A Masshole Goes Among The Thugs
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?
JAMES MCKENNA WORKS in a pension office in the British civil service, but he really ought to get a job in PR. Young, eloquent, and telegenic, he serves on the management board of the activist fan group Spirit of Shankly. In the past three years, owing in many ways to the Hicks and Gillett imbroglio, McKenna estimates that he’s given somewhere between 600 and 700 interviews. For this one, I met him on the first floor of the Twelfth Man, a pub just down the street from Anfield. Liverpool was set to play their crosstown rivals, Everton, in just a few hours, so the bar was shoulder-to-shoulder packed. It had a collegial feel, though, more like a big reunion than the mass pregame boozefest it really was.
After a quick greeting, McKenna led me up through a series of winding hallways and staircases to a less-crowded room on the second floor. Officially a “Liverpool Supporters Union” and named after one of the club’s seminal coaches, Spirit of Shankly was formed in January 2008 in response to the terrors of the Tom Hicks–George Gillett regime. Settling down with a pint, McKenna explained that the group’s first goal was to educate fans on the very real danger the club had been placed in by the accumulation of debt under Hicks and Gillett. The second goal was to get rid of Hicks and Gillett.