I will never tire of hearing or reading Bill Shankly's famous quote:
"Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I'm very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."
For a long time people have debated what Shankly really meant. Did he really say that? Those same words in that same order? Were his words quoted out of context? Did he really believe football is more important than life or death? Was he half joking, tongue in cheek?
In more recent times, following Heysel and Hillsborough, Shankly’s words were scrutinised to the nth degree. Some have referred to Shankly's comments as "outrageous", rather harsh given that two decades lapsed between his words and the two tragedies.
I can understand what Shankly was saying. The game of football is close to many people's hearts. Supporters all over the world eat, drink and sleep the game. For some it is a way of life. For some it is life. The times you are not watching the game, you are thinking about it; planning the next game or reliving the last. In those idle moments at work you replay that great goal in your mind, the wonderful celebrations, the heartache of that last-minute penalty miss. In the car, in the bath, in the gym. Round at the mother-in-law’s. It is a constant part of your life. It pervades, it controls and it takes over. It also offers release. An escape. The one thing to look forward to. The single bright light in dark times. This applies to every real football fan, no matter who you support. From Arsenal to Accrington Stanley, Chelsea to Chertsey Town, Manchester United to FC United.
Shankly was certainly not making light of death - nor life for that matter - but simply trying to articulate what many football fans feel. I have used the word "passion" probably far too much in this blog, but I make no excuses for using it again now. People have passions for many things in life and if you care enough about something then you allow it to become central to your life, or as a minimum, a significant part of your life. Football is a particular passion that afflicts many millions around the globe. Shankly was simply putting into words how many people felt about the game and what an important and central role it played in the life of the man on the street.
On this subject, the results of a survey caught my eye last week. The survey basically attempted to "measure" how important football can be in our lives, particularly for blokes. I believe the survey, which was polled by the Football Fans Census, was timed to coincide with Valentine's Day. The passion for the game as opposed to the passion shown for your girl? Classy.
Some interesting findings:
> 76% polled would rather give up their girlfriend than their club
> 85% would rather go and watch their club play than go on a Valentine's date
> 78% would rather score for their club in an FA Cup Final than "score" with their dream woman
> 44% would knowingly buy counterfeit goods as a present for their girlfriend whilst 82% would never buy a fake replica kit for themselves
> Men would spend an average of £80 to watch their club play away compared to £51 on a date
> 89% polled from the North East would chose their club over their girlfriend if forced to choose between the two
Now these sort of polls always make me laugh and should not be taken too seriously; attempts to prove (or otherwise) anything based on such results should be taken with a large pinch of salt. But the underlying message from this survey is the extent to which some fans support their club at the expense of all else; the acknowledgement that supporting their club is central to their lives.
This is something that Shankly fully understood. He knew what the game meant to the fans and what the fans meant to the game. Shankly came from a working class background and appreciated how football enriched the lives of many; he knew exactly what it meant to them day in, day out.
Now, at a time when the game seems to be drifting away from what the fans really want and is increasingly pampering to the demands of the money men, it is a shame that there are not more involved in our national game that share Bill Shankly’s understanding. People who realise that it is the fans, those loyal and passionate supporters, that are important.
Much, much more important.