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Do rivalries matter to the players anymore?

Or have fans only now realised that paid professionals don’t share their passionate partisanship?

Manchester United v Manchester City - EFL Cup Fourth Round Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

There’s a story in Lee Sharpe’s autobiography about a night in Brazingamans in Alderley Edge during the mid-1990s when he was approached by a Liverpool player asking for help. Roy Keane, who Sharpe described as “absolutely smashed,” was at the opposite side of the bar, engaged in a one-sided shouting match with international teammate Phil Babb.

“Who the fucking hell do you think you are, Babb?”

Babb didn’t respond. He avoided eye contact.

“Fuck off back to Coventry.”

Babb’s Liverpool teammate John Scales intervened. “Whoaa, Roy, we’re just chilling out and relaxing after the game.”

Keane was not for chastening.

“You, Scales, you’re fucking rubbish an’ all, with your England B cap, you’re nowt, you’re rubbish.”

Jamie Redknapp also tried to calm the situation.

“You, Redknapp, are you happy with your Under-21 caps? What the fucking hell have you done in the game?”

Keane was fierce, unyielding and passionate. It was genuine; mirroring his on-pitch persona and completely lacking nuance. Not only did he hate Liverpool, he didn’t respect them. He couldn’t bring himself to express niceties for the sake of it. That fire burned strong within Roy, even far from the confines of the pitch. All that bravado and anger was exactly what the fans would be proud of, what they would wish to muster should they ever encounter these players. In reality, most would never berate professional footballers like that, but Roy Keane was their champion for doing so.

The snarl-faced, badge-kissing, opposition-taunting footballer will always be the fans’ champion. Keane, Adams, Terry, Gerrard, Kompany. The fans could identify with these men; these hardened brutes who believed in their cause and would do anything for their teams. England fans will wince at Rio Ferdinand’s assertion that the Golden Generation underachieved because they couldn’t put club rivalries to bed. United, Liverpool, and Chelsea players each sat at their own tables. But club fans will feel an inner pride, knowing that their gladiators wouldn’t break bread with those Scouse, Manc, or posh London fuckers.

It’s the generation of footballer in which many of us were raised. But times change.

We’ve all heard the song. ‘Gary Neville is a red, he hates Scousers.’ Neville personified dedication to the cause. Those images of Neville taunting Liverpool fans at Old Trafford in 2006 live long in the memory. He once publicly declared: “I can’t stand Liverpool, I can’t stand Liverpool people, I can’t stand anything to do with them.” Yet Neville is now the poster boy of Sky Sports, presenting the ‘banter show’ with one-time Liverpool rival Jamie Carragher. It seems permissible given that Neville and Carragher were equally fierce rivals during their playing days, with both now continuing to defend their clubs’ honour on television.

But generally speaking, fans want to see the rivalries, and feel that they are genuine. They want to see the hatred they feel for opposition teams extended beyond the football pitch. It reinforces that what they feel in the stands on a Saturday is real, and that the players feel it too. Every fan wants to believe that their players love their clubs, that their loyalty goes beyond the paycheque and that they would live in northern England even if they didn’t have to.

When pictures of a beaming Paul Pogba and Mohamed Salah appear on social media together during the season, it bursts that illusion. It somewhat undermines the passion fans feel every weekend. It undermines their belief in their players’ loyalty. Pogba might be a social phenom, a modern footballer and social media influencer, but this is Liverpool we’re talking about. Fans can live with the pictures of Pogba with Neymar and Messi, but Liverpool?

It’s not to suggest that players can’t socialise with who they choose, but perhaps for the old school fans it might be better to keep some things private.

It prompts the question: what should be standard be for professional rivalries in the modern game? Is it too much to still expect the Roy Keane level of dedication, especially when the example cited above illustrates extremely uncouth, aggressive and anti-social behaviour? Keane’s antics, something that most Manchester United fans would applaud in that instance, would have been a very unbecoming sight for revellers that night, and it was behaviour that would have invoked a sense of trepidation and fear.

The archetype of Keane, Gerrard and Terry forged how most fans of a certain age wish to see football rivalries conducted in public, and even private. Uncompromising, stoic and fierce. But each of those players have now retired, and most elite footballers are now preoccupied with their public image, and how such behaviour might be construed by sponsors and other money men. That level of showy loyalty doesn’t pay anymore. It doesn’t help players and their marketability, and it won’t help their contract negotiations either should clubs think their players are that committed to the cause.

Player fuelled rivalries might just be a thing of the past that millennials will never grasp. Gerard Pique recently revealed that the Barcelona and Real Madrid players share a WhatsApp group. Then again, that Salah and Pogba would cavort behind enemy lines is not necessarily a sign of the times; George Best was Nicky Summerbee’s chief drinking partner in 1960s Manchester and even acted as best man at the City player’s wedding.

It could be argued that situations like the Pogba-Salah photo have occurred right through footballing history, but the advent of social media has burst fans’ illusions of how shallow rivalries really are. Maybe it is high time that some of us realise that like players’ dedication and loyalties to their teams, rivalries are a manufactured construct, made to keep us entertained but utterly insignificant to those actually playing the game.

For those of us who still yearn for the gladiators of yesteryear, what we can continue to do is appreciate those champions who appear every so often; the Jordan Hendersons, the Ander Herreras, and the Vincent Kompanys who really do appear to believe in the cause and respect their team’s rivalries and traditions. It might be only make believe for adults, but these players somehow keep the illusion going.