In May of 2011, Manchester United were set to face Barcelona in the Champions League final at Wembley, a rematch of the 2009 final that had seen United fall 2-0 to the Catalans in Rome. It was a match predictably preceded by calls in the London press for fans of English clubs to get behind the English side, a sentiment that has become so cliche in recent seasons that the major papers must by now have a template for when the likes of Chelsea or Arsenal or United does reach the latter stages of a European competition.
For Liverpool fans, though, supporting another English club in the Champions League is rarely going to be a legitimate option. And when Manchester United is involved, it just simply isn't. Liverpool supporters may no longer speak with a single unified voice—if they ever really did—but after a desire to see their own club succeed, the one thing that isn't negotiable is that it would really rather be better if Manchester United were to lose. So in the days leading up to the match, we took a bit of time out from covering Liverpool's comings and goings to instead focus on a pressing need: For Manchester United to lose. Thankfully, too, in the end they did just that.
"Carlo [Ancelotti] gave me a magnificent bottle of wine. But I immediately told him there is no point in giving such a wonderful gift if he then fails in the final. In fact, I told him I would only drink his wine once I see him lifting the Champions Cup."
—Alex Ferguson, ahead of 2007's Champions League final
Those who follow Liverpool can hardly be called a monolithic block—and how could they be, given the global nature of modern football fandom? For better or worse, in a world where it's at times easier to watch a match live if you live in Singapore or Sydney than if you live in England, one can hardly expect that all who end up spending a foolish amount of time obsessing over a football club find will themselves within walking distance of its stadium. And it's not as though in the days when one could only realistically follow a club not only from one's own city but, more often than not, from the local community, that everybody wearing certain colours would think exactly the same way. Because to think that would of course be a foolish assumption.
There may be a tendency amongst followers of a certain club to share certain beliefs, and perhaps in Liverpool's case some of those beliefs are befitting a club from a city that has never elected a Conservative member of parliament, that has faced down a history as the butt of jokes for their smug southern neighbours, and that has a strong connection to the blue collar dock workers whose industry carried the city—and a corresponding collective loathing of Margaret Thatcher to go along with that. There may be a tendency. But even still it would only be a tendency.
In America, one of the most prominent fans of the club is a television personality and former right-wing Republican congressman, a man named Joe Scarborough whose personal belief system would probably having him choking on the phrase "Shankly socialism" for all that it was never meant as a political message. And some would quickly point out that in a world where most of the club's starting eleven makes more in a week than the majority of the club's followers do in a year while the club signs on to lead the marketing campaign for Honda Motorcycles in Thailand, talk of them somehow representing those working class, left-leaning roots seems a stretch at best.
Some of those who follow Liverpool may even profess some level of affection for other clubs, clubs such as Real Madrid, whose histories and core support generally resonate with a fundamentally different world-view. Which, in a roundabout way, brings us to tomorrow's Champions League final and one of the few things that is non-negotiable if one wants to consider themselves primarily a fan, follower, or supporter of Liverpool Football Club: In short, if brings us around to Manchester United. It also brings us around to Martin Samuel, one of the most committed and bitter Little Englanders in the press. While Henry Winter, one of the key media architects behind the installation of Roy Hodgson at Liverpool last summer, has been busy glowingly comparing Alex Ferguson to Sir Bob Paisley, fellow founding member of the Everything Wrong With Football Coverage in the English Media club Samuel was having a go at Liverpool fans in the Daily Mail because they have so far been unwilling to throw their support behind United.
"This isn’t progress," he called out from his soapbox, "and don’t let anyone kid you that the new tribalism is what football has always been about. It never used to be that way. It is only the new fans, or the middle class warriors, who know nothing else."
Back in the good old days, he suggests, fans of any English club would have done the proper thing and gotten behind any other English club. He even points to Ferguson himself, a Rangers player who cheered when Celtic became the first British club to win the European Cup*, as the virtuous pinnacle the modern fan has fallen short of:
"I was in Hong Kong with the Scotland team when Celtic won but I know that, from my part of Glasgow, everyone was behind them, even the Rangers fans," [Ferguson] said. "Maybe there was the odd one who was against, but you are always going to get that. Basically, we all thought it was an amazing achievement for Jock Stein to build that team of players, all from within 20 miles of the Glasgow area."
Nearly half a century on, it is a different story. Last week Ferguson was bemoaning the fact that many English football supporters will be cheering for Barcelona on Saturday.
"It’s a different story these days," he said. "We live in a country of tribalism."
You can almost feel Samuel nodding along sympathetically, such is his distress at the situation—and such is his almost slavish worship of everything that is Alex Ferguson, Defender of the Faith. Of course, one only has to cast back a few years to find Ferguson saying something entirely in opposition to his current outlook and for it to become almost laughably obvious just what a load of self-congratulatory, conveniently blinkered swill it is being dished out by both Samuel and Ferguson in the run-in to the Champions League final:
Sir Alex Ferguson has taunted Liverpool ahead of their Champions League final against Milan, claiming there is "no way" they can win, and promising to toast their failure with a bottle of wine he was given by coach Carlo Ancelotti.
"I told Carlo at the end of our semi-final that there is no way he can now not win this competition," said Ferguson. "Carlo gave me a magnificent bottle of wine. But I immediately told him there is no point in giving such a wonderful gift if he then fails in the final. In fact, I told him I would only drink his wine once I see him lifting the Champions Cup."
When Ferguson now laments a lack of support from rival fans when his club goes up against continental competition, it is a matter of convenience for a man who for all his faults at least always knows exactly where his loyalties lie and makes no excuses for it. Certainly he knew where his loyalties lay when he openly rooted against Liverpool's success in 2007. As for Samuel, Ferguson's current stance provides further useful fodder for the stale narrative he's so fond of that cries out for the days when the occasional Scot, Welsh, or Irishman was about as foreign as it got in English football. In any case, there can be no excuse for a Liverpool fan to look towards Saturday hoping for anything but a ritualised slaughter of Manchester United on the Wembley turf. No matter what Martin Samuel might say, and no matter what English television coverage might blare incessantly in the hours leading up to the match, hoping for United's inglorious demise is the only reasonable course of action.
There may be reasons for some not to be especially excited by the prospect of Barcelona victory, from secondary sympathies to the at times insufferable smugness of some of the bandwagon fans who have hitched themselves to the Catalan tiki-taka machine in recent years. There may be reasons to shut off the television, to head out for a beer or to see a movie and to generally pretend the whole thing just doesn't exist. But there's no excuse for hoping in any way, shape, or form for United to succeed. After all, Alex Ferguson wouldn't cheer for your club if the situations were reversed—and he'd be entirely right not to want to see a rival succeed. Suggesting otherwise can only mark one out as either clueless or disingenuous.
*And never mind that Samuel's nationalistic talk of all England all the time temporarily morphs into the larger construct that is Britain in order to include Scottish side Celtic when it suits his argument.