The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

An Easy Day’s Night

Posted by steigs on December 11, 2007

So Liverpool faced a must win game tonight in Marseille.  Win on the road or risk failing to make the knock-out stages of the Champions League.

Eleven minutes in and the game was pretty much over.  An almost instant Gerrard goal on a saved penalty and a gem from Fernando Torres, who danced through the Marseille defenders like they were orange traffic cones.  2-0 to Liverpool before I’d gotten halfway through my dinner as I watched the replay on Tivo.  It was 4-0 by the end.

I must confess to rooting for Liverpool, even though they were the “big” team.  I have a soft spot for “the Reds,” my second choice among England’s “big four”.  (Arsenal is my EPL side but that’s a story for another day.)  They liven up the knock-out rounds, even if they don’t seem capable of challenging for the EPL title (yet).  Why?  Well, I’m sure part of it has something to do with Liverpool’s most famous export.  Read on for a story about my trip to Anfield and why one “never walks alone” as a Liverpool fan…

 Liverpool – April 2004

It is raining on Mathew Street. What was once a side street has become a Beatles theme block – the Lennon Pub, the Beatles Store, the Cavern Pub. It’s Friday night and the pubby, clubby street is beginning to get crowded in the drizzle.

I duck into the Cavern Club, a reconstruction of the original venue made famous by the Fab Four which is – sort of – on the site of the original. Down the stairs into a narrow brick-lined basement, a vault almost. It’s like the catacombs that ancient Christians would use for hiding.

Instead, a middle-aged covers band is working up steam on a version of “Hang On Sloopy.” I get a beer and sit at one of the tables, trying to picture the early Beatles in this setting, the mop-tops playing to a mass of teenagers. There are a half-dozen 50ish tourists dancing to the band and taking pictures of each other dancing to the band. They make it impossible to visualize the lads and their hordes of young fans. I’ve got an awkward feeling – it’s like watching your parents dance.

So I move to the back room, a second stage which is not an imitation of the original Cavern Club, where they’re promising four bands for four pounds. The first is a decent rock band led by a scruffy, Cobain-looking singer. They’re young – the drummer looks to be 15 – and they’ve got energy. This is more like it, I think, and settle in for awhile. Rock isn’t dead, not quite yet.

The next morning is clear and bright. I make my way through the jumble of a downtown, which looks to be the victim of multiple redevelopment schemes. There are pedestrian-only shopping streets and flashy restaurants by the bus terminal. Grand marble buildings stand lost, like they’re waiting their turn to be renovated into shopping malls, and 1850s brick buildings show “for let” signs. My Rough Guide states: “If one city in England could be said to stand as a symbol of a nation in decline, it would be Liverpool.” A heavy load to bear, that.

I understand this gloomy notion better down along the Mersey River with its long line of docks gone quiet decades ago. What do you do with a port city when the ships stop coming? The massive dock complexes which embarked millions of people for America now try to be upscale shops and restaurants. The Museum of Liverpool Life has grainy pictures of the docks swarming with people, loading and unloading cargo. No longer.

They do have some tourists, though. I’m not the only one poking around the waterfront this Saturday morning. We all seem to end up at the “The Beatles Story,” a museum and “multi-media experience” about the lads from Liverpool who shook the world. There’s memorabilia and dummies in Beatles outfits and video showing the band back in the day. It does have the effect of bringing home “the scene” in early 1960s Liverpool, introducing you to their music shop, the most popular MC, their friends in other bands and all the rest who were sucked up in the wake of their astonishing success. And it makes sure to tell you about their parents and what Liverpool neighborhoods the various Beatles grew up in.

The Beatles were a supernova whose light still shines, drawing people to Liverpool and to music. Elvis started the fire of rock ‘n’ roll but it was the Beatles who poured on the gasoline. Rock music may now be in the process of declining into just another genre of music – its central cultural role usurped by hip-hop – but it’s still got some pull.

And it’s probably no coincidence the Beatles were born in a “symbol” of Britain’s decline. Like sports, music is a most appealing career to the desperate. It’s a long-shot play, one that makes more sense when you don’t have more reliable career opportunities. In a Liverpool where working at the port or “going to sea” were no longer the options they had been for fathers and grandfathers a lively music scene becomes much more possible.

I stroll beside the choppy Mersey, almost feeling like I’m in Baltimore, another port city struggling for a new role in life. I begin to notice people in the red jerseys of the Liverpool soccer team. If the Beatles were post-war Britain’s way of asserting it still mattered in popular culture, the Liverpool soccer team of the 1970s and 1980s was its leading way of asserting it still mattered in soccer, the sport the British pioneered.

Although the FIFA-sponsored World Cup began in 1930, the English didn’t even play in one until 1950 – where they managed to be upset by the Americans – by which time other nations had caught up to them. Like the US in basketball the English had relatively little interest in such international tourneys, involved in their own competitions.  In fact, the English, the founders of the game, have won only a single, solitary World Cup, and that came when they had home field advantage as hosts in 1966. And they have yet to win the European championship, a similar quadrennial tourney, even when they hosted it in 1996. In fact, leaving aside 1966, the English haven’t even played in the championship game of either tourney.

English league clubs did have sporadic success in the European competitions which developed after World War II. Manchester United was the first English team to win the European Cup (in 1968), for example. But then came Liverpool’s run starting in the 1970s, a re-assertion that English teams still mattered in Europe. Americans know Liverpool for the Beatles; in the rest of the world their soccer team is almost as well known.

Liverpool hadn’t always been powerful club, rarely winning the league or even threatening to do so in the early decades of the league. Liverpool’s other team, Everton, may have been a better team during those years. It was in the 1960s, a few years after the Beatles blew out of town, that something special began to develop at Liverpool under coach Bill Shankly. It was Shankly who provided soccer’s cliche equivalent of Lombardi’s “winning is the only thing” when he said, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. It is much more important than that.”

Liverpool won the league in 1964, just as the Fab Four were conquering America. They won it again in 1966. They had become regular contenders, winning the FA Cup in 1965 and 1974, as well as another league title in 1973. After the FA Cup triumph in 1974 Shankly retired. His assistant Bob Paisley took over and Liverpool’s greatest days were just beginning.

Starting in 1976, Liverpool won the English league ten times in the next fifteen years. (Only two other teams – Arsenal and Manchester United – have won the league that many times in the whole century plus of competition, let alone in a fifteen year span.) Then, like the Beatles, they went on to conquer the world…or at least European soccer. “The Reds” added European Cups in 1977, 1978, 1981 and 1984. It was the most glorious era of English soccer, a run of success rivaled by only a handful of dynastic teams in world soccer. Bob Paisley said, “We’ve had hard times too – one year we finished second.” Stars like Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish were cheered on by the vociferous terrace faithful on “the Kop.”

I walk back into the downtown, catching a double-decker bus full of red shirts to Anfield, the Liverpool stadium. The bus climbs up a hill, passing boarded-up shops, winding through neighborhoods which have seen better days. The weather is cloudy now, with hints of rain.

We all pile out just down the street from Anfield. I feel like I’ve stepped into a 1930s movie – the tightly-packed rowhouses, the chip shops, the pubs. Anfield gleams, metal and modern, like a bit of color film digitally inserted into a black and white film. It appears right in the midst of the neighborhood, as if it’s just another business on the street, dwarfing the neighboring shops.

There are people in red everywhere, again the atmosphere is one of a street fair. All around fans are munching on burgers or chips from the many take-away stands. I stop in the Salisbury Hotel, which is a pub, and get a pint, watching Manchester United lose the day’s early game, much to the pleasure of the Liverpool fans.

Outside there are the standard Liverpool scarves and shirts on offer. There’s a decided anti-Manchester United subtext to many of them. You might think that Liverpool and Manchester fans in England’s depressed northwest would reserve their ire for Arsenal and Chelsea from the rich capital. No, they choose to hate one another with much more passion. I could probably reach Old Trafford in an hour by car and some of this enmity is probably a result of proximity, which so often breeds contempt.

The passion is deeper than that, though. To Liverpool fans it is irksome to see Manchester United preen as England’s leading team when, despite all their success in the 1990s, they’re still well behind Liverpool in terms of league and European championships. Manchester United is brash and now quite wealthy, having ridden the wave of cash entering soccer in the 1990s. To Liverpool fans Man U think too much of themselves when they’re just imitating what Liverpool has already achieved – and not doing it as well. So what right do they have to be so boastful?

There’s an odd echo of this in music. Manchester has the more lively scene today, producing more successful bands than Liverpool does. Yet their biggest band is Oasis, who often border on Beatles plagiarists. (Much of the time Oasis singer Liam Gallegher seems to be singing in that Liverpudlian accent of John Lennon. Gallegher and his brother Noel are actually Manchester City fans, though, not United fans.) Typical Manchester, goes the Liverpool thinking. Sure, they’re doing better than we are these days – but we did it before them and did it better.

The inside of Anfield is comfortable, if austere. I had purchased a ticket in advance from a broker since the game is virtually sold out, as most are at Anfield. I’m along the side of the field, down by one goal, right near the traveling support for Fulham, the day’s opponent. Off to my right in the distance is the Kop, now modernized to be all seats, rather than the standing terrace of the glory days.

During the pre-game warm-ups Boston’s “More than a Feeling” comes booming on as does new Scottish band Franz Ferdinand’s driving “Take Me Out.” I suppose it would have been too much to ask to hope for some Beatles – Liverpudlians are probably sick to death of those songs by now. (As it happens, none of the Fab Four were reputed to be Liverpool fans – Paul, in fact, is known to root for Everton.) I’m next to Germans again, who seem to love playing soccer tourist almost as much as the British. I’m surprised to see that Johan, the one right beside me, is wearing a replica Liverpool jersey of Danny Murphy, not that of fellow German midfielder Dietmar Hamman. He explains that he’s never liked Hamman and that he rooted for Liverpool long before they acquired the German, leaving me feeling a bit naive.

Two rows in front of us is someone living up to stereotype – a happy Japanese guy snapping pictures a mile a minute. Right in front of me is an actual Liverpudlian, an old bird who keeps up a running commentary on the game in that local accent that always makes Americans recall the Beatles.

The last song before kick-off is a tradition, an old slice of Merseybeat, the slow and determined Gerry and the Pacemakers cover of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” The crowd sings along, many with their red Liverpool scarves held out in front of them, and by the end the recording can no longer be heard at all, just thousands and thousands singing at the top of their lungs. It’s awe-inspiring, a central ritual of Liverpool fandom.

“When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of the storm
Is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark
Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Tho’ your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE”

Then there’s a moment of silence to recognize the 15th anniversary of the Hillsborough stadium tragedy. The Liverpool players are wearing black armbands as well, to remember the 96 – yes, 96 – who died as a result of one of the worst crowd disasters in soccer history. It’s impressive and rather spooky when the whole stadium – all 45,000 or so – goes quiet, entirely still, just moments after being so loud. This is a true moment of silence. The pain of Hillsborough is still felt here – just down the street I had passed a storefront “Hillsborough Justice Centre” devoted to arguing that those responsible have still not been held fully accountable and that those who died were unfairly blamed for what befell them.

The glory years of Liverpool effectively ended with two stadium tragedies. The first was Heysel in Brussels in 1985, at the European Cup final against Juventus. Here’s how the Rough Guide sums up what happened:

An element of Liverpool’s support, scarred by the brutal treatment they’d received from police in Rome after the previous year’s final, were determined to exact a twisted revenge on their Italian counterparts. Juve’s support contained a violent contingent of its own, but most of them were at the other end of the ground when, in the minutes before kick-off, a group of Liverpool fans attempted to storm a section of the stadium theoretically allocated to neutrals. In the rush of bodies, a concrete wall collapsed, crushing 39 people to death, most of them Italian.

Remarkably, they played the game anyway – to avoid further trouble, the authorities said – and Liverpool lost 1-0. Much of the blame was put on the English fans, cementing an international reputation for hooliganism. All English club teams – not just Liverpool – were banned from European-wide tournaments for five years. And Liverpool has not won a European Cup since, after picking up four in that remarkable stretch leading up to Heysel. (After my visit, they did win another, a story to tell later.)

Still, the lesson had not been learned. Four years later came Hillsborough, an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest, played at a neutral site in Sheffield. Although there were more Liverpool fans than Forest fans, they were given a smaller share of the seats. The entrance gates were swamped – long lines formed, even as kick-off approached. Another gate was opened to help speed the fans in. Only it led to a standing terrace area which was already completely packed, even though neighboring areas were not yet fully occupied. People piled into the compressed area, desperate to see the beginning of the game.

This might have been manageable, except that the standing area was surrounded by a fence to prevent people jumping onto the field. In the crush, 96 people died. This probably sounds astonishing to Americans. We don’t have standing areas in our stadiums – we don’t fence sections of them off either. So I turn to Bill Buford for a better description of what happened that day, based on his review of a videotape, from Among the Thugs:

The entrance consists of seven turnstiles housed in four small wooden huts. By 14:30 – the time appears in the upper right-hand corner of the frame – there is a terrible crush: there are no queues, only people, several thousand of them, packed as closely as possible, pressing forward. By 14:34 the surging starts, and the crowd tumbles in one direction and then, like water when it crashes against a wall, comes tumbling back the other way. It is impossible for anyone to stand still. I, like any other supporter, have been in a crush of this kind and would have known, even with thousands of people in front of me, that, somehow, I would eventually get in. I might miss the first minutes of the match; I would never miss the match itself. I would never hear these words: the game is sold out; go home. The police would want me inside – whether or not there was room. It is an accepted practice. It is also an accepted practice to fudge the figures. It follows that, if more are admitted than have been officially deemed safe, then the numbers have to be adjusted accordingly. Besides, it’s a tradeoff; the terraces are a cash business – no tickets, no receipts. You can’t pay tax on revenue that doesn’t exist.

Over the next few pages Buford describes how the crowd grew beyond control and then the awfulness within the area as the pressure grew and grew. The horror for Liverpool fans – who lost friends and family members in the disaster – was compounded by apparent efforts by stadium managers to turn the blame to those who died. Hence the “Hillsborough Justice Centre,” which still pushes to have the authorities subject to a public inquiry.

The aftermath of Hillsborough changed the face of English soccer. A commission led to the banning of the standing terraces for top-level stadiums. No more standing room sections, just seats, including in the Kop at Anfield. The wave of stadium improvements fed the notion, along with glitzier television coverage, that the game was going upscale, leaving behind the working-class traditions it had long enjoyed.

Remarkably, Liverpool went on to win the FA Cup in 1989. Liverpool also won the league one last time in 1990. They haven’t won it since, watching Manchester United win seven titles during the 1990s. Hillsborough stands as the tragic end of the magic years, almost like a Liverpool soccer version of Altamont.

Today, as the game kicks off, we are nearing the end of the season and Liverpool is in a dogfight for fourth place, miles behind the still unbeaten Arsenal. Fourth place is valuable, bringing with it a lucrative slot in next season’s Champions League, the cross-league tourney to crown the best team in Europe. It’s just nothing like the glory years. The fans are grumbling. Three seasons before Liverpool had picked up trophies again – including another FA Cup – and hopes were rising. Now they are not so sure. Perhaps that was a false dawn.

Fulham, on the other hand, are safely mid-table. They are one of London’s more obscure teams, trying to grow and build something of their own. They also have two Americans and remarkably neither is a goalie. Defender Carlos Bocanegra starts the game while forward Brian McBride is on the bench as a substitute.

The game starts and looks relatively even in the early going. Liverpool, as is usual for the home team, is doing more of the attacking. Fulham, however, are getting good looks on their counter attacks. Liverpool are in their classic red jerseys and red shorts. Fulham have odd looking shirts – white with one black sleeve – and black shorts.
The Liverpool fans sing a version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” with “the Reds” doing the marching and then grow relatively quiet when nothing much develops on the field. The Fulham fans below me keep up a steady series of cheers. This has the effect of irritating the Liverpool fans who from time to time retaliate in massive fashion with loud cheers of their own, only to let things dwindle back to quiet again.

This may also be out of frustration with their own team. Liverpool looks like they should be winning, with individual stars like Michael Owen and midfielder Steven Gerrard. Gerrard is often mentioned as a future captain of the English national team when David Beckham retires. Today, though, Liverpool doesn’t seem to be in synch, like maybe they’re doubting themselves. Sometimes they rush the attack and make mistakes. Other times they go so slowly everyone in Anfield could tell you where the next pass is going. A number of fast break attacks are wasted when not enough Liverpool players get forward quickly enough to take advantage of the opportunity.

They don’t help themselves with poor shooting. Winger Harry Kewell gets a chance after a scramble in the box and blows it. A cross from Gerrard finds forward Emile Heskey but his shot hits the post. Meanwhile, Fulham counter enough to generate a few shots. They look more comfortable, like they’re playing the way their game plan would have it. But they can’t shoot accurately either. It’s 0-0 at the half.

Early in the second half, Liverpool is handed a golden opportunity. Fulham gets called for a handball in the box – penalty! Steven Gerrard lines it up. Fulham goalie Edwin Van de Sar dives, guessing right and stopping the shot.

“Bloody hell!” says the elderly Liverpudlian loudly. “We couldn’t score with four strikers today!”

The game settles back to the way it was – Liverpool busier but less organized, Fulham together but cautious. More shots are missed. The Germans are still in a good mood. Like me, they are soaking in the scene as much as the game.

About minute 75, Fulham sub in McBride to get some fresh legs. Their fans start chanting “Brian! McBride! Brian! McBride!” I never thought I’d hear an American get that sort of support at a top level English game – this is a guy I used to see play at RFK when the Columbus Crew would come to town. Now he’s getting cheered onto the field at storied Anfield.

Carlos Bocanegra gets taken out right after that, probably because he’s got a yellow card, but part of me is thinking that it is as if there is a rule that Fulham can only play one American at a time. Liverpool adds attackers, including Senegal’s World Cup hero El-Hadji Diouf, searching for a goal. It doesn’t help. The game ends 0-0. I check the stats in the paper the next day – the two teams combined for a total of 22 shots but only managed to get five actually on goal.

On the way out I here the old guy complaining. “It’s like fourth is good now.” Oh, things have changed, I think, as I mix with the crowds in the official Liverpool team shop, browsing through the hats and shirts and Michael Owen bedspreads (!). Once you’ve been the top dog, just being good doesn’t feel…good anymore. Especially with braggarts like the Manchester United fans nearby.

But lightning has struck Liverpool a couple of times before. Not bad for a “symbol of decline.” Maybe there is something special here along the Mersey. Maybe lightning will strike again. In the meantime, there’s money to be made from the likes of me, moths drawn to the remnants of the light from before.

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