Jim White

Suarez row deepens bitter divide

Jim White

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Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra will come face-to-face once again

The fall-out from a few ill-spoken words continues. At Wembley, the England coach and FA chairman sit down together to discuss whether the coach is in breach of his contract. Why might he be? Because he spoke out about the sacking of his captain, something he believes should not have happened without his consent.

And why did the blazers strip his captain of the armband? Well, let's not go there. That is legal territory through which you require the razor-sharp brain of a Joey Barton to tread.

Meanwhile, in Manchester, the locals are preparing themselves to offer a warm welcome to a visitor from Merseyside. You may have heard Luis Suarez is set to make an appearance at Old Trafford for Liverpool on Saturday. And thanks to one particular word, uttered he claims without malice but taken as such, the relationship between English football's two most successful clubs - an opposition which, at the best of times, might be described as fractious - has turned sectarian.

It is never exactly pleasant when United and Liverpool meet. It's the loathing of similarity: these are two cities, two clubs with far more in common than they have in opposition. The rivalry is bitter, noisy, intense. But on Saturday it promises to be a degree or two uglier. Over the Suarez issue there is no mutual ground. The gap between the two sides is enormous.

Liverpool fans — taking their lead from the public remarks of their manager — believe they are the victims of a malevolent conspiracy. Never mind what Suarez may or may not have said — and surely since he wears a red shirt it cannot have been anything untoward — the response from the football establishment in banning him was vindictive and driven by a determination to do Liverpool down.

Since Manchester United are at the heart of that establishment, they — and their lying full-back — are wholly responsible for Liverpool's isolation. And Liverpool will always stand by their man.

My club right or wrong has long been a guiding tenet of faith of the football fan. That is largely what support is about. Or should be. You stand by your team. You stand by your man. Unless he happens to be Roy Hodgson, obviously.

Meanwhile United fans, who, in the past have held grudging — if privately expressed — respect for Liverpool's traditions, culture and accomplishments, are simply baffled by the club's behaviour over Suarez.

They were at Anfield for the FA Cup tie recently, they heard the public address announcer insist that any form of racial abuse would not be tolerated there, they saw the posters all round the ground suggesting that if any patrons heard any hint of racial abuse they should report it to the nearest steward. And yet, when one of their players did precisely that, he was called a liar by the club's senior representatives and viciously booed by 40,000 home fans.

Where, they wonder, is the logic in that? Surely it can't be one law for a supporter — the kind of bloke who, if found guilty of racially abusing a visiting player from Oldham for example, would be rightly and swiftly barred from the ground — and another for a star forward, the one player in the current Liverpool squad with the striking qualities to turn all those draws into victories? Surely not.

No doubt there will be morons among the United support who reckon the Suarez business gives them validation to sing their horrible chant about Hillsborough, as they did at Anfield. Nothing justifies that. There is a big difference between iconoclasm and profanity and that particular number long ago stepped over the breach.

And if they do, the Liverpool followers would not be alone in being outraged. Indeed we can expect, across the internet in the days leading up to the game and at Old Trafford itself, an endless tit-for-tat of name calling and self-justification, a surfeit of 'they started it' whinging and 'never mind what we're chanting, can you hear what they're singing' complaining.

On the day we can expect a stadium transformed by rivalry into a classroom full of five year olds each trying to get the other told off by teacher.

It would be nice if we could rather concentrate on the football, on the test Suarez provides for United's less than sturdy defence, on the manner in which Liverpool's muscular approach at set pieces so successfully undermined United keeper David de Gea at Anfield, on the difference the return of Nani and Tom Cleverley will make to the home side. But there is no way that will happen.

Instead, we will be obliged to reflect on the growing Glasgow-isation of the Premier League's most explosive fixture. And like the Old Firm games, indefensible as the off-pitch nonsense is, there is no denying it adds a degree of intensity and excitement to the occasion that cannot be matched elsewhere. Whatever your view, this one matters.

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