A Masshole Goes Among The Thugs
THE NEIGHBORHOOD AROUND ANFIELD, Liverpool FC’s stadium, is a bit like Fenway, only more downtrodden. Though some of the surrounding row houses look quite nice, a number are boarded up. The stadium is about 15 minutes north of the city center by car, so unless there’s a game, foot traffic is sparse and bars are empty except for regulars. All the better. I’d begin my investigation of this team and its curious fans by hitting the pubs and meeting some real Scousers. (People from Liverpool can be called either Liverpudlians or Scousers, which, delightfully, makes it sound as though they’re either from Gulliver’s Travels or just leaving a strip club.)
My first stop after arriving in town was the Albert, a pub plunked down mere feet from the stadium’s entrance. Around dusk, I pushed open the bar’s heavy red door and stepped into a room with walls covered in bright-red Liverpool flags and scarves. The pub itself, though, was dingy and empty, save for a few guys leaning against the bar. Though it used to be the Liverpool pub, these days the Albert is known more as a pilgrimage site for foreign fans. But the place is still frequented by some longtime die-hards — like the guys at the bar, who were speaking something like English, though I could hardly understand a word they said. Scousers’ speech is famously fast, the accents impenetrably thick.
I thought a beer might help. While the publican, a bald man named Peter, poured, I asked him what he made of John Henry. “It’s just a bit too early” to draw any conclusions, he said. (I’m quoting the segments I could understand — roughly every other sentence at the Albert.) Perched at the corner of the bar, the bouncer, Ian, a big pit bull of a fellow, was less restrained in his opinion of the foreigners who used to own Liverpool FC, Texas businessman Tom Hicks and Wisconsin native George Gillett. “I want them to die,” he barked, repeating the sentiment, unprompted, every five minutes or so. He’s probably an effective bouncer.
Ian’s anger was hardly unique in town. In just three years of ownership, Hicks and Gillett loaded up Liverpool with debt and pushed the club to the edge of bankruptcy — and the bottom of the standings. Not too long ago, Liverpool was one of the proudest clubs in the world, the Boston Celtics of England’s Premier League. They owned 18 league titles, five European Cups, seven FA Cups, and three UEFA Cups (and a cup of some sort to you if you know what any of that means). Simply put, Liverpool was legendary. But today’s squad is roughly the equivalent of the C’s during the forgettable Dino Radja–Xavier McDaniel era — a jangling medley of incompetent youth and aging competence, as Updike would have put it. Consider that every year the bottom three teams in the Premier League standings get relegated, or sent down to a lower league. (It’s as if, after a bad season, the Red Sox were kicked out of the majors and forced to play instead in Triple A.) Impossibly, the mighty Liverpool FC was, at the time of my visit, struggling to avoid that particular humiliation.