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July 12, 2009

A Question of Loyalty

A Question of Loyalty

While most of you were getting stuck into your Sunday roast last weekend, I found myself in a national sport store within Leeds city centre. A Liverpool-supporting friend wanted to buy the new Liverpool away shirt for the coming season, complete with his name and number. I had seen this shirt on other friends and my pre-shopping hype had convinced him that this shirt was a must-want purchase. We flew up the escalator, and passed the endless carousels of reduced clothing that remained unwanted from the previous seasons. We bore down on the shirts that hung from the wall like suits of armour for medieval knights.

The wanted shirt was grabbed from the hanger, and my friend rushed to the MDF-lined box which was called the changing room. Within about thirty-seconds, Asif made his mind up that this was the shirt for him, and made a direct line to the checkouts for the all-important additions. While the shop assistant was carefully placing the required letters and numbers on the back of the shirt like a doctor about to perform open heart surgery, my friend set about trying to persuade me to part with thirty quid for the Liverpool home shirt.

It is well known amongst my social circle that I have a soft spot for the reds, and Asif tried his best to convince me that this shirt was essential for my wardrobe. We had a passionate conversation about the pros and cons of buying this shirt beside a series of suggestive mannequins showcasing this season’s tennis kit. You could never believe that two educated blokes could be found in the middle of Leeds arguing over a 100% polyester shirt. I even went into the changing room to try on the shirt. Asif must have felt that he had achieved his wish but I could not quite bring myself to buy the garment.

I know that my loyalty is in Suffolk, at Ipswich Town Football Club, and at Portman Road, and I felt disloyal if I started wearing a shirt for a team that had no genetic link to my background. However, I felt immediately guilty for my failure to buy this shirt. The guilt turned into a full blown migraine whilst stuck in the never-ending M1 roadworks near Nottingham. I knew that I should have brought that shirt. Most friends were surprised that I did not buy this shirt, because they have always believed that I am a ‘closet’ red, but I felt that it was a question of loyalty.

Most of us know that loyalty makes a football fan. Life as a fan cannot be an effortless series of European nights, cup wins, comprehensive demolitions of the hated local rivals, and the crème de la crème of British and European talent playing in the club shirt. There are the 0-0 bore draws on a wet Tuesday night in February, the questionable talent that has failed to produce anything other than a few dodgy tackles on the pitch, as well as those managerial press conferences when it is obviously that the manger has lost the dressing room as well as his senses.

We can buy the shirts, and the plastic merchandise, but being a fan demands something more. Most non-football fans think that the loyalty is dangerously delusional and something close to one of those religious cults in mid-America, but loyal support makes football what it is.

Most of us know that loyalty left player’s minds somewhere around the birth of ITV during 1955. There are a few Steve Bulls and Steven Gerrards left in the game, but money talks at ever increasing volumes. We have become too used to players wheeling away from the goal with exuberant kissing of badges and pledges of total loyalty to the cause. We lap it up from the stands, and feel totally cheated when the same player has signed for another club within weeks for another multi-million pound fee. .

In this era when Manchester City are desperately trying to suggest that they can eat at world football’s top table with the signing of Gareth Barry (sic,) and multi-million pound transfer deals are taking place at Real Madrid for sums of money that many of us can not remotely visualise, the leading clubs (or the media) are a little bit shaken up by this suggested movement of football’s plate tectonics.

Benitez talks about loyalty in football with particular reference to Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, and half of us believe that these words need to ring true, but some of us believe that the sentences come from another age of football. I personally hope that Benitez is correct and that certain players at Anfield recognise the debt that they have to Liverpool Football Club. Before his move to Anfield, Mascherano’s English football career was going nowhere in the chaos of Upton Park during the dying month’s of Alan Pardew’s regime. Only devoted students of Spanish football would have known about Xabi Alonso before he came to Anfield. You would hope that both players would recognise the loyalty that they have to Anfield.

Will loyalty become a bargaining chip as English football becomes a bargaining chip for megalomaniacs? I like to think that the chequebook can only buy so much in football, and there needs to be something else at a football club to guarantee true success. There is that ‘something else’ at Liverpool Football Club and it is probable that most players recognise that. If they don’t, Liverpool fans should not be concerned if Jermaine Pennant decides that Real Zaragoza will be the next big thing in football, and that Gareth Barry went to a club that seems to be trying to build their future on a sandbank of cheques. It is all about that question of loyalty.

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