Friday 28 October 2016

Dion Fanning: Love is in the Ayre while Liverpool fans remain hopelessly devoted to change

Dion Fanning

Published 14/02/2016 | 14:00

Cartoonist: Tom Halliday
Cartoonist: Tom Halliday

In the time when they used to have big European games at Anfield, it became customary to see the directors and supporters of the visiting club taking pictures of the Kop as they sang 'You'll Never Walk Alone'.

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Shortly after Jurgen Klopp arrived at Liverpool, he set out to strengthen the connection between the players and fans.

In their statement last week when they reversed their ticket price rises for next season, Liverpool's owners said that the "unique and sacred relationship between Liverpool Football Club and its supporters has always been foremost in our minds. It represents the heartbeat of this extraordinary football club".

Klopp believed that supporters of a club can make a difference to what happens on the field. The sense that a football club is just a stopping off point for a modern footballer, a cashpoint while he plans his next move, could be countered to some degree by the electrifying presence of supporters in the ground who provide a sense of permanence.

These days the atmosphere at Anfield can be as electrifying as watching James Milner play football, but still the Premier League depends on supporters to provide a lot of what makes it special.

Despite the arrival of players from around the world, the football in England remains reckless and chaotic, as the players respond to the desire of the crowd for something to happen, to run and to tackle, to give the ball away so that they can cheer when it is won back.

At Anfield, the connection between supporters and the club has always been seen as something more profound, and it is marketed as such. When Liverpool play in Australia or Malaysia, tens of thousands of supporters sing 'You'll Never Walk Alone' as if they are committing to some holy bond. And where there is commitment, in the modern world, there is the opportunity to monetise that commitment.

These are market forces at work, some say, and we should let the forces do their thing. Maybe we could all hail market forces if we knew there was a true market, but since 2008, it has been easy to be suspicious of the marketplace.

While the market was bullish, the entrepreneurial spirit thrived, but when it took a turn another force emerged, one which looked a lot like state intervention and subsidy. Profits were for the entrepreneur, the visionary and the risk-taker, but the losses would be shared by everyone. Everyone except the risk-taker.

We learned then about privatising profit and socialising loss. In this world of capitalism which isn't really capitalism, there has been a rise in the counterpoint: direct action and mobilisation through social media, tactics which recognise that, in a world where banks are bailed out with taxpayers' money, the public have been fooled into thinking the market would always provide a necessary corrective. When it suited some, the market could be overruled so it is not a surprise that fans are now acting as if the market should be overruled too.

Liverpool has plenty of experience of direct action. The credit crunch came to town in the form of Hicks and Gillett, and a fanbase that was mobilised to drive them away remained in place for a situation exactly like the one which arose when Liverpool announced their new ticket prices.

The club's chief executive Ian Ayre delivered a characteristically inept message on the day before the supporters' protest, dressing down in V-neck jumper and T-shirt as if to signify that the time for corporate bullshit had stopped.

Maybe it is his cunning in the transfer market which makes Ayre such a vital presence at Anfield. Last month, he flew to Florida to conclude a deal for Alex Teixeira who subsequently decided to further his career with Jiangsu Suning in China. A couple of years ago, Ayre had a bewildering few days in Ukraine which ended with the failure to sign Yevhen Konoplyanka. He did, however, return from Chile last summer having signed Roberto Firmino. The club could also monetise this aspect of his role by setting up the equivalent of a Santa Tracker on their website. This would let the fans know where Ayre was in the world at any time, they could follow his movements from airport to negotiating table, and brace themselves for any subsequent disappointment.

Liverpool backed down last week, but not before the supporters provided a glimpse of what might be coming next.

In becoming a global phenomenon, the Premier League is a true capitalist success story, but it has also had an advantage not available to someone operating in a genuinely free market.

Marketing departments at clubs wholeheartedly embrace the idea that a fan can't change his football club. Who wouldn't love an idea like that? If the customer isn't going to go anywhere else is he really a customer at all? Once again market forces seem to only work one way. 'This bird will never be my ex,' is the crass slogan beside a picture of the Liver bird on a T-shirt sold through Liverpool's website. Last weekend FSG were reminded of the methods fans must use if they are to overcome this inelasticity.

FSG hastily altered a slogan from their own website which said that they were transforming "fans into customers". There was much indignation at the idea that football fans would be seen as customers, but it was hard to understand why.

Football fans have always been held in contempt by clubs. For decades, they accepted the dangerous conditions in which they watched football matches as the lot of the working man. They were fans then, not customers, hopelessly devoted fans who were viewed as necessary encumbrances to a club.

In England, that has changed. Supporters can enjoy fine facilities in many grounds, but they must accept other indignities. Matches will be rescheduled for television so that supporters at the FA Cup final can savour the thousands of bathrooms at Wembley, but be forced to miss the last train home.

They are fans, trapped by loyalty and their determination that the club which functions in a modern world still has a connection to what it once was.

If the Premier League is to look to the past, it could remember a world where the customer was seen as important. There was a time when the customer was treated with respect and their loyalty was valued. Today so many businesses see them as dupes to be shaken down, clowns they can put on hold for hours while their concerns are not taken seriously.

In other words, the customer has been transformed into a fan, frustrated and helpless. But the tv deal has changed everything. Last week was an indication that the revolution in the stands will be led by fans transforming themselves once more. And when the visiting supporters turn their cameras towards the Kop, the revolution will once again be televised.

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