A Masshole Goes Among The Thugs
Jason Schwartz takes to the streets of Liverpool to learn more about John Henry’s new soccer team.
— SUNDAY —
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.
“We organized a lot of protests — during the game, before the game, after the game,” McKenna said. “We had 10,000 people staying behind to protest.” There was also, of course, the Fourth of July rally, and the time group members blocked the owners from getting into the stadium. And then, when the “brash Texas businessmen” went looking for still more financing to try to hold on to Liverpool, Spirit of Shankly members e-mailed basically every major bank in the Western world, imploring them not to give the Americans a dime.
Now the group viewed itself as a sort of watchdog, looking out for the interests of the fans. Peter, the bartender at the Albert, had promised me pointed opinions from these guys, so I was hoping McKenna would have something firm to say about the new ownership group. But he, like everybody else, was cautiously optimistic. After Hicks and Gillett, he explained, fans were apt to be more patient with Henry. McKenna and a small cadre of his Shankly compatriots had even been invited to meet with the new owners in person, and the differences were clear. “In the past, we’d met George Gillett and he didn’t listen; he always wanted to tell us how it was,” McKenna said. “But John Henry and Tom Werner were very good. They listened to us; they wanted to understand.”
Huh? What was there to understand? Wasn’t it supposed to be that Liverpool supplied the cash and the Red Sox spent it? I asked McKenna what he thought about being the little brother in the Henry empire. While it was certainly a concern whether Henry would spend enough to keep up with the sheiks and oligarchs running England’s other big teams, McKenna said he was confident Liverpool would be funded adequately. Really? How could these guys — the people who held a Fourth of July rally to kick the Americans out — come away from a meeting with Henry feeling confident? I was starting to worry about my mercantilist vision. “Obviously,” McKenna said, “the last thing we’d want is more money from Liverpool being spent on the Boston Red Sox.”
In time, a guy named Paul Gardner, Shankly’s community and youth officer — community and youth officer! — wandered by the table. I asked him what he thought about the recent coaching change. “Spirit of Shankly don’t really comment on player or manager issues,” was all he’d say. “We’re not about that.” He was pleased, though, to see Henry embracing “the Liverpool Way.”
It was a few minutes before game time when I arrived at my seat in the sideline grandstand. Everton, known as the Blues for the color of their jerseys, and Liverpool, likewise called the Reds, were on the field warming up. Looking across the, ahem, “pitch,” I could see that fans were already going wild. It was King Kenny Dalglish’s first game back at Anfield, and over in the Kop, one of the giant flags they were waving had Dalglish’s face painstakingly sewn in black and white, while another proclaimed the “Return of the King.” As the players warmed up, the Kopites were chanting Dalglish’s name and singing “When the Reds Go Marching In.” In my own section, the fans were not quite so amped, but still pumped and packed in tight. With my knees jammed up against the wooden seat in front of me, it felt a bit like Fenway.
Just before kickoff, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” came on the PA, and fans started singing along. This moment was supposed to give me chills — 45,000 people singing with one voice about loyalty and kinship. It beats the hell out of “Sweet Caroline,” but I gotta tell you, the song’s a bit of a downer — not exactly pump-up material. The Everton fans liked it even less than I did. Throughout the song, they were chanting, “Mur-der-ers! Mur-der-ers!” This ugly reference was to the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster, when a charging mob of Liverpool fans and the collapse of a retaining wall led to the death of 39 people, most of them fans of the Italian team Juventus. Life and death really are central themes in soccer here. It was for good reason, then, that a cordon of brightly uniformed police surrounded the Everton rooting section.
With the ceremonies and cruel chants finished, it was time for kickoff. For all the talk about how delirious and amazing English soccer games are, I was a bit skeptical. I was there when Pedro threw down Zimmer in ’03, and at the Garden when the Celtics pushed the Lakers to the brink in Game 5 of the Finals last season. Those crowds were electric. Could these people possibly dial it up higher?
At the beginning of the game, I thought they might. The singing and chanting was nonstop, and Anfield’s low ceilings added to the volume. Dalglish was getting serenaded and fans were singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “When the Reds Go Marching In” verse after verse after verse. When Liverpool’s Raul Meireles drove home a rebound in the 29th minute to put the Reds up 1–0, the crowd’s reaction must have registered on the Richter scale.
But as the game settled into its rhythm, the fans settled down with it. The guys behind me weren’t saying much beyond “fucking hell” this and “fucking hell” that. The guy in front of me was fiddling with his BlackBerry. And when the second half started with two quick Everton goals, the place went dead. Everton continued to control possession, and the stadium started to get agitated, almost angry. The guy next to me kept chewing his nails and staring at the floor. A man behind me huffed, “This is the worst we’ve seen.”
Thankfully, after a questionable call by the referee, Liverpool’s Dirk Kuyt knocked in a penalty kick. The fans reacted with relief and glee, and tensions were soothed for a little while. But 15 minutes later, a Liverpool player blew a scoring chance, and the catcalls and boos began. The game ended in a 2–2 tie. People filed out quietly. That’s soccer for you.
After the game I returned to the Albert, feeling more camaraderie with the fans than I’d expected. Anfield didn’t have that Game 7–level fervor everybody kept telling me to expect, but for a battle between two cellar dwellers, the house was rocking. The bar was crowded when I walked in, and once again, I could hardly understand what anybody was saying.
Thankfully, I caught the attention of Rod the assistant manager. “Hi, lad,” he said, reeking of cigarettes and looking like he’d just woken up. (In fact he had just woken up — he’d slept through the game somehow.) He ushered me over to a table in back where seven or eight longtime regulars were engaged in a spirited discussion. Their leader, a bald guy bearing a bit of a resemblance to Jack Welch, was quite amused by the American journalist in his midst. “Are you a reporter?” he asked. “Peter Parker?” Later, as I returned to the table with a Guinness, he asked me another question: “You’re from Boston. So what do you think John Henry is going to do?”
If the past few days had taught me anything, it was that my dreams of turning Liverpool into a cash-cow colony for the Red Sox were probably just that — dreams. Henry would likely give Liverpool all the money it needed to compete, just as he’d done with the Sox. And more, my guess was that he’d run the team in a manner that respected the vaunted Liverpool Way. One of the keys to his success in Boston has been his ability to grasp our unique and bizarre psyche, and he seemed to have quickly done the same here. Of course, I wasn’t about to give old Jack Welch holding court in the Albert the satisfaction of hearing me say all that.
“I think he’s going to take all his money from Liverpool,” I said, “and sign a new outfielder for the Red Sox.”
The old man actually buried his face in his hands. “OOOooooh!!!” he cried. Finally he looked back up at me, anguished. I told him again and again that I was just kidding. It didn’t help. He was inconsolable. You see, his happiness was now dependent on the decisions of some unknown outsider named John Henry. I sympathized.