WHATEVER club you support, we all have our pre-match routines: attire adorned, stomach lined, bets placed, mates met, ale sank, turnstile clicked, adrenaline pumping, form forgotten, writes JOEL ROOKWOOD.
With kick off imminent you become consumed by the impending contest, and everything is as it should be. Then you notice a group of lost-looking souls who have found the combination of row and seat number printed on their tickets a challenge too far.
As they shuffle awkwardly between rows searching for seats your eyes are drawn to the identical, pristine scarves around their respective necks – with half of each scarf dedicated to the colours of the day’s opponents. You just want them to put the scarf in the bin, find their seats and get behind the team.
Whatever team you’re playing and whether or not you wear a scarf yourself, you may well feel your ritual has been punctuated and your traditions violated by the sight of the halfy-half scarf. That sense of desecration connects to some deep historical and cultural roots.
It might be a humble garment in and of itself, yet there can be something deeply symbolic about a football scarf. In the celebrations following the 1973 league title win at Anfield, Bill Shankly responded defiantly to a policeman’s mistreatment of a Liverpool scarf by declaring “that’s somebody’s life”.
The practice of displaying team affiliation around the neck is almost as old as professional football itself. As with most football traditions, it is of English invention; a culture more than a century in the making.
Early versions were a response to the pervading climate. They were simple, block coloured and hand knitted, usually by a relative – and were often therefore, to reference Shankly again, “precious”; sacred to the individual.
Bill Shankly at Anfield, wearing a scarf thrown to him by a Liverpool fan, 1973. pic.twitter.com/SNjQRuKjkW
— History In Pictures (@HistoryInPics) 20 September 2013
So significant was this simple symbol of club colours, that relieving a rival fan of their scarf came to represent a trophy of desecration for some, forcefully acquired as a badge of honour and supposed superiority.
The meanings associated with wearing your club affiliation around the neck has evolved considerably, as have styles, variations and modes of production. The practice has also long been diffused throughout the globe. In over a thousand games across six continents, I’ve never been to a match and not seen a scarf.
At Liverpool though the cultural connections run particularly deep. A scarf held aloft between outstretched arms has been the recognised accompaniment to You’ll Never Walk Alone for decades, a visual integral to the anthem. Even if you don’t do this yourself these days (and you probably don’t), you’ll sit near someone who does. These traditions established during the last century at Anfield have been extended since.
One of the few (just about) surviving cultural legacies of the Gerard Houllier era is the celebratory waving of scarves around the head in a circular motion – which looks mesmeric as a mass ritual. Originally enacted to the tune of anything that rhymed with “Allez Allez”, it was later adapted to and replaced by The Ring of Fire, just as the Houllier regime itself became engulfed by the cult of Rafa Benitez. For once actions spoke louder than words, and the rhythmic motion combined with European success helped solidify the place of the scarf in the mind of the modern Liverpool fan.
There has, however, been some notable regression since: Half-Liverpool-half-Manchester United scarves are sold outside every corner of Anfield and Old Trafford respectively in recognition of a league fixture between the clubs. This has become commonplace at most matches and at grounds across England (also extended to display opposing managers and players).
The invented tradition is borrowed from the culture of European fixtures, where combined scarves symbolise something memorable and unique, exotic contests that brought with them dreams of European achievements. Opponents were usually from another league and therefore neutral in the context of football rivalries.
Like many of my generation, my first European away trip with Liverpool was Roma, the 2001 edition. One of the first things I did on that pivotal day was exchange a scarf – with a Lazio fan (which reflected the legacy of antagonism with Roma and Liverpool’s polarised reputation in Italy, but did not indicate sympathy with any local political identities).
In all 60 European away games since, I’ve come home with a scarf — either bought or, where possible, swapped with a local. From Slovenia to Bulgaria, Russia to Romania, “scarf” became the first and often only word I would learn of the local language. The compilation now sits at home with the ticket stubs (in a box these days, as I’m too old and normal and married to have a scarf collection displayed in my bedroom).
Some have opted for half-Liverpool-half-whoever-in-Europe scarves for the more memorable continental contests, which are at best coveted and at worst acceptable in the eyes of most Liverpool fans. Yet for those schooled in the club’s history, surely an equivalent for an all-English tie in any competition represents a corruption and dilution of cultural tradition.
I saw a colour-clashing Liverpool-Wolves scarf on The Kop last month – from the Roy Hodgson-inspired home defeat in 2010; probably the exact counterpoint to AC Milan in 2005.
The typical intended market for Premier League versions is obviously the day tripper/tourist fan: Scarves as memorabilia tailored for the individual, one-time visitor to Anfield; making a spectacle out of the ordinary – symptomatic of what those with business interests might call the “experience economy”. This issue is about the protection of culture and tradition – it is not intended to sound dismissive of the legitimacy of tourist fans, who should be welcomed in Liverpool.
On his trip to Maribor for the recent Champions League fixture, local author John Mackin tweeted a picture of his 1970s-style European matchday scarf which featured a Liver Bird stood on a globe and the embroidered words: “Supporters all over the world”. That scarf represents a celebration of our global heritage from a pre-globalised era, a reminder that we should be proud to attract fans from across the planet.
The ingrained almost nomadic Scouse culture of travelling great distances to watch football can enhance an understanding and appreciation of others doing the same. I have been a day tripper in 120 British grounds, and a football tourist in 100 countries, “experiencing” some of the most volatile and sterile fixtures in world football, and I’ve made films on football cultures the world over.
Whenever I’m wandering through distant lands, I search out local marketplaces (because you learn so much about people by observing their street trading interactions), and I always hope to see football stalls selling Liverpool shirts and scarves.
In the last year or so I’ve seen Liverpool tops sold on the streets of: Rwanda, Algeria, Greenland, Palestine, Gabon, Abkhazia, Barbados, Bosnia and Turkmenistan – and that is despite the recent lack of options for world-class names to print on the back. This cultural dissemination is evidence of status and popularity; shirts worn by fans who dream of just one experience of what we would consider an ordinary matchday.
Scousers who travel for football however also know what it is to be a football local – the cultural heartbeat of a club – and most of us will try to be sensitive to local traditions. I don’t think it’s too much to ask those visiting Anfield as tourists to do likewise.
To reference the recent words of another local author Kevin Sampson: “I love the fact that we have supporters from all over the world… I want Liverpool to have a diverse and inclusive fanbase. But the big core value – the locality from which the club takes its name – has to be protected and encouraged.”
Football tourists should be welcomed, but a club’s culture should be protected and directed by locals. This is an argument that transcends Liverpool and football – for the same could be said of Cork, Melbourne and Pittsburgh, with their respective more dominant national variants of football (that have led to “soccer” being deployed as a reference to ours), and their associated sporting cultures crafted continually for more than a century.
As with other cultures football fandom is not static, but fluid, and can change relative to contemporary conditions and experiences; and yet certain core values, attitudes and behaviours remain.
Even in this globalised era of modern football – where local communities and traditional cultures are being marginalised and neglected by the prioritised and ruthless pursuit of new revenue streams and attempts to extend and exploit the fanbase manipulatively framed as a family – even now there is power in the collective, organic social movements with a local heartbeat.
Consider the response to Tom Hicks and George Gillett’s poisonous ownership, £77 match tickets and proposed Christmas Eve football as examples. Liverpool fans could make halfy-half scarves disappear peacefully and permanently, without offending or alienating day trippers and tourist fans.
The most obvious approach might seem to be direct to the consumer, to those who buy the scarves. This can be as straightforward as striking up a conversation, explaining politely but passionately why a scarf that is dedicated to the red of Liverpool and blue of Chelsea in equal parts is not in keeping with The Liverpool Way. This could be followed by the suggestion that the next purchase should be one of the other 50 variations of the Liverpool scarf typically on offer on stalls from Church Street to Arkles Lane. You might be surprised how receptive people can be to such forms of exchange.
The second approach though – and this won’t be popular – is to go direct to source. Before you worry about increasing regulation for working class street traders, just imagine for a moment the uproar if these scarves originated as official merchandise sold in the new club shop. For all their faults, at least Liverpool only sell Liverpool-related products.
One of the reasons this trend of bipolar memorabilia has developed, seemingly without opposition, is that they are sold on the street. Scousers, to their credit, have a natural inclination not to restrict or criticise working class enterprise. An inescapable reality however is that demand is fed by supply, and the product in question is countercultural.
The sight of home supporters wearing half-Liverpool-half-United scarves taking pictures of Jose Mourinho from the Main Stand does not help create a partisan atmosphere that intimidates the opposition. The Liverpool sign doesn’t say “Welcome to Anfield”; the Liverpool scarf shouldn’t say “Manchester United”.
We all like to pass street traders selling merchandise outside the ground. It’s part of the match routine, something that makes us feel that football still belongs to us, that we remain co-creators of our culture. Approaching stalls in Anfield and the city centre on matchdays and asking those who run them not to sell halfy-half scarves does not have to involve confrontation and would not mean putting them out of business. All-Liverpool matchday versions with the game’s date on could still be sold if the market for those continues to thrive.
If enough of us had those persuasive conversations, rather than shaking our heads in silence at the sight of red-blue scarves on The Kop, we could ensure that every game was played against a backdrop of only untainted memorabilia, protecting our unique heritage in the process.
It’s time to reclaim the Liverpool scarf: infused with historical significance and cultural resonance, equal parts red and white, and dedicated to the club; so the people can hold their scarves up high and say “We are Liverpool”.