As some of you may well be aware, I’m somewhat averse to any person or organisation that attempts to describe themselves as “The Heart & Soul Of Football”. One of the small pleasures of this season was watching Arsenal fans looking more and more crestfallen as their own brand of football looked toothless against mediocre opposition and they bailed out of all of the cup competitions meekly against competitions that they should, theoretically, have blown out of the water. In the space of a mere six or seven months, they went from being the all-knowing cognoscenti of English football to muttering darkly about this being a “transitional season” (the universal mantra of the under-achieving club). Over the last few weeks or so, however, a debate has been rumbling on over this matter regarding Liverpool, though, and the overall argument has risen a notch. At the centre of this debate are the fairly shameful scenes in Athens last week, coupled with the emergence of a group called “Reclaim The Kop”, whose stated aim is to, “Aim to promote the tradition values of The Kop, reignite the atmosphere and ensure [that] the “new”Anfield is not a soulless bowl”. This, you may think, is all well and good. Just a group of people trying to make sure that their home ground is an intimidating place to visit on a Saturday afternoon. Not a bad thing in the soulless and sanitised world of the Premiership. On the one hand, I would have to agree with this, but there are some parts of their manifesto that rub me up the wrong way. Have a quick look at their charter, and you’ll see what I mean.
Firstly, my disclaimer. Those of you that already know me will be aware of the fact that I have spent some time in Liverpool – more than any other outside of the south and south-east of England. I have visited Anfield and Goodison Park, as well as some of the area’s less celebrated venues (Rossett Park, Crosby – home of Marine, for example). I know the city pretty well. So, I’m not coming at this with the prejudices and preconceptions of a complete outsider. I went to Anfield twice – once for a league match against Wimbledon in September 1992, and once for a European Cup Winners Cup match against Spartak Moscow. The atmosphere around the place was like a morgue – the previous season had been their worst in the league for many, many seasons (as low as sixth place for the second year in a row, and only a couple of defeats from the lower half of the table). An FA Cup win had papered over the cracks, but there was a definite “last days of Rome” feeling about the place. Five seasons previously, a defeat to Wimbledon in the FA Cup final had been heralded as one of the biggest surprises in the history of the FA Cup. Four and a half years on, there was an almost resigned shrug as the Dons won 3-2 at Anfield, condemning Liverpool to mid-table obscurity. A few weeks later, they were dumped out of Europe by Spartak, and the torpor continued – indeed, it was emphasised all the more by Tranmere Rovers finishing fourth in the First Division and narrowly missing out on promotion. The team from the Wirral were also the city’s last remaining team in the FA Cup – Liverpool’s defence of the trophy ended at the first hurdle, at home to then First Division Bolton.
You should all know by now that I’m not terribly keen on The Big Four. However, Liverpool had been the ones that I detested the least. Over the last couple of years or so, this has started to change somewhat, and a large amount of this is down to what I can only describe as the self-aggrandisement of Liverpool’s supporters. Reading the charter, the phrases that stand out are things like “There is no other”, “there is one thing that sets us apart as fans”, and “letting the other team know where they are”. I used to think that the talk of the “special” atmosphere on the Kop was a piece of marketing speak, in the same realms as the concept of “The Theatre Of Dreams”, but it turns out that Liverpool’s own supporters (or at least a number of them) actually believe the hype. The “Reclaim The Kop” campaign has an air of what I can only describe as “football nationalism” about it and (although the site itself distances itself from this), it has coincided with increasing antagonism towards “out of towners”, which culminated in the widely reported thefts and muggings in Athens last week. It’s been bubbling under the surface for years.
Here’s the thing about Liverpool. Liverpool is a kind of isolated place, in a literal sense. You don’t go through Liverpool to get to anywhere. Somebody from Manchester sounds a bit like someone from the northern parts of Lancashire, and they sound a bit like people from Cumbria – the accents all seem to blend in. The Liverpool accent, though, sounds quite different. Manchester and Liverpool are a shade over forty miles apart, but the residents of the two cities sound like they’re from opposite sides of the country. There is a sense of otherness to the place, and there’s nothing wrong with them celebrating that. What I do object to, however, is the inference that they are somehow “better” than the rest of us, because they’re not – and in a couple of years time, they’ll be gone from Anfield, and playing in a new stadium, which is highly likely to have a sponsor’s name attached to it. This is the way of modern football, and the supporters of Liverpool are no more exempt from it than anyone else in the Premiership.