Life ain’t easy for a rat-faced boy
By Jimmy Conway and Steven Kelly
From Issue 57, Summer 2002
Has the phrase “winning ugly” ever seemed more appropriate now that we’re about to sign Lee Bowyer? This is a sad time for our beloved club. We’ve completely abandoned everything we’ve stood for in our 110 year history. To quote every naff, talentless hack working today would be easy, and I make no apologies for adopting their predictable clichés: Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley really will be spinning in their graves. Bowyer is nothing but a vile, nasty thug who has no place at Anfield.
I really don’t know what’s more sickening, his inevitable arrival or the club’s absurd attempts to justify it. Phil Thompson, a Liverpool man whom I respect more than anyone at the club, saw fit to use the Everton Echo as a platform for the pathetic reasons we are chasing Bowyer. I won’t quote him directly, I don’t want to sully an honourable fanzine with such feeble words, but comparing Bowyer to Terry Mac is like comparing Jade Goody with Brigitte Bardot. I’d love to know what Terry thought of that gem. I can’t imagine him being thrilled, even when he realises Thommo meant playing style rather than character.
Stevie G and Vladi can fuck off as well. What we don’t need is footballers telling us what is good and what is not, especially one whose greatness as a player should not delude him into thinking he is the living embodiment of every female fantasy, one who should give his knackered groin and backside pinching hand a rest. I’d be more interested to know what our black players think of this deal, as I’ve yet to hear any of them run out the “good player” club spiel. How are they supposed to feel? By what I’ve seen and read, Diouf doesn’t seem the type of man who’d happily accept a racist moron as a team ‘mate’.
So it’s hardly surprising that club propaganda has centred on the player and not the man. I imagine Slick Rick and the others are dreading the press conference. I’d sell my house for a ticket to see them squirm – especially the manager, who’s been notably quiet. All the talking has been done by Thompson, who could well be done for “tapping” if the rumours are true – I’m sure Leeds would protest if they weren’t so desperate for cash. I wonder who picked up the tab at the Motorway Service Station. Bowyer must have been served by a white person, though, otherwise we’d have probably heard more about it!
I’ve no doubt Gerard thinks he’s doing the right thing for the club, but he is beginning to look like someone who gets a big thrill from upsetting apple carts. Titi, Barmby, Fowler, Jari, Anelka. The man is slowly but surely slipping away from greatness in my eyes, no matter how many troffies he has won or will win. With regard to hiring or firing, he seems to adopt a highly confrontational style that I have little time for. Still, as long as Phil McNulty’s impressed, eh?
I’ll argue endlessly that every individual deserves a second chance, but Bowyer’s had enough opportunities to redeem himself after trashing McDonald’s and uttering racist abuse. The aforementioned McNulty may pompously denounce “kangaroo courts”, but even if Bowyer is not a racist – what about his actions on the field? Are they the actions of a Liverpool player? How ironic that the Houllier acolytes who bleat about Anelka’s “baggage” after he was mercilessly dumped (the same fans who turned a blind eye to it last December!) are now suggesting that Gerard will be able to tame a man with more baggage that Speke Airport.
The people I feel sorry for are Asian Reds. What does it say about their “loyal and valued support” when the club courts Bowyer so fervently? I’m white and it sickens me – I can’t imagine what they’re feeling. I’d have thought Slick Rick’s business nouse/greed would have alerted him to the next golden Goose – the Asian market. If our supporters out there follow the English game as closely as we are led to believe, then I doubt the new LFC bibkit (how apt) will be a huge seller. Or are the club merely insulting their intelligence as much as they do ours’?
As far as I’m concerned, any success achieved with Bowyer is tainted and hollow. The day he signs is the day I fall out of love with this club.
I wonder if Jimmy’s feelings are now the same as mine and many other Reds I’ve spoken to since the deal thankfully fell through. Relief that he wasn’t coming here after all, then anger at the fact that he was ever considered. I suspect they probably are. I know the transfer collapsed just as Dave Usher’s next issue was going to print – he did a lot of rewriting and reorganising for ‘The Liverpool Way’, but I just thought “screw it”. (a) because I’m bone idle and I do not feel like changing anything (b) I thought it would be important for people like Jimmy and The Creator Supreme (see Tell Big Ed) that others should know they were against it from the off and weren’t one of these mysterious pod people who just say “well done Gerard” whenever the man makes a decision one way or the other.
Personal embarrassment became a factor – for about 5 minutes. There were two segments from issue 56 that came back to haunt me in a big way. One diary entry read “if they sign this racist thug I’d have to think long and hard about carrying on (supporting Liverpool)”. To be honest, it was one of those moments of bogus bravado. There’s no way I’d give up supporting Liverpool because of the presence of one (admittedly obnoxious) individual, and since the report that diary entry was based on appeared in the ‘Mail’ I believed it to be an utterly fraudulent and pernicious piece of ‘journalism’. Ordinarily, I’d be big enough to apologise to the hack in question for doubting their word – but it’s the ‘Mail’, so fuck ‘em.
Then, in the middle of a contributor’s rant about Leeds United, I placed that sickening picture of the Leeds fan’s banner that read “Lose Bowyer, Lose The Title – It’s Your Choice” beside my own comment: “nice to have priorities, eh?” – little knowing that my own club was really planning to bring him to Anfield. As I said before, my dilemma lasted for 5 minutes. Any thoughts about giving up a season ticket lasted for less and any idea I had about giving up on Liverpool FC, no matter how greedy arrogant or immoral they may become, didn’t even register long enough to qualify as a thought. That’s what it means to be a supporter. I’m sure you felt the same way. We’re here for the long haul, and individuals like Souness (the manager), Ince or Bowyer are simply passing through – like the contents of a bull’s digestive system. We’re just the ones who are left to deal with the mess afterwards.
In fact, the comparison to Souness post-‘Loverpool’ is quite apt, since that was the last time I really had such thoughts, where the offence was so great that it called into question whether you could stand/sit there and cheer for the team while that particular individual was still present and far from correct. Just like with Bowyer, I got the feeling that there was a major split amongst the support. I couldn’t determine the exact figures, but at a guess I’d say: there was 20% who didn’t want Bowyer, wouldn’t cheer for Bowyer whatever he did and would consider any team achievement as being cheapened by his presence: there was 20% who couldn’t see what the fuss was about, he was a good player who’d been found “not guilty” of any ‘affray’ and when he had a red shirt on he was entitled to wholehearted support no matter what. The rest of the support would be the silent majority. They would keep their heads down and their mouths shut. No, they weren’t very happy about the situation and they had their doubts, but they were going to wait and see how things panned out. If it became the right decision on a football basis, they would turn a blind eye and celebrate the championship that inevitably followed.
And it would be this 60% of Reds who would ultimately decide whether Bowyer’s transfer was appropriate. As with Souness, they would be the ones to turn first and decide on his future. Back in 1993, everyone thought he was out. Virtually everyone did. Thanks to Moores’ screw-up, he survived – but it was for months and not years. Part of my Anfield nightmares involve those horrible moments on the Kop when “Souness out” vied with “Sooooooness” for the loudest chant of the day. When a club’s support is split, it usually spells doom for the team’s performances on the pitch. And Gerard Houllier would have been a very naïve man indeed if he believed that any future derision would have fallen solely on Lee Bowyer’s bony and no doubt pockmarked shoulders. It would have made Danny Murphy’s ‘Southampton Hell’ look like Gerry & Gordon walking round with the FA Cup, sure – but the manager would have had to take his fair share of abuse.
So why am I still waffling on, even though he’s not coming? Because a lot of wounds have been opened up, and it will take a lot of time to heal them. Initially, I felt the same as I did in the 80’s. The racist chants and noises stopped because we signed a black player who beguiled everyone with his skill, pace and vision – the mighty John Barnes. In the dark months after the Hillsborough disaster, the smallest of straws to clutch was that at least those vile songs about Munich had ended. You can get on a high horse and say they should have stopped because we all felt they were wrong, not just because we had a black man in red or we had our own pain from our own disaster – but most if not all fans who hated all that stuff simply contented themselves with the fact that at least it had been stopped.
So why not say the same about Bowyer? Look, he’s not coming here – who cares why we stopped the deal, let’s just be grateful that it was halted. Well, I’m not prepared to just gloss over the extreme lack of judgement and good taste that meant he was almost signed and sealed, but for the player’s own greed and not because we took exception to his past and personality. From what you’ve read so far, you’ll have no doubt which side of the fence I was standing on. I hate Lee Bowyer, hated the thought of him coming here, would never have sung his name and would have considered any Liverpool success with him in the side as sullied. I would like, though, to be thought of as a man who isn’t simply besotted with his own viewpoint and that I could look at it from the opposite side, to take those views on board and analyse them with a modicum of intelligence and without prejudice.
One fact that is indisputable, however, is that there would have been a split, there would have been arguments galore and it could possibly have spilled over into violence on the terraces amongst our own. Something that should never, ever happen but occasionally did under Souness and even under Evans (one night at the Riverside was appalling). It would have been a casual dismissal of the role we play, our importance to the team’s cause, if that aspect had been totally overlooked. Further dissent would have been caused by those fans who weren’t chuffed about the treatment of certain other players (Camara, Fowler, Anelka) who were considered by Houllier not to have 100% sympathy for his “team first” philosophy. Take Chris Bascombe’s article on Anelka, for example. The day after we decided we weren’t signing him, he waded in armed with remarks about Nic’s “baggage”. He wasn’t the only one. Having been the recipient of such wholehearted (blinkered?) support, how would those same fans have reacted to Houllier signing a man whose “baggage” would have made Nic’s 747-sized luggage look like a Prada bag? Not very well, is my guess.
There were stories about fans, at the first friendly in Le Havre, collaring Gerard and letting him know exactly how some fans felt about the possibility of Bowyer coming here. By that time, the deal had stalled on Bowyer’s wage demands. The next day, the Daily Mirror ‘coincidentally’ carried the story of the forthcoming private prosecution being taken out by the Najeib brothers. Every other paper had the sad, sickening news of Harold Shipman’s final body count (well over 200) – but not the Mirror, oh no. Pages 1,2 and 3 were on Lee Bowyer. For anyone who had been living on Mars for two years, all the sordid details appeared once more. The brothers’ employment of the same solicitor that Stephen Lawrence’s family used was another telling factor – that people who make it their business to focus on the many injustices suffered by minorities in this country considered Bowyer on a par with the Norris’s and Acourt’s of this world. And that’s just the kind of company we want to be keeping isn’t it – however indirect the connection is.
In a way, we may still carry the stigma from attempting to buy Bowyer in the first place. It wasn’t morality that stopped us, that’s for sure – it was Bowyer’s greed. It became obvious that he wanted his Bosman cash a year early, so he didn’t having to go through the whole palaver of pretending to be committed to the Leeds cause while he ran down the clock on his contract. He obviously went to Leeds and said “look, you can get £10m for me now, let’s split it 50/50 and I’ll sign a new contract – that way you’ll get £5m. In a year you’ll get nothing because I’ll walk”. Leeds, in a rare show of principle, tell him to go fuck himself. So he comes to us with the exact same proposition. Instead of being delirious that anyone would have him, never mind one of the greatest clubs in the world with a Champions League spot and a genuine crack at the title, he starts on us with the exact same proposal – and that’s when Houllier finally gets wind of what he’s dealing with here. I can’t prove any of this, you understand, but I’ll bet that’s how it went down. So now he’s back at Leeds, and Ridsdale is “delighted”. I’ll just bet he is. Now the contract is going back and forth between Leeds and Bowyer, still unsigned – and I’ll swear that’s how it stays until he eventually gets his money. One way or the other.
I’ve been thinking long and hard about some of the arguments for signing Bowyer. Some were weak and some were strong. Nearly all of them depended on whether you actually wanted to be fair to Lee Bowyer. That’s something a lot of the Reds I spoke to did not even begin to want to do.
A lot of the arguments, for or against, came back to the same problem – PERCEPTION. We are not dealing with indisputable facts here. True, Bowyer has that one guilty verdict to his ‘credit’ from the time he was a young lad at Charlton, but I think we’re all big enough to realise that one incident should not be enough to condemn a man for life, no matter how obnoxious his behaviour. It has been argued that he has been through two trials, not one of which found him guilty. He has also ended up with an image which borders on the insane. Having been smacked in the nose (ironically, the victim for once) and with blood pouring from the wound, he was photographed bullishly celebrating a Leeds goal – that image is one of the scariest I’ve ever seen. He looks like Hannibal Lecter, for God’s sake, and it’s that photograph which is often used in articles that have attacked him. I think we can all agree that the use of that (innocent) image alongside other, more serious charges, is an abuse of the truth, no matter what we may think of him.
But that’s it in a nutshell. How is he ‘perceived’? If we’d taken a poll of Liverpool fans, asking them to tick words which they would use to describe Lee Bowyer before we were linked to him, two words would have been marked more than any others: “racist” and “thug”. That is the perception of Lee Bowyer. I’d like to think it doesn’t really matter how someone is perceived, but how he actually is that matters – but that’s not how things work in the real world. Lee Bowyer is seen to be exactly that which he is often accused of – and Liverpool FC would similarly have been perceived rightly or (I think) wrongly for harbouring such a man, and employing him despite national contempt simply in order to win some football matches. We would not have come out of it well and, actually, if we’d been successful with Bowyer we may well have come out of it looking even worse. How can the club’s hierarchy not possibly have known that was going to happen? If anything had been uncovered to further prove people’s perception of Bowyer, or he’d got involved in anything similar in the future, how could the club have defended itself by saying “well, we had no idea he was like that”? The answer, of course, is that they couldn’t. What a massive gamble it would have been.
And things would have become worse still once the private prosecutions began. The Mirror story of 20th July, the day before we called it all off, gave just a brief glimpse of what we could come to expect. It was a nasty read. There were futile denials about timing the prosecution and article to coincide with Bowyer’s expected move to Liverpool. I’m not buying that for a second. I have strong objections to any newspaper setting itself up as judge, jury and executioner, but even if there were elements of vengeance in the Najeib brothers’ actions – who on earth could possibly blame them for that? It reminds me in a way of the Hillsborough families and their private prosecution – a feeling that people had got away with something and a desire to make sure they were punished. There are similar cries for “justice”, but what they actually want is a guilty verdict and suitable punishment, and they are never going to rest until they get it. Our very own Bereaved will never accept the courts’ numerous verdicts that Duckenfield and Murray are innocent, nor will we. The Najeibs have in fact seen someone go inside for 6 years, which must be a small consolation (it’s more than we’ve had for 1989), but obviously they feel the “celebrity perpetrators” got away with it.
And it’s this morass of violence, accusation and counter accusation that Houllier and LFC happily dragged us into. Think back to the Grobbelaar trial. He was a Southampton player, he had also been accused of throwing Saints matches – but how was he always described? As “the former Liverpool player”. Would Bowyer have been described as “the former Leeds player”? Fat chance. National perception would end up with him having been involved in this attack (and the private prosecution will throw new light on the nature of that involvement) as a Liverpool player – the stain would be on our character. How could we have lived with that?
Another argument ran thus: “he’s a great player, worth the risk and the bother, not everybody with talent is a nice person”. Strangely, I do have a bit of sympathy with this view. I’m a massive Bowie fan, and yet there were times when he crossed the line. His songs have often had links with vaguely Nazi/Superman ideals, he’s talked of fascism in a number of interviews and not always in negative terms. The excellent book “Strange Fascination” by David Buckley has pages and pages on this subject, along with eye witness accounts of the infamous ‘Nazi’ salute at Victoria Station. So having read all this, am I about to dump all my Bowie CDs into the bin? Am I hell as like. Bowie claims that he was coked out of his head and didn’t know what he was saying most of the time, but a lot of those lyrics stem from pre-cocaine days – “gotta make way for the homo superior”, indeed. But then Bowie’s never been accused of kicking the shit out of someone, has he? Someone who has been violent is Jerry Lee Lewis, as racist and sexist a shitbag as ever lived – but you put “Great Balls of Fire” on the Slater’s jukebox and watch me dance like an elasticated fool.
We’ve also had people like Tommy Smith and Bruce Grobbelaar playing for us, and racist remarks they’ve made are a matter of public record. While I don’t personally revere them as men, they were great Liverpool players and I’m not sure I want their achievements to be wiped from history because of the kind of people they were/are. Yet again, though, they’ve not been accused of beating somebody up, although Grobbelaar might have done it to Mark Walters at Goodison, if McManaman hadn’t got in the way. But that’s another story. I could talk about film critics who drone on and on about the wonderful cinematography of Leni Reifenstal in “Triumph Of The Will”. I mean, who cares that she’s trying to make Hitler look like a god – when did that ever do any harm? Just concentrate on those images, man.
But is Bowyer really in this kind of genius category? Ferguson knew Cantona had several screws loose, but he was vindicated by four championships in five seasons – and Cantona missed the one failure because (irony alert!) he kicked a racist in the chest. Can Bowyer honestly be considered at the same level? Hand on heart, I’ve never thought so. Very good player, but not worth all the hassle. Many Reds argued, like those Leeds fans with the banner, that Bowyer’s presence would mean an instant title. I really don’t see it that way at all. We have a great chance in 2002/03, even without Bowyer. Especially without him, in my view, since that team spirit will still prosper.
Supporters of the move felt that “everybody deserves a second chance”, and this idea of redemption, of forgiveness, is certainly a strong one. It’s slightly easier to forgive when you’re not the one who was almost killed, but maybe that’s nitpicking. There’s one incident from my youth than I’m deeply ashamed of, and thankfully I was taught a valuable lesson at the time. Maybe my feelings don’t stem directly from that very day, but for a long long time I’ve hated racists. It would certainly hurt me if I were perpetually abused for one act of stupidity, that this one instance of moronic behaviour is actually how I really am – BUT it was ‘only’ verbal, I came out of it looking like the fucking idiot I was and no violence was involved. I’ve deeply regretted it always, and in a way I’ve been trying to make up for it ever since. Ask yourself this: in your opinion, can Lee Bowyer honestly say the same? Do you think there is a possibility that Lee Bowyer could get involved in something like this again? If the answers to these questions are “no” and “yes” respectively, then how can you still believe that he should have signed for Liverpool?
How much damage has been done to the club and the manager? I don’t suppose it’s news to you that I’ve never been 100% about Houllier. Maybe the nature of a fanzine is such that I should always look at the one flaw instead of the 99 perfections, but I admit there’s more to it. There’s just something about him that bothers me. It’s strange, because when he first came here I thought “good man, probably not a great manager”. Now it’s the reverse. He has every chance of being the next championship-winning manager, but I like him less and less. The Bowyer deal has whittled away at my feelings further still.
When Barmby signed, Gerard expressed astonishment at the reaction of the blues: “you’d think he was changing his religion”. I laughed, we all did, because we thought he was winding up Evertonians. Now I’m not so sure; with the determination to sign Bowyer, it’s possible he actually doesn’t understand anything beyond its implications for the footballing side of things. When he turned his little propaganda machine on Fowler after the Charity Shield, I don’t think he quite understood how some Liverpool fans could still side with Fowler and applaud him at the West Ham game. He professes astonishment at any accusation that Liverpool can be boring. There’s the sheer idiocy of his denial that his decision to replace Hamann cost us at Leverkusen. All of these little moments where we’ve thought “no, he does see it, but he’s just being clever and keeping it to himself” – do you find yourself, in the light of his determination to sign Lee Bowyer, thinking twice about all of these things?
There are disturbing rumours coming from Melwood. About power, about ego. One of the more ridiculous claims from the “sign Bowyer” brigade was this idea that “if anyone can tame him, then it’s Houllier”. Based on what, exactly? Name me a player who was wild before he came to Anfield and came under GH’s control and prospered. Camara? Thompson? Fowler? Anelka? As soon as they’ve given him even a hint of trouble to come, he’s dumped them. What evidence is there to suggest that Bowyer wouldn’t have ended up the exact same way? Was this move initiated by ego? They all think they’ve got ‘a Cantona’ in them – count how many managers have taken a chance on Stan Collymore, only to realise later on that they couldn’t control him.
But a lot of Liverpool fans believed. They see Houllier as The Miracle Worker, and nothing is beyond him. Houllier wanted Bowyer, and that was enough for them. They’re probably the same people who, if we made Harold Shipman club doctor, would back the club and say “well, he only hates pensioners” …………since when did being a loyal (and often entirely sycophantic) Liverpool supporter take precedence over being a good person? The signing of Lee Bowyer was just plain wrong on so many levels, and yet a large number of Liverpool fans were not only prepared to look the other way, they openly celebrated over our “new arrival”.
I expect this kind of blinkered Planet Football mindset from those inside the game. When Terry Venables came to Leeds, he spoke about Jonathan Woodgate. “He’s been through a difficult time”………excuse me? Jonathan Woodgate has been through a difficult time?!?! What about the poor bastard who was kicked senseless? But that is typical of football in general. These people exist in a vacuum, and some live in a moral one. There is what’s good for the club and good for the game – and that’s it. What else matters? What else is there?
In a way, the Lee Bowyer fiasco (and that’s what it was) really asks deep questions about all of us. I said, from day one, that he couldn’t come here because football fans need to have heroes – and how could anyone possibly make a hero of him, no matter what he did for us? And then you start to go further: “for God’s sake man, you’re 43 years old and you still think of these greedy, egotistical children as your ‘heroes’ because they can kick a ball well – isn’t it time you grew out of this?”. It’s true. I’m weak and I’m stupid and I place an inappropriate amount of importance on something that quite plainly isn’t important at all, but I can’t help it. I need this, I’m guessing you do too. Without Lee Bowyer at Anfield, I can just about hold up this ‘truce’ with my inner, saner voices. If we’d bought him, they may well have won.
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.