The following was originally written as a blog for The Times. Well, no, that’s not true. It was actually the middle section of a blog about something else written for The Times, and then brutally and ruthlessly cut down by heartless sub-editors. I felt it warranted a second, more considered attempt. It is not to be construed as an attack on anyone; that is not its purpose. It is an attempt to explain and understand a perception and a phenomenon, one which affects Liverpool but stretches beyond them.
THERE is a myth about Liverpool. Like all the best myths, it is accepted as fact by those who hear it, and presented as truth by those who repeat it. It is not an especially damaging myth. In some cases, it is probably worn as a badge of honour, seen as a point of pride. Like all myths, though, it comes from somewhere. It was not born of the ether or conjured from nothing. Like all myths, its genesis tells us a lot about the world which spawned it.
The myth is this. Liverpool fans are the worst on the internet. They are angry and they are vicious and they have a hair-trigger temper. They greet any criticism, real or perceived, of the club they love with absolute fury. They come armed with words and threats and scorn. They lash out at whoever aggravates them. Their attacks are not curbed by moderation, or dampened by doubt. They are sustained and they are ferocious.
This is not true. All clubs have fans like that in what used to be known as cyberspace. It is always a minority, but it does not always seem that way. Liverpool fans are no worse than any other. There is not some genetic predisposition among supporters of this one club that makes them more prone to rage.
Some might say that, actually, there is: the perception, from the outside, is that the inhabitants of Merseyside are more emotional than the rest of the country. This may or may not be true; in this instance, whether it is can be discarded as irrelevant. The Liverpool fans who issue abuse on the internet are as likely to be from Wisconsin as they are from Woolton. It is nothing to do with Merseyside, and it is nothing to do with Scousers. It is much more complex than that.
The first factor behind this myth is the numbers. You are more likely to be shouted at by Liverpool fans than, say, Stoke City fans, because there are more Liverpool fans in the world than there are Stoke City fans. Only Manchester United and Arsenal can match them for popularity in the United Kingdom. Judging by the gauge of Facebook likes, Chelsea compete abroad, too. So you are more likely to think fans of these clubs are angry because – if you criticise them – there is a broader spread of people who might be angry with you.
That is the simple explanation, but that quickly gives way to a second layer. Liverpool fans seem more numerous on social media (and by that we mean Twitter, Facebook and the comments sections of websites) than others because no fan-base, at any club, is quite so mobilised for the social media age.
When the Twitter phenomenon was starting to explode, when more and more fans were finding their voice on forums, Liverpool, you may remember, were going through a protracted battle to rid their club of the two snake-oil salesmen they called owners.
The travails of the Hicks and Gillett era have been forgotten remarkably quickly by football at large. It seems strange how infrequently they are mentioned. Perhaps that is a factor of how fast football moves now. Four years ago is ancient history. But as someone who covered that story, who likes to think in some small way they might have helped highlight quite what Hicks and Gillett were doing, it is safe to say that there was a point where Liverpool flirted with inexistence. Perhaps that is a slight exaggeration. Administration was certainly a possibility. They stared into the abyss, shall we say.
The club’s fans, as you can imagine, were a mite miffed by this. They thought that the idea that two vulture capitalists could run their team into the ground in search of a quick buck was A Bad Thing. So they clubbed together to form the estimable Spirit of Shankly; they marched and they protested and they sang; they did all of the things fans – not just fans, actually, any exploited group – have always done to make themselves heard.
This being the early 21st century, though, they also took to forums, where they expressed their views to other Liverpool fans. They started opining on websites, in the below-the-line comments. And then they took to Facebook and to Twitter, where they tried to appeal to the rest of the world. In 2008 and 2009, fans of every hue had occasion to join Twitter. Liverpool fans flocked in greater numbers, because they did not just have a desire to be heard: they had something specific to say.
So we have a club of immense popularity, with a set of supporters mobilised online to wage a war. Add to that the fact that over recent years, Liverpool fans have had more occasion to be defensive than supporters of Arsenal, United and Chelsea, because – as you may have noticed – things have not been going so well for them. Until this season, they have been, to use the technical term, a bit crap, certainly by the exacting standards set by their past. The result? Tetchiness: almost radioactive levels of tetchiness.
It would be enough, perhaps, to leave it there. Certainly, when this piece was first written, there were plenty who advised it should have been. There is, though, a broader issue at stake, one that goes well beyond Liverpool. It is to do with the changing nature of what it means to be a fan.
In my younger days, sitting near the funniest fan I have ever met – the one who once spent an entire game supporting a linesman – at Elland Road, there was never any impression that supporting the club meant agreeing with every decision that was made. It certainly did not mean thinking every player was any good. With Gunnar Halle in the team, such an approach would not have been practical.
You would hear fans who wanted more direct football, fans who wanted it played on the ground, fans who wanted Harry Kewell to be shot. Being a fan was not like being a member of a religion, like being a Belieber. Thinking the club and the team and the manager and the players were perfect was not part of the deal. This was not worship; it was ardent well-wishing. You wanted them to win, obviously, but you were well aware that they were flawed and weak. Supporters were there to encourage, of course, but it was their God-given right to criticise. And boy did they criticise.
That is anathema now, in a world where fans exist in such great numbers online. Supporting a team has always been like having a family – you can criticise from the inside, but the outside world must be greeted with a united front – but that phenomenon has been exacerbated by a friction caused by overexposure.
I grew up surrounded by Leeds fans, Manchester United fans, Liverpool fans (in that order) and then sundry others. You would talk football, and you would argue football, and you would be appalled by their latent bias and their incorrigible refusal to accept that your way was the right way. But they were, in the end, your mates, or your mates’ mates, or – later – your colleagues. You had a sort of base level of respect for them. You knew fans of other teams were not so different from you, except in that one aspect, and you knew that their views could be as layered and complex as yours. You had an understanding of what it was to be them, in their shoes.
Online, though, you are exposed not to a handful of supporters of other clubs who you happen to know well, but by countless thousands who you do not know at all. You are not party to the inner workings of their minds, their thought processes, their anxieties and their honest analyses. You simply see their arrogance and their disdain. And so the family closes ranks. Us against the world. Me, and you. Us, and them. Views become entrenched, lines are drawn. There is black and white. If you are not with us, you must be against us.
This is a great shame, because it dispels one of the great pleasures of football: that there are countless ways to see things, almost all of them as incorrect as each other. There are schisms in every fan-base. At Manchester United, there are those who feel that David Moyes must be dismissed immediately, and there are those who are rather enjoying slumming it with the proles, or who want to see him given more time.
At Arsenal – the best parallel for Liverpool – there are those who are grateful for what Arsene Wenger has done, and who feel that his record warrants patience and forbearance. There are those who take the diametrically opposed view, who want him gone, now, who believe he is holding them back. At Tottenham and at Everton and at Stoke and at Norwich and at Real Madrid it is the same. No fan-base is a uniform whole.
Not least at Liverpool. There is no more politicised fan-base in football than Liverpool, another toxic legacy of Hicks and Gillett. Even now, the wounds have not yet healed. The rifts their ownership seared into the club remain.
There were those who blamed the owners for the problems. There were those who blamed the manager, Rafael Benitez, for not performing better given the money he spent. There were those who thought blaming one was offering excuses for the other. People chose a camp. There were friends, and there were enemies. There were the right kinds of supporters, and the wrong kind.
Even now, as someone who is – correctly – seen as a Benitez sympathiser, there are many who see every word, every action as evidence of some kind of agenda, who disparage every view as irrelevant because of a stance adopted long ago. It is not just me; you see it in websites. This website, in fact: The Anfield Wrap is viewed, by a small, determined cadre of Liverpool fans as being avowedly Rafaista, and therefore unforgivably other, as being the work of the wrong kind of fans, in a world where being the wrong kind of fan is being no fan at all.
It is the same at Arsenal, and it will be – if it is not already – the same at United. Liverpool are symptomatic of a broader shift, a wider topic. Liverpool are symbolic of the way that being a fan has changed, through that same phenomenon of increased exposure, as well as saturation media coverage (football matters more now, or seems to, because you simply cannot escape it).
There have always been schisms within a fanbase. But now those schisms are presented to you all of the time, by people you do not know, and therefore are not predisposed to respect. Just as this leads to entrenched views between supporters of rival clubs, it has the same effect on supporters of one team who hold differing views. It becomes me and you, us and them. And it reaches the stage where supporting what you think is more important than supporting your club.
The best example of this, at the moment, is not Liverpool. At Liverpool, the wounds of the past are a little below the surface; they are still there, though, and will always be, whenever Steven Gerrard’s best position is discussed, or whether Pepe Reina should be brought back, or whether the 2009 team did genuinely go close to winning the league. No, the best example is Arsenal, where there are some fans who are perceived as wanting the team to fail, simply so that Wenger’s demise is accelerated.
This is what it is to be a fan, now. This is a lament for how things used to be, but it is laced with understanding, because no matter how much you love your club, how well you want them to do, your first loyalty is always to yourself. You want to be proven right. Your cachet, your reputation, your standing in the vast, sprawling online world, depends upon it. You want to be right. Even if that means your team going wrong.