As Liverpool fan Michael Shields continues his captivity in a Bulgarian prison for a crime he did not commit, Liverpool’s manager Rafael Benitez has voiced his support for the teenager.
18-year-old Michael was on holiday in Bulgaria in May, a holiday he’d gone on in order to be able to get to the Champions League final in neighbouring Turkey. A few nights after the final Michael was asleep in his bed as Martin Georgiev was attacked viciously, hit over the head with a paving slab. Michael Shields was one of a number of English holidaymakers that Bulgarian police brought in for the attack, and Shields was wrongly identified as being involved. Graham Sankey has now admitted he carried out the attack, but his delay in owning up means that Bulgarian authorities are disinterested. They have got someone in prison and even though it is the wrong person, they are too embarrassed to admit that a) they had Sankey in custody but let him go, and b) their justice system is still full of the injustices of the communist era the country has only recently seen the end of. They didn’t even collect DNA samples from the weapon (the paving slab) used in the attack.
These political influences have clouded Michael’s chance of a fair trial. Rafa tried to point out that Michael is a human being and should have been treated like one. He said: "We must have justice. Everyone has the right to a fair trial. We must support someone because of this. It is not a political matter and it doesn’t matter which football team someone supports. This is about a human being. There must be a possibility of a fair trial."
Those Bulgarian authorities have the support of their own national media, who are billing the campaign in the UK as a mark of disrespect on their country. This is not the case – we just want to know why the Bulgarian authorities are unwilling to take action to make Sankey face the music in Bulgaria. They claim that Sankey has confessed to "another incident", not the one that sees Michael in prison. Which incident? This incident has never been mentioned previously. They won’t take steps to extradite Sankey. They haven’t taken DNA evidence. They haven’t even attempted to request that Bulgarian detectives make a trip to Britain to speak to Sankey. There’s a lot they could do, but they are burying their head in the sands trying to pretend that they haven’t made these huge mistakes. Their pride seems more important than justice.
When Rafa arrived in Bulgaria for Liverpool’s Champions League qualifier tonight against CSKA Sofia, he was pressed by that Bulgarian media for his views on the case. The Spaniard again voiced his support for Michael, saying, "My problem in press conferences is usually that my English is not good enough but in this case my problem is I am a football coach and not an expert on European law. I will say though that we support Michael Shields’ family and we also support the family of Martin Georgiev. The question at the moment is one for the court to answer rather than me. I know our fans will be very friendly towards the Bulgarian fans and hopefully everyone will enjoy a good match. It is up to the court to decide what to do with Michael but we hope to see him back in England soon."
According to two supporters’ club leaders, Reds fans are boycotting tonight’s match in protest at the treatment of Michael. Liverpool FC have confirmed that just two to three hundred fans have arranged to travel. LIVERPOOL fans are snubbing tomorrow’s Champions League clash against CSKA Sofia in protest at Michael Shields’ 15-year jail sentence.
Only a few hundred supporters are making the trip to the Bulgarian capital tomorrow for the crucial third round qualifying match. Those that do travel have been urged to respect their opposition fans – who probably don’t realise the injustice of the trial thanks to the blinkered press in their country.
Les Lawson is chairman of the official Liverpool Supporters Club and he said: "It was ironic that we were paired with them in the draw, given what’s happened with Michael Shields. Some fans will go to Bulgaria as they love to follow the team everywhere they go, and I hope they behave sensibly, watch the game and protest in a peaceful manner. Let’s hope that justice prevails and Michael Shields is set free."
Richard Pedder is chairman of another branch of the supporters club and he said: "Behave yourself, watch what you do. But Liverpool fans are boisterous when they go away and I wouldn’t want them to change how they act."
Those fans that are making the trip are taking banners to be displayed inside the stadium pleading for justice for Michael. Whether the Bulgarian authorities will allow them to be displayed remains to be seen.