As Liverpool are leading the Premier League title race that famous old quote from Bill Shankly has been doing the rounds. Making clear just how important football was in his life, the legendary Liverpool manager said: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.”
Of course, Shankly wasn’t being wholly serious but that quote has gone down in folklore and will doubtless be repeated by Liverpool fans and perhaps even inside the team’s dressing room as the pressure grows during the run in to the end of the season. Whether that will help Liverpool in the title race or will simply heap more pressure onto the players remains to be seen but what has already been proven true this season is that there are many things more important in life than football.
This Premier League season will, sadly, be remembered more for tragic events off the field than anything that happens on it. A pair of air disasters have rocked the world of football to remind everybody that events on the pitch will always play second fiddle to matters of life and death.
Tragedy Reveals the Strength of Football’s Community
Many do not like Shankly’s words about the importance of football but those who defend him say that you must look further than just the literal interpretation. Football may not be more important than life or death when talking about results on the pitch or which players teams sign but it is that important when you consider the value of community.
That community is not always immediately obvious, especially from the outside but it’s in times of challenge that it really reveals itself. That was very much the case at both Leicester and Cardiff when tragedy struck.
When Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha took over at Leicester he suggested that the club should be aiming for a place in the Champions League inside five years. He was widely ridiculed for those comments given that Leicester were viewed as little more than a yo-yo club and even some of the club’s own fans questioned the sanity of their new owners. Those doubters remained until just before Leicester won the Premier League title but the fans had been won over long before.
It was not the calibre of player that Srivaddhanaprabha brought into the club, the processes he put in behind the scenes or even results on the pitch that won the fans over. It was the way that he bought into the community of Leicester City that had meant so much to so many fans for decades.
Srivaddhanaprabha may have been a billionaire who rubbed shoulders with royalty but he developed a reputation of being one of the people. The Leicester fans held a genuine warmth for him for the way that he treated them every bit as much as for the way that he allowed everybody at the club to dream.
That is why Srivaddhanaprabha’s death in that horrendous helicopter crash after the match against West Ham had such a profound impact on everybody at the club. If Shankly was indeed talking about community when putting football on a pedestal above life and death then his words were proven true by the tragedy at Leicester.
The wider Leicester family came out to support the Srivaddhanaprabha family. In turn, the wider football family was there to support everybody connected with Leicester. It was a horrible time for English football but the strength of feeling showed that everybody at a football club from fans to owners can have a positive impact on the others in that community.
Pride Follows a Fall in Football
The circumstances around the death of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and the three others on board his helicopter when it crashed after take-off were shocking and immediately brought out the best in the Leicester fans. The loss of Emiliano Sala was no less shocking and similarly brought out the best in the Cardiff City fans but the circumstances were rather different.
At the time of writing work has just begun to recover the bulk of the wreckage of the plane that was carrying Sala and pilot David Ibbotson but the initial report into what went wrong is still some months away. For the first 72 hours or so it wasn’t even clear where the plane was so nobody quite knew how to react.
Things were further complicated from a Cardiff perspective by the fact that Sala had never played for the club and only signed for the Bluebirds one day previously. That did not lessen the strength of feeling displayed by everybody at Cardiff nor their shock that Sala had been involved in a plane crash. Neil Warnock went as far as to say that it was the toughest week he had experienced in football and that all of the players had been deeply impacted by the news.
The Cardiff fans paid their respects en masse in the Bluebirds’ first home match since the plane crash against Bournemouth. Fans of Nantes, for whom Sala played with great distinction before sealing his move to the Premier League, paid their own respects on the city streets and then before their home match against Saint Etienne.
Both sets of fans felt the desire to support one another and try to offer whatever crumb of comfort they could to Sala’s friends and family. Once again some of the worst news imaginable brought out the very best of football fans. The way that the fans at the Cardiff City Stadium reacted and celebrated Sala’s life will never be forgotten by those who were there. Speaking after the match against Bournemouth, the seasoned veteran Warnock said it was the proudest he’d ever felt about the club. It’s no surprise that pride came after the worst time in his career in football.
That these two horrible incidents happened so close together has made this season an incredibly tough one but it has shown that the communities forged by football clubs are as strong as ever and that football, life, and death go hand in hand for so many people.