A Masshole Goes Among The Thugs
Jason Schwartz takes to the streets of Liverpool to learn more about John Henry’s new soccer team.
— SATURDAY —
Before I could meet Spirit of Shankly, though, I had an appointment with Stephen Done, the curator of the Liverpool FC museum, who had agreed to give me a tour of the stadium. A tall, sturdy chap, Done had started his career in the world of fine art but joined the team 13 years ago when they advertised the position in the paper.
We met just inside the stadium’s main entrance, and Done explained that Anfield is actually older than the team itself. The stadium was originally built for Everton in 1884 (making it almost 30 years older than Fenway Park), but a management feud in 1892 caused the owner to pack up his team and move it to a different field a mile away. Only then was Liverpool FC born: to fill the empty stadium.
After ducking through a few back hallways, Done led me to the middle of the bleacher section behind the south goal, an area called the Spion Kop. A single sloped tier of 12,000 red seats (Anfield’s total capacity is 45,000), it’s named after a 1900 Boer War battle in South Africa. Strangely, the British got creamed in that one. But the creaming happened on a hill, which apparently reminded folks of the stadium’s steep tier. “It’s rather peculiar,” Done admitted.
Covered by a low ceiling, Anfield’s Kop was designed, essentially, as a noise funnel. “The Kop is absolutely central to the meaning of this club,” Done said. “The truth is, if you’re standing at the back, you probably don’t get a very good view, but you get the sound and noise.” That’s the same reason, really, that people pay good money to sit behind poles at Fenway.
Walking down the Kop’s steps, we passed by a group on a stadium tour. They come from the world over to see Anfield, Done told me. Especially from Norway, it turns out, where Liverpool FC’s historic success has made the team extraordinarily popular. I followed Done down onto the field. It wasn’t a long walk, as there’s almost no space between the stands and the field of play. Fans in Anfield’s front rows could spit their gum out and hit a player. Strolling through a drizzle to midfield, Done pointed out how the team’s cramped player benches are wedged into the front rows of the stands. Forget spitting gum; here an angry fan could, from his seat, slap an underperforming player across the face. “There’s no hiding place, no roof, nothing,” Done said.
The tight quarters made life difficult for Liverpool’s former manager Roy Hodgson, who after a highly unpopular six-month stint had been canned just a few days before my trip. Fans had grown antsy when it seemed like Henry was taking too long to fire him, but any PR problems were quickly smoothed over when Kenny Dalglish, one of the most beloved players and managers in team history, was brought back to replace Hodgson. Done told me that although the revered Dalglish, known as “King Kenny,” would have little to worry about from the crowd, Hodgson “did get some pretty rough stuff, really, which is a shame.” (Actually, it’s fun to imagine Grady Little having to sit right next to fans.)
The charms of Anfield’s intimacy, however, present a problem for Henry, Werner, and Fenway Sports Group. Luxury boxes are scarce, and there’s no space for a Jumbotron. In fact, there’s just one small scoreboard in the whole stadium, and all it shows are the score and the game clock — no stats, no pictures, no space for big ads. Whether to renovate Anfield or replace it has become a matter of tense debate in Liverpool. Hicks and Gillett promised to build a new, modern stadium when they bought the club, but never came close. Henry and Werner have so far said precious little about the Anfield situation, other than that they’re assessing their options. Again, Liverpudlians have somehow managed to keep calm. That may be because antiquated stadiums are yet another challenge with which Henry has successful experience. The exact same questions swirled around Fenway when he bought the Sox, and he and his team have managed quite nicely on that front.
According to Done, fans have grown smitten with Henry’s prudence — especially after the recklessness of Hicks and Gillett. “We talk about this thing called the Liverpool Way,” he said, walking out of the stadium. “The idea is that we’re quite modest in talking about business affairs.” Talk softly, in other words, and carry a bloody big stick. Henry’s got the talking part down; now everybody’s waiting on the rest.
Just how good an impression has John Henry made? That afternoon, I took the train north to a suburb called Crosby to see Marine FC, a local semipro soccer team. A couple hundred people were there, and standing along the sideline in the second half, I fell into conversation with an older gentleman named Steve Wozniak (alas, not the one who cofounded Apple). Wearing a black jacket and a newsboy cap, Wozniak insisted that in his semipro playing days, his team once won something like 63 out of 64 games. It was because all the players were so tight, so unified, he explained. The problem with Liverpool’s current squad? Too many foreigners who couldn’t speak English. “Two from Spain, two from Italy, two from wherever,” he said, shaking his head. “You’ve got to be a unit.” So what did my xenophobic friend think of the team’s new American owners? “I am with them,” he said. “They’ll treat it as a business rather than a toy.” Even the guy who doesn’t like foreigners likes John Henry. (Marine beat visiting Ossett Town 4–3, by the way.)
Only two things really matter in Liverpool: football and music. So that evening, in the name of cultural survey, I headed over to the White Star pub, a former Beatles hangout. Inside, I got to talking soccer with a local named Ken, who had all the same things to say about Henry as everybody else: patience, honesty, underpromise but overdeliver, blah blah blah. I was just starting to drift off when he mentioned that he and a couple of his coworkers were planning to see a Beatles cover band down the street that night. Did I want to come?
Once Ken’s friends, Matty and Luke, showed up, we moved to the Cavern Club, where the real Beatles first gained notoriety and the “Mersey Beatles” were playing. (I later learned that the original Cavern Club had been knocked down; this was a reconstruction.) At first the bouncer told us the show was sold out, but when Ken explained that he had an American with him who just had to see a Beatles cover band, the doorman relented. I felt like part of the gang. Which is why, after a few more beers, just before the band came on, I made the mistake of casually bringing up Hillsborough.
As Ken’s face went ashen, I realized that there is no such thing in Liverpool as casually bringing up Hillsborough, the 1989 disaster in which hysteria and the faulty design of Sheffield’s Hillsborough Stadium led to 96 visiting Liverpool fans being crushed to death. All these years later, fans still bring fresh flowers each day to the memorial outside Anfield. “I was there,” Ken said, going on to describe all manner of horror, including seeing someone with a collapsed lung inside an ambulance. Hillsborough was part of the reason, I imagined, that Liverpudlians moralized their team so deeply. It intertwined the Liverpool Way with life and death.
Thankfully, the mood quickly lightened. We were trading rounds rapid-fire, and cheers went up as the band ran onstage, sporting bowl haircuts and searingly bright Sgt. Pepper’s outfits. The crowd joined in on every song, and it really was an excellent time. (Though I have to say, looking around the club, it seemed to me that Jersey Shore is interpreted much less ironically in Liverpool than one might hope. The Snooki, for lack of a better term, is a very popular hairdo among local women.) I was so into it that by the time the faux four ended their set with “Hey Jude,” I wasn’t even weirded out that I was arm in arm with three strangers, swaying and singing along. When in Liverpool, ya know?