since Suárez racially abused Evra the prior October, demeaning the Frenchman and bringing darkness on a great institution.
In the end, after months of silence – and through Dalglish’s misguided defence – Liverpool owner John Henry finally drew the line under an embarrassing episode, enabling United, Evra, Suárez and Liverpool to move on.
But not before the argument raged once more as it had for months before.
Two months prior to handshake-gate Suárez’ hand been handed an eight-match ban – the inevitable fallout from the player’s actions, although the reaction from Merseyside was predictable, even if the strength of Liverpool’s statement was shocking. Minutes after the FA handed down the ban, the wagons on Merseyside circled – and stayed circled.
In hindsight, the prima face case against Suárez was always far less complex than presented, and the FA’s charge against the player strengthened by his own words. The corroborating evidence, or lack thereof for the Merseyside club, became irrelevant from the moment Suarez admitted to using the racial epithet “negro” in belittling Evra the previous October. The striker repeated the claim to a three-man FA panel, leaving little room for maneuver. Acceptable or not in Uruguay, any variation of the “N” word in England was never likely to be tolerated.
Yet, the reaction from Liverpool came anyway; another in a strategic pattern of action by the 120-year-old club to subvert the course of FA justice via the media. Liverpool’s cry was always little more than a smokescreen – the Suárez affair was essentially simple, amid the deep analysis of nuanced language, culture and, of course, race.
Liverpool’s reaction in the immediate aftermath of Suarez’ ban had far-reaching consequences, though, both for the club and relations between two of England’s most venerable institutions. After all, this was a world renown, and widely respected club, smearing Evra, defending the indefensible, while accusing the FA of institutional bias. It beggars belief four years on.
“It is our strong held belief, having gone over the facts of the case, that Luis Suárez did not commit any racist act,” read Liverpool’s statement.
“It is also our opinion that the accusation by this particular player was not credible – certainly no more credible than his prior unfounded accusations.
“Luis himself is of a mixed race family background as his grandfather was black. He has been personally involved since the 2010 World Cup
in a charitable project which uses sport to encourage solidarity amongst people of different backgrounds. He has played with black players whilst with the Uruguay national side and was Captain at Ajax Amsterdam of a team with a proud multi-cultural profile.”
Or in other words – “I’m not racist, my friends are black.”
Then there was the reference to “prior unfounded accusations” – a nod to the 2009 case in which Chelsea groundsman Sam Bethel was accused of using racist language against the Frenchman. It was a reference without subtly: ‘Evra played the race card’. The 2009 accusation, the FA’s record notes, was made by United coaches Mike Phelan and Richard Hartis. The truth and this case were rarely one.
Indeed, Liverpool’s statement summed up the club’s closed-ranks strategy – frankly, football’s closed-ranks strategy as those pointing fingers at Sunderland this week might also note. Through the Suarez affair, Liverpool regularly briefed journalists on the club’s position, despite the FA’s warning not to prejudice the eventual hearing. Cynically, the Merseyside club was seemingly more than happy to fan the flames of tribalism.
Suárez could not be a racist, so the briefing went, because he has played with black players; the language used is acceptable in Uruguay and, laughably, Liverpool owner John Henry once held a memorial day for a black ex-Boston Red Socks baseball player. It was always smoke and mirrors.
The good to come from the affair? Football fans of all colours – shirt and skin – finally witnessed a governing body, albeit via an independent panel, take a stand. It was an act to be applauded. Except on Merseyside, where Suárez remains not a bigot to be condemned, but a martyr slain at the FA’s door. Or on the back page of a now defunct fanzine.