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The Return of Kenny Dalglish

Posted on 09 February 2011 by JamesHamilton

A few days after her death, my grandmother comes in through my bedroom window after lights out. I am six years old.

She does so again on other nights. The dream always follows the same path. Malevolent twilight and her body framed against it, her back turned to me. The head slowly coming round; and the face wrong, changed, and wicked with appetite, wholly intent upon me; my rollercoastering nausea coming up and my fear: my stomach clenching, then darkness, a chorus of voices howling in the black and I’m falling, down, faster and faster and gritting my teeth, holding my eyes shut until I impact on the bed and waken into a chamber that’s unlit and alive with menace. I’ll hold still on my sheets, tight and noiseless, til sunrise.

Three years later, and I’m in my father’s living room in a town two and a half hours’ drive from home. Windows at each end let in album cover sunshine and there’s snow outside. Alone but vigilant for raised voices starting up away in the house, I’ve turned the stereo’s knob to tuner and found Radio 2. Football: the voice of Peter Jones. Or was it Bryon Butler? Or Alan Parry?

Kenny Dalglish and Liverpool are playing my Manchester United. I’ve been waiting for this game: waiting for it in the way you wait for a school bully, or a bombing raid. The speakers smell of cloth and dust, and their rich bass tone adds a luxury and a cruelty to what is unwinding, inevitably, out on the pitch at Old Trafford. I am armless in this fistfight, powerless, unable to do anything to help.

What’s forgotten now, except by those who were children at the time, is just how frightening Liverpool were. And in particular, just how frightening the one player every 8 year old had heard of was: Kenny Dalglish.

Back then, Dave Sexton’s United was a team of friendly, fatherly figures. Gordon McQueen, Joe Jordan, Martin Buchan, Brian Greenhoff. Ipswich had them too: Mick Mills, Paul Cooper. You could imagine them joining in your playground kickabouts; you could imagine them wanting to; you could imagine them being the sort of grown-up who knew what to say.

My Liverpool fan mates might have worshipped him, but to me, Dalglish wasn’t friendly or a father figure: he was a knife. A cool, sleek blade that cut you. He was a boiling kettle, hovering over ants…

I won some of my United team at school through Panini flick-card competitions. If you had Dalglish’s card, which hardly anyone did, however, you wouldn’t enter it. You kept it separate. You kept it clean and undogeared. It gave you power and standing, in a way and of a kind that everyone understood. For children, iconic power is hard, tangible. Our best playground player knew it, and when he got the ball he’d shout out “Dalglish!” and dribble around you all, endlessly untackleable and unbeatable.

What made it worse was that my Liverpool fan mates seemed to have been Liverpool fans forever. They’d inherited their team through some distant, mysterious group exercise in wisdom and integrity from which I, foolishly and unknowingly, had absented myself.

Ending up with Manchester United felt like an act of carelessness. Because everyone was Liverpool.. Dave Sexton’s team spent that season fighting Coventry City for a mid-table spot.

I’m still United now, and of course, you might say, it ended well. Not so much of a supporter after Heysel, of course. Blind allegiance died that day: now it’s warmth and best wishes, no more, because no more could be justified. Nevertheless, I could wander down to the Baillie in Stockbridge in 2011 to catch Liverpool v United in the Cup and feel somehow shielded by all those titles and trophies. I could relax on a good seat with my wife in that great navy captain’s cabin of a pub, wander over to the bar for a pair of pints and some crisps, and get ready for a game that wouldn’t have a great deal at stake for me.

But just before kickoff, Kenny Dalglish emerged into view, framed against the light from the tunnel.

He was deep in conversation with – Sammy Lee? with his back to us, and as Dalglish slowly came round towards the camera, I saw his face with another thirty years on it, changed, wrong, and wicked with appetite: somewhere inside, I felt an ancient vertigo that I’d thought grown-out-of, beaten and outrun, starting up once again and I remembered what it felt like to fall, what it felt like afterwards to cling on silently, too frightened to move..

It’s one month later. In their last game, Manchester United lost to Wolves. Liverpool are DWWWW.

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Anyone But England: English Football Fans in Scotland

Posted on 25 February 2010 by JamesHamilton

It wasn’t so long ago when the English felt free to mock inhabitants of Her Majesty’s erstwhile and remaining possessions(start at 2m 16 secs)…

..and going further back still, most early histories of the Football Association refer to Scottish professional players in alienating terms: they were foreigners, come from outside to take the shilling and pollute the holy amateur game of England.

Those Edwardians angry at the incomers were administrators and (a few) journalists. There’s no hint that the Preston or Blackburn or Villa fan at the turnstile minded their Scottish players at all. And one hundred years on, I don’t even want to contemplate what the Football League would have lost had it not enjoyed Nevin, Dalglish, Law, Alex James and what must be thousands of others.

Some Scottish fans will know how hard many English find it, to feel how they’d like to feel about the Premier League and the England national team. “Is Wayne Rooney England’s only likeable player?” asks Football 365. “Anyone But England” has never hurt less than it does now. What might have been an insult of real force – when an England team could contain a Charlton brother, a Brooking, a Mick Mills or a Gordon Banks – now sounds, in the era of Cole, Terry, and Ferdinand, no more than a sound but slightly exaggerated opinion that many disillusioned Englanders quietly share.

“Anyone But England” isn’t, of course, anything to do with the rise and fall of the England moral barometer. Neither is it reciprocated. There are a few English fans who become exasperated enough by ABE to stop actively supporting Scotland’s teams in European or international competition, and a small number who go further and cheer on Scotland’s opponents. But we really are talking about very tiny minorities: the English tradition is to support the other British Isles nations and, where available, other Anglophone countries too (USA excepted, if not by me personally).

Not all English traditions are so evenhanded. Especially when it comes to other countries, and that’s why I’d defend Scotland’s silent but mutually-reinforced decision not to adopt this one. Nevertheless, it’s true to say that Scottish fans can go to English pubs to cheer Scotland on and, for the most part, not have to give it a second thought. What happens to England fans, going to Scottish pubs, to cheer on England? I’ve done it, and here’s what I have to say:

The number of Scots who express ABE in anger is vanishingly small, and any discussion of ABE on talkboards will attract comment from Scots who disagree with it and dislike it as a childish hangover and a block on Scottish development.

The golden rule about ABE is that it must be expressed in a humorous tone. Serious use of ABE is considered de trop. But so is energetic argument against it from an Englishman, which is why the wearing of an England shirt in a Scottish pub, whilst unlikely to inspire anything worse than brief comment, is seen as inappropriate, a misjudgement of the situation. That shirt, there, is such an energetic argument.

You are highly unlikely to meet anyone who wants to press the ABE point  even amongst those Scots for whom ABE is an important fact of life. The conversation always moves on. There are other things to talk about, and this is especially so when it comes to football.

Much ABE isn’t about England at all. It’s not about hating the elderly in their freezing deckchairs at Morecambe, for goodness’ sake,  or a playground of children in Gateshead or a Leytonstone mum struggling to stretch her pennies. And there’s always a note of regret behind the humour, a sorrow that Scotland isn’t better than she is, an indefinable if-only..

The expression of a small measure of ABE is expected of you if you are Scottish and part of a group of fans whose teams have made contact with the auld enemy. But you don’t actually have to believe it. And you are, remember, expected to use inverted commas as you say it. Fail that test and it isn’t ABE at all, but something more serious, something nastier that Scottish football is keen to leave in the past.

ABE is not a first-order expression of Scottish nationality. It isn’t the equivalent of wearing a kilt, or a Scotland shirt, or of flying the flag of St Andrew or making a Burns Night toast or climbing your last Munro. Next to these things, ABE is a ginger wig on match day, ABE is an inflatable haggis.

In this sense, then, wearing an England shirt in a Scottish pub is a betrayal of the principles of ABE – it’s missing the joke, missing the point, ignoring house rules. You’re unlikely to get any worse for it than a comment or two, if even that. But you’ll have insulted your hosts. Your England shirt – boorish and aggressive in most places even in England – is a tiresome, humourless and provocative rag up here. It is, above all, boring, dull as a wet day and just as depressing. Don’t forget, either, that there are still amends to be made, all around the world, for what louts in England shirts did in the years between the Heysel ban and the Beatles last LP. This is not just about Scotland.

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