"Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved."
"A man is not an orange. You can't eat the fruit and throw the peel away."
Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman
Lest there be any confusion, this will not be some tedious diatribe on the nature of loyalty. This column has always eschewed haughty moral outrage or sermonising on any topic, in a hapless but well-intentioned attempt to simply observe and smile when possible. Also, because its writer is no bastion of nobility.
Despite the sagacious observations of our mates, Martin and Graham above, anyone with more than a modicum of life experience will know that the area of allegiance amongst us human types is a notoriously grey one, especially in the world of professional sport.
At Liverpool Football Club, one cannot escape the topic of fealty. A club legend is leaving amidst a deluge of good will and grief-stricken reminiscence, whilst the club's most saleable asset, Raheem Sterling, looks to be heading on one of his patented jutting backside, arms akimbo sprints towards John Lennon Airport. Two exits, two savagely contrasting fan reactions.
Inside Anfield on Saturday last, despite the mosaics, the tributes and the ceremony to mark the final game of a living club legend, the atmosphere around me on the Kop was tetchy. Sure, the chants for the Huyton-born skipper were deafening at times, but the limp efforts of his teammates against Crystal Palace had an incredibly dampening effect on the occasion. This should have been a raucous, if poignant, affair. I had been eagerly anticipating the much-needed distraction of an ebullient Anfield, but as the players lurched to what felt like an inevitable defeat from far too early in the match, the biggest scapegoat for their irritation was the aforementioned Sterling.
Every poor touch, misplaced pass or lacklustre effort to reach an over-hit through-ball was greeted with variations on a similar theme, as irate voices mumbled or aggressively roared comments like, "£100,000? For that? Rubbish, him" or "He's gone, isn't he? Doesn't care. All about the money, that lad." Bear in mind that this was a full three days before the latest farrago, when it's emerged that the player's exit is now likely rather than possible.
I'll admit to a lot of contrasting feelings here. I certainly never hold with fans abusing their own players from the stand. It seems counterintuitive in extremis. By all means, rant to your embittered heart's content afterwards in pubs or blogs but why on earth harangue a fellow, within earshot, who's in the process of representing the team upon whose fate so much of your own well-being is dependent? I respect the I've paid my money, I'll say what I want argument but it's always seemed a bit bananas to me.
Sky Sports' newest three-piece-suit wearer, Thierry Henry, has been atypically engaging on the subject of Sterling. The Gallic hero has a louche insouciance all of his own whilst on air but his observations have seemed to lack what he would call va va voom, which is why your scribbler was particularly taken with the directness of his thoughts on the young Londoner.
"I think we all know that he's been receiving some bad advice," the Frenchman averred. "You can't go out there and talk about your contract in the press. You have to respect your fans, respect the club that you play for. If you want to leave Liverpool or not, when you make the decision about leaving or staying, then do it. Don't discuss yourself in the paper.
"I went through the same thing," he continued. "When I was young I had a problem with Real Madrid and Monaco because some guys that were around me were putting stuff in my head. I lost my football, mentally I wasn't there anymore, I wasn't concentrating on anything, and therefore it looked like I was going to have a good career and people were questioning me when I hadn't even started my career. So it's the same thing with Raheem Sterling. To an extent you can blame the agent, adviser, whatever you want to call them now but you need to be a man about it also, you need to be able to say, 'Enough, you're destroying my life, you're destroying my career.'"
The destruction or otherwise of Sterling's career will be apparent in the fullness of time but for now, it is hard to argue with Henry's version of events. It's been handled appallingly by the player and his agent, irrespective of the club's culpability in the eyes of some. However, the reality is that Sterling is an ambitious young man with familial responsibilities and the talent to be paid outlandish amounts of money. Can you say what you would do in his shoes? I know I can't.
With Steven Gerrard, the notably well-publicised approaches of Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Chelsea over the years were rebuffed, as the owner of football's tiniest furrowed brow pledged his continued allegiance to his home-town club. These rejections of the oleaginous advances of his dear enemy, José Mourinho, have been portrayed as the self-sacrificing acts of a man who wanted only the furtherment of his club. Was that really 100% of the story?
Irrespective of our opinions, the fact remains that Gerrard did stay and his loyalty grew even more demonstrative as his years advanced. The player has been nothing short of a Liverpool superhero and to denigrate his status with talk of his motives at various points is pointless and divisive. We've witnessed a great of the world game give his entire top-level career in search of garlands to adorn the neck of the Liverbird. A little gratitude for that privilege seems apposite, no?
The highlight of my trip to Anfield on Saturday was not the cloying sweetness of the kiddie parade or the emotive and heartfelt songs in honour of the captain. It was something far more Liverpool, far more Gerrard. After a particularly errant shot from the skipper, there was a second or two of almost amused silence before the Kop erupted in a rousing version of "What the fuckin' hell was that?" Stevie, appreciating the good-natured ribbing from a few thousand of us, raised his arm in acknowledgement, resulting in the happiest smiles of the afternoon. He just gets it. Gets us. Always has.