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ANFIELD’S atmosphere was once a source of pride for Liverpool fans but now it’s perceived by many match-goers to be a problem. This season in particular, the atmosphere – or lack of it – has rarely been off the agenda for Reds at the game. The debate among supporters can often be circular so what is the academic point of view? I asked PETER MILLWARD, a senior lecturer in Sociology at Liverpool John Moores University.

GR: Is there a reason, a theory, that you can think of as to why many Anfield regulars now think what was once the envy of clubs around the world has, in their words, ‘disappeared forever’?

PM: I think it’s difficult to gauge what the atmosphere was, is and always will be. There’s always a nostalgic edge to it. When you look at studies sociologically in this field they always look at what is real and what is nostalgic.

There’s possibly a sense of ‘things were always better’ in the past, when we were kids, than they are today and that applies to the issue of atmosphere. We might think grounds were more raucous, that it was ‘better’ – whatever that might mean to an individual. I’d say there’s an element to it that is probably perceived. But equally there is probably an element that is very real.

In terms of volume of crowds it can probably be connected to the change in class composition of those who go to the ground because of the rise in ticket prices when compared to the cost of living and average wages.

GR: And seating v standing has also had an effect hasn’t it?

PM: Yes, undoubtedly. Andy Townsend doesn’t say many wise things but I once heard him say that not even Val Doonican can sing when he sits down. When you’re on The Kop you don’t sit all game, you stand for at least part of it…

GR: And plenty stand all the way through…

PM: …yeah, if you’re conditioned to sit down it makes a difference.

GR: I think what is simultaneously depressing and the reality of the situation, depending on what ‘group’ you’re in, is that Scousers, Wools, Out of Towners, Bucket Listers, Tourists…they all blame each other. I’ve stood on The Kop for 25 years on and off and I still do but it seems a blame culture has developed about whose ‘fault’ it is rather than anyone offering any solutions on how to make it better.

PM: Those groups you talk of have probably become more distinct. You had a long period when the Kop stood, had no allocated spaces, and people would intermingle and move about — both deliberately and unknowingly…

GR: And it meant you could stand with your mates…

PM: Yeah, and bit by bit as you moved about you got to know faces and understand ‘the rules’. Historically I don’t know whether The Kop was always Scouse but I would suggest it wasn’t always entirely and those on it who are ‘wools’ like me — from towns like Wigan, St Helens, Widnes, Warrington, wherever — if they behaved in a way that promoted a good atmosphere, if they added to it in the right way, they would become accepted, I think. Where they were from became less important. With The Kop now being seated — even though lots of people don’t sit — you have an allocated space and it makes territories far more distinct. There isn’t as much intermingling. 

GR: Older Kopites often say The Kop, and the ground generally, was more Celtic once. It was dockers on there, workers, which you have touched on. One of the songs on The Kop talks about ‘every other Saturday’s me half day off’ and that’s obviously why we have the tradition of three o’clock kick offs, a tradition slowly slipping away as kicks off are spread through the day and through the week.

PM: The 3pm kick off was to compensate for people finishing on the docks or in factories at 12 or 1 then they would go down the pub for a couple of hours and then to the game. It’s a pretty positive thing that most people now have Saturdays off in their entirety and much of that is down to trade union action. But if you think about the history of football clubs they were tied to pubs, tied to churches, to worker’s organisations. It was a community-based support and it fostered a partisan atmosphere.

GR: And that’s how songs started isn’t it? In pubs, among groups of mates, groups of workers. If there are too many disparate groups – tourists from all over the world, locals, supporter clubs from around the country – do you think there is less of a feeling ‘of one’ that maybe helped the atmosphere in the past?

PM: Yeah, I think that’s true. But essentially big clubs like Liverpool can sell out stadiums time after time and the club is just bowing to the market. And that means lads from Anfield, Tuebrook, Huyton can’t afford it at 50 quid a go or thereabouts. What’s the average age on The Kop now? Forty-plus? That’s a big change from lads from school going together on a regular basis.

GR: There are hardly any kids. The club has only decided in fairly recent times that under-16s on The Kop with adult season tickets could now pay kids’ prices. It sounds a good thing but no one seems to know what that actually equates to numbers wise. From where I am on The Kop it looks very low — there aren’t great numbers of kids in there. There’s no Boy’s Pen or equivalent. There’s a parent child section in the upper Anfield Road but that’s it really. There’s no culture of going the game at a young age at Anfield now.

PM: It’s not easy is it? I am all in favour of the dads and lads, parent child type tickets but when I was 15 and going to the game – admittedly in a lower division – I was going with mates and it cost us £1.50.

GR: I paid a fiver at Anfield in 1990.

PM: It was £1.50 in 1995 at Wigan so what’s that in today’s money… six quid, something like that? Even accounting for a shift in status of the game, there is a massive difference in ticket prices between then and now, way beyond inflation.

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GR: The other thing with the atmosphere issue – and it may well be a nostalgia issue as you suggest – is that in relatively recent history, Chelsea in the Champions League in 2005…that’s the loudest match I’ve ever been at. That crowd must have included wools, people in their 40s, people paying a lot of money for a ticket and angry or miserable Scousers… Why can’t that be reproduced for Manchester United at home this season, for example?

PM: It’s a special game though isn’t it? Not something that happens all the time. In 20 years’ time people will refer to it and maybe assume that was the norm. There’s a perceived issue but perhaps there is a problem of selective memory in that we reference the special occasions. It’s easier to talk now with social media and maybe a collective memory forms and develops into an idea that was normal, that was usual — a collective nostalgia.

GR: And if you do talk about the Kop on social media you are going to send your friend a YouTube of Chelsea 05, of the first time Liverpool were on Match of the Day, of the Kop singing The Beatles…time’s moved on, prices have moved on, the game’s moved on.

PM: That’s exactly it — collective nostalgia. It’s something the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm talks about nations having. They roll them out, celebrate them and say ‘this is what we are about’. But it’s collective amnesia as well and it happens with football fans, too.

GR: So we’re pining for something that hasn’t really happened?

PM: No, no, it has happened but not every week, not all the time.

Another aspect with all this is the FA’s Blueprint for Football document in 1991 that gave rise to the Premier League.

Chapter one puts the English national team at the top of the football pyramid and then details how to achieve that. Chapter two says – clearly, and unambiguously  –  that they have to change the core support who go to football matches from social class C1 – skilled manual, C2 – semi-skilled manual and D – unskilled, to A, B and C.

It says they have to up-skill because the social class structure in the UK has changed from a pyramid, with the fewest number at the top and the masses, the working class, at the bottom, to something where the middle classes have swollen.

It doesn’t mean people have more money in their pockets but it means more people are working in offices than factories. They’re not necessarily better paid but they are reclassified.

The FA commissioned a marketing company then published what they said about needing to change the class of the support. That is real.

GR: That doesn’t really surprise me. I’m sure that at some point Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore said something along the lines of that they don’t want to engage with fans that go every week. They’re trying to engage with people who go once a month, that see it as a treat, a special occasion.

PM: I can believe that.

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GR: I know Arsenal and Manchester United fans have said this, too, but as a season ticket holder at Liverpool it doesn’t always feel like you’re wanted. They don’t want us. They don’t want a local lad who goes week in, week out. They want people from around the world who arrive and spend a fortune in the club shop, go into the ground early and consume overpriced ale and overpriced food, whereas us, who go every week, we know not to go in the ground and buy the food and the booze because it’s three quid for a sausage roll and a fiver for a pint or whatever.

PM: I went to your game against Chelsea when Fernando Torres scored twice (February 2009). My partner is a season ticket holder in The Paddock and she normally goes with her mum but she was on holiday. So I went along and I was struck by how many fans were there with the Liverpool tourism bags — and I don’t just mean the club shop but also The Beatles Story and so on. They had gathered all they could.  These shopping bags were almost blocking the gangway. They were there on the full trip, spending a huge amount on merchandise and on ‘cultural products’. That’s a big change from your traditional fan who might buy a pie and a pint.

GR: This is the thing, for many attending Anfield now it seems like something to tick off. They’re not engaging in our traditions of supporting the club. They’re not singing You’ll Never Walk Alone or getting behind the team. It’s experience-gathering for many rather than supporting the team. I’ve even experienced supposed Liverpool fans taking the piss out of Kirkdale or Anfield on the bus, or out of young lads wearing trackies. What do they expect? Why are they separating the club from the city?

PM: Well my dad is from Walton and my mum from Kirkby and I was born in Fazakerley but they moved when I was a few months old and I grew up in Wigan and adopted Wigan Athletic as my club. Something that upset me when I was at school was the absolute denigration of working-class Scousers — it’s a product of Thatcher’s England. It was like a non-coloured racism.  But you had people there, in Wigan, blaming Scousers for everything yet they supported Liverpool Football Club.

GR: There was a lad I discovered on Twitter once who had in his bio: ‘hate Scousers, hate the city, love Liverpool FC’… The people who are really angry about the atmosphere, I find, are your traditional match-going fans, in their 40s or 50s, have seen all the good times, still go and they think they provide a good atmosphere and they look around and say our Kop, our space, is being invaded by people taking selfies, wearing half and half scarves, not ‘getting it’…

PM: Well young people of today do different things to the young people of the past — it’s fashion. And it’s speeded up by technology.

GR: But there are young people at Anfield who are responsible for creating a good atmosphere. They make the flags, they make the banners, they go away… the away crowd is brilliant.

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PM: I think, like any other town or city, there is parochialism at times in Liverpool. Have you got a purple bin and all that.

GR: I know, and I wonder sometimes do we need to get away from that and just save the atmosphere somehow? Preserve what’s traditionally made Liverpool special.

PM: I agree with you but there is a thing whereby we’ll define ourselves as ‘the real fan’ or the ‘authentic fan’. What that entails is differentiating ourselves from someone or something that we say, or imply, is the ‘inauthentic fan’, whether that is geography, class, clothes, haircuts, trainers…even whether your dad went home and away.

It’s hard to say what a truly ‘inauthentic fan’ is so we claw at bits and pieces to tell a story about ourselves — when you first went, what aways you went to, whether you go to Europe…and that’s not particular to Liverpool.

Think about Chelsea, how many of those fans can claim to be part of the 8,000 that were going to Stamford Bridge at one stage? There’s a thing whereby people look at the past and write their history into it. It’s not out and out lies, but there are often myths and positioning within those myths, a thing where we pick and choose the bits of our history that we tell.

It’s about presenting ourselves — if you want to go sociological it’s Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life; that we cling to stories and props and rehearse our lines and we present ourselves to the stage, to those who are watching and listening, to present our identity.

What is true ‘authenticity’ of fan? That’s the core question.

GR: I guess then that once you have in your mind what is a ‘true fan’, and what is best, you go to Anfield and see someone not singing You’ll Never Walk Alone, half and half scarf, taking selfies, not singing, not giving the referee loads… whatever…

PM: Yeah, you define yourself against that. You say ‘that’s not me’. I don’t like selfies at football matches either… I don’t like selfies.

Feature - Breakfield Road North in LiverpoolGR: This reminds me of a piece we ran on our site by Martin Fitzgerald. He was having a go at fans that look around at the game and say there are ‘twats in our end’.

PM: This comes about probably when people are pissed off, are annoyed, maybe even a bit bored with what they are watching. They start looking around for the tossers.

GR: And this is another thing. Last season we nearly won the league — the atmosphere felt good. There were a lot of games when it was good, the best in years. This season, when we’ve obviously fell short of expectations, everyone is saying again ‘the atmosphere is bad’.

PM: The question is really do you want an identikit of a fan? For everyone to be the same? It’s not going to happen.

GR: We also had a fan from Thailand write for the site, Pim, about being a ‘Thomas Cook fan’. Her argument was, well what are the rules? Where are they? Are they written down?

PM: But then those rules aren’t as powerful if they are written down. Talking sociologically, Ferdinand Tönnies, a German sociologist argues communities Gemeinschafts become associations Gesellschafts the moment rules are published and therefore lose some of their community powers.  The thing that makes communities powerful are that they are self-regulating; to be in the community you know the rules.

GR: So this is back to how do you ‘save’ the atmosphere? You can’t produce rules. It’s not cool to have rules…

PM: No, no, no. Anyone can read rules. You just need to know. How do you know? By hanging about, by becoming part of that group. And when you’re becoming part of that group, if you do most of the things they do but make a minor slip up, probably someone says ‘don’t do that’ and has a quiet word in your ear rather than bumping you out. It’s accumulating the cultural capital; understanding the rules. For some you will have to wear certain trainers, or a certain polo shirt…

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GR: There are so many levels with different groups at the match, I think. Coaches, areas, haircuts, stands, blocks within stands…

PM: There are elastic boundaries.

GR: The other thing I wanted to ask you about was that the atmosphere at times this season has felt increasingly poisonous, towards Sterling, towards Rodgers. I’ve heard it referenced by a lot of people, it’s not just something I have picked up on.

PM: I think it sticks in the craw when a lad the club have developed has his head filled with agent talk and maybe looks elsewhere. To the player it’s a job, it’s not to us — and that’s really hard to get our heads around.

When I was researching around the formation of FC United, some Manchester United fans said the tipping point for them had been Rio Ferdinand saying £90,000 a week isn’t enough after he’d missed a drugs test and the club and fans had stood by him. Then he wanted to leave.

Fans feel let down by players who don’t repay faith the club have shown them. Sterling is a world class player in the making but at 20 years old he is saying in a disguised manner that he wants more money. And when fans are paying so much money to watch the game…

GR: Is this central to the atmosphere problem? The price of going to the match?

PM: It’s central to the tolerance of players. And we see the players’ decadence on the front and back pages and on the TV, when at the same time we’re hearing stories of hardship. You get beat, and you look for reasons and you might think they didn’t try hard enough. At that point you look for excuses.

– Peter Millward is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Liverpool John Moores University. You can follow him on Twitter at: @PeteMillward79

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