The true Spirit of Shankly

On 25th May, 2005, Liverpool re-created history by winning our 5th European cup. In true Liverpool fashion, we faced adversity, stared oblivion in the face, and rose up to fight and triumph against all odds. If Bill Shankly was watching down from above, I’m certain he’d have smiled proudly as Rafa’s team that night embodied the spirit he had long sought to instill in his own teams. It reminded me of Shankly’s words following Liverpool’s 5-1 defeat by Ajax in the European Cup in 1967:

‘œFive-one…Aye, that should help them to make a
game of it when they come to Anfield for the 2nd leg.’

It was a never-say-die spirit that we lost for a period in the 90s, but which since Istanbul has resurfaced, evidenced countless times last season as we snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. It’s a spirit that thrives among Scousers who for years have had to struggle and fight proudly and work hard for a living.

In the post-Istanbul celebrations, every Liverpool player spoke of how hearing the Liverpool fans singing ‘œYou’ll Never Walk Alone’ and hearing some fans singing ‘œWe’re going to win 4-3’ at half-time, gave them the lift that they needed to achieve the impossible. When Luis Garcia left Liverpool, in his open letter to the fans he remarked:

‘œA football club isn’t just made up of players, coaches and directors. More than anything else it’s the supporters who make a club, and that perhaps is the ingredient which best distinguishes Liverpool Football Club from every other team. The supporters.’

And of the impact the fans’ spirit had on the players, Luis had this to say:

“We were sitting in the dressing room and we could clearly hear thousands of fans singing You’ll Never Walk Alone. Can you imagine how that felt? We were 3-0 down in the Champions League final and all we could hear were 45,000 people letting us know they still believed in us. We knew they had endured a long journey and made so many sacrifices to be there. It was at that point we started to believe too.”

For years players, managers and fans the world over have acknowledged the spirit of Liverpool football club embodied in our fans which sets us apart from all other fans. Johan Cruyff said after Istanbul:

‘œThere’s not one club in Europe with an anthem like You’ll Never Walk Alone. There’s not one club in the world so united with the fans. I sat there watching the Liverpool fans and they sent shivers down my spine. A mass of 40,000 people became one force behind their team. That’s something not many teams have. For that I admire Liverpool more than anything.”

What everyone has seen and remarked upon, what sets Liverpool fans apart from all others is our spirit ‘“ Shankly’s spirit ‘“ of loyalty, of unity, through thick and thin, through the wind and through the rain. Shankly was a firm believer in these principles, and was always a man of the people. But the principles which are at the core of Shankly’s spirit were best said by the man himself:

“I’ve seen supporters on Merseyside going to the ground together, one wearing red and white and the other blue and white, which is unusual elsewhere. You get families in Liverpool in which half support Liverpool and the other half Everton. They support rival teams but they have the same temperament and they know each other. They are unique in the sense that their rivalry is so great but there is no real aggro between them. This is quite amazing.

I am not saying they love each other. Oh, no. Football is not a matter of life and death… it’s much more important than that. And it’s more important to them than that. But I’ve never seen a fight at a derby game. Shouting and bawling… yes. But they don’t fight each other. And that says a lot for them.”

As I contemplated the meaning of the words ‘œSpirit of Shankly’ in writing this article, these timeless words resonated with most of all. The great man, for whom football was apparently more important than life and death, who took great pride in mocking Everton and having a laugh at their expense, found that the amazing thing about Liverpool and Everton fans was that despite the intensity of the rivalry, there was no real ‘œagro’ between them; that despite the ferocity of the derby games, it said a lot about the fans that they didn’t fight each other. They were people first and fans 2nd.

Fast forward now, from the days of Shankly and past May 25th 2005 when our team buoyed by the fans’ spirit and loyalty made history, to May 24th 2004, the eve of that anniversary, to the End of Season party of the fans’ group that have taken Bill Shankly’s name as theirs and have taken his spirit as their call-sign. There, while a small group of Liverpool fans celebrated the end of the season, 100 or so people merrily sang a song rejoicing at the memory of the deaths of 23 people in Munich air disaster. The irony is painfully obvious. That the name of a man who said it spoke volumes for Liverpool and Everton fans that they never fought each other despite their animosity on the pitch and in the stands should be sullied by a small group of drunken idiots is tragically ironic.

Here on ThisIsAnfield, this has been the subject of much debate. Many members have decried those actions, and ThisIsAnfield officially issued a statement condemning those actions, emphasizing how appalled Shanks would be that such actions would stem from a union carrying his name. Spirit of Shankly issued their own statement on their website that reads as follows:

‘œSpirit of Shankly (SOS) is aware that video footage has been posted on the internet from the SOS End of season party on 24th May 2009. This footage shows an unscheduled performance which the SOS Events Commitee had no prior knowledge of. The Events Committee will endeavour to increase back-stage security for future events to ensure impromptu performances like this do not happen again. We are sincerely sorry for anybody who has been offended by this footage, and we do not condone such behaviour.’ (Emphasis added).

To date, this is the only official statement by SOS on their website regarding the incident. To me, their apology ‘œfor anybody who has been offended by this footage’ rang hollow, displaying a lack of empathy for the victims of all football disasters. It was not a condemnation of the acts (merely a note that the behaviour wasn’t condoned – a distinction not lost on anyone who has watched a politician trying to distance himself from the actions of friends without totally condemning those actions and offending said friends). Certainly the actions of the 100 or so people participating in the disgraceful behaviour displayed in the video probably do not represent the views of SOS as a group. However, the shallowness of the group’s official ‘œapology’ disturbed me. How I wondered could an organization that allegedly represents the interest of Liverpool fans who have experienced first hand the tragedy of losing loved ones through footballing tragedies, issue such a shallow statement?

And in the aftermath as the debate went on in the forums, the number of SOS members who repeatedly insisted that the incident was being ‘œblown out of proportion’ and that we should all just ‘œget on with life as usual’ further disturbed me. How could the group who presented themselves to the world as custodians of the values of Bill Shankly who represented the people whom he loved so dearly, be so blind to the very principles that the man stood for?

As lamentable as the actions of that minority of drunken idiots that night in May, I found SOS’s weak response all the more disturbing. There will always be a few bad nuts in any group, but when these bad nuts threaten the principles that the group stands for, I’d hope to see the group taking a firm stance, confronting and condemning those responsible, and making great efforts to repair the damage caused, rather than embarking on cover-up campaign to sweep the incident under the carpet, with members attempting to bully those speaking out to get over it and move on.

Certainly, I do not wish for all the positive contributions that SOS have made to be overshadowed by this act. SOS has many good intentions, but I’m not the one who coined the phrase ‘œthe road to hell is paved with good intentions’. Naturally, being the first Liverpool fans’ union, SOS will have growing pains and mistakes are bound to happen. But given their visibility and the prominence as representatives of Liverpool fans, and given the fact that SOS have taken the great name of Bill Shankly as their call sign, we should hope that their reactions to such ‘œmistakes’ would be consistent with the Spirit they claim to stand for. We would hope that they would learn the lessons from such mistakes, issue a genuine heartfelt apology, and allow us all to move on properly ‘“ rather than hastily shrugging off the issue.

Until such a genuine apology is made by SOS, I for one am (and I know I am not alone in being) unwilling to be associated with SOS. They may aim to only represent the interests of their members (and judging by the gross disparity between their 2600 membership and the 500,000 Liverpool fans in the city and 10 million fans worldwide, those interests may not be representative of the vast majority of fans who reacted angrily to the aforementioned events), but so long as they identify themselves using a name that is synonymous with Liverpool football club, their actions will affect us all. And if they do not boldly remedy this situation, I’m weary of what actions may later be carried out in the interest of their members and by extension, the greater Liverpool FC fan base.

I was thus pleased when ThisIsAnfield originally reacted by issuing a statement condemning the shameful behaviour and removing the privilege previously given to SOS to issue statements through the forums. Although this was by no means a ban of SOS (all discussion through the forums have always been open to all LFC fans), I saw this action as a small step by ThisIsAnfield to stand up in defense of the true spirit of Shankly which had been demeaned not only by the initial actions in question, but also by SOS’s weak response. Subsequently, apparently upon weighing the competing risks of ‘œlosing some important forum members or losing our links with SOS and therefore our podcasts, links to the club and former players’, ThisIsAnfield’s decision makers decided that such action was ill advised, and have since backtracked from their original stance.

Certainly, ThisIsAnfield remains in my opinion the best Liverpool fan site and there is room for synergy between a Liverpool fan site and a Liverpool supporter’s union. So though I am disappointed by the recent changes in TIA’s stance, I do understand the expediency that has currently trumped the principles that many of TIA’s members originally chose to defend so vociferously. It is nonetheless understandable that TIA would rather ride the fence and provide a forum for individuals to debate their opinions without wading into the murky waters themselves. Unfortunately, there are some issues on which it is impossible to remain neutral: when you face the choice of defending principles or not defending them, a decision to not act is a choice to not defend those principles.

Alas I digress.

So now what? With all this said ‘“ what remains to be done?

The ball now appears to be firmly in SOS’s court. They may choose to address the concerns of their fellow Liverpool supporters, or they may decide that their initial ‘œapology’ is sufficient. I call on their leadership to issue a proper apology, to detail the steps they will take to prevent such actions, including a statement of principles incorporating the values of club loyalty, equality, respect and (not least) tolerance amidst rivalry to which their members will be expected to adhere, and taking appropriate actions against those who have sullied the good name of Shankly with their vile behaviour.

We can only hope that in keeping with the name they have adopted they will find the true spirit of Shankly, and rise up in the face of this current adversity, and choose to abide by the principles that were a firm part of the character of our great leader.

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