For the past week and change Liverpool have dominated the headlines in English football. Apart from their manager being hospitalized for appendicitis hours before kickoff of their 2-2 draw on Saturday and then getting knocked out of the FA Cup by West Ham in extra time, the club have been at the center of a reignited debate over ticket prices in the Premier League. We’ve covered the controversy and subsequent protests previously. At press time, it looks like the club are willing to compromise and go back to the negotiating table with supporters’ groups. This is good news for every fan of a Premier League club— it sets a standard for other clubs to (hopefully) follow when it comes to engaging with their supporters.
In the midst of the controversy came an article from The Economist that defended the price increases in part by negging Liverpool supporters and their city. The subtle digs— entitled, economically disadvantaged, stuck in their own past— are nothing new, but the sentiment is worth addressing. Liverpool fans do tend get chuffed over their club’s history. They were, after all, a juggernaut of English and European football. But more than the silverware, Liverpool’s golden years exemplified an era of English football very different from our own. An era in which the wall of separation between fans, players, and staff was not so impermeable. An era in which fans were treated as stakeholders rather than customers. An era featuring, as Bill Shankly said, “everyone working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards.”
This week, we won’t be looking back at a particular game. Instead, we’ll take a brief visual tour through the 1970s with Liverpool Football Club, and perhaps catch a glimpse of the history that is the Liverpool fan’s telling weakness and greatest strength.
None of these videos have sound. They’re all essentially unused b-roll. The effect is something strange; the footage was obviously produced to be seen, but its “unused footage” feel makes it seem like we’re barging in on private moments. Even when it’s the writing mass of fans in the Kop.
The first video, of course, is training at Melwood. It’s unclear what season this was from, but Shankly is seen toward the end of the footage, so it had to come before 1974. You could focus on the aesthetics— the film grain, the short-shorts, the sideburns— but there’s something to be said for meditating on the context. A group of men doing work late in the day. Hard, physical labor. The sun has all but vanished. They can’t go home just yet. This is a football team, quite probably a title-winning football team, but there’s a near-total lack of mystique here. These are just regular people working late. It could’ve been you, maybe.
In the early 70s tickets for Liverpool home matches topped out around £1-2, with matchday programmes running about 5p. Even adjusting for inflation, prices have become downright exorbitant since then. And yes, a lot has changed, and even the most crotchety fan knows that they and the club need to adapt. Yet only the most craven capitalist would deny football’s role in a community. It flattens social strata. It breaks down barriers. It provides a common language and a shared experience. It pulls people together in ways few other things do.
The ticket protests weren’t just about a few pounds here or a PR blunder there. The protests were about keeping the church doors open. The fans recognize that the club needs revenue to put a strong team on the pitch and keep the business of Liverpool Football Club afloat, and they acknowledge that matchday revenue has to be part of that calculus. But at some point numbers become a raised palm in the face, saying “No Entry.” A football club is as much about the yobs in the stands as it is the men on the pitch. There is legacy and tradition to uphold. There are memories to preserve that stretch beyond silverware. There are moments that cannot be confined to kodachrome.
The economic decline in Liverpool was mostly remembered as an artifact of the 1980s, as unemployment skyrocketed and the Thatcher government appearing to have other things to worry about. Yet it began in earnest in the 1970s with the sharp downturn in shipping and manufacturing. The city only started to dig itself out of the hole around the turn of the century. Scousers have since been tagged with ugly classist sentiment, cast as uncultured layabouts perpetually on the dole. And somehow it’s always portrayed as their fault, which, if you know the history, is a bit like blaming Detroit for globalization or New Orleans for getting hit by a hurricane. (To be sure, some people do precisely that.)
Liverpudlians always had good reason to take pride in their city. It went from an industrial powerhouse to a center of culture in the North. In the transition years, they showed themselves as a city and a people who would not break. The Reds— and their neighbors across the park— gave the people of Liverpool champions in the classic sense. Fighters who would go out into the brutal world beyond their communities and defend their homes. The ground was shifting underfoot but they had Bill Shankly and their Mighty F’ing Reds.
In the 1970s Liverpool won four First Division titles (and part of a fifth), an FA Cup, two European Cups, and two UEFA Cups. We’ve gone the long way ‘round with their silverware haul, but you can’t really talk about Liverpool in the 70s without mentioning that. And for a city in transition, those titles meant something they may not have otherwise. Context always matters, even in football. Especially in football. But history is as much about faces as it is about titles. It’s about the streets you walk down on your way to the ground, and the first song you learned in the stands. It’s about people and noise and something bigger than yourself.
Having a football club means you’re always looking toward the future. Future players, future glories, future fans. It’s checking in on what the academy is up to. It’s going to meetings with supporters and club officials to talk about zoning permits. It’s rearranging your life and your finances so you can afford to get a season ticket for your kid. It’s planting seeds in a garden you’ll never get to see.
Nothing is ever set in stone and no one owes you anything. Football clubs can stand for over a century and then disappear overnight. It’s happened before. Some sports you can just buy a ticket and grab some beers and hot dogs and have a nice day out. Football is about building something together. Football is about working toward the same goal and sharing in the rewards.
This Sunday Liverpool travel to Aston Villa, another old club with a proud history that’s going through a rough patch of its own. (Sunday, 8:05am EST, NBC Sports Network.) With their respective forms a little shaky, it’s anyone’s guess as to how the result will shake out. But European football and relegation aside, both clubs are currently busy wrestling with their own inner demons. Whatever happens on the pitch will just be physical manifestations of that turmoil.
For Liverpool, it’s one of their most important games of the season and one of their least important. Of course, Shankly would say it was always thus. “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”