During the past season being a Liverpool fan was difficult. Most of us wanted to believe the best of our players, management and administration staff. The allegations and subsequent charging of one of our best players, Luis Suarez, and the vehement defence afforded to him by the club and some fans, were difficult to watch. As was the descent into tribalism on all sides. The FA’s report was even more difficult to read, not just because of its length but because of its magical power of ‘proving’ whatever it was the reader wanted it to prove.
Liverpool accepted Suarez’s ban while still supporting their player, they went on to beat Oldham Athletic 5-1 in the FA Cup, probably hoping that a comprehensive victory would help to put the bad times behind them. As it should have.
Unfortunately though, the following Saturday morning football fans around the world woke up to headlines containing the words “Liverpool’ and ‘racist abuse’ once again after Oldham player Tom Adeyemi alleged that he was on the receiving end of racial abuse from some fans.
These two incidents have succeeded in tarnishing Liverpool’s reputation worldwide. And an association with racism is difficult to shake off.
The club, despite having at the helm the greatest player to have ever worn the red shirt, seemed rudderless at times. Before Dalglish arrived the disaster that was the Hicks and Gillett regime very nearly brought the club to its knees. The in-fighting between Purslow, Parry and Benitez made the situation worse. We all hoped that having Dalglish there would restore Liverpool’s identity, and restore our pride in the team. Unfortunately he was unable to complete that job. This last season proved a step too far for many supporters horrified at some decisions taken by the club, and dismayed by the performances on the pitch.
One of the saddest things about all this is that this image, that was interneting rapidly around the world last year, is very far from the image that I have of Liverpool Football Club, the City of Liverpool and the people of Liverpool.
I am not from Liverpool, I am from Southport, a town a few miles up the North-West coast. Which by definition makes me a wool. I also left England six years ago. I now live on the Southern California coast. Which for some people would mean I don’t know what I am talking about and should just keep out of it. My dad was from Liverpool though, and was a Liverpool fan, as was his brother, and their dad. My grandparents were bombed out of two houses in the city during World War II, before they decided to move to Southport. And it was from my family that I got my love of LFC and my education of what Liverpool is all about and what it means to be a Liverpool fan.
I can remember the first few times I went to watch Liverpool in the mid-eighties, I remember feeling straight away that Anfield had an unwritten code of conduct. There were rules that all Liverpool fans should follow. No-one told me any of this, no-one needed to. It permeated the atmosphere on the walk to the ground, it grew stronger as you crossed Stanley Park, and it was positively tangible queueing up outside the ground. The moment I entered the turnstiles I knew in no uncertain terms that it was real.
What I believe formed this code of conduct (and still do) were these few things:
‘Don’t say anything stupid’
‘If you don’t know what you are talking about, don’t say anything’
‘Even if you think you know what you are talking about, it is better to not say anything’
‘Support your team’
‘Be respectful of the opposition’
Anyone who broke any of these rules was pretty swiftly made aware of their transgression, ‘gobshite’ or ‘soft lad’ being the favourite idioms.
I went to more games as I grew older, and spent more time in Liverpool. I learnt that LFC stood for more than my imagined code of conduct. The club was a cultural touchstone for a working class city, that had been treated desperately poorly by a succession of governments. During the 70s and 80s the worse the city of Liverpool became the better the football team performed. It is not difficult to understand why LFC came to mean so much to so many. The powers-that-be can try to keep Liverpudlians down, they can close down the industries and take away people’s livelihoods and they can ignore the city and its people, but our football team showed that Liverpool remained defiant. Even more than that, the football team showed that Liverpool can take whatever you throw at it and still come back and win. Win everything, again and again.
Liverpool Football Club owes so much to the great Bill Shankly, and it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say he formed the club in his own image. That image is one of a hard-working, intelligent, proud socialist. There is a Shankly quote for almost every situation, one that fits in this article is this, ‘The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It’s the way I see football, it’s the way I see life.’
Here’s another one. When asked about the famous “This is Anfield’ sign in the tunnel, Shankly said, ‘It is there to remind our lads who they are playing for, and to remind the opposition who they are playing against.’
More than any other manager Shankly knew about the power of ideas and the strength that a powerful identity can give you over other teams. He even changed Liverpool’s kit colours to all red because he thought big Ron Yeats looked terrifying dressed in red.
Supporters of other teams may sneer at this thing we call the Liverpool Way but for me it exists. There is a great quote in Jamie Carragher’s autobiography that he attributes to former chairman John Smith, ‘We’re a very, very modest club at Liverpool. We don’t talk. We don’t boast. But we’re very professional.’
All of these things I have mentioned make up my image of LFC. This, even more than the trophies and famous victories, is what Liverpool means to me. It is an image of proud, working-class dignity. Not shouting your mouth off. And being respectful to others, all the time.
Which is why the racism allegations against player and fans are so hard to take. And the way the club dealt with the allegation. The whole thing is a mess. I support Liverpool’s right to defend their player, and I also believe that Luis Suarez did not intend what he said to be racist. Here’s another thing, I also strongly defend Patrice Evra’s right to be offended by what Suarez said to him. Also if a fan did racially abuse Adeyemi then that is impossible to defend. Likewise even if it wasn’t racist and they called him a “Manc cunt’ as has been asserted by some. It is simply not the Liverpool Way, if that still means anything anymore.
And that is the point, Rodgers and Fenway Sports Group have to make it mean something again. Liverpool often appeared to be playing last season without any idea of what they should be doing, no tactical gameplan, no ‘Plan B’ when things went wrong, no togetherness and no identity.
Liverpool was the European Capital of Culture in 2008 because of the strong identity and history of the city. Liverpool supporters have a strong identity and history. The football club has a glittering history, but now it needs to restore its identity to ensure a future that lives up to its past.