Kicked In the Head: The Crazed Allure of Liverpool Football

In Vancouver, we meet before dawn to sing our hymn and pray for redemption.

By Ian Gill 12 Apr 2019 |

Ian Gill, a Tyee contributing editor, is a journalist, filmmaker and social entrepreneur who founded Ecotrust Canada and was its CEO in the U.S. and Australia. Follow him on Twitter at @gillwave.

It’s just past the witching hour on the dark downtown streets of Vancouver. Sunday morning. Almost nothing stirs.

Except... what’s that over there on the north side of West Pender Street? Who are those scuttling figures, why those flashes of red clothing caught in a taxi’s headlights, men and women ducking through the swinging door of a saloon that has no business being lit at this hour?

A Scotsman, Bill Shankly, once a high priest of the beautiful game, famously said about football (real football, not that boring nonsense they play in North America) that, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.”

“For many people,” writes George Dohrmann in his 2018 book, Superfans, “a fan group has usurped church membership or another community organization as the primary binding agent in their lives.”

And so we gather to sing the hymns that presage a 5 a.m. kickoff. After which, for about two hours, this polyglot lot is transported, emotionally at least, to our holiest of shrines — Anfield stadium.

Except we’re not in Liverpool. We’re in Vancouver. Our river is the Fraser, not the Mersey. We’re down on West Pender, not up on Anfield Road. We are beneath a Days Inn hotel inside the Butcher & Bullock pub, secure in the faith that no matter where we are in the world, We’ll Never Walk Alone. Game on.

It is just past the witching hour in the 2018-19 Premier League season. It’s a time when even the most pious football fans — and let’s be clear from the outset that the best fans of the beautiful game are Liverpool fans; let’s just get that right of the way — fear the hoodoo. Fear “bottling it,” as the Limeys say. Liverpool fans have been waiting 29 years to return to the summit of English football as Premier League Champions, and in the few weeks prior to this game, the witches, demons and ghosts have been restive.

We’ve only lost one game all season (against Manchester City), but we’ve fallen out of first place by drawing games we should have won. On this Sunday morning, we start four points off top spot. A victory over lowly Burnley will put us back in touching distance of Man City, will put us just one point off the pace. Then there’ll be eight games left to play. We need City to slip — a draw would cost them two points; a loss three. And even if City hit a bump, to be certain of hoisting this year’s trophy, we need to win every game. Our talisman, forward Mo Salah, has been misfiring. These are anxious times, but as the kickoff approaches, our nerves are soothed with song. Broadcast live, Liverpool’s famous anthem rings out from Anfield, where 60,000 famously melodic fans sing their hearts out, as do a couple of dozen early risers in Vancouver:

When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark

At the end of a storm
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark

Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown

Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone

At this point at the Butcher & Bullock, as the song moves up an octave, it becomes evident how few scousers there are in the bar. Barely a soul here can hold a tune, but the second round of the chorus is quickly sung, and the ref blows just as the last bar fades. A roar goes up in England, and in bars and clubs and living rooms and all over the world, including in 280 supporters clubs like ours in more than 90 countries, part of what Liverpool’s CEO told Forbes magazine is a global fan base of more than 771 million followers, or one-tenth of the world’s population. A roar goes up, and Liverpool’s men in red go hunting for three points.

It doesn’t start well. Within six minutes Burnley are a goal up, controversially since Liverpool’s goalkeeper was impeded. “Fuck you Burnley!” goes up the cry from a reliably noisy pub mate, but Roberto Firmino scores an equalizer in the 19th minute, and we go on to win the game 4-2. We’re back to being just a single point behind Man City. This race is going down to the wire.

A fan is born

How does an Australian, reared on cricket, rowing, Aussie Rules and Rugby Union at school, and surfing outside school hours, become a Liverpool fan?

In the early seventies, avoiding school, I travelled to England and soon found myself working as a “third chef” in the grim industrial kitchen of a holiday camp at Croyde Bay, on the north coast of Devon. On Saturdays, I worked two shifts, and in between shifts is when “English soccer” was played on the telly in the staff room.

The second chef was a guy from Garston, which is now said to be an “up and coming” suburb of Liverpool, but at the time was definitely down and going. His name was Eric and he was doughy and cheerful. The kitchen assistant, a sort of stable hand who mucked out the fryers and applied far too little soap to the workspace, although more than he did to himself, was a low-browed sub-literate man called Ernie. Naturally, he was from Manchester.

Scouser Eric and Mancunian Ernie were friendly enough in the scullery, but brimmed with hostility in the staff lounge, especially when Liverpool (the Reds) played Manchester United (the Red Devils). Eric explained the game to me while Ernie shook his fist at the box and writhed on the sofa like Gollum. Liverpool were truly magic then, just like they are now. They were the kings of Europe.

Eric invited me to visit Liverpool when our time was up at the holiday camp, and I did. He took me to see the Reds win a game at Anfield, and I was back there at the end of the 1972-73 season when Liverpool topped what was then called the First Division for the eighth time. We were out on the streets of the city when the team paraded the trophy, thousands and thousands of people filled with a transcendent joy that I had never seen the likes of — and didn’t fully comprehend at the time. Like I said, magic. Liverpool won the league 10 more times between then and 1989-90. Since then, nada.

In 1992-93 the top English league was rebranded the Premier League and since then Manchester United has won the title far more often than any other team, an astonishing 13 out of 26 attempts. Recently, it’s their cross-town rivals, Man City, that have become the team to beat, and this year only one team has a chance of doing that. That’s us.

Hence the nerves. Five years ago we came second to... Man City. But here’s the thing. “If you are first you are first. If you are second you are nothing.” That might sound harsh, but for a Liverpool fan, it’s a hard charge to dodge — since the author of that remark is none other than Bill Shankly.

The wisdom of superfans

“Sports,” writes Dohrmann, “is the rare piece of popular culture that exposes people of differing cultures, races, religions, and classes to one another, that brings them together on a large scale. What else remains in society that breaches the walls we have built, the echo chambers we inhabit, that cuts through a prevailing tendency to surround ourselves with people of similar backgrounds, who share the same values, who mirror our view of the world?

“In arenas and stadiums and sports bars, on message boards and call-in shows, on Twitter and Facebook, people who would normally shun each other mix and connect, a shared passion for a team trumping differences that would otherwise divide them. In a society that is becoming more and more fragmented, and more and more entrenched in our little bubbles, what other than a devotion to a sports team achieves that?”

Curiously, for a North American book on sports nuts, Superfans opens with a chapter not on ice hockey or baseball or basketball or car racing or so-called football, but on soccer. Or at least North America’s pale imitation of it, Major League Soccer. Dohrmann argues that the Timbers Army, diehard fans of the Portland Timbers — who currently share the basement of the MLS’s Western Conference with the Vancouver Whitecaps — are “so enthusiastic and organized” that other sports teams seek out its leaders for advice on how to recreate the atmosphere of a home game at Portland’s Providence Park.

“Everyone believes the supporters of his or her team are the best and admitting that someone else’s could be better is seen as some sort of betrayal. But it would be difficult for an objective person to sit with the Timbers Army and not concede that the experience might (his emphasis) be the best of any sporting event in America.” That’s some claim, but it’s true that Portlanders love their Timbers, and they especially like it when they get to travel by the busload up the I-5 to Seattle, a destination that the Army affectionately describes as “Shittle.”

The rivalry between Portland’s Timbers and Seattle’s Sounders is so intense it even has its own Wikipedia page, which suggests that a Timbers vs. Sounders match is about as close as you can get to a “derby” in the MLS system. (In England, a derby is when rival teams in the same city play each other — Man City vs. Man United, for example, or Liverpool vs. Everton, who are sorry mid-table muddlers on the other side of Liverpool’s Stanley Park.) A Whitecaps vs. Sounders or even Timbers game could also qualify as a regional rivalry of sorts. But I am sworn to Liverpool. Will the Whitecaps actually start winning this season? Will they make the playoffs? I’m sorry, but I think my taxes are due.

Touch the sign

As a fan, you do weird things. Not super weird, unless you’re a super fan — you know, tattoos, costumes, the guy in Indianapolis who sticks garbage to his body, people who wear wigs, paint their faces — or the bloke in suburban Surrey, just outside Vancouver, whose every wall in his house, floor to ceiling, is chock-full of Liverpool F.C. memorabilia.

My fandom is more modest. In the basement of the house where my kids grew up, over the stairs was a red sign with white letters, This Is Anfield. The kids had to touch the sign every time they went downstairs, emulating the players in the tunnel at Anfield itself. Our wifi password was youllneverwalkalone. If I could, I would get a vanity number plate for my (red) car, but someone at the pub already has YNWA on his (red) Mini. I once teared up a bit at a musical my eldest son was in at high school, not because I was moved by his performance but because the final show tune in the Rodgers and Hammerstein 1945 classic, Carousel, is You’ll Never Walk Alone. A very emotional evening.

Earlier this year, the local Liverpool fan club organizers asked people headed to the pub for a mid-week lunchtime game to wear any classic piece of Liverpool clothing they could find. By sheer coincidence, the day before the game my daughter was shopping for clothes at a pop-up store on Hastings Street and there, positively glowing on the rack, was a used red Adidas t-shirt shot through with horrible, disco-ish white flashes and emblazoned with the word Candy — after an appliance company that sponsored Liverpool from 1988-92, including when we last won the league. I paid a ransom of $160 plus tax for the shirt, possibly the ugliest piece of clothing I’ve ever owned, and wore it to the pub the next day. At the end of the game the chair of the fan club called me up and awarded me a new Liverpool t-shirt for having hands-down the best classic shirt in the house. I like my new shirt, but I wear the old one to every game. It really is hideous and no, it’s not for sale.

The other requirement of a true fan is, of course, to get to Anfield. Other than those games in the seventies, I’ve only managed it twice. On May 15, 2004, having written away for a ticket that arrived in the post (how quaint that seems now), I joined 44,171 other souls for the last game of a season in which Liverpool finished fourth. I was surrounded by people of all classes and ages. In the second half, Michael Owen, our star striker playing his last game for the Reds, equalized and the game petered out 1-1 and I walked down Anfield road and stopped for a pint and I felt grand, enveloped by a red mist, a stranger who belonged, 30 years after my first visit.

Last season, I went again, this time with my son Fergus, whom I love more than my other children because unlike them, he is infected, a true fan, often watching matches in the middle of the night when he was living in Shanghai. (I’ve reserved the Candy shirt for him in my will.) It was Dec. 30, 2017, the last game of the calendar year. Fergus worked for a social media company in China that did business with Liverpool F.C., and one of his senior colleagues had organized three free tickets for Fergus, another workmate, and me to see the game against Leicester City. I was on vacation in London and Ferg figured out a way to come see, for the first time, Liverpool play at Anfield.

Somewhere along the line it transpired that the special access we were promised didn’t hold up, and we arrived in Liverpool two hours before kickoff and with no tickets for a sold-out game. We walked up and down Anfield Road in the bitter cold, eventually finding a couple of touts who promised three tickets for £130 (about $225) apiece. We paid dearly — not just for the tickets, but because it turns out the seats we’d secured were in the back row of the “away” section, a pizza slice of space reserved for travelling fans of the opposition.

As an away fan you are a second-class citizen at best. As a home fan cast adrift in a sea of Leicester blue — well, you keep your coat zipped up so no-one can see your colors, and when in the third minute your neighbours go nuts because some skinny medical technician and convicted brawler turned footballer, Jamie Vardy, scores for Leicester in the third minute, you stand very still and smile if the people around you invite you to share their rapture. The fans around us went nuts, shouting taunts at home fans in the next section and reminding the Liverpool faithful that unlike them, Leicester had been champions of the league in the modern era, just two seasons earlier. We three stood with our hands in our pockets and tried not to look unhappy.

We had to contend with a very tall and muscular lout in front of us who led the crowd chants against hated Liverpool. Then in the second half Salah scored twice and we won. Our friend stomped on and broke his plastic seat when the second goal was scored. We three, mentally jumping for joy, stood expressionless. The Leicester lout turned around and reached up at one point near the end of the game, and I thought he’d made me as a mole and was going to clock me. Instead he asked, bizarrely, if I wanted a stick of chewing gum. As the stadium emptied, we crawled out of our bunker and safely soaked up the view of Anfield. It was magic, but boy that was an expensive way to pretty much not see a game of football. I think Anfield owes us one, but the lads were just glad to say they’d been there.

Shaking the walls

Back home in Vancouver, because of the eight or nine-hour time difference (depending on daylight savings), most games play at the Butcher & Bullock at 7 a.m. Pacific time, sometimes 5 a.m. During the week when Liverpool is competing in European competitions, kickoff is usually at noon. The early morning games are a bit challenging for the staff of the Days Inn hotel right next door. “If someone scores a goal the whole building shakes,” says Lisa Collyer, the assistant general manager. The roar of the fans “definitely shakes the walls,” and on occasion a confused punter has come downstairs in their robe, wondering if there’s an earthquake or a riot or something.

The next best thing to winning the Premier League is winning the Champions League, which Liverpool has done more than any other English club. So Champions League games usually fill the Butcher & Bullock, capacity 200. Last year, we reached the finals, only to fall short in a calamitous final in which Salah was mugged by a bouncer playing for Real Madrid, and our dodgy keeper gave up two brainless goals. Bret Hames, who manages the pub, says the “monstrous loyalty” of the Liverpool fans during the Champions League run was unlike anything he’s seen, including at the company’s other locations in Vancouver that host fan clubs for Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, Man U, Celtic and Rangers. The interior of the Butcher & Bullock is decorated on one wall with a red neon sign saying You’ll Never Walk Alone, and the song lyrics are stencilled high on the walls in gold lettering. The play list before and after games includes not just Liverpool’s signature tune, but newer hits like Allez, Allez, Allez and, of course, Mo Salah, The Egyptian King.

The LFC Supporters Club, Vancouver Branch, actually began in a different pub on Granville Street. Ste Speed, a scouser who had moved to Canada and was “ridiculously homesick” for both city and club, was desperate to find some fan friends in 2005 as Liverpool challenged for (and won) the Champions League that year. He heard that some folks gathered at the Library Square pub to watch the games, but Celtic fans had priority there and he thought Liverpool fans deserved a place of their own. “I didn’t expect it to become the madness that it’s become,” Speed said. “It’s amazing, oh my God.” Speed, a disability case manager for an insurance company, is the aforementioned superfan whose house in Surrey is wall-to-wall Liverpool. He recalls that in last year’s Champions League run, when Liverpool fell short in the final in Kiev, the Butcher & Bullock was rammed solid and overflow crowds filled four other pubs downtown. “Five pubs, all were full.”

960px version of SteSpeedLiverpoolSuperfan.jpeg
Ste Speed, Liverpool superfan: ‘I didn’t expect it to become the madness that it’s become.’ Photo courtesy of Ste Speed.

After Burnley we defeated Bayern Munich in the Champions League, then bottom-feeder Fulham in a nervy 2-1 game in London, then third-place Tottenham Hotspur by the same margin thanks to a mistake by their keeper with barely seconds left on the clock. We fell behind to Southampton but gutsed out a 3-1 win to go top again by two points, but Man City have a game in hand and they keep on winning too. Even if we win all our remaining games, Man City will win the title, by a single point, if they remain perfect in their last games.

There is a maxim that goes something like this — “It’s not enough that I should succeed, others must fail” — that has been variously attributed to Genghis Khan, Somerset Maugham, Gore Vidal, and La Rochefoucauld, but apparently not to Bill Shankly. In this year of years, though, second place is going to feel so much more like nowhere than in any also-ran season ever before.

So that can’t happen. Man City has to slip, to preferably lose a game, but at least draw one. Which puts a Liverpool fan in a dilemma, because near the end of April, Man City play a derby against Manure, as we refer to Man United. For a Reds fan, the only thing better than a Liverpool win is a loss by Man U. But not now, not this year. As gut-wrenching, as soiling and self-abasing as it might be, we might find ourselves rooting for Manure, a.k.a. the Filth. As brilliant as we’ve been, the outcome of our entire season is out of our hands. In our hearts, though, there is hope. Walk on.  [Tyee]

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