x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Liverpool fans begin to see the light over Luis Suarez

Cheerleaders at Liverpool are coming around to the idea that Suarez is not a perfect poster boy, writes Richard Jolly

Liverpool's Luis Suarez.
Liverpool's Luis Suarez.

Outside Anfield, on the statue of Liverpool's most iconic manager, is a message: "He made the people happy."

And so Bill Shankly did. In the increasingly unlikely event that Luis Suarez is commemorated in stone, what would his epitaph be?

"He made the people angry," perhaps, because fury has been a constant in the Uruguayan's two-and-a-half years on Merseyside.

Outsiders have been angered by Suarez's conduct, whether it was the racial abuse of Patrice Evra, the bite he took out of Branislav Ivanovic or his inability to retain his footing, even if the striker not alone in his predilection for diving.

The extremists in the Liverpool fan base raged at those who refused to conform to their party line, celebrating Suarez's talent and exonerating him whenever controversy centred on him. Vindictive, vitriolic attacks were directed at Suarez's critics or those who simply didn't share their hardline views.

Then, in a swift about-face caused by their former idol, there was anger at Suarez when he declared his determination to leave. For once, the Uruguayan's argument - that he had to leave because of persecution from the British media - brought not unquestioning agreement, but scepticism and irritation.

Had Suarez simply said that, at 26 and at the peak of his powers, he wanted to play Champions League football, he would have retained more respect. He would not have been so disingenuous.

Now there is the strange sense his former cheerleaders want to hear less about Suarez. His every public utterance, invariably from Uruguay, is designed to engineer his exit. It has often been said that Suarez owes Liverpool, and so he does, for the backing they have invariably offered in unique circumstances and while he has incurred suspensions totalling 20 games.

However, as the past few weeks show, they would have been better advised to adopt a more impartial position. Instead, Liverpool's reputation has suffered as their best player has brought out the worst in a section of their support and their managers. Kenny Dalglish was ultimately undermined by his defiant defence of Suarez, the club's greatest servant appearing a man out of touch in a series of PR disasters.

Brendan Rodgers spent much of his debut campaign praising Suarez's character - "a magnificent person," he said in April - and, after the bite on Ivanovic, strangely attributed it to South American players' will to win, ignoring the continent's many other players who have never resorted to eating opponents.

The hope was that a chorus of praise would satisfy Suarez. The often level-headed Steven Gerrard described him as the third-best player on the planet, after Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, which, great talent and constant threat to defenders as he is, was excessive.

A campaign to get him named Footballer of the Year failed.

Suarez came second to Gareth Bale in the players' award, while the journalists' award was voted after his attack on Ivanovic, and the Uruguayan's candidacy had been destroyed.

The probability is that, after the sort of drawn-out sagas in which Real Madrid and Barcelona seem to specialise, Suarez will end up at the Bernabeu and be competing for both collective and individual honours next season.

Liverpool's coffers should be swelled and Rodgers given the difficult task of replacing him, but the biggest change may come in attitude.

Liverpool were long renowned for their dignity and good humour, qualities the majority of their large fan base have retained, but the atmosphere has been soured in Suarez's stay.

There should be a recognition now that he has not been victimised, but criticised, and that there is a significant difference. But Suarez is a player who has polarised opinions like no other, and during his tumultuous time at Anfield, there have been few half-way measures.