D-Day (Derby Day)

As I sit here surrounded by the news of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and the buzz over his successor, I’d best get my thoughts out over what appears to have been the final Merseyside Derby for both Jamie Carragher and David Moyes. Carragher had announced months ago that he’d be retiring at the end of the season, and Moyes looks increasingly like he’ll be moving up the M-62 to take over at Old Trafford.

My first experience was trying to get to Anfield itself. The local bus network operates a special line on matchdays on double-decker buses from downtown. However, these weren’t as full as I had imagined and the passengers were reflective of some of the knocks against Liverpool compared to Everton. Liverpool is the glamour club that has a huge international reputation based on its successes through the ’70s, ’80s, and up to the “Miracle in Istanbul” in 2005. Everton is the local team, it has always pulled its fans from the area and although it has success as well, not at the same level as Liverpool. The added twist to this history is that Everton was the first team to play at Anfield. A falling out between the Everton board and Anfield’s owner, John Houlding, in 1892 led to a split and Everton’s move to Goodison park, and Houlding setting up a new club called Liverpool at his now vacant stadium. So this rivalry becomes still more tangled through the family history of the two clubs.

Back to the buses, my bus remained nearly empty but for a French family, two Australians, a Canadian (me) and two locals. On arrival at Anfield the streets were filled with fans and vendors and crowded pubs literally spilled into the street as fans attempted to get a few pints before the game. One pub right next to Anfield is covered inside with scarves from teams from around Europe and the rest of the world. But to show what a rather small world it is, I no sooner got to the pub when I ran into two Belgians who had travelled down to Sheffield with me the previous day (same idea as me, make the most of the fixture change). I had to buy a souvenir, so naturally I chose the match day scarf that was half Liverpool red, half Everton blue (only to find out later that people who bought those are called day-trippers).

After a walk around the stadium I headed in to find my seat. It became clear to me as the crowd filled up that there was something about my particular section’s seat allocations that lent itself to resales to visitors: to my right were two Icelanders and a Mongolian, and my left were two Irish, and two Dutch. All of the complaints from locals that games are increasingly difficult to attend seemed to be on display, and that I was also part of the problem. That said, for the 42,000 seats available to Liverpool fans – and every single one was filled – the majority are clearly in the hands of locals. Particularly in the Kop end for the most rabid fans and the section that was only converted to seats in 1994. At the opposite side from the Kop, in the Anfield Rd stand, 3000 blues took their place for the game.

The Kop raises their banners prior to the game

The Kop raises their banners prior to the game

There is certainly a routine aspect to parts of the performances between the fans, the chants and songs almost play off each other. From my seat in the Main Stand, near the Kop it was nearly impossible to make out the chants of the Evertonians, but going the other way it was easy to hear taunts of “No trophies for 18 years” (to Que Sera Sera) “Always a blue, almost a Manc” (clearly insulting to anyone from Liverpool) and their own tunes “Glory of Anfield Rd”. All of this of course is nothing to the introduction of the teams and the requisite singing of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. During this particular game, Liverpool had planned a tribute for the support of Everton through all of the ongoing struggles about Hillsborough. On cue and just as the YNWA tune began to play, the Kop all held up placards thank Everton through a Tifo. Being at the angle I was at, unfortunately, made the design difficult to make out completely.

Blue smoke rising from the Everton fans

Blue smoke rising from the Everton fans after the match

In a new twist to the performances this season, both teams brought smoke bombs for YNWA, a red for the Kop and a blue for the blues. Evertonians actually set off about 5 through the course of the game, and each time stewards attempted to find the source, but as it was occurring in the middle of their section, it was difficult for them to pinpoint an individual. In talking to a steward the next day, she said this is a problem for some of the disabled spectators, who are seated nearby, as some of them have breathing difficulties that are triggered by the smoke.

I’m not actually going to go into the game in much detail, as it was generally regarded by all as a bore draw. For all of the tension that goes into the lead up to that particular fixture, the fans were left disappointed by the actual play of the game. However, if there was one group that was relieved by the outcome it was the police and stewards, who find a bore draw much nicer to deal with than a win, blow out, or controversial game. After the game, I managed to get out to Anfield Rd quickly to watch the toffees (Everton fans) march back to their pubs near Goodison Park. As I stood on the side of the road, listening to the buzz of the police helicopter, the fans continued their chants along the way back, and began to point at the Liverpool supporters along the road chanting, “You’re not from here. You’re not from here.” Again emphasizing the “localness” of their own supporters. Moving down the road, I joined a number of Liverpool fans at The Arkles pub, one of the approximately thirteen pubs in the immediate area where fans gather after the game.

In the hours after the game the pub traffic then generally moves to the downtown core where the blues and reds then mix. This is done with far less animosity than in many other English cities, as many of the supporters come from families with mixed support or friends from either side. There is also the shadow of Hillsborough over the fans in the city. As so many Liverpudlians either knew some one killed or injured in the tragedy, fans from both sides seem to have some accord of respect for each other, and save their more vicious rivalry for the Mancunians, who both sides can agree to hate.

Local is the word that frames discussions around football in this city. Local players such as Gerrard and Carragher are celebrated, and local support is key to both sides (even if Everton claim to be more local) and the impending loss of Everton’s manager after a decade to one of their rivals is a sting for many toffees today (and the source of some Schadenfreude for many reds). Local access to the games is important for fans of both clubs, yet there is also an acknowledgement of the importance that a larger following brings the money required for success on the field. The paradox of local dreams in a global sporting environment.

Wednesday on a Saturday

My original plan was to come to Liverpool for the Merseyside derby on May 4, but a couple of weeks ago the league decided to push the game back a day to put it on “Super Sunday” (the other game on the 5th was Chelsea – Man U). So with an extra day, I had a chance to watch the final day of English Championship Football (the league below Premier League). In checking over the schedule I found that Sheffield Wednesday were at home to Middlesborough, and decided to kill two birds with one stone, as I was already planning to visit Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield as part of my research.

A Sheffield pub in the city centre before the match.

A Sheffield pub in the city centre before the match.

On getting there, I realized how much the game was going to dominate the city that day. Everywhere were the blue and white jerseys of the Owls (Wednesday’s nickname). Walking to the stadium I passed pubs packed with fans getting ready for the game (this is England pubs are generally packed, even in the morning). And there were more and more police as I got closer as well, including mounted unit patrolling around the major entrances and at the Leppings Lane gate, where the visiting fans enter. ALthough I’d seen a handful of ‘boro supporters hanging out around the entrance, I talked to one of the stewards and he told me that they were waiting for 14 coaches of ‘boro fans to arrive. A police escort brought them in a few minutes later and many emerged singing their songs ready for the game. Before going in I got a few good shots of very welcoming signs warning that anyone entering certain sections wearing visiting colours would be asked to leave or expelled from the grounds – they were very clear as to where the ‘boro fans had to sit.

Leppings Lane Entrance for the away fans

Leppings Lane Entrance for the away fans

The Kop filled very quickly prior to the game, they had the banners, but at the very back they also have a brass band and drums played by some of their more fanatic fans throughout the game. Along with the band, the loudspeakers play the Wednesday anthem as the players come out, it’s a ’60s song that has had the chorus lyrics changed to, “Hi Ho Sheffield Wednesday!” Sounds fun with 30,000+ singing along. Songs went on through the whole game, perhaps helped by the first goal a few minutes into the game and then another later in the first half. With it 2-0 a new chant started breaking out around the grounds: “We are staying up! We are staying up!”  And by the end of the game, yet another chant made the rounds for a team that wasn’t even playing that day:

The city is ours, the city is ours,

F*** off United, the city is ours.

This of course would be for their rivals Sheffield United, who play across town.

I noticed in the programme that there was a warning asking all fans to remain in the stands following the conclusion of the match, and starting from the 85th minute there was a very nice voice reminding everyone that they were to stay in the stands following the match. This was at the same time as the Kop started moving right up to the stewards and packing the bottom of the stand – with mostly young males right at the front. At the final whistle, they didn’t even hesitate, they streamed right past the stewards and right at the tunnel. After getting a good video of it all, I headed down and joined them. The way the officials finally managed to restore order and clear the field wasn’t through the stick, but by the carrot, another announcement came on that players would return to the pitch for a tribute to the fans once all fans were back in the stands.

On the tram back into town and through the rest of my day the overwhelming sentiment of those who did not go the game was that it was better that Wednesday won, as it made for a happier bunch of drunks than a loss would have. Wednesday chants continuously broke out around the city and in pubs for the rest of my day there, and even on the train, a good number of riders had been to either that game or another somewhere else in Yorkshire. The whole of Saturday in the country is defined by the games and they are inescapable. Even at 10:30 on the platform in Manchester waiting to catch a train to Liverpool, people were starting football chants and very drunk men were vomiting onto the tracks (being cheered on by friends through a football chant “He pukes when he wants, he pukes when he wants…”).

That was Saturday, and that was Championship. Sunday and the derby was still to come…

AFC Liverpool 1 – 0 Squires Gate

AFC Liverpool CrestThis won’t be your typical match report.

So my first English match was quite an introduction to the game. A short trip out of Liverpool to the town of Prescot to visit Valerie Park, the current home of AFC Liverpool. It isn’t every club where you can get a good chat with the chair of the club just by walking in, but welcome to the 9th tier of English football.

The team is set to finish 11th in the NWCPL – their best ever showing (in five years of play). And the club and its fans have a positive outlook for the future of their club. This is a team that was formed because they felt they were being priced out of Anfield. Rather than retreat to a pub to watch the big games (of course there is still some of that: Barca – Bayern was on at the same time) or to shift to a lower league team, the group got together to form their own club to bring football back to the fans that really wanted to watch the game live. This is what I’m looking for, AFC Liverpool created their own space so that they could be fans on their own terms, this is a supporter owned club for whom space is important.

Not everything is as AFC Liverpool would like it, they don’t have their own grounds at the moment, they currently are in a ground share with Prescot Cables FC from the Evo Stick Northern League (the division above AFC Liverpool), and while the grounds meet their current needs, it isn’t where the heart of the team is. This is a team that dreams of playing within the City of Liverpool rather than the outskirts. The goal of AFC Liverpool have their own ground in the next couple of years. Currently, only two places meet the field requirements of AFC Liverpool: Anfield and Goodison Park. For a football mad city like Liverpool I was rather shocked to find those were the only suitable grounds. Even the youth and ladies teams for Everton and Liverpool FC don’t play at the main stadia, as they are just too big for the requirements of all but the First Squads of the two clubs. Creating a third ground in the city would benefit AFC Liverpool immensely, but would also seem to fill a rather glaring gap in the availability of good football spaces in the city.

The move to the city would have another huge benefit to AFC Liverpool, they are after all called Liverpool, and despite the ease of getting to Prescot (my commute to work in Toronto used to be longer) Prescot is not Liverpool. A move into the city could bring out more fans that just wanted the experience of watching a game. They don’t see themselves as a competitor or replacement for Liverpool FC, just as another form of the football experience. Being in the city is important because they are Liverpool.

As for the actual game itself, there were some interesting dynamics among the fans. It being a small club, most of the fans seem to be regulars who know each other. There is a clubhouse for a pint before the game, with a merchandise table set up inside, and a small concession that sells football food (steak pie, peas, gravy, chip butty, etc.) The attendance of 82 (Valerie Park capacity: 3000) for the game was likely reduced because it was the second of three home games in five nights right at the end of the season, there was little chance that the club would move in the table, and the Champions League semi was on at the same time. Of the 82 I’d say about 10 were Squires Gate fans, and the rest were AFC Liverpool. AFC has taken on many of the symbols of Liverpool, including the all the symbolism around the 96 Liverpool fans killed at Hillsborough in 1989. There were about eight banners up displaying support for AFC Liverpool (none for Squires Gate), but one of the biggest disadvantages of a ground share is that they have little control over what the host club has up for advertising and they can’t promote their own team through signage. But it wasn’t the visuals that allowed the AFC fans to dominate the stands, it was the noise.

In their short history, one of the new traditions of the club has been to bring noisemakers to the matches. You know the birthday party goodie bag toy with a plastic noisemaker that you spin around and it makes an awful racket – likely thrown into the goodie bags of kids who don’t bring a big enough present. AFC Liverpool’s fans have the bazooka version of these made of wood. It is a deafening sound that rattles around the grandstand and its metal roof and is used when a good shot is made, a good defensive play or at times when the team’s energy seems to wane. What started out as one or two guys has now spread into a larger following among the more dedicated fans. It was such an awful racket that it drove the Squires Gate fans from the grandstand at halftime. This is exactly what I wanted to write about, the domination of the space through noise. When you get to Valerie Park on AFC Liverpool’s day bring earplugs, or go stand somewhere else. Of course this is very similar to the vuvuzelas of the last World Cup, and the noisemakers are apparently banned from top level clubs. My guess is that the noisemakers don’t threaten the game itself, but threaten the organization and control of the crowd at the stadium, and by sanitizing the experience, it is easier to control the crowd. In the longer term it makes me wonder about the culture of AFC Liverpool versus Liverpool FC, as AFCL create their own traditions and culture, they will become more distinct from Liverpool’s culture – the evolution of a new fan supporter culture (which you could argue already existed simply by their willingness to follow this club rather than just LFC).

All in all a fun game, and a friendly introduction to the English game, and an even better fit for my thesis than I thought.