IT’S 18 August 2001 and Liverpool are playing West Ham in the opening game of the Premier League season. Robbie Fowler isn’t even on the bench after a public fallout with Phil Thompson, that he has failed to apologise for. The Kop are very vocal on who they support. They sing Fowler’s name throughout the game as he sits in the stands.
After 77 minutes the score is 1-1. Michael Owen, who has already scored in the game, fires past Shaka Hislop at The Kop end. His celebration is uncharacteristic, full of frustration and aggression. He practically screams at the Liverpool fans to give him more adulation, as much as the man in the stands who won’t apologise for a training ground indiscretion. This is five games since Owen won the FA Cup Final, to quote the commentary, “all on his own”.
That year, Michael Owen also wins the Ballon D’or. Football supporters all over the world idolise him. However he never reaches the same level of adulation at Anfield as the lad from Toxteth did. Different reasons are given. But it mainly boils down to the fact he just never quite feels one of us.
Jack Balmer is 14th in the all-time list of Liverpool goalscorers. With 110 goals, he’s scored more than Barnes, Keegan, Toshack, Stubbins, Suarez and Torres. In terms of Scousers, Balmer was born in West Derby, the same as Trent Alexander-Arnold, is fourth on the list – behind Gerrard, Fowler and Jack Parkinson, a Bootle goalscorer who played at the turn of the century.
Balmer captained Liverpool to a league title in 1947, Liverpool’s first for 24 years, scoring 24 league goals in the process. The season before, he scored a hat-trick in three consecutive games. After retiring, he went on to coach at the club. He should be a much more celebrated player in the club’s history.
The Kop weren’t having him. I haven’t spoken to anyone who was around at the time, Rob Gutmann was busy, but it appears to basically boil down to the fact that he was a bit posh and he wouldn’t launch into 50/50s. Here is the man himself on the issue. “Maybe I didn’t go in for the crunch tackle but that kind of thing wasn’t my idea of football. I was never a coward at the game but I got a shudder when I saw the boot going in.”
Bob Paisley wrote in his autobiography “I don’t honestly think I’ve ever known a player so harshly treated by Liverpool supporters as he was – but he managed to smile his way through, although it hurt him deeply.”
Fast-forward to last week. Daniel Sturridge wins the game for Liverpool, getting both in a 2-1 win. The Kop sing his name, but the names of his strike partners Divock Origi and later Danny Ings are sung much louder. It’s not the first time Danny hasn’t quite felt the love of The Kop his talents seem to deserve.
It’s launched a million theories by a million behavioural experts since. Every possibility has been explored. Is it to do with attitude? Injury record? Work rate? Culture? Race? Just having a name that is quite hard to fit into a good song?
I don’t know the reasons why. I do, however, know it is nothing new. Some players have always connected with the crowd more than others. In the past everyone just got on with it. Only now does it seem that talent and song volume need to be perfectly linked.
Didn’t we used to love a cult hero? One of the most famous Liverpool banners of all time was about Joey Jones who was, I am reliably informed, a bit rubbish. But everyone loved the banner. He was a tough lad, no nonsense, one of us. Now there would be a 400-page discussion on Red And White Kop asking why there wasn’t a Kevin Keegan one the same size.
We don’t have to love players directly in relation to their talents. The players themselves don’t expect it. I also don’t think Sturridge is that bothered. At Burton away Sturridge had his name chanted more than I can ever remember. He didn’t look up once. I think he just likes scoring loads of goals.
He’s also different. He tries to be different. In 2014, Vice called him “The only hipster footballer”. Now I’ve heard The Kop called a lot of things, but hipster isn’t one of them. Do you think Danny Sturridge really cares about what a load of fellas in their 40s think of him? He’d rather go into schools and teach all the kids the wriggly arms dance.
To me, he seems far more bothered about making kids happy. After that game last week, when apparently hardly anyone sang his name, he stopped to give a couple of young lads his match warn tops. Everyone looks made up. Danny would have gone home thinking about how happy those kids were. Not how much The Kop sang about Divock Origi.
Sturridge makes time for young fans because he says he can remember being the kid who waited for the footballers to get an autograph. Kids love him because he’s fun and different and really, really good at kicking it in the goal.
Just like Michael Owen, Daniel Sturridge does connect with the fans. Just different ones. They might not be the ones who shout the loudest, but they are the ones who are smiling the most.