LARRY RYAN: Suarez proves love is overrated

With Suarez, you get the impression the little boy inside him is often screaming all right, but more often than not it’s for the ball.

We can only hope now that all the progress hasn’t been undone. That football’s new growth hasn’t been stunted.

Because it looked like being the year when the game grew up. While empirical evidence is scarce, I’m certain there has been a sharp decline in incidents of badge kissing in recent months. As though a profession collectively looked at Luis Suarez and realised there is life after love.

For the fans’ part, there were a few shirts burned early doors all right. But there were no effigies, as far as we know, and, on the whole, Liverpool supporters have behaved with a certain maturity while watching Suarez score goals for them when he’d rather be elsewhere.

It was certainly the year when one of the game’s many hoary old adages was scotched; there is, after all, a point in trying to hold on to an unhappy player. In fact, so productive has been Suarez’s unhappiness, you almost wonder why other clubs have caved to player power.

After all, football clubs were holding on to unhappy players all the time until freedom of contract finally arrived. And there was the odd decent shift put in before 1978. And a few more before Bosman threw off the last of the chains.

Those first freedoms were won in the face of widespread fretting that mercenaries would emerge to destroy the game — a fear most colourfully expressed in Scoop magazine, where Jon Stark, match-winner for hire, went about his business.

Stark swapped club every match. No goal, no fee — £1,000 a victory and £250 per goal in a win. And it should have read like the dystopia end-game of a sport unravelled by self-interest. But somehow the visionary writers afforded football fans more credit. So while club chairmen hated being beholden to the match-winner fans revered him, even if he restricted romance to one-afternoon stands.

In fairness, Stark certainly put in a shift. So much so that he was once left clinically dead when he threw himself in front of a goal-bound shot.

It has helped Suarez’s cause that you could almost imagine him doing the same — not out of any great affection for his employers, but because it would be the most natural thing in the world for him to do.

If he needed rehabilitation with the Liverpool fans, it theoretically began the day he showed them his baby boy before the win over Crystal Palace. But perhaps it was the boy in Suarez who really won them over.

When Robin van Persie was romancing the Manchester United faithful, he talked a lot about the little boy inside him screaming for the move. That little fella seems to have since lapsed into something of a sulk, which you sense might be beyond the boy in Suarez.

In fact, Jamie Carragher confirms Suarez tried the sulk for size in the first training sessions after this summer’s dispute. “He didn’t want the ball and had no interest in getting involved. He stood on the periphery, with shoulders slumped.”

But it seems he just couldn’t keep that up.

The little boy is very apparent in some footballers. For instance, it is very easy to see the little boy in Emmanuel Adebayor when he and Benoit Assou-Ekotto stick five fingers aloft after their club is hammered. But that is not really the kind of thing fans can work with. With Suarez, you get the impression the little boy inside him is often screaming all right, but more often than not it’s for the ball.

The little boy was evident when he celebrated unselfconsciously in 2010, having naughtily got Uruguay off the hook with that handball. And it was still evident as he hared around White Hart Lane in the dying minutes last Sunday greedy for more goals.

Freed from the bullshit of love, it is possible that Suarez has never been more popular among all football fans. This week he accepted the Football Supporters’ Federation Player of the Year award. More goals and a levelling off in the biting and racism has helped. And it has now been broadly accepted that his need to play Champions League football is a basic human right.

Of course, we have to accept fans are emotional people that need the odd helping of love. That is where special projects like Jon Flanagan come in; the youngster’s revived Anfield career would pass for one of the narrative strands in Love Actually so thickly are Liverpool ladling on the artificial sweetener.

But it looked like fans were beginning to shake the dependency.

And now Suarez has signed. And even if the whole thing is a charade designed to tighten up the exit clauses, everyone involved decided it was necessary to dress it up in love.

Luis loves the fans, and the fans love him. Which is lovely. But if he kisses the badge, and nobody boos, we’ll know there has been no progress made at all.

Lifting the veil on footy’s fancy dans

A footballers’ Christmas party was once a promising source of great amusement, notwithstanding the ever-present danger it would all end in someone losing an eye, or at best having a cigar stubbed out in one.

The festive tradition of footballers in fancy dress goes back a while, certainly to Steve McMahon’s time, since Macca once had to turn away from the Liverpool party a reveller in full Klu Klux Klan regalia not necessarily based on any overall adjudication of poor taste, but because John Barnes was in attendance. Thankfully or otherwise — decide yourself — an impasse was resolved when Barnes poked his head out of the costume.

Digger probably hadn’t run that one by the club, but you suspect it is now the clubs dressing the players up. In recent days, you may have noticed several official club photo shoots featuring footballers in fancy dress.

Perhaps with it becoming that little bit more difficult to sell love affairs, the marketing people are tending to focus more on what Brendan Rodgers likes to call The Group. And on selling the impression that, while these guys mightn’t be around long, at least The Group get along.

Call it Project Great-Bunch-Of-Lads.

So a week that began with Per Mertesacker shepherding Arsenal’s players into dutiful applause of the fans after they allowed Manchester City drive a bus through their defence, wound up with Per shepherding them onto a party bus in a Captain Jack Sparrow suit.

After shipping six, you’ll take love where you can get it.

HEROES & VILLAINS

Stairway to Heaven

Rory Delap: He has finally thrown in the towels after a fine career. While he may not necessarily have chosen the sport most suited to his peculiar talents, he left more of an impact on the folklore of the game than most.

Paralympics Ireland: Released one of the most gracious statements in the history of Irish sport to mark Bethany Firth’s change of allegiance to Great Britain.

Hell in a Handcart

Sam Allardyce:
Warned Tim Sherwood he would be crazy to get into football management. This week a survey by Brazilian sports economics firm Pluri Consultoria ranked Sam as the 13th highest-paid football manager in the world, on €3.5m per season. How does he put himself through it?

Civilisation as we knew it: This week, the annual Pembroke Communications’ Sports Sentiment Index rated rugby as the second most popular sport in Ireland, just behind soccer. It is as good as over. The game is nearly up. Rugby country.

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