View from the Kop: How Thriving Fan Culture Has Spurred Liverpool's Title Chase

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportMay 3, 2019


Supporters are only just starting to file into Anfield when members of the fan group Spion Kop 1906 emerge onto Liverpool's world-famous stand.

As the minutes tick down towards kick-off and the stadium slowly fills, they move about the Kop setting out the huge banners and flags that will be waved in the air when the teams walk out ahead of kick-off.

The fan-funded group, which takes its name from the hill in South Africa after which the Kop was named, came together in September 2013 with the goal of enlivening the atmosphere in Anfield's historic stand by reviving traditions that were in danger of fizzling out.

Their self-designed, homemade banners pay tribute to Liverpool heroes of yesteryear, celebrate glories past and attempt to inspire the current team in their pursuit of glory. While Spion Kop 1906 remains independent of the club, in recent years its members have been granted access to the stadium between matches in order to work on banners that are too big to be stitched together in someone's back garden.

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"When you go in there and it's silent, there's only you about and you're looking around at the ground, you realise what a special place Anfield is," says group member Adam.

Even by the obsessive standards of English football, the Kop has always exerted a particular fascination. John Williams, a football sociologist from the University of Leicester who has written eight books about Liverpool, says evidence of outside interest in the Kop, in the form of contemporary newspaper articles, can be traced back to the interwar years.

"People began to talk about the Kop as a unique place, where the fans somehow connected with the players on the pitch more than they did in other places," Williams told Bleacher Report.

"The notion that people on the Kop were somehow special—and they were called 'Kopites' quite early on—was unusual."

It is a similar desire to connect with the players that motivates the people behind the flag displays on the modern-day version.

The Kop end, which accommodates 12,390 supporters in a single tier of seating, has been credited with inspiring countless late Liverpool winners. Members of Spion Kop 1906 also fondly recall occasions when opposition players have seemed unnerved by the seething mass of hostile fans in Anfield's southwest stand, such as when arch rivals Manchester United were beaten 2-0 in a riotous Europa League match in March 2016.

"There's a really good picture of the United team as they're lining up to shake hands with the Liverpool players," says Adam. "They're looking across and all staring at the Kop. Images like that make you realise what you're doing does have an effect on both our players and opposing players."

Liverpool's opponents on this particular evening are unlikely to require quite the same level of intimidation. Huddersfield Town, bottom of the Premier League and already relegated, have been given odds as high as 50/1 to win the game by some British bookmakers.

Nevertheless, the routine remains the same. As the players emerge from the tunnel into a chilly April evening, Liverpool anthem "You'll Never Walk Alone" booms out around the ground. Scarves are brandished in the air, flags waved and banners held high. Beneath a slate-grey sky, the Kop is a carnival of red and white.

At the same time, 5,000 kilometres away on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Liverpool fans in Boston, Massachusetts, are watching the images from Anfield on the television screens dotted around The Phoenix Landing Irish sports bar.

Liverpool and Boston have shared a football connection ever since John W. Henry's Fenway Sports Group took over at Anfield in October 2010, but Reds fans have been coming to watch matches at The Phoenix Landing since well before then. For a big game, up to 150 people will squeeze inside and drink in the action from Anfield just as intently as those perched on the red plastic seats inside the ground.

"For the last few years, almost every match has been at capacity," says Ian Gunniss, the chairperson of the official LFC Boston Supporters' Club.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - APRIL 26: Players of Liverpool pay their respects to the late Tommy Smith during the Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Huddersfield Town at Anfield on April 26, 2019 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Photo by Robbie Jay Barra
Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

"All the tables are taken, all the standing room is taken. It's kind of hard for the waiters and waitresses to get through sometimes. We're all there together, signing 'You'll Never Walk Alone.' Even though we're not at Anfield, it's like we've got some of that with us."

LFC Boston is one of over 280 official Liverpool supporters' clubs scattered across 90 countries. A walk behind the back of the Kop prior to kick-off is soundtracked by a panoply of accents from around the world: Scouse—the lively, nasal local dialect—most obviously, but also Irish, middle-class English, American, German, Scandinavian and Indian.

The massive global interest in Liverpool helps to support a sprawling industry of unofficial fan websites, blogs, podcasts and YouTube channels. Liverpool are covered in-depth by major international broadcast networks and websites, British national newspapers and the Liverpool Echo, not to mention the club's own media output, yet it is not enough to sate the limitless appetite for information about Jurgen Klopp's side.

Liverpool fan Gareth Roberts set up The Anfield Wrap podcast in August 2011 after growing frustrated with what he perceived to be the mainstream football media's reluctance to take the club's then owners, American investors Tom Hicks and George Gillett, to task.

Over the years that followed, what started out as a weekly podcast mushroomed into a fully formed independent media organisation with 11 full-time staff, a small army of contributors and around 12,500 subscribers each paying £5 a month for content.

The podcast has been taken all over the world for live shows—Australia, the United States, Hong Kong, Norway, Sweden—and an app was launched this week. Such popularity has enabled the company to move into a swanky set of offices in the chic Avenue HQ workspace on Liverpool's iconic waterfront.

Roberts is justifiably proud of The Anfield Wrap's success, but he knows it also bears testament to the fanatical devotion of Liverpool's fanbase.

"There is something different about Liverpool and the way Liverpool fans consume everything to do with the club," he tells Bleacher Report. "There's this feverish thing about Liverpool. We live it 24/7."

Huddersfield prove to be every bit as flimsy as the bookmakers predicted. Liverpool take the lead inside 15 seconds and run out 5-0 winners, with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane each scoring twice in a victory that briefly takes them above Manchester City at the top of the Premier League table.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - APRIL 26: Fans of Liverpool hold up a banner during the Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Huddersfield Town at Anfield on April 26, 2019 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images)
Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

As rain slants diagonally across the emptying stadium, Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson leads his team-mates across the pitch to salute the supporters on the Kop. The fans respond with a breezy chant of "Liverpool, Liverpool, Liverpool!"

Klopp, the team's hugely popular German manager, has adopted a habit of rousing the Kop after games with a quickfire salvo of air punches, each of which draws a cheer from the supporters behind the goal.

Opposition fans—particularly those from local rivals Everton—say he only does it when the cameras are on him, and with a Sky Sports cameraman following him across the green turf, he gestures apologetically to the lens and wags his finger, as if to say, "Not tonight." The Kop, feigning indignation, begins to boo and Klopp relents, pummelling the air in bravura fashion and eliciting the usual roars of approval. A knowing grin across his face, he crosses the pitch and disappears down the tunnel.

As a trading city where visitors from elsewhere traditionally had to rely on their wits in order to successfully peddle their wares, Liverpool is a place where humour and mental sharpness are highly prized. Williams describes the typical Scouser as "quick-witted, smart, quick on his feet" and in the gregarious, wisecracking Klopp, who arrived from Borussia Dortmund in October 2015, he feels Liverpool have found a natural figurehead.

"Klopp has a kind of non-conformism about him that fits perfectly with Liverpool supporters," says Williams.

"He feels like an outsider and Liverpool supporters like to think that they themselves and their club are outsiders.

"He's got a working-class sensibility about him. He came from Dortmund, and Liverpool supporters feel that Dortmund has lots of things in common with the city of Liverpool. He's also very funny, which fits with the smartness schtick that Liverpool fans have about themselves. He ticks a lot of boxes."

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - APRIL 26: Jurgen Klopp manager / head coach of Liverpool celebrates at full time during the Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Huddersfield Town at Anfield on April 26, 2019 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Photo by Robbie Ja
Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Another Anfield tradition that Klopp neatly slots into is that of the cult of the manager. Nowhere else in English football are managers venerated the way they are at Liverpool, where the men who won the club's five European Cups—Bob Paisley (1977, 1978, 1981), Joe Fagan (1984) and Rafael Benitez (2005)—enjoy quasi-immortal status.

Above them all stands Bill Shankly, the inspirational Scot who built the modern Liverpool by dragging them out of England's old Second Division in the early 1960s and laying the foundations for the team that would go on to dominate Europe in the 1970s and 1980s.

The success that he brought to Anfield would have been enough to cement his legacy on its own, but Shankly's collectivist approach to football—everyone working for the greater good, which he thought of as a form of socialism—gave the club an entire belief system.

"If you asked most Liverpool fans to define what Liverpool is, most of them would say Bill Shankly," says Jay McKenna, from Liverpool supporters' group Spirit of Shankly.

"The club represented working-class communities, and Shankly articulated that. He didn't make us, but he symbolised so much of what we were about. That's why he's almost deified."

Unusually for a Premier League manager, Klopp has been open about his political views, describing himself as "on the left" and declaring that he could "never vote for the right." Shankly would have surely approved.

If Shankly gave expression to a world view that chimed with local people's existing beliefs, it took the multiple degradations of the 1980s—economic decline, mass unemployment, high crime and a feeling of abandonment by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government in London—to truly politicise Liverpool's fanbase.

Crumbling and crime-scarred, Liverpool felt like a forgotten outpost, and the two great football tragedies of the era—Heysel in 1985, Hillsborough in 1989—left supporters of the city's leading football club feeling even more marginalised.

The fallout from the two disasters turned Liverpool fans into national pariahs; Heysel because the role of fans in the deaths of 39 Juventus supporters led to English clubs being banned from European competitions, Hillsborough after they were wrongly blamed for causing the deaths of 96 of their own. In the court of public opinion, Liverpool fans were violent, drunken hooligans who refused to accept responsibility for their actions. The response on the Kop was to circle the wagons.

"It made everyone close ranks and say, 'OK, if the rest of the country is going to label us and stereotype us, well f--k the rest of the country then,'" says Roberts.

"There is that aspect with Liverpool. You see some of the banners on the Kop and the T-shirts. 'Scouse not English,' and that kind of stuff. It comes from that feeling."

The sense of solidarity—of Us and Them—that took hold within Liverpool's fanbase is typified by the tireless campaign for justice that continues to be led by the families of the 96 Hillsborough victims.

LIVERPOOL, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 05:  Fresh tributes adorn the Hillsborough Memorial outside the stadium prior to the UEFA Europa League semi final second leg match between Liverpool and Villarreal CF at Anfield on May 5, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Phot
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

In recent times, the unity within Liverpool's support has emboldened fans to take a stand against the club's owners. It began with Hicks and Gillett, whose leveraged takeover in February 2007 and subsequent mismanagement of the club created so much disgust that the pair ended up being hounded out of Anfield in 2010.

Roberts identifies this period, which coincided with the emergence of Twitter and Facebook, as the instigator of a heightened level of engagement within Liverpool's global fanbase that exists to this day.

"It was our way of talking to each other about what Hicks and Gillett were doing," he says. "It became this sort of worldwide movement against them."

FSG has proved a more popular custodian, notably overseeing the £100 million reconstruction of Anfield's enormous Main Stand and significant investment in new players, but Henry and his associates have also been called to order.

When FSG announced that the top-price ticket in the reopened Main Stand would cost £77, supporters were outraged. The Spirit of Shankly group, which was formed to oppose Hicks and Gillett, reacted by organising a fan walkout in the 77th minute of a Premier League home game with Sunderland in February 2016. After thousands of disgruntled supporters streamed through the Anfield exits, FSG backed down, scrapping the planned price hike and issuing a grovelling mea culpa.

Anfield regulars say the club is now much more responsive to fan concerns, citing the appointment of former Liverpool Echo and The Times journalist Tony Barrett as a supporter liaison officer and Liverpool's support of community initiatives, such as a fan-led campaign to collect food for impoverished local families.

"The walkout precipitated a marked change in Liverpool's way of working with supporters," says McKenna, who sits on the Spirit of Shankly committee.

"If you asked most supporters, they'd probably say lots of positive things about the club. The club's gone on a hell of a journey to change things."

As the fans leaving the Kop emerge from the exits and head toward the pubs and bus stops on Walton Breck Road, they pass beneath two giant picture displays that sum up the way Liverpool like to present themselves to the world.

On one, which stretches across a facade above a ticket collection point, the word "SONGS" has been crossed out and replaced by the word "ANTHEM." The accompanying text reads: "You'll Never Walk Alone. Not a song. It's who we are." On an accompanying display, above The Kop Bar, "STADIUM" has been scored out in favour of "HOME." "Others have a stadium," it says below. "We have a spiritual home."

Tom Williams

The displays take their cue from a marketing campaign entitled "This Means More." Launched a year ago to coincide with the release of Liverpool's new home kit, it featured Klopp solemnly narrating an overwrought YouTube video about the club's relationship with its fans.

For many Liverpool supporters, it was a perfectly pitched articulation of the unique symbiosis that exists between the club and its fanbase. For fans of Liverpool's rivals, it was saccharine nonsense, an example of what happens when Scouse sentimentality is left to run unchecked.

Many opposition fans have voiced fears about the prospect of Liverpool winning the league this season, pointing to the tide of emotion that accompanied the Reds' unsuccessful pursuit of the title in 2013-14 as evidence that they would "never shut up about it."

It has been 29 long years since Liverpool last lorded it over English football, and Roberts scoffs at the notion that he and his fellow supporters should allow themselves to be troubled by questions of decorum.

"Are you telling me that if your club won the league, you'd just go and have a cup of tea and never mention it?" he says.

For now, City retain the upper hand in the title race, and Liverpool will have to overcome a 3-0 deficit against Lionel Messi's Barcelona if they are to reach the Champions League final for the second year running.

Whether or not they end their seven-year wait for silverware, there is a commonly held feeling in the stands and in the changing room that things are moving in the right direction. Klopp has urged fans to "enjoy the ride."

In a small room beneath the Kop, the flags and banners are folded away until the next home game. Many of the names and faces on them are figures from years gone by, but Liverpool fans have no time for the age-old accusation that they live in the past.

Right now, they and their team are living firmly in a thrilling present.


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