x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Flaw in Sir Alex Ferguson's optimistic logic

Does Ferguson think that the sort of person who is happy to sing about children dying at a football match is the type to be swayed by an independent review?

Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager of Manchester United.
Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager of Manchester United.

Sir Alex Ferguson is not a man you would normally associate with woolly-minded optimism.

His publicly stated hope, however, that a minority of Manchester United fans will no longer taunt Liverpool supporters over the Hillsborough tragedy seems naive.

The Premier League rivals clash at Anfield on Sunday, Liverpool's first home game since an independent review into the 1989 disaster nailed the outrageous lie - started by the police and gleefully spread by sections of the establishment - that fans were to blame for the crush which killed 96 people.

"You would hope that maybe this is a line in the sand in the way supporters behave toward one another," the United manager said. It is a noble aspiration but one based upon a flawed logic, which supposes that United fans only taunted Liverpudlians over Hillsborough because they believed the original smear campaign.

Does Ferguson honestly think that the sort of person who is happy to sing tasteless songs about children dying at a football match is also the type to be swayed by an independent review?

"Hang about lads, we can't sing that one. Didn't you hear the prime minister's statement to Parliament?"

"Yeah, good point, Dazza. Professor Scraton's damning conclusions about the deficiencies of both the policing operation and the stadium itself have certainly lifted the scales from my eyes." Not likely.

Ferguson's theory is further undermined by the fact that English football is peppered with tasteless references to tragedies for which the victims have never been blamed.

Some fans taunt Tottenham Hotspur supporters, perceived as more likely to be Jewish, with a hissing sound intended to imitate a Nazi gas chamber.

A minority of Arsenal fans sing about their wish that Emmanuel Adebayor had not survived the terrorist attack on the Togo team coach in 2010.

And, of course, there are the Munich air disaster taunts suffered by Ferguson's own club. Do the moronic Leeds United, Manchester City and Liverpool fans make those "wing" gestures at United fans and players because they believe the Busby babes were to blame? Are they awaiting an independent review to confirm that Duncan Edwards was not actually flying the plane?

No. Blinded by tribalism, they are simply seeking the most hurtful jibe available. Sadly, the review into Hillsborough will not change that culture.

Of course, Ferguson cannot say that. He was asked a straight question and gave the only answer he could: that he hoped fans' behaviour would change.

For the record, I am sure he does. However, he missed a gilt-edged chance to prove it this week when a section of United supporters sang, "Always the victims, it's never your fault" during a game against Wigan Athletic - which sounded like a thinly veiled Hillsborough jibe.

Instead of grasping the nettle, Ferguson chose to back up the United supporters' dubious excuse that this chant referred to last season's racism row between Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra. Now that really is woolly-minded optimism.

And there, in a nutshell, is the problem. Clubs can say all the right things, believe all the right things and stage all the right photo opportunities (the United captain Nemanja Vidic will jointly release 96 balloons with Steven Gerrard, the Liverpool captain, before kick-off on Sunday) but while the majority of decent fans and officials make excuses for a minority of unthinking, tribalistic louts, the sick chants will continue.

We do not need a new "line in the sand". The line of decency and civility has always been there, and is observed by the vast majority.

The challenge now is to demonstrate that those who cross it will not be welcomed back into the throng.

sports@thenational.ae