Anfield is a shrine. Behind the Kop, a statue of Bill Shankly stands bearing the legend: “He made the people happy.” Outside the main stand is the Hillsborough memorial, a stark reminder that happiness can never be guaranteed. A visit to the old stadium is a pilgrimage for many, packed with emotive moments.
Hearses pause on Walton Breck Road on their way to Anfield Crematorium, allowing the deceased to come close to the sanctum one last time. Children play and pose for pictures under Shankly’s outstretched arms while black cars complete the last rites of fandom. The cycle of football and life rolls on.
Liverpool’s home is not unique. Across the game, grounds are meeting places and monuments to a million memories. Something, though, was different about Anfield today.
The banners on the railing in front of the Kop sometimes carry the names of those heading for their last resting place as a final tribute. Today they were black instead of red and sent out a different message: “Shame on you. RIP LFC 1892-2001.”
Fans hold up a protest banner against Liverpool FC and the European Super League outside the stadium
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The club’s participation in the plan to set up a European Super League (ESL) has shaken some of the certainties of supporters. Fans’ groups have announced that they will be removing their flags from the Kop before Saturday’s Premier League match against Newcastle United. In the absence of crowds because of coronavirus, the colourful standards have provided a visual representation of the Kopites who waved them with pride. The decision to remove them has not been taken lightly. There is anger and sadness in the air but also astonishment. How could a club whose identity is so much based on supporter culture act in such a manner?
People are learning new phrases that are ugly on the ear and reek of marketing jargon. “Legacy fans,” who seem to be people who don’t spend enough. “Fans of the future,” are a crop of mythical free spenders who care nothing for tradition and will fill the coffers of the Super Leaguers.
The same sense of dismay is being felt in Manchester and London. City and United have also signed up for the breakaway tournament, as have Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. The response of matchgoing supporters across the country has been uniformly against the ESL. The shock has hit Anfield harder. At Liverpool the crowd has been fetishized to a greater degree than elsewhere. The bond between the club and the fans has been elevated to folklore. Now the brutal truth is obvious: the devotion was all one-sided. Everything the Kop believed in was built on lies.
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Just two years ago, Peter Moore told a Spanish newspaper about the club’s philosophy. The locally-born chief executive left the club last year but 12 months earlier expressed this view. “Shankly, a Scottish socialist, built the foundations [of Liverpool],” Moore said.
“Today too, when we speak about business questions, we ask ourselves: ‘what would Shankly have done? What would Bill have said in this situation?’
“He was a true socialist who believed that football consisted of working together.”
Fenway Sports Group (FSG) worked together with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Milan, Internationale, Juventus and the other members of England’s Big Six to create a lucrative, ringfenced league. The last thought on the minds of the American owners was socialism. Liverpool fans can stop deluding themselves. The club does not exist for the many, but for the few.
Supporters and owners have always wanted the same thing but for different reasons. Success brings joy in the stands and elevates the sense of community felt by fans. Winning brings more profit for the boardroom. For most of the game’s history these distinct but compatible ambitions have coexisted happily. The marriage of convenience suited both sides and it was in no one’s interest to scrutinise the mechanics of the relationship too deeply. Especially at Anfield.
Liverpool fans protest
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FSG have brought everything into the open by joining the ESL cartel. It’s all there: the naked contempt for the supporters; the obsession with profits; the dismissal of any kind of competitive integrity. Even worse, they have undermined a symbol of the city.
Liverpool – and Everton, too – have an importance on Merseyside that goes way beyond the sporting arena. This benighted region exists on the margins of British society. It is often at odds with the mainstream politics of the nation and has suffered economically. In the city’s worst moments, the two teams have been a source of pride. When the place appeared to be on its knees, football provided a salvation.
Liverpool, who have been European champions six times and hold 19 domestic titles, were the main flagbearers for the people of the port. Now they stand for simple greed.
John W Henry, the principal owner, should have cemented his legacy with last year’s Premier League win that broke Liverpool’s 30-year title drought. Instead he will leave ugly memories behind. He must take responsibility for poisoning the relationship between the Kop and the club.
Cash, not Kenny Dalglish, is king around Anfield. The voices that sung in joy will rage in protest. Trust has been broken. Things will never be the same again. The shrine has been defiled.