ATMOSPHERE is one of the trickiest, most slippery concepts in football.
It’s at once fundamental to the game’s success and appeal, while all the while being threatened by its global reach. It’s subjective, your perception essentially pivoting on whether you think a ‘cauldron of hate’ sounds like a good or a bad thing.
In one of football’s many paradoxes, most fans agree an atmosphere of some kind should be created, but we often seem powerless to exert our collective will, with the problem seeming to have grown more pronounced at Anfield in recent years. Listless afternoons where the away fans can be heard above our own for long periods have become far too familiar.
Many of the visitors’ songs, as is the post-modern way of things these days, relate directly to the absence of our ‘famous atmosphere’. It’s far from original, this line, but it does have an essential ingredient of the best antagonistic chants – a kernel of truth.
Anfield is too often a pretty sterile place to be, where the only hostility is directed at whichever of our young midfielders is the current whipping boy and there’s barely any singing to be heard outside a few blocks in the Kop.
Not that it’s all about the singing – it’s possible to be part of a positive atmosphere without bursting into a tune every two minutes. It’s just that lots of us have forgotten how.
In reality, too many matchgoers are at the wrong extremes of football fandom. We have a core of jaded, careworn supporters who’ve seen everything in their time rubbing shoulders with a constantly changing cast of customers who’ve rarely if ever been to the ground before and may never come again. Between the two poles there aren’t enough young people, groups of mates, inculcated in the club’s traditions but not yet ground down by the hardship of breaking off from a good afternoon’s drinking to watch some footballers running about.
At the root of all this is the soaring cost of attending football matches. With young local fans increasingly frozen out, the game is either a one-off treat or a soul-sapping drain on the family finances. Neither is conducive to creating the continuity or underlying enthusiasm which are the oxygen a good atmosphere needs to catch light.
Another major issue, and one it’s hard for Liverpool fans to address given the weight of history, is the introduction of all-seater stadia. Whereas once groups of supporters could go to the match en masse bunching together with like-minded souls to form terrace choirs, now it’s tough to sit near even one or two friends.
For season ticket holders the only continuity is likely to come in the form of the annoying gobshite in the row in front who’s been abusing Henderson/Murphy/McAteer/Nigel Clough for seasons on end.
This is not to advocate a return to standing areas – simply to suggest that seating, for all its benefits, has had a profound effect on the way the game is consumed.
Sociologist and Liverpool historian John Williams, writing at the turn of the last decade, summed up the development of a flatter atmosphere:
“It is much more difficult in the seats to rouse fellow supporters into song. Noticeably, too, very few local, unaccompanied teenage fans of the sort who made up an important part of the Kop’s original standing and singing core now attend at Anfield. Can they afford to? Would they want to sit?”
In fact, given the 18 years which have now passed since the Kop was seated, it may be impossible to recapture the folk memory of terrace culture. We need to tackle the here and now.
Can supporters do it alone? Understanding, on one level, that the team might be lifted through an injection of passion and volume, we seem unable to respond en masse. Anxiety transmits itself from crowd to players (and vice-versa).
This is a problem the club should recognise and try to tackle. One reason is the clear benefits a football team can gain from feeling upbeat and supported, rather than cowed and anxious, at its home ground. Another gets closer to the core of the issue, given Liverpool’s aggressive marketing of Anfield as having a unique atmosphere, reason enough alone to fly over, book a Thomas Cook match break, ‘enjoy’ some tepid food in the Reds Bar and invest the equivalent of Gabon’s GDP in megastore tat.
What happens when you reach saturation point, when more people are there to admire the noise and the colour, to take it all in as part of a tourist experience. than to truly be a part of it? It’s an ever-decreasing circle which will see both diehard fans and big-spending visitors become disillusioned.
So Liverpool FC needs to abandon the laissez-faire approach it’s traditionally taken and get involved in helping bring Anfield back to life.
There are mixed signals on whether they understand what this will take. The tiered pricing at Europa League and League Cup games has been relatively fair, a key factor in making the game affordable to younger fans. While that’s a welcome sign, the introduction of the horrendous Anfield playlists suggest it’s just as likely Ian Ayre’s currently burning a CD marked ‘possible goal celebration music’ as we speak.
The outlook’s not uniformly bleak – the Supporters’ Committee is in its infancy but can play a role here. There’s also the prospect that, sooner or later, we’ll have lots of extra seats to play with. Many observers have made the point that even since the long-overdue introduction of differential pricing, there remains a very small gap between the cheapest and most expensive tickets.
The stadium expansion should be a means to stretch that divide, increasing the numbers paying for hospitality tickets (with a commensurate improvement in the standard of that hospitality) while setting aside a small but significant number of low-cost tickets in decent parts of the ground would be a move in the right direction.
Baby steps, maybe, but steps worth taking on a difficult road towards ensuring the phrase ‘Anfield atmosphere’ can be used with a straight face long into the future.
This article first appeared in issue 17 of Well Red Magazine.