Martin Samuel: Can't England get United behind the red half of Manchester?

26 May 2011 06:24
ShareOn the day of the game, when Manchester United last played in Lisbon in 2007, Sir Alex Ferguson commandeered a crew from in-house broadcasters MUTV and headed out to Oeiras, west of the city.

In the Jamor sports complex, surrounded by woodlands, lies the Estadio Nacional, an oval arena, medium-sized, that is the traditional setting for the Portuguese cup final. Ferguson had the crew film him walking out on to the pitch and at various points around the stadium.

The footage has never been publicly broadcast. Indeed, it was never intended to be. This was for Ferguson's personal collection of memorabilia, the humble Estadio Nacional being the venue at which Celtic became the first British team to lift the European Cup in 1967.

Inspiration: Jock Stein led Celtic to glory in the 1967 European Cup, and to this day Sir Alex Ferguson remains in awe of the Lisbon Lions

To this day Ferguson remains in awe of Jock Stein, the manager, and his Lisbon Lions, a fact some will find strange.

That same summer, Ferguson signed for Rangers, the club he had supported since attending Broomloan Road Primary School. Anyone that has ever been to an Old Firm game will be surprised that a Rangers man could be moved by Celtic's greatest triumph, but Ferguson is unrepentant.

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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.'

There is no doubt attitudes have changed. Growing up in the years when Liverpool dominated in Europe it is hard to remember anything but pride in their victories. We cheered for the English team in the final back then, we cheered for Nottingham Forest, we cheered for Aston Villa. Maybe that was because there was often only one English club in the competition, so it felt as if they were representing us all.

Now it is not unusual to have four in the last 16, or even the last eight, and the line-up is a United Nations. It no longer feels as if they are our guys. Even so, there is a single  English club at Wembley, against one from Spain. Why would anyone want United to lose?

Maybe it helped the young Ferguson that his father was a Celtic supporter. Leaving all else aside, Celtic's win in 1967 would have made his father very happy and why would any son not want that?

Enchanting: Ferguson visited the scene of Celtic's triumph, the humble Estadio Nacional on the outskirts of Lisbon

In our house we have divided loyalties over West Ham United and Chelsea; five people, three in claret, two in blue. We can't all hate each other over a football match. But that is the modern way. Liverpudlians were rightly proud of the friendly derby, where families stood together, some in red, some in blue.

That good humour seems to have evaporated. The city is a poisonous place when Liverpool and Everton meet these days. This isn't progress 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.

My enemy's enemy is my friend: A house on Merseyside shows where their support is ahead of the Champions League final

Stringently enforced segregation is partly to blame because it creates two tribes, often unnecessarily. Could the supporters of AFC Wimbledon and Luton Town really not have mingled at the City of Manchester stadium on Saturday? Was it absolutely necessary to introduce a rule at Charlton Athletic that made failing to support the home team in the home end punishable by ejection?

All we have done is add to this cocktailof insularity and intolerance until we reach the stage where an Englishteam is playing in a European football final and can probably rely on more consistent support in Malaysia than it can at home.

United we stand: Manchester United head into the Champions League final without the full backing of the country

'We don't have a problem with that,' said Ferguson but, deep down, he must.

It would surely have been a warmer feeling in 1968 to have the country behind Manchester United going into the game with Benfica. Sure, Ferguson has thrived off negative energy in the past, generating a siege mentality, us against them but that is of most use inspiring a successful band of millionaires to summon the desire to stick it to Sunderland or Blackburn again.

Division: Unlike rugby grounds where fans mix together, football stadiums never allow such freedom

He does not need cheap motivational tricks in a Champions League final against Barcelona. It truly will not matter to his players whether the country is with them or against them; it would just be better for the soul of the sport if we could recapture that distant sense of unity.

Three years ago, at the San Siro in Milan, after Liverpool had become the fourth of four English teams to qualify for the Champions League quarter-finals, I thought I heard the travelling supporters spontaneously chant 'England' as acknowledgement of a remarkable achievement.

En-ger-land: Fans come together for international fixtures but are never caught backing an opposing club team when they play in Europe

On reporting this, many wrote to tell me the chant was 'Inter', out of respect to their hosts. That was a decent gesture, too, yet some of the correspondents were quite irate. How dare I suggest Liverpool fans would chant 'England'? Liverpool fans would never chant 'England'. I get the impression many Manchester United supporters feel the same.

So should we be surprised that so few beyond Old Trafford will take pleasure from a Manchester United win on Saturday? Probably not. Times change and football changes with them. And we're so much more grown-up than we used to be, don't you think? 

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 Explore more:People: Alex Ferguson Places: Barcelona, Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester, Lisbon, Milan, Scotland, Malaysia, Spain, United Kingdom, Europe

Source: Daily_Mail

World Cup Group G

Pos Team Pld Pts
- Belgium 0 0
- Panama 0 0
- Tunisia 0 0
- England 0 0