SB Nation

Bill Connelly | September 11, 2014

Premier League road trip, Part 4

Liverpool

Bill Connelly spent five days in England to search for the heart of English soccer, compare football crowds to futbol crowds, and figure out why everybody was telling him not to rent a car.

IX. Seven Reactions

Your team, such a pleasant, entertaining surprise last season, was decimated on paper by departures, but it has been superior to last year's league runners-up on the road for a majority of the match. Your crowd has been vocal and entertaining and has far out-performed what so many reflexively call the best fans in the sport. Your Southampton Saints have earned at least a point from their trip to Anfield.

In the 78th minute, however, Southampton has just allowed what will soon become the game-winning goal, a follow-the-bouncing-ball score that eventually went from Raheem Sterling's head to Daniel Sturridge's left toe and into the net. You've gone from thinking realistically about a road upset to talking moral victories.

In the seconds following Sturridge's goal, one could see every possible reaction to sudden disappointment in the Southampton cheering section. Let's follow the numbers above (click on the link for a larger image). If you're a supporter long enough, you go through all of these stages at one point or another, depending on maturity level (or lack thereof), lot in life, etc.

1. Argue with your friends. No idea whether the guy in blue is the aggressor or defender in this exchange, but he was invariably one or the other. When the ball goes in the net, the aggressor immediately lashes out at whichever player was most victimized (in his judgment). The defender defends. We've all heard this argument. Most of us have been a part of it. I once had to help break up a fight between Missouri fans during a road loss.

2. Go comatose. Internalize, internalize, internalize. This usually has an impact on the state of your fingernails. Something bad just happened, and the fans/players you were rooting against are awfully happy. You are quickly reaching resignation, but your head is still spinning a bit. You're also bargaining -- there are still 12+ minutes left, your attack has still looked pretty good, you still have a chance to salvage a draw, but ... shit.

3. Seek iPhone solace. This can go in a few different directions. Either you direct your rage toward Twitter venting, or you measure others' reactions so you don't have to think about your own, or you look desperately for a distraction. Smart phones are godsends for all of these reasons. I have no idea how I directed my disappointment before them; perhaps there's a reason why most of my experiences with No. 1 above happened before they came into my life.

4. Argue with your spouse. This is admittedly not the most common route -- spouses? at a match? -- though one can see an almost surprising number of potential couples in the photo above.

5. Gaze outward. This is on the same branch as No. 2, but with a more wistful, philosophical, experienced tone. Instead of "Dammit," or "We still have a chance," you're thinking more along the lines of "Oh, so it's one of THOSE days." You gaze either forward or upward. This is my most common state of disappointment these days. I've experienced enough frustrating moments; I've had plenty of practice.

6. Comfort others. You care, but you put your arm on the shoulder of someone who cares a bit more. I ... don't really think I've seen much of this one in my sports lifetime.

7. Combust. I originally took this photo because of a young man, probably aged 21-25, who had been a fascinating watch all match long. His emotions were not in any way internalized. When Southampton fans chanted "Is this a library?" early in the match*, he was the one striving to make cocky eye contact with the most possible Liverpool fans. When Liverpool scored the first goal, he was the one warned by security to tone it down after turning purple and shouting at opposing fans. When Southampton evened the match in the second half, he was the one creating a near-dogpile in his section. His friend/caretaker was nearly giving the look of a weary spouse -- "He gets like this sometimes, but he calms down after the match, and he's really a good person, I swear."

I took this photo because I wanted to gauge his mental state in the moments following the goal and, in case of humor, document it. Turns out, he was nowhere to be seen. Either he stormed out of the premises the moment the ball hit the net, he was removed by security, or he spontaneously combusted. His match spouse did not seem particularly concerned about him, but he most assuredly didn't make an appearance the rest of the match.

And hey, we've all been there to some degree. After a particularly annoying basketball loss during my undergrad years, I stormed out of my dorm and walked around campus for 30 minutes, in the snow, in a T-shirt. Rage is its own winter coat.

* It really was jarring how few chants were coming out of the Liverpool stands. Southampton fans, like Derby County fans at Hillsborough the day before, were most entertaining. They chanted constantly, at least until Liverpool took the lead. They came out strong in the second half, then reached fifth gear when the Saints tied the match. They even did their "Saints go marching in" chant again when the match had ended, just to close the proceedings. Liverpool fans obviously brought the heat for "You'll Never Walk Alone" (both before the match and in abbreviated fashion as the match was coming to an end) and erupted after goals, but the incessant chanting really wasn't there. Maybe they were too concerned by the iffy Liverpool squad they were watching? Maybe this is normal?

A goal is magical. Soccer is a game of failure, of almost nothing but misses. You are conditioned to assume that attacks will fail, and when they fail to fail, you sometimes have about a half-second's notice. The result isn't just a "YAAAH!" sound like most touchdowns create. It is a "YAAAH!" combined with the sound an old person makes getting out of a chair, a sort of gutteral "HURRR-AAAAAH!" that is both unique and glorious. It also creates the faces above.

***

EPL The 1989 Hillsborough disaster memorial. (Bill Connelly)

X. Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart

When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of the 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
You’ll never walk alone

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

We sat next to a lovely older gentleman at Anfield. Our first exchange with him:

Lovely Old Man: "Where are you boys from?"
Walsh: "America."
Lovely Old Man: "Obviously, but where?"

(Keep in mind that neither of us had said a word yet since we had found our seats.)

After Walsh explained to him what we were doing and why we were there, his response was simply, "Ah, you went to Sheffield, did you? See the Hillsborough memorial?"

The 1989 Hillsborough disaster is never, ever far from the consciousness of a Liverpool fan, especially an older one.

The 1989 Hillsborough disaster is never, ever far from the consciousness of a Liverpool fan, especially an older one. "Hillsborough" is the first and only word associated with "Sheffield." There are Justice For The 96 stands and booths strewn throughout the area surrounding Anfield. And of course, there are the forever gripping Shankly Gates, which feature the famous "You'll Never Walk Alone" gate and both the actual memorial (a list of names of those who passed) and the makeshift memorial on top of it, with mementos from both victims' families and Anfield visitors. Earlier in this series, we spoke about how your history is never past; nowhere in the world is that more true than in the more red-clad areas of Liverpool.

It is true for any number of reasons. First, Liverpool has one of the most distinct identities of any English city. With identity comes a more tightly knit community. Beyond that, however, was the tragedy itself -- a mix of could-have-happened-to-anybody circumstance and official cruelty/bungling. From the moment the Hillsborough tragedy unfolded, authorities attempted to pin a good portion of blame on rowdy Liverpudlians with a sort of "You know how they can be" nudge that was both unfair and, in this instance, untrue. And in the 25 years that have followed, there has not been any major sense of remorse for that. For so many Liverpool fans simply looking for closure, for acknowledgement of reality, that has been endlessly infuriating.

(Now, one must note that a search for closure is forever incomplete. I witnessed the fallout of the Murrah Building bombing in Oklahoma City up close; victims' families were forever on television professing the need for closure, but no matter what arrests were made, that wasn't going to happen. Whether Tim McVeigh was executed or simply spent life in prison, that wasn't going to happen. Closure only comes with the invention of a time machine. Justice and fairness, however, can and should be delivered. And it obviously hasn't happened as it pertains to Hillsborough.)

Sports are a collection of what would seem to outsiders as strange traditions, customs, and sets of rules. In America, we sing 100-year old fight songs, and bury dead collies near Kyle Field, and scream "War Damn Eagle" in support of a team named the Tigers, and run with a buffalo in Colorado, and dot an "I" with a tuba player, and sailgate in Seattle, and Jump Around in Madison. These things are all great because we decided they should be great.

"You'll Never Walk Alone" began as a similar tradition. It was originally a song written for a Rodgers & Hammerstein play (Carousel), and it was known mostly in the states because Jerry Lewis would sing it at telethons. Liverpool fans began singing it at games 50 years ago thanks to a cover of the song by locals Gerry & the Pacemakers. But after Hillsborough, it took a new, permanent interpretation. And now we view it as one of the signature traditions in sport.

Assign real meaning to sports meaning, and you end up with something that gives you goosebumps that last right up until fans start grumbling about Glen Johnson (which is to say they last until about 30 seconds into the match).

***

XI. Scouse and Arlo

"I can't believe how new this place looks," Walsh says as we move south from Everton's Goodison Road home toward city centre. Port cities are named for an old industry. Everton and Liverpool are among the oldest football clubs in the country. The Beatles were playing at the Cavern Club more than 50 years ago. Basically everything you probably know about Liverpool is based in history instead of the present tense.

It's easy to assume, then, that Liverpool will look and feel like your prototypical old English city. But while there are cracks and creaks if you look for them, Liverpool strikes you as quite a bit younger than, say, Manchester, its neighbor to the east. There is no unified (and old) architecture downtown. The area surrounding downtown has patches of color and uniqueness from block to block. There is a feeling of new and energy around downtown, which is a remarkable feat for a city established in 1207. So many cities are packed tightly together, but each one retains an identity, and Liverpool's is stronger than most, proudly so.

[I]t’s the fans, the people, scousers who make Liverpool the unique beast that it is.

It’s the same with Barcelona, although I’ve never actively supported barca, they are a club who are owned by the people and, and they’re no ordinary people Catalonians, they’re a people shunned due to their proud Catalonian routes and adamant stance that they’re not Spanish. They have their own language, culture and history that they see as unique. Any team with a bit of a chip of their shoulder and also a proud chip that sets them apart is something I’m instantly drawn too.

Scousers have never really seen themselves as English; scousers are scouse first and English second and long may that continue.

With about three hours to go before kickoff at Anfield, we made our first stop just to the north, at Goodison Park. Parking with two wheels on the sidewalk -- as you quickly learn to do in this country -- we did a lap around the house of Liverpool's oldest club*. This was the trip high point for Walsh, a longtime (by American nonpat standards, I guess) Everton fan. Landmarks from Everton's long history (including team pictures of squads that were relegated, which is just mean) trace around a large portion of the stadium's perimeter, and a statue of Dixie Dean, one of the sport's greatest goal scorers (he scored 349 times for Everton from 1925-37 and netted 60 in the 1927-28 season), greets you at the front. The weather was changing its mind every five minutes or so, from sunny and calm, to downpour, to windy-as-Western-Oklahoma. I assumed this was pretty normal for a port city situated like this one, but even locals seemed rather impressed by the stiffness of the wind and the heaviness of the rain.

* One of my favorite club football stories is that of Everton moving out of Anfield because of a rent dispute, then watching as a new club sprouted up in the stadium after they moved across Stanley Park. This is fun, not only because one would typically assume that the club with the city in its name came first, but also because you now literally have two major-league clubs separated by a few hundred yards of grass and trees. Iron Bowl, UK-style. Same beautifully petty bickering, only with fewer poisoned trees.

From Goodison Park, we headed south toward city centre, managing to disobey the Garmin and stumble into Anfield gameday traffic. That the neighborhood was that packed and excited nearly three hours before kickoff set the bar unattainably high for the Anfield crowd itself.

We made a stop at the adjoining Everton and Liverpool team stores -- Everton so Walsh could try to resist buying every shirt in the store, Liverpool because I wanted to buy a windbreaker for the game (Walsh couldn't bring himself to wear anything red, but he dutifully wore something neutral and black instead).

It was at this point that I felt like a complete whore -- buying a Liverpool rain jacket, wearing a Sheffield Wednesday pullover, holding an Everton bag (with T-shirt inside), and having a Nottingham Forest pocket schedule fall out of my wallet as I reached for my credit card. This was no time for self-pity, however; it was time to meet Neil.

epl
Goodison Park. (Getty Images)

Neil Atkinson's name is the first listed on the Anfield Wrap masthead. The site he graces is part podcast, part e-magazine, part radio show. It is all red, but it dips all of its toes into music and culture at large. As the head of such an eclectic, interesting site, Neil is the type who can get away with telling us he's wearing an "Electric blue jumper, maroon shirt underneath" when we're looking for him at Ship & Mitre off of city centre. Neither electric blue nor maroon are part of Liverpool's color scheme, but it doesn't really matter.

Neil played the role of dutiful host, buying us our first drink at Ship & Mitre and filling us in on when and where to get a cab. He and his buddies gossiped and laughed and tended to their phones when the official lineups for the day were announced. He offered us lovely options for listening to live music (his or others') after the game, and we desperately wanted to take him up on the offer. Judging by the ridiculous, inexplicable traffic we hit on the way from Liverpool to Birmingham, however, it's good that we left when we did. Besides, we had a post-match date of our own.

Arlo White has gone from cricket announcer, to voice of the MLS' Seattle Sounders, to No. 1 announcer for NBC Sports' Premier League coverage in a short time by announcer standards. Dapper, blessed with a perfect announcer voice, and still rather young, he could be calling matches for a few more decades if he so chooses.

He's also ridiculously nice; he met with us outside of the Shankly Gates following Liverpool-Southampton, and he offered to drive us back to city centre until we finally got him to admit that it was quite a bit out of his way to do so. (At one point, he also apologized to Walsh, the Everton fan, for his Leicester club's late draw against the Toffees.)

Thanks to recent experience, White is uniquely positioned to have solid, smart opinions on both English soccer and the MLS. (He raved, raved about Seattle and its fans.) We talked about both.

Bill Connelly: In your mind, what club could most easily become a member of the sport's ruling class with the right money, decision-making, etc.?

Arlo White: The key words in your question are the "right money." Fans of my generation and earlier remember Manchester City and Chelsea as decent sized clubs who had rich histories and won some significant trophies, but who spent significant time outside of the top flight. Both were established Premier League clubs at the time of their takeovers but certainly weren't the market leaders. The enormous investment that both clubs have enjoyed has improved their fortunes on the field, massively expanded their global fan bases and changed the entire landscape of English Football.

When a club emerges more organically to challenge the established giants, as Southampton did last season, the success is often fleeting, as their squad is subsequently pillaged by the big boys. There is hope for Southampton, however. They appear to have bought well during the offseason and still have talented players to come off their youth programme conveyor belt. But sustaining the quality of their challenge will be very difficult over the course of the next five years.

"If I were a billionaire with a burning desire to take an English club, I would look at a few below the established order, that have terrific fan bases."

If I were a billionaire oligarch with a burning desire to take an English club to the summit of the Premier League, I would look at a few below the established order, that have terrific fan bases. Newcastle United and Leeds United are good sized clubs, with healthy support. They are also the only clubs in their respective cities. If not them, then Aston Villa, the largest club in England's so called 'second city' of Birmingham.

Now, if I were a sadist and really fancied a challenge, I'd rock up at Hillsborough and buy Sheffield Wednesday. The potential for a Sheffield super club is enormous.

For all its faults, I love English Football. The system impairs our ability to produce a successful national team, but where else in the world do fans flock in such numbers to watch their local team, in all four divisions? Just last weekend, Coventry City drew over 27,000 to a League One game. Admittedly, they were returning home after a damaging spell in exile, but where else in the world do 27,000 people turn up at a division 3 game?

To my mind there are the Premier League super clubs: Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs & Everton. Below that you can add Villa and Newcastle (even they were relegated recently). But below that, there are 30 odd teams from similar sized towns and cities across the country who will continually switch places between the Premier League, the Championship, and quite often, League One. Southampton, Norwich, Leicester, Nottingham Forest, Ipswich, Derby, Sheffield United, Middlesbrough, Birmingham City, Wolves, Bolton, Stoke, Swansea, Cardiff, the list goes on. All average crowds of between 15,000 and 25,000 in the Championship, and would sell-out (25,000 to 35,000) in the Premier League. It's so fiercely competitive and incredibly exciting.

For England to be more successful as an international side, the system might have to change, but I'm not sure the appetite is there to do away with four divisions, where hundreds of thousands of fans follow clubs of varying sizes all across the country.

BC: What does MLS need to do to further improve its overall product? Is further expansion (without promotion and relegation) the answer? Does the way teams acquire players need tweaking to assist with depth?

AW: I think MLS has begun a new, exciting era. There was a period of consolidation following the worrying contraction just over a decade ago. Stadiums were built and successful expansion was achieved in places like Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and Philadelphia. Unfortunately, the TV ratings have remained somewhat flat, so the league have prioritised improving the quality of play. That takes serious money to achieve, some of which has been raised through enormous franchise fees from the likes of New York City FC and Orlando, and some through an improved TV deal.

When I started working in MLS, David Beckham was the big star and earned a fantastic salary compared to the rest of the league. Now, clubs like Seattle, the New York Red Bulls, and Toronto FC are paying eye-watering sums to Dempsey, Martins, Henry, Cahill, Bradley, Defoe. I watch the Sounders as closely as I can on TV here, and I think the investment is paying off for them. They deserve enormous credit for not sitting on their profits but striving to be better.

"sport in the United States is structured in a completely different way. The whole concept of promotion and relegation is completely alien."

Promotion and relegation would certainly create more interest, but it's problematic. There is a desire amongst some MLS and US American Soccer fans to adhere to the systems familiar throughout the football world, but let's face it, sport in the United States is structured in a completely different way. There are divisions, conferences, play-offs and a winner-takes-all final. The whole concept of promotion and relegation is completely alien.

In addition, which prospective owner in their right mind would pay Major League Soccer a franchise fee of between $50-100M only to have the spectre of relegation to an MLS second division constantly hanging over them? Even if the League exempted them for a period after coming into the league, clubs would still be vulnerable to relegation under a single-entity system which champions parity.

I don't pretend to understand the myriad complex and, it seems, often flexible rules governing player signings. I once had a loose grip on the notion of allocation money, but I might have forgotten the specifics. The system seems impenetrable to the average fan, so I look forward to a reset of sorts to make it easier to grasp. Let's untangle the web a little.

I would love to see the Fire playing in front of 40,000 fans each week at Soldier Field. Chivas USA being re-branded -- the L.A. Aztecs, anyone? -- and playing in a new Stadium elsewhere in LA. Hopefully NYCFC get a stadium of their own sooner rather than later, as they could be a massive addition to the league.

But I'm enjoying this phase of MLS growth. I think Don Garber has steered the ship very skilfully. The future, with a few tweaks and a continued ambition, is very bright for the league.

After meeting with Arlo, we caught a cab back downtown. Dropped off on John Street, near the Cavern Club, we were immediately met by a larger gentleman who heard our accents and offered an immediate survey of the area. "That way," he said, pointing down toward Lord Street and the major shopping areas, "is posh. That way," pointing past the Cavern Club and toward the live music area, "is for the cokeheads."

We settled for coffee on our way out of town.


Previously:
Part 1: Nerds and Ian Darke
Part 2: NOTTINGHAM, DIRTY LEEDS, AND REGULARS AT THE HOTEL BAR
Part 3: Etihad, odds and ends, and Hi Ho Sheffield Wednesday
Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Spencer Hall | Title Photo: Getty Images

About the Author

Bill Connelly grew up a fan of the Miami Dolphins (post-1970s glory), Pittsburgh Pirates (ditto), Portland Trailblazers (ditto again) and Missouri Tigers. That he still enjoys sports at all shows both severe loyalty and a potential personality disorder. He spends his evening playing with excel sheets and watching DVR'd football games from ESPN Classic. See more of his work at Rock M Nation, Football Outsiders and Football Study Hall.

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