Monday 23 October 2017

Vincent Hogan: Liverpool's future must stay true to the socialist heart that ennobles their city

Liverpool co-owner John Henry (Getty Images)
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Turning onto Randolph Street on our walk up from The King Harry, it loomed over the tiny terraced houses like a giant, glassy mall, dwarfing surrounding curio shops.

Scouse scorn quickly intercepted the reflex to gape. "Suppose they'll be handing out binoculars for those up the back!" snapped a sheet-pale wraith, pipe-cleaner skinny and with a snake tattoo climbing out from under his collar.

The new main stand at Anfield towers above its community, shrinking everything beneath into a kind of tatty Legoland. Even half-dressed, it already looks magnificent.

And, in a sense, it contextualises how Liverpool is a club playing catch-up with the game's moneyed giants now.

The old main stand squats tight underneath, no higher or grander to look at today than a bus terminal. You wonder how this place ever held such terror for the great houses of European football.

A common refrain today holds that the atmosphere at Anfield is dying. And it felt that way on Thursday night, only the visiting Augsburg fans audibly energised by the novelty (for them) of involvement in the Europa League.

They bounced and sang and chanted at the Anfield Road End, suspending their exuberance only for the pre-game rendition of You'll Never Walk Alone which they seemed to recognise more as a sacred psalm than a football anthem.

In the distance, the Kop sounded subdued, faintly pre-occupied even.

The club is at a curious point of intersection here. Fenway Sports Group have been relatively decent owners, making good on their promise to develop the stadium and securing the services of a revered manager whose personality seems perfect for his audience.

But they still approach every transfer window like hagglers at a flea market, and their recent attempt to hike ticket prices left them with a deservedly bloodied nose.

Now, at least, they know that hoodwinking the people is easier said than done here.

This is a city with form, a place that doesn't meekly roll over to government or judiciary or, now, naked corporatism simply because that's what working-class communities are expected to do.

Margaret Thatcher bit off more than she could chew with Liverpool. The South Yorkshire police had their lies eventually stuffed back down their throats.

There is a socialist heart to the city that makes it hard-nosed and mouthy, combative, viciously quick-witted. And, of course, it doesn't forget.

Just last weekend, Mark Lawrenson triggered a furious social media reaction for being pictured holding The Sun newspaper during filming for the BBC's Football Focus.

Lawrenson subsequently issued a statement to the Liverpool Echo, declaring: "There was no way I knew it was The Sun until it was too late, else I wouldn't have gone near it."

It was easy to believe him.

Liverpool stood up for the dead and the bereaved after Hillsborough with a rigour and stamina that will forever ennoble its people. Liverpool the city, that is.

Red and blue united in a search for truth that only now, more than a quarter of a century on, has found coherent acceptance.

But you try to imagine this place without the commerce and comforts of football and what forms in the mind is starkly unromantic.

Because game-day distorts the truth here. It imparts glamour to an unglamorous reality.

One in four Liverpool households has nobody in work and, for more than a decade, the city has been listed as one of Britain's worst five unemployment blackspots.

And Fenway imagined they could make a quick buck here.

It makes you wonder how can you trust them to get the big things right when they got such a simple fundamental so terribly wrong.

All that uproar, the black flags, the 77th-minute walk-out against Sunderland, the "greedy bastards" roars declaring a gulf-like separation between owner and supporter. . . all of that was for £2m.

A risibly petty act of misjudgement by one of the richest clubs in world football.

You can just about accept that John Henry and Tom Werner still don't fully know their audience, that running Liverpool from a desk in Boston leaves them susceptible to sporadic outbreaks of dimness.

But Ian Ayre? The home-spun chief executive who, pointedly, dressed down to address supporters, while warning them that they ought to be careful what they wished for? What was his excuse?

Fenway are business people and business people are opportunists. They remain aloof from the concept of unwavering devotion to any product, any cause. Because markets change and, with them, profit opportunities travel.

Accordingly, Henry and Werner find little communion with the working-class season-ticket holder whose commitment here is an expression of life faith.

Something that, in business, would be ruinous.

They're more interested in me, the relatively well-heeled long-distance supporter. The once-a-year devotee. They know they can charge me £77 tomorrow for a ticket that was £59 yesterday and, chances are, I won't equivocate.

In a business where demand so relentlessly outweighs supply, Fenway grew anxious at what they saw as easy money slipping through their fingers.

With the new stand due to open in August, their ticket income was already guaranteed to rise from £35m to £37m. A deal on naming rights for the stand is reputedly close to agreement too.

Given the great, ever-expanding lake of TV money flowing in from Sky and BT, did they really have to go after the supporters for more?

Rather than have Ayre beat that shallow drum for those £9 tickets (of which just under 1,600 per season would be available out of a total 900,000), could they not have recognised that, long-term, Liverpool might profit more from making the game cheaper to their people, from having the stadium louder, from striving to retain a proper football ground as distinct from a tourists' curiosity?

Over on Blessington Road, they have posters of Jurgen Klopp up on the The King Harry's walls, declaring simply 'Keep Calm and Believe in this Man!' There is palpable affection for the German, even if his team still lacks compelling impetus. For now, the important thing is that his charisma inspires hope.

And that hope carries them to Wembley tomorrow, where Liverpool will have the rare enough responsibility of playing in front of their owners.

Win or lose, the supporters will make their voices heard. Their glory is they always have done.

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