A Masshole Goes Among The Thugs

Jason Schwartz takes to the streets of Liverpool to learn more about John Henry's new soccer team.

By Jason Schwartz | Boston Magazine |
PHOTO BY ALEX GAGNE

PHOTO BY ALEX GAGNE

FRIDAY

In October, Red Sox owner John Henry bought the Liverpool soccer team — or football club, for all the Anglophiles and other, more general wieners out there — and I started fretting. It didn’t even take sports talk radio to get me worked up. Henry, I dreaded, was going to shortchange the Sox while he was off kicking balls and sucking halftime oranges with the English. Less than two months later, though, the Red Sox traded for Adrian Gonzalez, with plans to pay the star slugger more than $20 million per season for years to come. Mere days after that, the team signed all-star outfielder Carl Crawford — a player we didn’t even need — to a seven-year, $142 million deal. At that point, I stopped worrying. In fact, I felt sort of good. Really good, actually. And I was still feeling that way a few weeks later when my plane touched down in England.

Henry, his partner Tom Werner, and their Fenway Sports Group associates had landed Liverpool on the cheap, paying just $476 million — or roughly the cost of Gonzalez, Crawford, and a few pitchers — to swipe the team from its previous, cash-strapped owners. Sure, the purchase might have concerned me at first, but I’d since come to understand that Liverpool FC is one of the most storied franchises in the world’s most popular soccer league. It looked like Henry had found us an unpolished gem. Liverpool could be yet another money-pumping outpost of Red Sox Nation, to be safely tucked away somewhere with that NASCAR team of ours.

Henry has said over and over that he intends to keep the two clubs’ finances separate, that what he spends on one will have no bearing on what he does with the other. But it was getting hard to miss the fact that all of his business ventures had lately been designed to serve the Red Sox mothership.

And according to the Wall Street Journal, the followers of our new soccer team hadn’t missed it. The paper had just run a story with the headline “Boston’s Baseball Spending Spree Causes Pulses to Race in an Unlikely Place: Liverpool.” One fan summed up the feelings of the city this way: “It’s all very well spending all that money on a shortstop or whatever, but we haven’t had a decent left-back for 12 years.”

Wait — did these people not understand the proper order of things? Recently valued at $1.5 billion, the Sox are worth three times what Fenway Sports Group paid for Liverpool. And it is called Fenway Sports Group. What were these Brits thinking? I’d come to England to find out just what the hell
was going on over here.

I stepped off the plane and headed for immigration, where a (surprisingly cute) agent took my passport and instructed me to remove my Red Sox cap. Satisfied that my face matched my picture, she said, “You can put your hat back on,” paused a beat to look at my brow, and then added skeptically, “if you want.” Lovely. I jammed the cap back on my head. Red Sox Nation bows to no one. Colonial Liverpool, ho!

 

In 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.

Despite this bad run, though, fans have remained maniacally loyal. The team’s theme song, after all, is “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” It was originally a Rodgers and Hammerstein tune, later covered by Liverpool’s Gerry and the Pacemakers; Scousers speak of it in reverential tones and sing along to it before every home game. So of all the evils Hicks and Gillett inflicted on Liverpudlians, probably none was worse than leaving them feeling deserted. Last year enraged supporters protested by the thousands. They even formed a human blockade outside the stadium — and this is true — preventing the owners from getting into a game. Hicks and Gillett sold only when they had no other choice — when they were unable to make the payments on a debt calculated by some as $460 million.

So when Henry bought the club and wiped out the debt, he represented a savior of sorts. But, like Hicks and Gillett before him, he is an American. And then there’s the fact that Henry, by his own admission, knows very little about soccer. And when you consider that an influential fan group called the Spirit of Shankly (sort of like what the Sons of Sam Horn are to the Red Sox, but politically militant instead of nerdy) held a rally on Liverpool’s main square last July 4 to declare independence — from America — you had to wonder about the kind of welcome Henry was in for.

Then again, Henry is used to this sort of thing. When he beat out a couple of local suitors and managed to buy the Sox in 2002, outraged fans fumed that the pale, soft-spoken carpetbagger with a Florida Marlins pedigree was planning to milk the team for cash and go cheap on players. He became known on talk radio as Casper, and not because he was friendly.

So it came as quite a surprise that here in the Albert, even Ian didn’t have any ill will for Henry. Whatever the Wall Street Journal may have found, the guys I met said they were impressed by their new owner’s modesty and that they were willing to be patient with him. According to a fan I met later, it was very encouraging that Henry’s wife, Linda, had promised to learn all the Liverpool songs.

Really, the closest anyone came to being judgmental was when Rod, the bar’s assistant manager, stopped me and asked, “Is Boston magazine a gay magazine?” I considered the question for a moment. Carefully, I replied, “No.” Rod  immediately pointed a finger at Ian. “Then he can’t be in it!” Uproarious laughter followed. (I chuckled nervously.)

On my way out, I mentioned to Peter the bartender that I was surprised by how patient everybody was. Henry had owned the team for three months already, fired a coach, hired a coach, and brought in, effectively, a general manager. It seemed like it was high time for judgments. Go talk to Spirit of Shankly, the protest organizers, Peter instructed me. “They will be very opinionated.”

When Liverpool plays big matches, the rumbling in Anfield stadium registers on the Richter scale / Photo by Chris Brunskill/AMA

When Liverpool plays big matches, the rumbling in Anfield stadium registers on the Richter scale / Photo by Chris Brunskill/AMA

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?

Soccer - UEFA Europa League - Liverpool vs. Steaua Bucharest

Photo by Visionhaus/Corbis

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.

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