As football returns to Merseyside after a three month hiatus, stadiums will remain silent. But away from the pitch, fans and football community groups have tackled the health crisis head on in a display of the game being something bigger, something ‘more’.
It’s been over three months since a football crowd was audible on Merseyside. It’ll be considerably more time before we hear another. Even for those who prescribe to the idea that the atmosphere and energy of the footballing terraces of L4 are like no other, this picture has long since faded.
Both Anfield and Goodison have sat in a purgatorial state of pending for 12 weeks. But as the shutters on local businesses begin to lift, there’ll be no movement at either ground’s turnstiles. Only echoes fill the stands, like energetic flickers from three months prior refusing to be snuffed of their last breath – a spectral haunt of the former occupant. The shushing, “Is this a library?” chanting day trippers finally got their wish. But they never wished for this.
Liverpool’s last game, under the lights at Anfield on 11th March against the visiting Atletico Madrid, was the last on Merseyside and one of disappointment. But one that grew in magnitude in the following days. Not only did it spell the end for the team’s Champions League defence, but it further derailed their attempt at a first league title in 30 years and proved catastrophic for the overall health of the city. It’ll be difficult to quantify how many lives were lost to Covid-19 due to the game going ahead. The realities are bleak.
That night the football season ended. Three months later, however, the top flight appears to have pulled off the impossible in resurrecting it – a haunted zombie football, full of eerie barks and drained emotion. “It’s aliveee,” you can almost hear Martin Tyler hysterically babble as he salivates over the glimpse of 22 men returning to the pitch.
But even as football in Merseyside was in stasis, nationally it assumed the role of the political football. Go back to March and Matt Hancock was first to stick in a lazy tackle, suggesting footballers part with their earnings to help the NHS. Marcus Rashford has since made a mockery of Hancock and the rest of his party with his campaign to reverse their decision to end free school meals for the summer. Dominic Raab stuck the boot in next, alluding to the idea that the return of live football on TV would lift the national mood. The same footballers Hancock derided were now expected to take to the field and distract from the UK’s shameful death count from Covid-19.
(Photo: John Johnson)
“It is a very narrow understanding of sport if you think by putting sport on TV you can lift people’s spirits when thousands of people have died,” says Wirral South MP Alison McGovern, Labour’s shadow minister for sport. “It is an extraordinary thing to say when the most important thing the government should focus on is people’s health,” she adds, though the Foreign Secretary is outdoing himself these days. Maybe he thinks the canned crowd noise ‘thing’, playing over current televised games, seems to be from Friends, or perhaps Fresh Prince Of Bel Air.
Football and politics have been an uneasy marriage since the capitalist explosion of the Premier League, even if the politicisation of the terrace hasn’t always been the most prevalent. But perhaps the rocky relationship is more evident in Merseyside than anywhere, where adhering to socialism is a tacit expectation rather than option.
As the financial repercussions of lockdown grew tighter, Liverpool FC’s decision to place employees on the government’s job retention scheme draw heavy criticism. The very mantra the club leans on in its projection to a worldwide fanbase was contradicted by the move; keeping its hands in its pockets when their local and worldwide fanbase digs deepest fortnightly to share in their marketised idea of football being more than football.
“Liverpool FC remains, to a lot of its fans, a community asset whether it is a community asset or not,” says The Athletic journalist and social history author Simon Hughes. “It needs to always stick by those values that the club tries to promote. So, if a club is making money from this idea of ‘this means more’ and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, and then at the first opportunity it decides you’re someone else’s concern, it is going to drive a big wedge through the work and fanbase.”
Hughes outlines that the move was “thoughtless”, with the club being quickly outmanoeuvred by rival Premier League teams committing to paying staff 100 per cent of salaries without leaning on the government. “The supporters still feel that the club need to stick to it values that made it great in the first place,” says Hughes. “It is a major challenge between owners and supporters. We have seen it with the trademark argument and seen it with furlough, and there will be further [conflicts of interest].”
The decision from Liverpool FC was hollow and business driven. There was no on-field success to glaze over the club’s complicit adherence to capitalist football. But with fans removed from terraces across the city region due to Covid-19, the community ethos and action of each club was laid bare without the usual magnetism of match days to inspire a sense of cohesion. Liverpool FC by far came off worst, but to its credit the decision was quickly reversed. Yet the team still poses the opportunity to emerge from lockdown with the most glory in football’s new normal.
With fans removed from the equation for the time being, how far can the family bond of football stretch when its emotive sentiments are dished out a on transactional basis and supply cut off to the demand? Labour MP McGovern is a believer of football being something ‘bigger’ than the game itself – even at a time when Covid-19 is testing the community framework teams in the city like to project. “If there is no football being played then of course there is an impact on the supporters,” she starts, “but who you support as a football club is part of your identity. It does not matter if you get to go there all the time, or once in a while. If you choose to support that football team it’s a part of your story and part of your identity. That is how it is.”
Football’s community potential and enterprise has been a core component of Everton’s story, with The Blues continuing their much-lauded community work throughout lockdown. The club haven’t posed difficulties for the believers of their ‘story’ even when they’ve been denied access to the passion of the stands. “While the two main clubs do a lot of community work, Everton’s has always seemed more authentic than Liverpool’s,” Hughes suggests, noting how the two have continued with strong outreach programmes over the last 12 weeks. But Hughes outlines the biggest challenge will come to Everton when they leave Goodison and Walton – one of the poorest areas in the country and one that the club has played a big role in supporting.
While both Liverpool and Everton position themselves as a church and congregation, continuing to spread the good word between weekend service, actions on the pitch remain of paramount importance in their overall narrative. A few miles down the road in Bootle, it’s a contrasting story where football is meeting the demands of Covid-19 and lockdown head on.
On the day we speak, Paul Manning has just gotten home from his usual rounds delivering food parcels in the height of lockdown. The co-chairman of City Of Liverpool FC and the club’s volunteers have spent the last 12 weeks buying, packaging and delivering food to those who need it most. “Friday is always a busy morning out there feeding people,” he tells me.
(Photo: Tabitha Jussa)
Two days after Liverpool played Atletico, with a Merseyside Derby the coming fixture, the Premiere League and EFL took the decision to suspend football. However, the tiers below in the footballing pyramid were given the green light to continue playing that weekend. Some non-league teams saw their highest attendance in years with fans flocking in for a fix of live football. That Saturday for a COLFC home game against Pickering Town, an attendance of 450 may have been achieved with no overlap from Everton or Liverpool matches. However, much like Goodison Park that coming Monday Night, the Berry Street Garage Stadium in Bootle lay empty. The club refused to play the scheduled game.
“COLFC was not prepared to risk the health and wellbeing of supporters, volunteers, players and staff by being part of ‘the herd’ for this misguided and potentially catastrophic policy,” read a club statement. “Effectively, and for the foreseeable future, COLFC is not so much a football club as a community organisation,” it further outlined, “mobilising alongside others in the Liverpool City Region social and solidarity economy to support those who are most vulnerable during these unprecedented times.” The latter parts of the statement were echoed again when the season was curtailed on 9th April and declared null and void.
“It made no sense,” Manning tells me as he arrives home after a morning coordinating food parcel deliveries, speaking about the club’s efforts to support those most vulnerable during lockdown. A week prior to the averted fixture, preparations were already at a pace to open the club’s food union on Smithtown Road, a community enterprise to provide low cost food for local recipients.
“[A week after 14th March], all football was called off and we already had half a foot in the door with the food union,” he says. “We have 50 volunteers who run the club including ourselves [the board]. Football was over for us. What are we going to do now to keep busy and to support mental health? We’ll take what we think is our proper place in the community anyway, which is running the food union and offering parcels to those who most need it,” Manning explains. “There was no board meeting to decide this. There’s always been a community side to the club that ran in tandem, so it was easy for us,” he continues. “Football was over, now we’re feeding people.”
COLFC aren’t a defined protest club formed in opposition to Everton and Liverpool, but its existence and operation has aimed to display contrast to the two behemoths of the game five miles up the road. Where Liverpool and Everton position themselves as more than a football club, COLFC’s adaptation to lockdown and an ensuing health crisis dropped the notion of football all together – “more a community organisation than a football club”, or as Manning put it to me in May: “Football is off the agenda.” This very idea would be near impossible for teams that build their communities around the focal point of the game itself given their financial buoyancy depends on results on the pitch. “Football is particularly fragile despite the perceptions around it, about the money washing around it,” Simon Hughes outlines. “Lockdown has exposed how a lot of football clubs live and exist right on the line. When it comes to spending, they do not bank money – it is all money coming in and money going out.”
At the Berry Street Garage Stadium it’s a completely different picture. The necessity to play football is much lower – providing room for the club to adhere to its socially driven manifesto. “COLFC will not be used as a pawn in their game,” Manning says of suggestions to return to playing before the club deem it safe. “Putting lives at risk to make this Tory government and others feel better about themselves, it will not happen.”
In a political sense, the club and its community are looking inward for governance. “We are no longer considering change on a national level or supporting political parties,” says Manning, adding the club is no longer actively supporting the Labour Party now Jeremy Corbyn is not leader. “With Corbyn, it was all about change,” outlines Manning. “Now, we are totally focussed on local issues. We’re planting our roots now in the city to continue our socialist community ethos. It’s never going to stop.”
If football was not to return to non-league level, it’s unlikely Manning and the rest of the volunteers’ efforts would differ. The community self-determination displayed through lockdown is clearly not exclusive to moments of worldwide crisis. Football may be what characterises their collective union, but actions away from the pitch are where the real success is quantified. The opening of the food union was likely celebrated with the same energy as COLFC dramatically claimed promotion on the final day of last season.
Over the Mersey, there’s been a similar separation of football and community in action throughout lockdown. Nicola Palios, vice-chairman of Tranmere Rovers, tells me about the 500 food parcels that have been delivered by the club and its affiliate charity the morning that we speak in May.
“Football and the community are compartmentalised,” says Palios. “We haven’t for one moment thought what we do in the community depends on what happens on the pitch. There’s no dependency. I agree with COLFC and at the moment we cannot play football, so park that to one side.
“Regardless of whether the season restarts,” she continues, “is voided, whether we stay up or go down, the one thing that runs through the core of the club is that we are here at the heart of the community and at a time of crisis we want to be playing as big a part as we can in supporting that.”
Since our conversation Tranmere have been relegated on a points per game outcome following the curtailment of League One. But, as Palios states, the main focus remained on the club’s role in the heart of Birkenhead communities. As the vice-chairman points out, football teams have to assume a sense of duty even while the stands of Prenton Park and others across the city region remain empty. “One of the good things about a football club is it has the ability to speak to and reach people who can often be hard for other organisations to reach. At a time like this, that’s something that we can really use to our advantage.”
Palios’ logic is exemplified by the work of Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United forward who forced the Government into a U-turn on ending its free school meals vouchers for summer. While Rashford wasn’t speaking on behalf of a club, or party, his actions represented football in a broader sense. The reach Palios mentions is reflected in the national coverage and swell of support for Rashford from fans and pockets of society that would potentially not have given such a campaign attention had it been fronted by Keir Starmer, for example. Football has more cut through than the Labour Party. A young, English striker taking on society’s big issues based on his own experiences is reflective of the duty Palios regards football’s privileges come with.
For fans, the unerring commitment to a football club is most harmonious when a two-way relationship. In the upper echelons of the game it’s fair to suggest this emotive currency is best demonstrated in cold, hard results on a weekly basis. Yet, even if football as a game may have been of little importance throughout lockdown, its structures remain an essential mouth piece for instilling community values and solidarity. It’s the whole reason why Liverpool’s decision to furlough staff was an affront to its socialist fanbase. Whether through Tranmere’s community outreach programmes supporting the lonely and vulnerable in Wirral, or the work of COLFC and its food union, both have demonstrated the priceless value football offers as an entry point to spread social and civic values – even if the marketing teams work these narratives into their lexicon.
(Photo: Jacqui Mcassey)
Over in L4, where the bright lights of the Premier League offer hope amongst one of the most deprived constituencies in the country, the footballing congregations have also risen to the challenges of Covid-19 and lockdown. In line with Jürgen Klopp’s statement that “Football is the most important of the least important things,” fans in the area have harnessed the energy of football’s somewhat importance and instead applied it to society’s most important things: public health.
Since 2015, Fans Supporting Foodbanks has been a regular feature at both Anfield and Goodison on matchdays. Set up by Liverpool MP Ian Byrne and Dave Kelly, Liverpool and Everton fans respectively, the initiative’s presence collecting food for the North Liverpool foodbank on match days has been a stark signifier of decade-long austerity. “Six of the eight wards in Liverpool and Everton’s constituency regularly feature at the top of every social and economic table that you don’t want to finish anywhere near the top of,” Kelly tells me over the phone from his home where he’s been shielding throughout lockdown. “So we were deciding to do something.”
The initiative has been a continuing success since its beginning, graduating from a wheelie bin to Mercedes Benz Sprinter van used for its collections. Its work has been an encouraging display of removing tribal differences in an era where Everton and Liverpool’s fanbases are seemingly growing more polarised. “It may be looking it through rose tinted glasses,” says Kelly, “but the footballing community is a massive community on Merseyside, and I’ve always said that Evertonians and Liverpudlians are the two biggest families on Merseyside.”
However, lockdown posed difficulties for the initiative. Around 30 per cent of the Fans Supporting Foodbank’s collections are made outside Anfield and Goodison on match day. With no fans in attendance for the foreseeable, it left a “massive void to fill,” says Kelly, which has since been confronted by setting up a system for online monetary donations to ensure the North Liverpool foodbank continues to supply food to those who need it most.
As debate between blue and red waged on through lockdown over null and void and the importance of finishing the season, Fans Supporting Foodbanks further adapted to the health crisis even without the central unifier of football happening on a weekly basis. The initiative took on the challenge of producing PPE. As supplies locally and nationally were in dangerously low supply, FSFB quickly raised the money to buy 3D printers and begin production.
“Like most things we do, we respond the given circumstances,” says Kelly. In this instance it was the health crisis. In 2015, it was observing a snaking line outside a community centre in Walton operating as a foodbank. “[Producing the PPE] is something that has gone from a cottage industry to producing PPE on an industrial scale,” Kelly notes. “We’ve designed, produced and manufactured 40,000 full face visors and provided scrubs.”
With FSFB producing PPE at an industrial scale, orders came in from Celtic fan group The Green Brigade. However, with the Glaswegians sourcing further PPE from China it left FSFB with 5000 visors. “As an act of solidarity, we thought to give them out to the other foodbanks across the north,” says Kelly. “It was really well received.”
“We were laughing about the reality of a gang of football fans in Merseyside meeting another group of football fans at a service station in Yorkshire on a Saturday afternoon,” he continues. “In days gone by that was only going to mean a straightener. And that’s the problem. The media portrays football fans as not being particularly nice people. But when you have supporters meeting in a service station on a Saturday afternoon exchanging PPE, that’s exactly what we set out to do with FSFB.”
The media portrayal of football and its fans has been kicked along the road in politician’s daily briefings throughout lockdown. Even at a local level the behaviour of fans was ridiculed by the city’s own Mayor. So much of football’s potential to enhance community value is overlooked by the headline figures of money the Premier League trousers, the velocity of matchday crowds and partisan support.
“[Enhancing community], this is where football can be a big help,” adds Simon Hughes. “Some of the best work in the city has come from the fan food bank group, realising there’s something bigger.”
The ‘something bigger’ is so often lost to narrative, to creed, to emotive sentiment. Over the course of the last 12 weeks, as lockdown has brought a stoppage in play to life itself, footballing communities haven’t fallen silent akin to the rows of seats they once filled. The matter of football being more important than life and death, once uttered by Blll Shankly, has been brought under the microscope by the footballing community’s self-determination, raising to the challenges of the pandemic. Football has been at the centre of life and death locally, that’s where the importance was most palpable. And the actions of fan groups from Boottle, through L4 and Wirral have all been reflective of something bigger, the essence of meaning more.
Rising to the challenge off the pitch is the new normal for the city region’s football communities. “Is it normal starving people, kids going to bed hungry? Is it normal sending key workers into work without PPE?,” asks Dave Kelly. “I’m not sure I want to return back to normal. And that’s what we’ll be driven by. If we cannot protect our communities, who will?”
Follow the work of Fans Supporting Foodbanks on Facebook and Twitter. To get involved with the work done by local clubs, check out the LFC Foundation, Everton In The Community, Tranmere Rovers In The Community and COLFC Community.
(Photo: John Johnson)