In The Mixer
One man's opinions on all things football

The Champions League returned last night with a game that almost began in tragedy but ended in pure farce. A largely uninspiring encounter on the pitch between French club Lille and Manchester United was marked by two rather dramatic incidents. Both will require careful attention from UEFA and could result in the French club being expelled from the competition. And such a result would be far from an overreaction given the events that transpired. The first incident saw police - unaware that a potentially fatal crush was developing - fire tear gas into the end where the United supporters had been herded. The second involved Lille players staging a walk off protest after Ryan Giggs scored the only goal of the match (I could add 'in somewhat controversial circumstances' but as quickly taken freekicks are not prohibited by the rules of the game, I shan't!).

The events surrounding the beginning of the tie provided an ugly reminder of the terrible proceedings at Hillsborough 18 years ago. Whilst United fans were pushed against the high perimeter fences, riot police fired tear gas and swung truncheons at those who, in desperation, tried to climb to safety. The French police, not known for their softly-softly approach, swung their batons with such fervour it was as if they were repelling revolutionary hordes intent on seizing power, not desperate fans trying to escape a potential crush. In scenes reminiscent of the early 1980s, it seemed as though the police had travelled to the game in a time machine, hell-bent on crushing a hooligan element that hasn't been witnessed in English football stadiums for almost 20 years. To say that the policing of the situation was merely a little heavy handed would be a complete misrepresentation of what happened. It would not be out of place to suggest that they totally misread events due to an ill-informed and out-dated collective assumption that crowd trouble and pitch invasions were to be expected when the English came to town.

Of course, serious questions need to be asked as to how so many United fans ended up in one particular end of the ground. The French authorities claim the cause was a number of away fans gaining entry to the stadium with forged tickets. Countering this, United supporters are adamant that the root cause was a security blunder that saw many of them who'd bought tickets to sit with the home fans being rounded up and squeezed into one end of the ground. Neither explanation reflects well on the French club's ability to stage a top-level football match, though the latter would suggest a total failure on their part to implement basic safety measures.

Blame for the incident, however, does not sit squarely at the feet of the French club. UEFA, will no doubt, come down hard on Lille, but they themselves must share responsibility for what happened. United claim they had expressed concerns about the basic facilities at the ground long in advance of the match, but the governing body took no action. Although it would seem ludicrous to allow Lille off scot-free, there is an element of injustice in punishing the club after UEFA themselves were made aware of specific safety issues, yet did nothing. Perhaps now they will move to prevent games being played at stadiums that do not come up to their own safety standards. This, however, is unlikely. Given new UEFA president Michel Platini's desire to see more and more smaller teams involved in the competition, they will probably continue turning a blind eye to obvious safety issues, and merely punish clubs retrospectively when incidents occur.

If, somehow, Lille do escape sanction over stadium safety, they must be punished for the ridiculous and childish reaction of their players following Ryan Giggs’ opening goal. Although only short lived, their unprecedented protest demonstrated a total lack of respect for the sport and the spirit of competition. Whilst, as Alex Ferguson was quick to point out, their actions had the unsavoury effect of whipping up the crowd into something of a frenzy. Ferguson, quite correctly, described it as an obvious attempt to intimidate the referee.

In a rather bizarre effort to defend his team’s behaviour, the Lille president has suggested that it was never anyone's intention to walk away from the match, but what we witnessed was actually an example of how the game is played in France. Apparently, when French teams disagree strongly with a decision they stage a protest at the first available stoppage. Now, it is obviously part of French culture to protest at any given opportunity, but to suggest that disrespectful protests of this nature are an integral part of the game in France is an outright lie. And, in any case, this rather flimsy moral relativism provides scant defence of his team's actions. If accused of stealing, a thief will gain little advantage in court by pleading that he comes from a community of thieves!

UEFA are not known for the fair and even distribution of their punishments and disciplinary decisions are often motivated by the political and financial implications of taking action. However, should they fail to administer an appropriate punishment against Lille, then a rather dangerous precedent will have been established. What a ridiculous situation we would have if teams believed that when in disagreement with the referee, they could escape sanction if they left the pitch in protest. Refereeing mistakes are commonplace in football (not that the referee was mistaken on this occasion), but no match would ever be completed if every error by one of the officials were followed by a silly walk-off.

Platini’s campaign to be elected president of UEFA focused almost entirely on how the big European clubs needed to have their power and influence curtailed. In an ironic twist of fate, his first major act as president will be to deal with a small provincial club from his own country who have brought shame on Europe’s premier sporting competition. Will he be brave enough to throw the book at Lille? Failure to do so could well have drastic consequences for the future of European football.


What's in a name?

Posted In: , , , . By Toby Davis

New owners at Liverpool refuse to rule out selling the naming rights to the club’s new stadium.

This week saw the completion of the long and drawn-out takeover of Liverpool Football Club. The new owners, American businessmen George Gillett and Tom Hicks, beamed from ear to ear as they announced how proud they were to have acquired the club (or rather the ‘franchise’ as they put it). The intriguing set of events that led to the takeover - the last-minute rejection of the offer proposed by the DIC group - would have come as something of a shock to the fans of most clubs. Followers of Liverpool, however, have become accustomed to false dawns and collapsed deals and took the sudden developments in their stride. In fact, in stark contrast to the Glazier takeover at Manchester United, Kopites have embraced their new owners with relative warmth and only a little scepticism.

What concern there is, however, centres on a comment made by Gillett in the first press conference given by the new owners. In response to a question regarding the naming rights to Liverpool’s new stadium on Stanley Park, Gillett announced that he would not rule out the possibility of selling the name of the new ground if a good deal could be assured. Putting forward his position in the form of a question, he asked if the Liverpool fans would rather retain the right to name their own stadium or sign a world-class player every season? With financial experts predicting that the club could make anything up to £10 million a year by selling the rights, this proposal has divided opinion among fans. Some are vehemently against any such proposals and see it as a sudden move away from the club’s historic traditions, whilst others see it as a positive step towards driving the club into the harsh economic reality of 21st century sport.

Like most football grounds, Anfield was named after its locality and this provided an unbreakable bond between the community and the football club. The concern, therefore, is that naming rights are a small step towards franchise football, whereby clubs are not part of a community, but a brand that can be taken and exploited wherever the franchise owner desires. The notion of football clubs as franchises provokes anger in any debate among fans and the persistent use of the term by Messrs Gillett and Hicks had many Liverpool supporters cringing with embarrassment. The very word ‘franchise’ immediately conjures up memories of how Wimbledon FC became Milton Keynes Dons.

But such a drastic example of owner involvement should not be a worry for the fans of Liverpool Football Club. The Americans clearly have no desire or motive to detach the club from its roots and it is nigh on impossible to imagine a time or set of circumstances in which it would be economically advantageous to move Liverpool FC away from Merseyside. But, the very fact that this could in theory be done, justifies the debate surrounding franchise football and moves to detach clubs - even if only through the naming of a stadium - from the local communities which gave rise to them.

Liverpool, of course, are not the first club to consider selling the naming rights to their new stadium. Many clubs have already sold these rights either to fund the construction of the new stadium or as means of generating future revenue. Bolton play at The Reebok, Arsenal at the Emirates, Wigan at the JJB to name but a few. In the case of Arsenal, a club of a similar stature to Liverpool, the fans seemed to accept the move to the Emirates with relatively little fuss. Unless, of course, the lack of atmosphere at the stadium could be considered some form of silent protest!

Liverpool fans, however, are a proud lot and strongly associate with the history of the club. During times of severe economic hardship, tremendous success on the field offered fans a means of escape. And tragedies such as Heysel and Hillsborough have provided a connection between the community and the club that goes way beyond events on the pitch. But equally, there are few clubs whose fans are so accustomed to and demanding of success. A dilemma then indeed! Liverpool undoubtedly need revenue in order to compete in the transfer market with the Manchester Uniteds and Chelseas of this world, so what value tradition if it means ceding all hope of success on the field? Nottingham Forest are a club with a fantastic tradition, yet currently reside in the third tier of English football. Would Forest fans happily watch their club play at the Coca-Cola stadium if it meant challenging for the title and a return to the European Cup, a competition they won twice in the late 1970s? The answer is surely 'yes'.

It is often said that when it comes to football, Liverpool fans are an intelligent and rational bunch. Following Gillett’s comments regarding the possible sale of the stadium naming rights, the popular press latched on to his words in the hope of whipping up some sort of a media storm. Of course, this has not materialised. In fact, many Liverpool supporters have actually reasoned in favour of renaming the new stadium. Most are swayed by the argument that naming rights will help fund future transfer purchases to the tune of ‘one world-class player every season’. More poignantly, though, others reason that a new stadium will not be Anfield so why all the fuss about naming it something else. Renaming a new stadium is hardly a break from tradition when compared to having a new stadium in the first place. And as the new stadium will be in Stanley Park, no major detachment of the fans from the club or break from tradition will occur. So what’s in a name? Well, it would seem that to many Liverpool fans, very little indeed.