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.
I liked the article first time I saw it. Shame that you took stick over it Rory. Anyone who is familiar with your work probably gets it. Shame it got a bit hijacked.
First TAW That’s done me head in, total shite, Wats this got to do with football waste of time
Football is not just about what happens on the pitch, it has internal and external politics, more sophisticated involvement of the fans, both individually and collectively, largely driven by new social media.
The premise of the article is about perceptions of LFC fans in the media, how this came about, and why it applies to other fans as well.
Just because no match or player are discussed, it doesn’t mean the article isn’t about football. I can see why the sub-editors could have bowdlerised the article, but it worked for me and, as Rory states in the article, all fans are different, so if it doesn’t work for you, that is OK, as it is your prerogative.
We speak English here, try it some time.
Much better read with the flourishing finish Mr Smith, I agree and all. I blame that fella out of Kaiser Chiefs who looks just like you for writing that song about venting, loosely formed gang members who like to peruse tabloids and other journals on a daily basis, like what you write for, ergo it all comes back to those words you like to join together in the big print factory, they are what is making the football tribes people become all hot and bothersome. However, were you to invite Patrick Barclay over one weekend to admire your rare collection of Ospreys and kill him with a blow to the neck from one of Martin Samuel’s many store’d pies which can be procured simply by following him down any road he cares to walk along and thereby framing the rotund by jingo sensationalist, the curse will be broke forever…
Rory has a very good point, how often are old tweets brought back from years ago stating ‘look see you said this then, and your wrong! I was right because I said that then now follow me and add to my numbers’ Everyone wants to be validated. The club should always come first and everyones view expressed if not agreed with.
Excellent piece, Rory. Don’t think I ever came across the original but very perceptive and insightful as to the human condition of being a fan, if I can put it that way. Yer man above didn’t like it, not football related yadda yadda, that’s his opinion which he’s entitled to. Football “doesn’t exist in a vacuum” (Soz, Neil), and the growing mentality of “supporting what you think is more important than supporting your club” has been something I’ve been aware of (and guilty of) but couldn’t articulate as well as your good self. Thought provoking stuff. Thanks.
Really enjoyed that. It’s something I’ve noticed more and more. The internet had completely skewed what it is to be a fan. The having an ‘agenda’ rather than an opinion is a prime example.
Interesting and genuinely ‘different’ article. Well in.
Great article – one thing you might have mentioned that is surely a unique sign of the times is the transfer window – I’m astounded by the ‘in the knows’ culture – quickly followed by the rage when a player isn’t signed- brilliant
Thrilling read. Personally, I have shared some thoughts of the kind when dwelling on the nature of the contemporary fans of the game who above all discuss to insult others, rather than to get the joy of wasting their time talking about the best possible topic (miles ahead of politics). I wonder, if football in 20-30 years should not have become some kind of twisted soccer show, are there going to be any genuine supporters loving a proper footie chat or I will have to get on with morons slamming anything that does not go in the direction of their mediocre or I’d even put it basic thought process. Anyways, TAW is a a breath of fresh air and long may it be!
Good article, Rory. I think it’s an interesting side of things to discuss.
And for me, I know I get defensive & irritated by the media at large because of how often Liverpool seem to be portrayed as ‘shit’ or ‘lucky.’ And the last few years we’ve been to absolute hell and back with our club and everyone around us felt the need to continually kick us while we were down. The media, rival fans, anyone who didn’t support Liverpool just loved sticking the boot in. It’s easy to get incredibly defensive when people do nothing but, pardon my language, talk shit about the thing you love so much.
H&G were at the core of all this and it felt like the club had been irreparably damaged. Hope, joy, and any degree of success felt lost forever.
So while I think it’s easy for some to see Liverpool fans as reactionary, it’s because of this. The pain we’ve all felt has left deep wounds. And the media may never praise Liverpool like they do other teams no matter what we achieve. For me, that’s my question to you. Why do so many love to tear Liverpool down when they feel so happy to lift others up? And when we do the same things as Chelsea or City, why is it treated differently?
Just my two cents. And while I don’t always agree with you, I would never abuse you (at least I don’t think I have!). I enjoy the discussion.
I’m not on there but baffling not-seeing-the-wood-for-the-trees logic certainly outdates Twitter. I’ll never forget (in 2008ish) hearing someone in school saying they wanted us to lose a game so Benitez would get the bullet.
It’s not just fans though. Gerrard’s missed pen under Hodgson was as good as most of his goals, the selfless hero.
I found this an interesting article due to it being the first article I’ve read on the issue. After all, this is still a fairly new phenomenon. Up until 6 or 7 years ago we used to spend our evenings watching TV. Match of the Day would be on Saturday nights and Football Focus on Saturday mornings (I’ve never had Sky) and that was about the only time we got to see Liverpool outside of the match. We met up at the match on a Saturday and talked football with mates but that was it. Now, people sit with their laptops, Ipods or phones looking at the internet. It’s almost as if we’re learning how to communicate with people electronically for the first time in our evolution. I’ve certainly learned about myself during this era. I’m learning what triggers me to want to express myself.
I’d describe myself growing up as an obsessed Liverpool fan but I didn’t know anything about the players unless it was included in the player profile in my Panini sticker book. I couldn’t have told you the name of the owners even. With the rise of the internet though and the advent of social media that’s all changed. It’s connected us all in one way or another and one of the results is the ability to discuss football 24/7 with other people who have the same passion. We get 24/7 exposure of every aspect of the club. It consumes our lives and our thoughts. I liken football to a soap opera now. I don’t watch soaps but I know they are addictive almost. A lot of people have found a soap they can relate to and also share their thoughts, publicly, on the latest twist and turn, in real time. That in itself increases the fervour with which follow your team and due to the exposure the rivalry with other supporters.
I see the problem / issue though being about the personalities of British people. The author rightly says this has no international borders but I can only say what I’ve seen here. I’m sure it’s similar globally. We’re naturally tribal. Growing up, our street fought with the next one. One side of our estate fought against the other half. Our estate fought with another estate. Our town (Chester) fought with Wrexham. We hated Southerners. We hated the Welsh and the French. We hated the Americans and I’m not talking of ‘us’ as a small group. All the lads I knew felt the same. It was how we were expected to behave based on our geographical location. This is now being played out on the internet instead and what better vehicle than football. The biggest key to the escalation of fervour though is ‘anonymity’. In the past we had to face these people to confront them. Now, even the lad with no mates who got bullied can let fly and express himself with no fear.
This has highlighted many traits of the British personality. I’ve mentioned rivalry but it’s become obvious to anyone willing to admit it that Britain has underclass of seriously fucked up people. Adults who can’t even spell simple words because they’re so fuckin thick. Racists, bigot’s, people without rationality or common sense or the ability to empathise or process information. We’ve seen people displaying their personality disorders publicly, like Kopology. So, i’m inclined to not look at this as a team v team issue but a reflection of society although we do see group mentalities. If we’re mentioning Liverpool then if we look at the core of the fan base then it’s in Liverpool despite the fans being global. Liverpool is a naturally socialist city and the football clubs identity is based on those values. If there’s an issue I’d expect Liverpool fans would tackle the issue before Chelsea fans would in the same way i would united fans due to the make up of their city. The people of Liverpool are renowned as being proud people and proud people don’t like admitting they were wrong, in my experience.
I considered myself sane prior to this connected state. My first ramblings revolved around people speaking untruths about Hillsborough. I had a strong urge to tell them what had happened but when they replied with conviction that their view was correct and I was blinkered or too partisan it led me to want to take them on. I can remember how angry i felt behind my keyboard. I was very active on FB regarding the Suarez / Evra spat as again I felt like I had something I wanted to express.
So, to finally get to my point, we’re hearing the views of idiotic people moreso than we have before. They’re out there all over Britain and beyond and it’s linked to class rather than team. I think Liverpool fans are probably one of the most proactive, though, for a few reasons. I think we’re more inclined to hear from them over an issue and when we look at what can trigger a response from fairly sane people then Liverpool fc has had more events in their past that provoke a reaction. Pride, an us and them mentality and injustice have conspired to make Liverpool fans the most vocal.
Apologies, that’s embarrassingly long.
But Rory it doesn’t’ take much to realise that a lot of the internet chatter is from 12 to 14 year old kids sitting in their bedrooms with the lights out while Mummy thinks they are asleep.
Have another look.It’s not like a face to face discussion.It just amuses me that a lot of it is slagging people off behind the safety of a keyboard.And you can tell that by the fact that they have no sense of humour whatsoever.
That’s the modern world for you.Don’t take it too seriously!
I thought this was thoughtful article. The internet and chatrooms has spawned so much aggressive shite. Being a fan is being a fan, and watching Liverpool now is bringing me back to ’87. In so many ways that is a brilliant thing, and we should enjoy each others’ passion for this club.
Is it just me or do the comments echo the article? Too many wannabe journo’s spouting shite that is often unreadable. Love the site, pod & articles but btl is embarrassing at times…