The vilification started within minutes of Luis Suarez sinking his teeth in Branislav Ivanovic's arm. Forums and social media networks buzzed with anger, and by 7pm the villain of the peace was being hung out to dry by fans, incandescent with rage. The villain being Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, who had the temerity to point out at a press conference that, no matter how good they are, “all players are replaceable”.
Later, Ian Ayre, the club’s Managing Director, would also feel the wrath of Scouse social media mob for his handling of the incident – though his competent performance, and action of getting Suarez to apologise within a couple of hours of the event, was in sharp contrast to the bungling that characterised the Evra affair.
Yet Suarez, whose moment of toddler-like madness started the storm, escaped the worst of the criticism. On Twitter and the forums – and it's the forums that dictate what being a Liverpool fan is these days – some Reds criticised our mercurial Uruguayan, but others, many others, laughed it off, and directed their vitriol at the manager, Sky TV (and its “agenda”), Sky’s pundits, the press, the FA, Chelsea fans, Liverpool fans, Ivanovic. Everyone except the man who’d started the whole thing off with his bizarre impression of Rod Hull’s Emu.
To an extent, this is understandable: Suarez’s presence has far more of a bearing on Liverpool’s fortunes at the moment than Rodgers’ (or if he were to come back, Rafa Benitez’s) tactics. But this wasn’t really about matters on the field, this was about turning to what has become the default position in the red half of the Scouse nation over the last few years: anger.
Quite simply, Liverpool fans are seemingly in a perpetual state of annoyance. There was, in the not-too-distant past, a “Liverpool way” that was defined by a devotion to the men in red, a sportsmanship that involved applauding those who’d performed well against us and an ability laugh at both ourselves and those unlucky enough not to be Liverpool supporters.
And it wasn’t purely a myth, this Liverpool way – it was, bar the odd “welcoming committee” for away fans in the late-’70s to mid-’80s – real. Real enough that even today, one of the main accusations against Suarez is that he betrays it. Far from hating us, the individuals who make up the modern media grew up admiring Liverpool, supporting us in Europe as a surrogate for the poorly performing England team. We revelled in our status as carriers of the Scouse flame, an exotic strain of Britishness, part Beatles charm, part well-travelled merchant seaman. For the most part, others fans didn’t want to fight us when we came to town – they wanted to look at us, meet us, be us.
So what happened? When did we become so sensitive? When did jibes about the lack of employment opportunities really get to us? When Man United’s fans sing about us, why does it prompt pages of outrage on our club forums? Seriously, who cares? If you went to Anfield in the mid-’80s when we were at our peak, United got it in the neck every week. And not just about their lack of success on the pitch.
A Liverpool fan recently said to me that the club’s supporters had become “addicted to negativity”, and there’s something in that. When Liverpool’s Spirit of Shankly fans organisation formed to combat the cancer that was the leveraged ownership of George Gillett and Tom Hicks, its brilliant campaign helped end the Americans’ reign at Anfield, bringing Liverpool supporters together into a cohesive unit, making them realise just how powerful they could be. And that felt good.
On the field, the Yanks’ disastrous tenure led to the downgrading of the team and eventually the sacking of Rafa Benitez, who spotted they were shysters from the off, and called them out on it. When he was sacked the fans protested once more, as was their right, and again made them feel part of something, a rarity in modern football.
Since then, we Liverpudlians have revelled in our anger, felt it out, got used to its power. When the Suarez/Evra affair took off we defended our man to the hilt, researching the street slang of Uruguay to – in our minds at least – prove his innocence, forgetting our reaction was based purely on the fact he played for Liverpool (the same, of course, could have been said about United).
Yet when Suarez then went on to embarrass the club’s greatest ever player, Kenny Dalglish, by refusing to shake Evra’s hand in the return match, we blamed Sky, Man United, anyone – except the player himself. “He’s like a Scouser,” we told ourselves. “He’s one of us,” – forgetting the long-lasting effect he had on a man who really did sacrifice everything for Liverpool FC.
We fumed and fumed, and even abused Liverpudlian journalists for expressing honestly-held opinions that didn’t follow the standard Kopite response. But when people who love the club are “cunts”, what does that leave us to say about vermin like Kelvin McKenzie?
Since then we’ve fumed about the press conferences of Brendan Rodgers, the refereeing of Howard Webb, the supposed Manchester bias of the Football Association, the songs of Sunderland and Man United, and Evra’s joke with the plastic arm at Old Trafford when United won the league. When we got knocked out of the FA Cup there was a weird sense of satisfaction because it meant we weren’t following the now-hated “traditional” priorities. Scouse not English at the expense of everything else.
Supporting a football club is supposed to be fun. It gives a predominantly young audience the chance to travel, bond and witness moments of the highest drama in the flesh. But at the moment, following Liverpool feels like entering a perilous den of mistrust where the slightest word out of place can result in castigation.
Today, with a team that’s languishing just above mid-table, the voices demanding the removal of Brendan Rodgers are getting stronger, as Liverpudlians realise once again that they hold the career of another man in their hands. The fact that with our matchday revenue dwarfed by that of the Top Four, there isn’t a manager alive who could make Liverpool a title-challenging force again is irrelevant. The knives are out. And to those who wield them, it feels good.