Tuesday 23 October 2018

Ewan MacKenna: Mix of passion and compassion has made Liverpool one of the few truly likeable football clubs

Liverpool celebrate reaching the Champions League Final, with a banner for fan Sean Cox during the UEFA Champions League, Semi Final, Second Leg at the Stadio Olimpico, Rome. Steven Paston/PA Wire
Liverpool celebrate reaching the Champions League Final, with a banner for fan Sean Cox during the UEFA Champions League, Semi Final, Second Leg at the Stadio Olimpico, Rome. Steven Paston/PA Wire
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

There's so much to dislike about elite modern soccer that in giving only a small sample, there's still no time to waste...

Manchester City and their PR documentaries as if taking inspiration from 'A Burns For All Seasons' at the Springfield Film Festival.

Paris Saint-Germain pretending theirs is a project that is special and exciting, rather than grimy and wrong.

Barcelona's 'Mais Que Um Clube' nonsense that's swallowed whole so often.

Bayern Munich acting as if they are different due to their membership, when they'd have long been bankrupt without the same lifeline to the cash of big business.

Chelsea's tiny flags on plastic sticks masquerading as atmosphere.

Real Madrid.

It goes on...

Players' covering their mouths when talking. Players' holding their hands behind their backs in a show of respect and restraint as they chest barge and abuse referees. Dubbed Champions League press conferences where a translator with the most extreme voice inflections tries to make a manager's mundane quotes insightful and dramatic. Half and half jerseys. Identikit bowl stadia becoming destinations for tourists and customers, rather than homes for fans. The military creeping in. Eastern Europe's greats being priced out.

And on...

The faux show of decency when not celebrating against old clubs as demonstrated by James Rodriguez midweek. Mo Salah's image rights with a telecommunications company threatening to derail Egypt's World Cup to the point it would have Mick McCarthy thinking Roy Keane was correct. Dele Alli streaming himself playing video games with many thousands watching. This Jose Mourinho.

Finally... Breadth...

Not long ago, Liverpool would've slotted into the midst of that lot, snug as a glove, for reasons both wrong and right, both petty and perturbing. Growing up in a certain generation in Ireland they were the team of sheep. Leeds came before them, Manchester United after them, and they carried on with an arrogance that ought to have evaporated, and a desperate and needy sense of entitlement that explained why it ought to have evaporated. Off-putting while irrelevant was some feat.

The guys at the top and bottom of our housing estate in Athy cheered them on religiously, like so many others trying to sell their support as being about the Irish connection when it was likely about winning. Granted, they could be easily wound up with a simple reminder that if it was about that Irish connection, then Everton would be better suited - after all, Liverpool was actually founded not only by a staunch Conservative and a Freemason at a time of troublesome Irish immigration as he saw it, but by a member of the Orange Order. This was usually ignored via boasts their club was just different.

As time passed and football changed though, it became clear that in many of the worst ways they weren't different at all. They were another ruthless business veneered and sold as something better.

For instance, in 2013, the excellent David Conn of The Guardian exposed the behavior of the previous owners in their attitude to those all around them. Buying up houses to expand Anfield, they left them abandoned as a waiting game drove down prices while those in the community saw it crumble. One residence was set alight with smoke seeping in on top of the elderly couple next door; locals told of three burnt to death on one occasion; on another occasion a prostitute renting a place there was murdered.

Recently though Conn went back and updated his story. It's an asterisk beside anything they achieve, a shadow over them, and it won't go away until everything is done to put right each wrong. But while not all has changed, it has started, and in this sphere all little wins are welcome.

Maybe that's part of the reason; maybe it's because enough time has passed since youth and now there are new generations wearing Chelsea and Manchester City jerseys to the point you are left yearning for some makey-uppy link rather than a club pitched to children as if no more than Apple or Samsung accessories; maybe they've been also-rans for long enough for old grudges to go away.

But even at that, there's more to it as lately it's started to feel like Liverpool no longer slotted into to all that is murky and nasty with elite soccer. Suddenly they seem a likable club, on the pitch for chaotic entertainment, but for reasons far greater and far beyond that.

* * *

It's usually as healthy as it is easy to be cynical and snarky in this society. Yet it was hard to be when Liverpool hung a St Peter's, Dunboyne GAA jersey in the Anfield dressing room last Saturday, and when Jordan Henderson wrote a heartfelt letter to the club after the injuries inflicted on their former chairman Seán Cox that sees him remain at Walton Neurological Centre on Merseyside.

This wasn't some immoral attempt to use tragedy as a marketing play. It felt good because crucially it felt real. "Sincere and genuine solidarity," is what Dunboyne's current chairman Fergus McNulty tells us.

If you talk to people in the Meath town, the image they portray of Cox quickly becomes that of a salt-of-the-earth, sports-mad organiser. With their third team on the ropes, it was his idea to use it as a bridge between minor and senior, introducing teenagers to adult football via that Junior C group when it was on the verge of extinction. One person recalls how, having been a selector with their previous minor champions in 2002, Cox had their new victors in 2014 go over and shake hands as a nod to the past.

"Inclusive, very aware of history, and of the need for respect."

There was his work in establishing their women's set-up. And then there was the golf outings, the many trips to Anfield, and his efforts in the athletics' club that got him as far as 10-kilometre races lately.

All that is a million miles from the zenith of sport. And you're right, what Liverpool and Henderson did was small and should be a reflex. But it's not anymore and such is the disconnect between the ego and euros of high-end competition and Cox's earthy efforts, to create that connection was a wonderful and important throwback.

There've been others instances and gestures that weren't so publicised as if proof of their integrity and their meaning. The talk is of the importance of former Times journalist Tony Barrett going into Liverpool as a supporter liaison and recently he received an email from these shores regarding a sick child that was a big fan of the club. Before long both her and her family were brought over to meet the players in one of those tiny but brilliant breaks from the unimaginable grip of true illness.

But to be honest, that was just the confirmation of this Liverpool, as the hints had been there for a little while now. Indeed a few weeks back, it was impossible for old-school raw passion not to catch the eye as Manchester City snaked towards Anfield.

Immediately the reaction to any praise of Liverpool fans that night was met with abuse, as if it were a hat-tip to a handful of idiots who'd chucked cans and bottles at a bus in an incident that was blown way out of proportion. But condemnation of the few can still sit beside high praise for the many.

Liverpool's fans and their influence can be and is often overstated. How regularly do you hear about the Kop singing being worth a goal; and how often have you heard about it in defeat? But this was different. In the sanitised, stainless steel world of the Premier League, shows like that were supposed to have been stamped out. In this era, prawn sandwiches had become snacks for the cheap seats but here was a combination of the pride of place and an the outlet for anger in society all coming together under the umbrella of a game that meant more. You can laugh that some people take sport too seriously, but the reality is for many, it's their only escape.

Many of those same fans of course have been working away, burrowing progressively towards a better past. Under Tom Hicks and George Gillett, Liverpool had become everything they feared but rather than break away and start a new team down the ladder, where soccer is as it was supposed to be, they wouldn't back off. In early 2008 a group of supporters got together and formed the Spirit of Shankly group and after achieving many aims, and even under new ownership, they still work away to revive his socialist values.

In fairness, as communistic as it seems for the voice of the people to be heard, those ultra-capitalists on the top have to want to listen. One insider at the club points to the chairman Tom Werner on this front, and even above him Liverpool have been relatively lucky with John Henry's ownership. A friend who is a journalist in the States but also a Boston Red Sox fan replied to a query about how he is viewed there with, 'I owe a debt to that owner every bit as large as City fans do to the Sheikh.' As a contrast though, he did point to how Henry renamed Yawkey Street beside Fenway Park because of racist allegations surrounding their former owner.

In another email he added on Henry: 'He's nerdy and reserved, but very self-confident and unafraid to take risks. People in Boston mostly think highly of him, recognise what he did in terms of the team and also the stadium, which was built in 1912. They refurbished it and continue to squeeze every last dime out of it. Nationally, I think people see him as an excellent owner dedicated to building the team first. More locally, some of their PR is a little over the top, but it is definitely a well-run organisation and there is little they won’t do to make sure it's a winning team.'

But in terms of Liverpool winning – or more precisely how they've won while being the great entertainers due to that defence – is only part of what's changed. Seán Cox for instance can be rightly excited that they've made a Champions League final. But he can be properly proud of what his club have shown themselves to be along the journey there.

Online Editors

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport