Football lost in cloud of hatred

Posted by Mark Payne

Manchester United v Chelsea, Clattenburg Evra, Mata, Mikel GettyImagesManchester United's rivalry with Chelsea is threatening to descent to the depths of the Red Devils' long-standing antagonism towards Leeds

Last weekend saw two classic English football rivalries play out in front of league crowds and both courted controversy of one sort or another. Luis Suarez's dive in front of David Moyes brought a wry smile from the Scotsman. Conversely, the dive of former Liverpool striker Fernando Torres has ushered in a refereeing apocalypse.

- Brewin: Clattenburg affair a crisis
- FA to probe Clattenburg
- Romeu: Mata heard nothing
- Hernandez: United may have title edge

In the 1980s, Manchester United and Chelsea occupied a similar place in the nation's footballing pecking order. Both clubs were wealthy and were considered to be show offs who didn't apply themselves properly. Each club enjoyed healthy cup runs but lacked the grit to challenge for the league. This was a period dominated by Liverpool and Everton, who split every League title between them from 1981 to 1989.

While the rivalry between Liverpool and Everton remains fierce, and is still prone to combustion, this year's vintage will be remembered for petty sniping rather than blood and guts ferocity. When Steven Gerrard spoke of Everton's "long ball game" and "similarity to Stoke", it sounded just like what it was. Sour grapes.

The allegations flying around after United's match in London carried a much darker tone to them. While any allegation of racial discrimination must be taken seriously, Chelsea Football Club are on extremely shaky ground. Their captain has just been found guilty of racial abuse and remains happily on the payroll. When one considers the transcripts that were released from a London courtroom recently, in the case brought against John Terry, the additional accusation of using "insulting language" is utterly laughable. It very much appears that this a case of the pot calling the kettle, well, something. These current allegations are both extraordinary and incredibly difficult to prove.

Lamentably, this could mean that the rivalry between United and Chelsea becomes more bitter than before. It is always a shame when football contests are shrouded by a narrative that has little to do with the game itself. Too often we find ourselves discussing balance sheets, racism and refereeing decisions. The excellent performances of Juan Mata, David de Gea and Robin van Persie on Sunday have almost been lost behind the hatred directed at Mark Clattenberg. That is a great shame.

The situation developing between United and Chelsea is most reminiscent of the rivalry between Manchester United and Leeds United. An ongoing feud that paints both clubs in a bad light. You can still hear anti-Leeds chants at Old Trafford every week, and anti-United ones at Elland Road too.

In many ways, Chelsea are the reincarnation of Don Revie's Leeds. Muscular, successful and widely despised. As the current Champions of Europe, popularity is of little importance to them. It seems a shame though, that despite their wonderful football, barely a week can go by without something non-football related taking centre stage at the London club.

This Wednesday the clubs meet again in the League Cup and, so soon after the league match, tensions are likely to be high again. It seems probable that United will field a reduced squad with a Premier League game against Arsenal next weekend.

In 2003, the contests between Arsenal and United had reached a nadir similarly horrible to the one United and Chelsea are in this week. But those wounds healed. Nowadays, Fergie and Wenger often share a joke together and that fixture has returned to what it should have been all along. A football showpiece. Which is what we are all hoping for this Wednesday at Stamford Bridge.

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