Analysis: Progressive Liverpool making up ground after the club's shameful role in local dereliction
Throughout Tuesday's exhilarating Champions League night at Anfield, when Roma were overpowered by Jürgen Klopp's resurgent Liverpool, there was an irresistible sense of a whole football club, not just a team, coming to fruition.
Eight years after the Boston Red Sox owners, Fenway Sports Group, bought Liverpool and cleared the £200m debt from the dismal 2007 acquisition by Tom Hicks and George Gillett, the club have been greatly renewed. Their old ground, in which supporters' songs recall European adventures under Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley, has been transformed by the booming new £114m main stand and the strolling and shopping space outside that was claimed around it.
It may seem an odd fate for the few people who were left in Lothair Road and one side of Alroy Road after 20 years of shocking blight, to be moved and the three rows knocked down to make way for that space, but Liverpool have done it up tastefully. It is not all about the new corporate areas and megastore and the Hilton hotel shortly expected to be announced; the memorial to the 96 people killed at Hillsborough 29 years ago is a centrepiece outside the stand.
Step outside these expanded environs into the Anfield neighbourhood, where the club itself played a shameful part in the dereliction, buying up houses and leaving them empty for years, and much of the blight has finally been addressed. The terraced rows previously "tinned up" have mostly been refurbished by landlords including the YHG housing association which owns 92 houses. The private developer Keepmoat has built 400 new homes with more planned, some on land where previous terraces, 238 houses in total, were demolished. Liverpool City Council was able to lever in £25m from its capital programme - it is suffering existential government cuts to its annual revenue budget - and the Homes and Communities Agency contributed £10m.
The Homebaked bakery, a community co-operative, does a thriving trade in Shankly pies and other treats and has advanced plans to develop the empty houses on its row. A new parade of shops and food outlets is planned to replace the tired buildings on Walton Breck Road, where the Hillsborough Justice Campaign shop is based.
The club have heeded calls for better relations by setting up the 'red neighbours' scheme, providing community activities including a breakfast club for disadvantaged children, school visits and space in the Kenny Dalglish Stand to host events.
Ann O'Byrne, Liverpool's deputy mayor and cabinet member for regeneration, recalls the seething anger she found among residents when her local Labour party won a majority on the council in 2010 and pledged to reverse the area's decline: "We talk about neighbours, and Liverpool Football Club needs to be a good neighbour as well," she says. "People are still annoyed with the club after what they suffered but the club has stepped up. They have built a relationship; tensions are still there but not that pathological hatred of the club."
Yet the contrasts in Anfield and neighbouring Everton are still alarming, between the city's Premier League institutions and the poverty around them. Liverpool made £364m in revenues last year and a £40m profit, boosted by the first season of main stand corporate subscribers, while Everton at the cramped Goodison Park still made £222m, including a £52m profit on trading players.
The numbers for the areas around them are more dispiriting: 11 of the neighbourhoods are among the most deprived one per cent in England. In Anfield 43 per cent of children live in poverty, according to the latest assessment cited by the council; in Everton 49 per cent of children were in poverty. Life expectancy is six and a half years lower than the national average of 81 and 32 per cent of children growing up neighbouring the club of Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino were overweight, 10 per cent higher than the national average.
Jim Lawless, 70, and his daughter Jayne, 43, have lived through the traumas. A civil engineer, Jim bought his fine family home in Everton in 1974 but as houses fell empty and tinned up around them, his wife, Liz, became depressed and they moved, to Tancred Road, a few streets from Anfield's main stand. "We jumped from one hell hole to the club's mess, from one fight to another," he grimaces. "It was pretty catastrophic."
Jim acknowledges there has been "radical improvement" to the area, greatly reducing the blight, since FSG opted to scrap the club's previous plan to build a new stadium on Stanley Park, got on with the main stand project and the housing regeneration began. Jayne says the wounds remain from so many years of misery, including the £30,000 charge now on the new family home after they were forced to move from Everton.
Another sore, which pains them and others, is the loss of the Vernon Sangster sports centre, which was demolished to prepare Stanley Park for Hicks' and Gillett's stadium. A high-quality sports facility was promised for the new ground but, as the plans were scrapped, nothing materialised. Jayne recalls "the Verny" as a hub for youngsters when she grew up, remembering roller discos, trampolining and summer clubs alongside regular sport. "This is our biggest issue now," Jim Lawless says. "We've got no facilities for the kids. You've got billionaires looking over Stanley Park. The club took one facility away. They should build a replacement."
The club and council point to the investment in facilities along the road at the Anfield Sports and Community Centre, formerly a youth club to which the Vernon Sangster operation was relocated. Marie Rooney, the centre's manager, puts the development at £5.5m, from the council, Sport England, Football Foundation and Liverpool, whose foundation is based there, as is the Hillsborough Family Support Group office. A 2011 council feasibility study concluded that another sports facility in Anfield would not have enough use to be sustainable.
But Ian Byrne, a local resident, committee member of the Spirit of Shankly supporters' trust and co-founder of Fans Supporting Foodbanks, argues there is an urgent need for more community facilities. "It is low expectations to think kids here can't have more amenities," he says. "A tiny percentage of the club's revenues could build something very valuable for the community."
In the absence of a commitment from Liverpool, Byrne and others are exploring the possibilities for a facility on one of the area's cleared sites, on Priory Road. The council is supportive but does not have the money to build anything itself.
Before Tuesday's European Champions League semi-final Byrne and his fellow volunteers stationed their foodbank van, by agreement with the club, opposite the Anfield Road stand for donations. He is grateful for the club's support but alarmed at the demand: in Anfield and Everton 1,888 people needed the free food last year, including 755 children. Like many still recovering from a 20-year nightmare, Byrne is grateful for what the club do now and believes they could contribute more.
Whatever Liverpool do in this period of their reawakening under a charismatic manager and competent US owners, their stadium will remain unsettling outside, an epitome of Britain's inequality. Owned by billionaires, fielding multimillionaire players, Anfield is a magnet for corporate customers while, in the car park opposite, fans are asked to donate food for the many people in the locality without enough to eat.
Sunday Indo Sport