This 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.