Did 10,000 Liverpool supporters leaving Saturday’s match at Anfield 13 minutes before the end of normal time contribute to the team throwing away a two-goal lead? Some since have argued ‘yes, clearly’, other have insisted ‘no, obviously not’. As one of those who walked out on 77 minutes I naturally side with the latter. But either way I don’t care because, either way, it was the right thing to do.
I thought that as soon as I heard about the protest against Liverpool’s decision to increase ticket prices for the 2016/17 season, and again when I headed up to Anfield on Saturday morning. My mind did not change, either, when I got into the ground, or when I left early and, having walked through the concourse under the Kop and into a damp and darkening Merseyside afternoon, discovered Sunderland, quite easily the worst side to visit Anfield this season, had been allowed to score twice inside seven minutes. From total control to total collapse; how typical of this Liverpool side and, as anyone who has watched them regularly will tell you, the exodus had little to do with it. It was the goalkeeper’s fault again.
My steadfast support for the walkout also remained as I got back on the coach and discovered that many of the Reds I had travelled from London with had stayed until the very end of the match, and this rather than the final result was the real downer of Saturday’s protest – a division within the fanbase, something that harks back to the terrible, near-apocalyptic days of Hicks and Gillett, when those who protested found themselves in confrontation with those who didn’t. I saw it again inside Anfield at the weekend as some of those who left early spat frustration and fury at those who remained. “You bunch of Tory bastards!” was the charge from one protestor to his fellow, seated Kopites.
There was no such anger on the coach but the conversations were noticeably spikier than normal. One of my fellow Reds argued that there was too much focus on the £77 tickets and that the real fight lay in reducing the cost of away tickets. Another argued that access to rather than cost of tickets was the real issue while also insisting that he fundamentally didn’t believe in walking out on the team. Not surprisingly, he was one of those who remained in his seat on 77 minutes, yet before anyone accuses him of being a classic ‘daytripper’, not understanding what following the club is all about, let me point out that he is a lifelong Red who has had a season ticket in the Kop since the mid-eighties and barely missed a game in that time. He ‘gets’ what being a Red is all about as much as any Scouser.
I appreciated and understood both of their arguments, specifically the one about the protest focusing too heavily on the £77 tickets – after all, there will only be 208 of them covering just six Category A matches next season. But for me the walkout was about something bigger, a broader fight against modern football’s increasingly and blatant disregard of the people who matter most, the supporters.
The arguments have been articulated clearly and passionately over the past few days, most notably from Jay McKenna, who in his role with Spirit of Shankly has done so much to fight for fairer ticket prices, at Anfield and elsewhere. He has spoken and written about a “missed opportunity” by the club to reward fans for their unstinting loyalty by using next season’s £5.1bn TV deal with Sky Sports and BT Sports, as well as the money that will be generated from the extended Main Stand, to freeze and/or reduce prices and make it more affordable for all fans – younger ones and those from the local area in particular – to attend matches at Anfield. Instead, however, the club have upped the majority of ticket prices while making a token effort towards bringing in the young and the local.
The overall effect is an extra £2m in from matchday revenue, which will do little to improve the team’s fortunes on the pitch while doing everything to boost the finances of those in the boardroom and harming the make-up and goodwill of the fanbase. But who cares about that because Boston has spoken and the message is Gekko-clear: ‘Greed is good’.
That is why SOS and the Spion Kop group organised Saturday’s protest and why I along with thousands of other Reds took part. We’ve had enough of being milked for our loyalty. The club bang on about the “12 man” and use images of the Kop to promote the club whenever possible, but the truth is they maintain as much as affection and sense of decency for and towards us as the chiefs at Marks & Spencer do for the people who buy their knickers and cheese rolls. That much could be seen with their attempts to control the use of flags at the ground earlier in the season.
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‘Well of course,’ cry the cynics, ‘football is a business now. Wake up and smell the over-priced Bovril’. But that’s where you’re wrong pal, because it’s not a business, the rules of supply and demand and market forces do not operate in an environment where generational bonds and emotions dictate so much.
I support Liverpool because my dad does, I went to my first match in December 1992, I’ve been going home and away on a regular basis since November 2003 and had a season ticket since July 2014. I’m not a consumer who can simply pick another club if this one doesn’t suit anymore – I, like millions of others, are tied to it, from now until my dying breath. And that’s the problem, the club know this and know they can exploit it.
As Neil Poole put it in a recent article for This Is Anfield, “they have us over an emotional barrel.” But there’s only so much we can and will take, and as the banners and chants made clear on Saturday: “Enough is enough.” It’s time the suits in the directors’ box treated the masses in the stand with more respect, more compassion. More decency.
Travelling north on Saturday, I had no real idea of how many people would take part in the walkout. My feeling was that it would be a small minority and that ultimately Ian Ayre and FSG would be left with nothing to greatly worry about. But having got into the ground there was a firm sense that something was brewing. There were the black flags at the front of the Kop and a thundering roar as the lads carrying them made their way to their seats shortly before kick-off. This was well and truly on.
Things calmed down once the game got underway, largely because of Liverpool’s slapdash performance, which subsequently led to gallows humour taking over. Shortly after a long, diagonal pass to Nathaniel Clyne had drifted harmlessly out of play midway through the first half, a fella in front of me turned to his mate and said: “Sod this, I’m walking out on 45 minutes, me!”
Liverpool found their stride after the interval and went 2-0 up on 70 minutes. The timing of the second goal was perfect – match won (or so we thought) and now the focus could fully turn to the day’s other notable event. Bodies twitched, feet shuffled, eyes kept glancing towards the blazing red scoreboard and then, around the 75th minute, You’ll Never Walk Alone broke out at the top of the Kop. It soon spread, the words becoming louder and more ferocious in tone. There then came the chant of “You greedy bastards, enough is enough”, also ferociously, and, on 77th minutes, it happened. We walked.
The tidal wave of bodies caught most by surprise, no one more so than the woman who kept demanding those in front of her at the exit to Block 106 moved forward. She was told more than once that people were moving as quickly as they could, that there was a snarl up at the bottom. Cue more gallows humour as one fella said: “Kinell, we’ll be here on 90 minutes at this rate!”
The bottleneck eventually broke and we got down the stairs and into the concourse, where there was a slightly awkward but nonetheless spirited sense of camaraderie among those who had walked. “Well done lads” said a guy carrying one of the black flags, and as we strode into the dimming light of a late winter’s day, chants of “Liverpool! Liverpool!” broke out. Little did we know in that immediate moment that the team we’d left behind were falling apart in characteristic fashion.
The only uncomfortable part of the walkout had been the abuse, albeit it short and limited to a few people, around me in the Kop anyway. Yes, it would have been great if those who stayed behind had joined us, but that they didn’t doesn’t mean they are scabs, Tories, disloyal bastards.
For instance, sat on my right on Saturday was a young boy, could have been no older than nine, who was visiting Anfield for the first time. He was as excited by the experience as I had been when I went to the ground for the first time as an 11-year-old to watch Liverpool beat Blackburn 2-1 on a cold, Sunday afternoon. He bounced around, clapped whenever Roberto Firmino did something special (which was often) and leapt into his dad’s arms when we scored our goals. Are you really telling me that he should have walked out on 77 minutes? Would you have done the same in his circumstances? Me neither.
So let’s not turn on each other in the way we did when those other Americans owned our club, partly because that is exactly what Anfield’s current hierarchy want – a split in the fanbase that would allow them to divide and conquer, winning the argument and killing the fight as quickly and cleanly as possible.
And have no doubt – this is a fight. Saturday’s walkout was larger than even the most optimistic member of SOS and Spion Kop could have predicted and would have sent shockwaves back at FSG HQ. It’s also caught the national mood, with opposition fans showing support for the protest in its immediate aftermath and Alan Shearer speaking passionately in defence of it on Saturday’s Match of the Day. Jamie Carragher and Roy Evans were also among those who left Anfield early on Saturday. These are leading names, and others are sure to follow. The exodus has made a mark.
There now comes the next step, and this is where difficulties lie. SOS and Spion Kop have said there will be further protests, but how many exactly? Every home game? Do we walk out of away ones, too? And given Liverpool’s collapse against Sunderland, have some fans been spooked, fearful that another walkout will lead to more points dropped?
And what about a total boycott? Granted that was difficult to organise for Saturday, but surely it’s a next step? But is it even doable? And then there is the issue of away tickets? We protested in response to what Hull charged us to go there last April but where is the follow-up? As my mate on the coach said, this remains a live and scandalous issue; the likes of Norwich and West Ham should not be allowed to get away with charging us anywhere near £50 and £60 respectively to go to their grounds.
In that regard it is also worth remembering that Saturday’s protest was in part about ending price categorisation at Anfield which means, say, Manchester United supporters pay more than those who follow Southampton to see their team play in L4. Any opposition fans who mock the walkout should make note of that and instead of jeering and leering think about how they can get involved. And that perhaps is the required next step – joint action. But again, is that even doable?
Many questions, then, and many answers that will have to be found. But for the time being Liverpool supporters should rightly feel proud of what took place at Anfield on Saturday. The team showed no fight but thousands of those in the stands did. It was as if a grenade had been dropped into modern football’s cosy heartlands, where Sky Sports and the Premier League have connived to make this sport we love all about gloss, glamour and greed. Super Sunday, super-profits, sod the fans and pop the champagne.
Well not anymore. Enough is enough.
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