The lowest of many low points arrived on a suitably stormy day in Cape Town.
I had just witnessed England's dire performance against Algeria at the last World Cup. A lame 0-0 draw was greeted with some very audible booing from the thousands of England fans who had made the trip to South Africa. England striker Wayne Rooney scowled at a television camera following him off the pitch and decided to make his feelings on the situation clear.
"Nice to see your home fans booing you," Rooney snapped to a watching world. “That’s what loyal support is."
As a Liverpool fan, it’s hard to even know where to begin with some sort of analysis. Firstly, I find it very hard to accept fans booing players. It is an individual's choice to spend time and money on following a team and, within reason, that side should be supported at all costs. Secondly, the incident hinted at the long suspected disconnect between the England players and large sections of their support. I am not questioning Rooney's commitment to giving his best on the pitch but
Nice to see your home fans booing you. That’s what loyal support is
I doubt he would ever publicly query the loyalty of Manchester United's fans.
When the new Wembley Stadium was finally opened in 2007, the English FA hoped it would become a fortress for a strong national team. Instead, it has become known as a home for a flawed team and a seemingly fickle collective of spectators who boo at the first sign of trouble. Restless fans watching players who often give the impression they would rather be resting with their clubs. Is this the 'proud' England I am expected to get excited about?
A huge banner periodically makes an appearance on the Kop stand at Liverpool's home ground. "We're not English, we're scouse" it proclaims ('scouse' is the slang term for someone from Liverpool). It is a sentiment borne of years of mutual suspicion between the city and the country's capital, London. In 1911, when Liverpool's transport workers went on strike, gunships rather than negotiators were sent north.
The 1980s saw Margaret Thatcher's government all but attempt to close the city down. Then there was Hillsborough, the 1989 stadium disaster which resulted in 96 Liverpool fans losing their lives. The findings of an independent panel were that police had fabricated evidence in an effort to vilify Liverpool supporters. Deeply held feelings of 'them and us' abound within the area. There is barely concealed contempt for an establishment that at crucial times in the city's history has not helped and could not be trusted.
Club v country
When it comes to football, Liverpool is all. England is a distant afterthought.
Having grown up near Liverpool and worked as journalist in the city, there is also a personal connection that cannot be replicated with England. Going to a Liverpool game was, and still is, central to my family's life. The walk to the ground, the familiarity of our seats and the songs we sing are all part of a peculiar bonding ritual. It is as close to a religious experience as I am ever likely to get: thousands of people standing together with a pie in their hands and hope in their hearts.
Regardless of who owns the club, manages the club or plays for the club, we know as fans we will always be there offering largely unconditional levels of support and displaying irrational levels of faith in a better future being just around the corner. The nationality of a manager we admire or a player we love is an utter irrelevance. As long as they are wearing the Liverpool shirt with the respect we feel it deserves, they are one of us.
The red of Liverpool
|Liverpool fans sing 'You'll Never Walk Alone' during the Hillsborough memorial service at the Anfield stadium. [Getty Images]
My younger years saw me entranced by the skills of Liverpool winger John Barnes. In the late 1980s Liverpool built a team that swept all before them. It was based on the apparently simple idea that giving the ball to Barnes, one of the most gifted players of his generation, was a rather good idea.
Yet when Barnes played for England all too often he was a peripheral figure, an apparent afterthought in team planning. He could drift through games with his team-mates seemingly unaware of his existence. Barnes became a favoured booing target for fans of the national side who assumed temporary ownership of him when he wore the white of England.
For me though, Barnesie will always be about the red of Liverpool. It is the same for Scotland's Kenny Dalglish, Slovakia's Martin Skrtel, Zimbabwe's Bruce Grobbelaar or Uruguay's Luis Suarez. In my eyes they were or are Liverpool players, pure and simple. Their finesse and their failings are to be embraced and endured but never derided.
The England team for this World Cup does present something of a conundrum. The style and spine of the team may actually have a distinctive Liverpool feel about it. Five Reds are in the squad and all have a shot at being in the starting line-up. It is not so much that I want or expect England to do well, more that I want these players to show the world how good they are. If that means England put in a couple of good performances then great. If doing well in Brazil boosts their confidence and ability as Liverpool players then even better.
Above everything else, I want all our players, regardless of which country they are from, to get back to the club injury free. I am not ashamed to admit that I would take Liverpool winning the Premier League over England winning the World Cup every day of the week.
This article first appeared in the Al Jazeera magazine which is available for free download on ipad here