When did it come to this?
As I watch Bolton’s Reebok Hunt slide tackle Liverpool’s Xabi Carlsberg at Carlsberg Lite Stadium in Liverpool on an overcast Saturday in April, I am filled with an unbearable nostalgia for the past.
As Fly Emirates Bennett holds the red card aloft in Hunt’s face who begins his long walk of shame, (brought to you by Reebok), I can’t help but long for the days before players, refs and stadia started adopting the names of massive corporate sponsors.
Liverpool supporters were griping in 2009 when Carlsberg first sealed the deal to change the name of Anfield, Liverpool FC’s historic venue, to Carlsberg Stadium, even changing the name of Anfield Road to Carslberg Road. But the precident had already been set in the Premier League with Bolton’s Reebok Stadium, Wigan’s JJB Stadium and Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium replacing the traditional venues of Burnden Ground, Springfield Park and Highbury.
The strangest turn in the history of sport sponsorship was when players began taking the names of the sponsors. This began with Newcastle’s Obafemi Northern Rock in early 2010. Many players quickly followed suit. Samsung Lampard, Gareth Acorns, OKI Crouch, Nationwide Rooney and Shaun Wright-Thomas Cook all became household names of English Football.
Liverpool were hesitant to go along with this trend, since the stadium name change was still a point of bitter contention amongst supporters. But when intense pressure from Carlsberg combined with Liverpool’s inability to compete with the increased spending of the other clubs, the Merseyside giants relented.
Xabi Carlsberg, Steven Carlsberg, Pepe Carslberg and Carlsberg Lite Leiva were the first to legally change their names for increased corporate funding.
When the players filed out with ‘Carlsberg’ written across the backs of their shirts in place of Alonso, Gerrard, Reina and Lucas, supporters wondered if they were watching football or a Ramones cover band. But with the extra funding, Liverpool were soon able to secure the transfers of Bastien Carlsberg, Daniel Alves da Carlsberg and Arjen Carlsberg. These were all pivotal players in the campaign that saw Liverpool win their 19th Premier League Title in 2011, the year before the trophy became simply known as The Barclay.
As victory came, the groans of supporters subsided.
And while manager Rafael Adidas led Liverpool to win three more titles in a row, Manchester United, Liverpool’s traditional rivals, plummeted into financial trouble due to their increased involvement with the doomed investment firm, AIG. United had to sell off many top players like Nationwide Rooney and Cristiano International Group, Inc. just to stay afloat. The club narrowly avoided relegation to The Diet Coke Championship last season.
But United’s fortunes may be turning as they complete a renewed deal with an old sponsor. Now, Sir Alex Vodafone feels confident his side will be able to climb back to the top of the League next season after a fruitful transfer window.
Back at the brand new Carlsberg Lite Stadium in Liverpool, I watch Fernando Carlsberg hit a hat-trick against a ten-man Bolton side. The young kids around me, who probably couldn’t tell you El Niño’s birth name, start to sing:
His armband said he was a Red! (Carlsberg! Carlsberg!)
‘You’ll Never Walk Alone,’ it said! (Carlsberg! Carlsberg!)
The older supporter sitting between them and me shakes his head and rolls his eyes. He had corrected the lads in the first half when they began to sing: Around the Fields of Carlsberg Road… But now you can see he just doesn’t have the energy. Neither do I, as I long for the days of Anfield, Highbury and St James Park. The days when tradition and history won out over sponsorship and the corporate agenda.
Do any of us have the energy to fight the changing times? I decide not to think about it as I ponder what to drink when I visit the pub after the match.