After Liverpool secured their first league title in 30 years, Tony Evans paints a vivid portrait of a city celebrating its return to the top of the English game but forever grappling with a painful, and complicated, past.
At the end of a storm there’s a golden sky, the song says. But even in its best moments, the city of Liverpool feels like it is in the eye of a storm, turmoil still painfully raw in its collective memory, turbulence just over the horizon.
Today is a good day after a bad time. Liverpool Football Club have won the Premier League. They are English champions for the 19th time. A full 30 years have passed since the last occasion they were crowned the best side in the country.
Their triumph has been inevitable since February. When football went into hiatus in March as coronavirus swept through Britain, Jurgen Klopp’s team were 25 points clear with nine games left to play. The season has been overshadowed by Covid-19’s impact on everyday life. A grim, locked-down spring has turned into summer but the prognosis for the pandemic is hardly uplifting. There is little sign of things returning to normal. The timing of Liverpool’s moment of glory is unfortunate in many ways but still satisfying.
“Football is at its best when it’s a collective experience,” Andy Heaton, one of the founders of the Anfield Wrap, says.
We’ve waited so long for this. In a normal year we’d be flooding the streets and filling the pubs. Liverpool don’t ever do anything normal. That’s what makes them so special. To win the title this way is typically Liverpool. Win the league at Christmas, get the trophy in June and get to celebrate properly when? But we will celebrate. That’s for certain.
Heaton was eight years old when the title last came to Anfield. An entire generation is experiencing the emotions for the first time.
History and identity
Three decades has been too long for a city that defines itself by football. The club was much derided last year for using the phrase ‘this means more’ as a marketing device. But close examination of the supporter culture on Merseyside suggests that there is truth in that trite expression. Few cities express themselves through football as much as Liverpool. Everton, too, are crucial to local identity, with a parallel fanaticism to that of their neighbours and main rivals.
Football permeates everyday life for a large proportion of Scousers. Weddings and funerals frequently climax with a rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone.
Merseyside is not unique in this respect. The game is still the biggest expression of working-class culture in Britain. London’s East End Cockney diaspora, for example, will burst into I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles at the drop of a hat. West Ham United connect them to their heritage and sense of self. What is unique on Merseyside is just how many people define themselves by their football allegiance. It is a key component in the siege mentality of the city of Liverpool. How much more is there to celebrate about being Scouse?
Liverpool’s history does not throw up a lot of positives. Its growth as a port was driven by the slave trade. It became the ‘second city of the Empire’ by leaving bloody fingerprints across the globe. The nature of the town changed in the mid-19th century when the Great Famine caused starving Irish immigrants to flood into the area. The city became associated with poverty and violence, a reputation – like the Celtic influence – that it has never shed. Sectarianism raged through the streets. At a time when football was capturing the imagination of working men in the latter Victorian period, it made less of an impact in Liverpool than elsewhere.
The game was late coming to the area. Local leagues were slow in setting up and matches were not even considered newsworthy. In Birmingham, the local papers mentioned 811 games in 1879-80. Liverpool’s local press reported on two in the same period. Rugby and cricket were initially more popular with the growing middle classes in a place whose nickname was ‘Torytown.’ Further down the social scale, sectarianism and the fight to survive in challenging circumstances provided far more pressing issues than supporting a team.
In Reds: Liverpool Football Club – the Biography, John Williams, one of the sport’s great historians, wrote: “There were plenty of returning ex-Harrow public schoolboys living in Liverpool who might have been expected to spread Association Football. But because of the stark divisions between rich and poor in the city, sport could not be so easily passed down from local social elites, as had happened elsewhere. And, in any case, the poor in Liverpool’s docklands had neither the space nor the good health to play sport.”
They also had little time. Factory workers across the industrial regions benefitted from legislation that limited working hours. Most had Saturday afternoon off. The docks on the Mersey were served by casual labour and the dockers did not get free time on Saturdays until 1890, more than 15 years after textile workers received the same benefit. The Lancashire milltowns were the heartlands of the game. Liverpool was on the margins in terms of football.
In the first decade of the 20th century, Porcupine magazine gave a snapshot of Merseyside supporters. “We in Liverpool are either more reserved or less enthusiastic than our brethren up country,” the correspondent wrote. “When Sheffield, Birmingham or Blackburn come to town we know it. But Liverpudlians rarely wear their colours conspicuously even when travelling.”
Many of the preconceptions about Liverpool that remain today are undermined by the most cursory look at history. The first recorded singing on the Kop was by Blackburn Rovers fans in 1907. They “waved their colours to a set motion, and sent forth a weird unearthly cry,” a report said. “But they were silent after Liverpool had scored.”
One of the reasons that today’s title win is so vehemently celebrated is that it silences – for the most part – the jibes of rival fans. “Even when we won the Champions League, people would say ‘but you’ve never won the Premier League',” Dan Fieldsend, the author of Local: a Club and its City, said. “I’d never seen Liverpool win a title but the most visible symbol of civic pride is the football club. Now nobody can demean their achievements.
“It’s like when opposing fans sing things like ‘sign on’ at Anfield. The economy on Merseyside – at least until coronavirus hit – had improved and the song is a hangover from the 1980s when there was mass unemployment. You can just laugh it off as stupid. It’s the same with winning the league. There’s no foundation in the snide comments now. It’s just jealously.”
That aforementioned envy will manifest itself in suggestions that the success is ‘tainted’ because of the break in the campaign, the lack of crowds and the modification of rules to adapt to summer football. No one cares at Anfield. Klopp appears to have primed the team to enter a new age of dominance and in Kopite dreams it will replicate the glories of the 1970s and 80s.
The shadow of Hillsborough
Those decades were a defining period in both the club and the city’s history. Merseyside was out of step with the rest of the country in social, political and economic terms. The region was marginalised and still associated with extreme poverty, hopelessness and violence. The 1980s began with the Toxteth riots. Heysel, where 39 mainly Italian supporters died after trouble involving Liverpool fans at the 1985 European Cup final against Juventus, was at the mid point.
For years later Hillsborough completed a grim decade for the city: 96 fans died on the terraces of the Leppings Lane at the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest.
This meant the pleasure at topping the league in 1989-90 was muted; not only was the grief of Hillsborough still raw but winning was commonplace. It was the 11th title in 18 years. Nobody could conceive that the long era of ascendancy had come to an end. Nor that, when the title next came to Anfield three decades later that the dead of Hillsborough would still not have received justice. The events of 1989 have overshadowed everything that has happened since.
“Of course winning the Premier League this season has a political aspect to it,” Simon Hughes, the author of There She Goes: Liverpool, a city on its own: The long decade, said. “Because of Hillsborough football became even more interwoven with politics. A massive failure by the authorities led to the deaths of people at a football match and then the state made huge attempts to cover up the role of the police and blame the fans.
“Winning the Premier League is not just a sporting achievement but something wider and more important. It’s intrinsically linked to the quest for justice.”
These days Liverpool supporters have a reputation for being anti-establishment but it has not always been that way. It is ironic that in the early years of the 20th century, Liverpool was less the People’s Club than the Policemen’s Club. There were an inordinate number of law enforcement officers among the fanbase. Anyone who purchased a share in the club after 1905 received a free season ticket for the terraces. Buyers of 20 shares got a seat in the stand. This attracted many members of the local constabulary and by the time the First World War broke out in 1914 almost a quarter of shareholders belonged to the police force. It would be many years before the Kop’s renegade image developed.
Klopp has captured the imagination of Liverpool supporters and the German has similar, radical instincts to the matchgoing Scouse hardcore. He laughs at those who seek to demean his team’s achievement because it was interrupted by the coronavirus emergency. “I can’t help these people,” he told me. The 53-year-old’s message to fans is simple:
We made [winning the title] special, we want to keep it special and in the end we decide how special it is when we look back. From my point of view it will be most special because it has been the most extraordinary year I’ve had in my life. From a success point of view of course but from a crisis point of view as well. We never had a situation like this. To deal with the situation and still become champions? That’s massive, 100 per cent massive.
It is a message they understand on Merseyside.
“This is huge. It hurts a little not to be able to celebrate together,” Heaton said. “But there are bigger issues. Football is at its best when it’s about community. A football season runs over a long time. There’s very rarely an Aguero moment [Manchester City’s last-gasp goal against Queens Park Rangers that sealed the title in 2011]. You put in the hard yards with your mates over many months and you want to celebrate with them. That’s impossible at the moment. But it does put everything into perspective. Football is a catalyst for togetherness. That’s when the game’s at its best. The shared sense of purpose, the unity. We’ll enjoy it all the more when we can do it again.”
Klopp is determined that there will be an open-top bus parade at some point. That will depend on when it is deemed safe to mingle in stadiums and on the streets. Aside from the emotional impact on the supporters, the inability to express public joy at the team’s feats will cost the city dear. According to Deloitte’s Sports Business Group, the club boosted Merseyside’s economy by nearly £500 million during the 2017-18 season. More than 1.5 million people came to Anfield in the course of the season, nearly 10 per cent of them from overseas. The civic budget has been hit badly by the pandemic. Everyone is hopeful that the shortfall in income will be alleviated when the delayed celebration takes place.
Liverpool, like any elite European team, are developing an increasingly global presence and Premier League success is likely to attract even more international supporters. That is a source of delight for Fenway Sports Group (FSG), Anfield’s American owners. However, is there a concern that this will have a negative impact on the club’s identity?
“Not really,” Fieldsend said. “As long as we don’t become like a franchise that could be based anywhere in the world. FSG need to keep the link between club and community. They’ve made mistakes in the past but they are doing a reasonable job now.
“Keeping a sense of what the club’s about is the most important thing. There’s got to be a balance. There’s a myth that somehow, because a lot of the fans have socialist principles, that we’re against people making money. It’s not true. We are quite happy with FSG making cash as long as they don’t undermine the ethos of the supporters.”
Hughes agrees. “FSG own the club but supporters own the emotions around it,” he said. “And those emotions are left-leaning and anti-authoritarian.”
Those emotions can be traced back to Bill Shankly, who arrived at Anfield in 1959 and changed the nature of the place. The Scot, who was from a mining village and spent the early part of his working life down the pit, made a spiritual connection with Scousers and his pronouncements are still the driving philosophy of the club. His words resonate like a creed to most supporters and many can recite them off by heart: “The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That's how I see football, that's how I see life.”
Peter Moore, the chief executive, referred to that quote in an interview last year, saying that when faced with a difficult decision in the boardroom, executives at Anfield ask: “What would Bill do in these circumstances?”
These words were thrown back in Moore’s face when the club decided to furlough non-playing staff in the early stages of the lockdown but the backlash was so strong that FSG reversed their plans. It did not take much familiarity with Shankly’s life and actions to understand that Bill would not have furloughed employees that way but supporters were encouraged that FSG were prepared to listen to their objections.
The mood on Merseyside today reflects Shankly’s belief. The title win is the reward for unstinting support and the pleasure belongs to everyone. The politics that accompany any mention of the Scot have soured the success for more conservative fans, though. Klopp is also a political animal and has been criticised by some in the past week for attacking the Government’s policies in dealing with the coronavirus crisis. Most Kopites applaud their self-confessed “left-leaning” manager, however, and see him as continuing the best of Anfield’s traditions.
“There’s many versions of what Liverpool Football Club is and some people have a different sense of what it’s about to mine,” Karl Coppack, a social historian and writer said. “But I hate it when people say I support the club but hate the city. People like that don’t deserve Liverpool because they don’t understand what they support. When you’re chanting ‘Liverpool,’ you’re chanting the name of my city. That’s important. It’s not an abstract thing or a nickname. It’s the title of a place.
The city and the club are completely linked. We’re from a port that’s opened its arms to everyone. We’re a proud, inclusive community. If you’ll have us, we’ll have you. Celebrating the title is a celebration of that as well as being the best team.
Scouse, not English
After a slow start, football eventually appealed to Merseyside’s outsiders. Somewhere in the 1920s, the game became the favourite pastime of the workers. It was around the same time that the Scouse identity developed.
Until the First World War, those who came from Ireland and settled in Liverpool and their descendants still described themselves as Irish. The north end of the city returned an Irish Nationalist MP to Parliament until 1929. Scouse was a cheap stew served to the desperate from carts and food kitchens in the most squalid area of town. The term ‘Scouser’ was an insult, to be sneered at the residents of the poorest Irish Catholic district. They eventually subverted the gibe and turned it into a point of pride.
Once Irish independence was achieved in 1922, some of the heat went out of sectarian politics on Merseyside. This left a vacuum of identity for many residents of the city. The notion of Scouse and allegiance to the football clubs seemed to fill that empty space. A sizable percentage of the population – not all, by any means – did not self-identify as English. That tradition remains today in the ‘Scouse not English’ banners on the Kop. This is not an affectation but a mindset with strong historic antecedents.
In the 2000s, the Keep Flags Scouse movement made a mark at matches. The loose grouping of fans who frequently parodied themselves, were determined to keep St George’s Crosses and Union Jacks out of the Kop and away sections. Liverpool has no borders. The initiative worked and a distinctive banner culture developed. Liverpool fans want to be different. They work hard to achieve that identity.
“Liverpool isn’t a football club. It’s a community asset,” Hughes said. “That does not mean we want it to be exclusively Scouse. Quite the opposite. Anyone can come and join the community. But you should know what you’re getting in to and appreciate it.”
Shankly instinctively recognised the seam of Scouse exceptionalism in the 1960s and fed it. That decade was the city’s modern zenith. The Beatles achieved worldwide fame and, for a short spell, Merseyside was trendy. But the Fab Four soon relocated. Businesses were doing the same as the emphasis of trade moved from the United States and Commonwealth to Europe.
Within a decade unemployment was spiralling upwards and the Scouse accent was linked with crime rather than pop stars. Through these bleak years football was a positive force. No matter how bad things were in the city, Liverpool were the side Europe feared. For a spell in the 1980s – the lowest point for Merseyside – Everton rose to challenge their neighbours and the two best teams on the continent stared down each other across Stanley Park.
The game that the region was slow to embrace had by now become the most obvious symbol of regional pride. So it remains. Liverpool are the most obvious manifestation of it with the Liver Bird badge, the red colours of the city and the emotive, unbreakable link to Hillsborough. Yet Everton hold a special place in the Scouse identity, too. The two clubs represent different facets of the local character.
'We want things done the right way'
So does football mean more on Merseyside? Probably. That does not mean fans of other clubs care less about their teams or the experience of going to the match. There are few other places, though, where supporting a club plays such a defining role in the self-esteem of a city.
“People misunderstand Scousers,” Hughes said. “You often hear the phrase ‘self-pity city.’ It’s wrong. If anything, we think too highly of ourselves.
“There’s a great demand for justice here and there was even before Hillsborough. We don’t want your sympathy, we don’t want your pity. We want things done the right way. We want to be treated as we’d treat other people. There’s a massive desire for fairness. Scousers will react when it is denied – sometimes aggressively – but they won’t let it go. It’s hard to believe any other city would have fought so hard and for so long if Hillsborough had happened to them.”
The three decades between titles have been difficult. When Kenny Dalglish resigned in 1991, Liverpool were top of the league and apparently en route to their 19th title. Dalglish was on the verge of a nervous breakdown trying to cope with the aftermath of Hillsborough. He did not understand it at the time and no one could comprehend how much the disaster would affect the club.
As each year drifted by without winning the league, bringing the title back to Anfield became more and more of an obsession. There were near misses in 2009 and 2014 and increasingly the older generation – those who could remember what it was like to end a campaign at English football’s summit - began to fear that they would not live to see Liverpool achieve the feat again. There is added piquancy this summer because too many people who realised that the long-awaited event was in touching distance in January and February have succumbed to coronavirus. The joy this week has been leavened by sadness.
Even so, Liverpool fans are relieved and happy. Sometimes the anticipation can be more pleasurable than the end result. Not in this case. The waiting had gone on long enough. And things will only get better.
“We’ve savoured the victory but you know the best thing?” Heaton asked. “We’ll get to celebrate it twice. And it will be special each time.”