When the founders of the Fans Supporting Foodbanks initiative head to Old Trafford next weekend, they’ll be taking parcels with them – but still hoping for three points on the pitch.
Liverpool versus Manchester United is one of the fiercest and most hotly contested matches in the football calendar. The simmering rivalry between the two cities and the supporters frequently boils over, and the desire to win is great on both sides of the M62. However, as the Reds travel to Old Trafford, one group of Liverpool fans will be bringing parcels of food instead of hate.
Fans Supporting Foodbanks is an initiative set up by a group of supporters who follow both Liverpool and Everton. Ian Byrne, Dave Kelly, Robbie Daniels and a host of others established the campaign in response to a genuine crisis on the city’s streets and in its homes, as a consequence of the UK Governments controversial austerity programme.
It may be hard to believe, but in the UK, the sixth richest nation on earth, there are people – many of them in work – who don’t have enough money to feed their families. Estimates suggest that as many as 14.3 million people are living in poverty, including 3.9 million children.
In 2010, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government implemented a programme of austerity. Its aim was to slash public spending and cut social security expenditure. Critics have argued that this amounts to punishing the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society for a crisis that originated in the global financial sector.
As a result, local authority budgets have been slashed and paradoxically cities like Liverpool and Manchester, who have some of the highest levels of social deprivation in the country, have been hardest hit. The consequence is children going hungry and communities desperately rallying around to feed their own.
The problem has been significantly compounded by the roll-out of the Government’s Universal Credit scheme, which has the impact of worsening poverty and is so poorly administered that many go weeks without receiving payments. Its controversial sanctions regime has actually thrown dying people off the benefit and has reportedly led to many suicides.
A report in the respected medical journal, The Lancet, suggests that there have been 120,000 more deaths in the UK since 2010 as a result of austerity than would have been expected if pre-2010 mortality rates had continued. And, although the government dispute these statistics, the very real misery inflicted on the poor and the visible homelessness on our streets is hard to ignore.
However, while the current Conservative government have ignored appeals from charities and others, choosing instead to plough on with their austerity policies, supporters of both football clubs in Liverpool have risen to the challenge. In a phenomenon typical of the people of Merseyside, Reds and Blues have set aside their sporting differences and identified there is a bigger picture at stake.
Robbie Daniels, an Everton supporter and co-founder of Fans Supporting Foodbanks, told This Is Anfield why it was so important for footballing rivalries to be suspended in order to help the needy. His anger is clear:
“There is a need for communities to come together in common cause. Just as our city was unified over Hillsborough, we are once more in response to this evil Tory government. Austerity, Universal Credit the Bedroom Tax and the massive underfunding of the City Council is hurting the people we care about.
“The power of football supporters through fan activism should never be overlooked, and I’m proud that in times of trouble the fans of this great city come together as one to support the most vulnerable in society. It’s the right thing to do, the moral thing to do and it’s the Scouse thing to do.”
Robbie and his friend Dave Kelly are members of an Everton supporter’s group, The Blue Union. They had previously campaigned jointly with Reds group, the Spirit of Shankly (SOS) over ticket pricing. Dave, together with Ian Byrne, a local Labour councillor and SOS committee member, they visited a community centre in the Walton area of the city. They were horrified by what they saw.
Walton is the only UK constituency that serves two football clubs – Liverpool and Everton are at opposite ends of Stanley Park – and it has some of the highest levels of social deprivation in the country. Ian tells me how the trio were motivated to act by what they witnessed that day:
“We saw a line of people queuing up outside. When we asked what was going on inside, we were told that these people were waiting for food. It took our breath away. It was like a punch in the gut.
“The thought of people from our community lining up for food in 2015, as it was then, was utterly appalling and we saw it as a damning indictment of the Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition and their austerity programme.”
The three lads were taken inside and shown a store room with empty shelves. The need was outstripping the supply and there wasn’t enough to go around.
“It broke our hearts,” said Ian. “A bag of pasta being divided up into small sweet bags is a memory I will never forget. So, later that night, Fans Supporting Foodbanks was born. At the next match, it was at Goodison, we asked the council for wheelie bins so that we could collect donations.”
The council obliged and the bins were placed outside the Winslow Pub. It’s fair to say that the campaign got off to a slow start. Ian recalls, “we got more chip wrappers than tins but that’s how it all began.”
Fans Supporting Foodbanks take their inspiration from the Celtic fan group, The Green Brigade, who hold huge collections in their own communities. The spirit of solidarity in Glasgow and the belief in communities coming together to support each other was something that resonated strongly with the lads.
The success of SOS and Blue Union in slowing down, and in some cases halting the rise in ticket prices, also gave the group the confidence that they could do something about food poverty too. They knew that both Reds and Blues had come together after Hillsborough and in the aftermath of the murder of Rhys Jones, an Everton supporter, and felt they would again.
In addition, both Ian and Dave are committed Trade Unionists and understand the importance of unity and collectivism. This is an ethos that runs through the history of Liverpool Football Club. Reds supporters have long been inspired by Bill Shankly’s philosophy in the 1960s. The great Scot famously spoke of his socialism and belief in everybody working together and sharing the rewards at the end of the day.
Ian and Robbie are adamant that rivalry should exist for 90 minutes only, saying:
“For 90 minutes, on the pitch and in the stands, we celebrate our rivalries and support our teams. But, after that, we would urge working-class supporters across the country to understand who our real enemies are.
“The people who propagate austerity and policies like zero-hours contracts that drive working families into poverty and foodbanks, they are the people we should turn our anger on. Not each other. When we do allow ourselves to be divided, we make it easier for them to divide us.
“Race, religion and football allegiances, these are all just ways in which they set us against each other. When we fall for it, it makes implementing austerity easier. Our message is to challenge this false narrative and to always remember that unity is strength.”
Both Liverpool and Everton Football Clubs have been supportive of the initiative, with club officials and players regularly donating and visiting the group’s van on Anfield Road and near Goodison on match days. Liverpool CEO, Peter Moore, donated a vehicle through his foundation and has been seen handing over bags of food.
This is an issue the whole community can get behind, regardless of their status. And, with both clubs being strongly linked to their respective neighbourhoods, it seems only right that they show their support too.
So, as Ian boards a coach to Old Trafford, he will be carrying donations of food for the poor and hungry in Manchester, just as he has done in previous seasons. He doesn’t see it as charity, instead it is simply solidarity from one working-class community to another. Ian explains:
“My enemy is not someone who speaks with a Salford accent or a Geordie accent. I don’t care if you’re a Cockney either. My enemies are the people who make me do this, who drive my community to foodbanks. They are also enemies of the people of Manchester too.”
So just like everyone who supports Liverpool, Ian will be hoping to return home with three points on Sunday. He’s happy for United fans to be miserable for 90 minutes. But when he returns home, when they return home, he understands that we all deserve to live a decent life, free from poverty and hunger, regardless of what team we support.
Dave, Ian and Robbie look forward to the day when foodbanks are consigned to history. They dream of getting back to discussing team selections and the fortunes of their clubs. Until that day though, they will continue to defend each others’ communities from the effects austerity, and they are appealing to all supporters to get behind them.
Dave Kelly points out that, “if the 40,000 people attending Goodison and the 50,000 attending Anfield were to simply donate one can of food each at every game, there would be no hungry people on Merseyside.”
Ian agrees: “My message to supporters of all colours, no matter where you are from, would be please support our campaign. If you visit with a donation however small, please share on social media and spread the message of Fans Supporting Foodbanks.
“We are always delighted when we get visiting supporter groups and their solidarity means so much to the communities in Liverpool who are struggling under Tory austerity.”
There will be those who say that politics doesn’t belong in football. This misses the point. Politics and football are about people and community. The actions of government affect us all, and football does not exist in a vacuum.
So, the next time you attend a game, at Anfield, Goodison, Old Trafford or wherever, open your eyes. Take in the neighbourhoods and the people. You’ll see they’re not so different to you, and some of them are suffering. Whatever your politics or the team you support, do what you can to help. Most of us are just one paycheck from being in the same position.
* Follow Fans Supporting Foodbanks on Twitter @SFoodbanks and view the matchday collection points for Anfield here.