1-5: Liverpool: Rebellion and Resilience

JM: [00:00:04] We had fans coming to the meeting and saying to us, organize a boycott, walk out of football matches, just stop going.


DF: [00:00:14] Boycott a game? Give up a ticket you scrimped and saved for? That's what irate Liverpool fans were telling James McKenna. He's the chairperson of Spirit of Shankly, a group of politicized Liverpool supporters. Named after former manager, Bill Shankly. A Scottish ex player from a mining village whose sporting and political ethos still shapes Liverpool Football Club today.


JM: [00:00:37] The big thing I think most people know our name for is on ticket prices.


DG: [00:00:42] Back in 2016 the club’s owners, Fenway Sports Group and their management hiked the price of a match ticket to 77 pounds, a 30 percent increase. Spirit of Shankly's riposte was brilliant.


Clip: [00:00:57] These are a thousands of Liverpool fans, walking out in the 77th minute.


DG: [00:01:01] At a match against Sunderland, 10,000 fans got up and walked out in a coordinated protest. With a very simple message.


Clip: [00:01:09] You greedy bastards, get out of our Kop.


DG: [00:01:13] There was no shortage of media coverage.


Clip: [00:01:16] Their pricing certain people out of the game. And I think that's wrong.


DG: [00:01:20] In the final minutes of the game, Liverpool conceded their two-goal lead to Sunderland and four days later the owners caved in.


JM: [00:01:30] Footballs a global game now and with that comes vast riches. How do we make it affordable, but also how do we make it fair?


DG: [00:01:42] I'm David Goldblatt and this is Game of Our Lives. And today we are getting out of the studio and on the road. The M6 to be precise. The motorway that took me north to Liverpool, a city in England like no other. Always unusual, rebellious, defiant and unrepentantly working class. And it’s the kind of place where football fans take on their team’s owners and demand fairness, transparency, equality, and sometimes even win.


Clip: [00:02:13] Some they say that football's a matter of life and death to you. I say, "Listen, it's more important than that."


DG: [00:02:17] That's Bill Shankly, with his tongue at least half in his cheek. Wit is a central element of the man's legacy to Liverpool Football Club, but it's his politics that really interest me. Life and death may be his most famous aphorism, but a better guide to his influence on the club is my favorite: “The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It's the way I see football, the way I see life.” That sense of sharing, rooted in the solidarity of fandom, can it still survive in contemporary, commercial Liverpool football club?


DG: [00:02:58] That's what I went to Liverpool to find out.


Clip: [00:03:04] You feel as if you're a member of a big society, where you've got thousands of friends all around about you. And they are united, and loyal.


JM: [00:03:11] People, you know look at Bill Shankly and the way he spoke of the fans as being so important.


DG: [00:03:17] James McKenna from Spirit of Shankly again. And it is not just Liverpool that was touched by Shankly. In British football, he is remembered as everything a manager, or a gaffer, was meant to be. A working-class autodidact, as steeped in the cultures of the factory and the mine, as of training ground the football pitch. When Shankly arrived in 1959, Liverpool was actually the second club of the city. Everton was both older and more successful. This was about to change. Over the next fifteen years of Shankly's reign both the city and Liverpool FC were transformed. The city’s cultural renaissance produced the Beatles and the Mersey beat poets. Liverpool won the League, the FA Cup and the UEfA cup—and the extraordinary crowd culture of the Kop was born, fusing city, pop culture and football club.  


Clip: [00:04:12] I've never seen anything like this Liverpool crowd.


Clip: [00:04:16] She loves you yeah, yeah yeah.


Clip: [00:04:18] The music the crowd sings is the music that Liverpool has sent echoing around the world.


DG: [00:04:22] Shankly described the way his teams played as a form of "folk socialism". An essentially collective practice built on solidarity, mutuality and cooperation between players of course, and between the club and its fans. A notion that endures.


JM: [00:04:39] He famously said there was a holy trinity.


DG: [00:04:42] Jay McKenna.


JM: [00:04:43] Which was the supporters, the players, and the manager, and the directors were there just to sign the checks.


Clip: [00:04:48] She loves you yeah yeah yeah, with a love like that you know you should be glad.


DG: [00:04:54] Liverpool won the FA Cup Final in 1974, after the game, Shankly addressed a huge crowd in Liverpool city center.


Clip: [00:05:02] I’ve drummed it into our players time and again that they are privileged to play for you.


JM: [00:05:12] As all these hundreds of thousands of supporters turned out to greet the team and he said you know, he said like, he'd always said to his players they should be proud to play for Liverpool and if they didn't believe him—


Clip: [00:05:22] And if they didn’t believe me—


JM: [00:05:23] —they believe him now.


Clip: [00:05:24] —they believe me now.


DG: [00:05:28] And that was that. The 1974 FA Cup final was Shankly's last game in charge. Inexplicably he retired, and he would find out just how important football could be, suffering the meaningless drift of life without work, he died early in 1981. But in terms of personnel and style left behind a deep well of footballing and cultural capital that stood Liverpool in good stead. Under his successors, the club would go on to win four European cups in the 1970s and 80s, but it was the legacy of solidarity that they would need most.


Clip: [00:06:08] Dozens of soccer fans have been injured and it's feared some killed when they were crashed by overcrowding at the FA Cup semi-final match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest this afternoon at Hillsborough in Sheffield.


DG: [00:06:18] I watched the Hillsborough tragedy unfold on television. I was sitting in my parent's living room in 1989, looking forward on a Saturday afternoon to that rare thing—live football, back in those days.


Clip: [00:06:30] Interesting that the crowd has spilled over onto the perimeter there.


Clip: [00:06:34] There was a crush, people fell forward and the devastating result without any question at all, serious injury to a lot of people.


DG: [00:06:43] 96 people died.


Clip: [00:06:45] But there's no question now that the problem was caused by non-ticket holders forcing their way through a broken gate.


DG: [00:06:53] It was obvious that it wasn't the fans. You could see that the only people running onto the pitch to help were other fans. You know when you see two guys with Liverpool scarves carrying an advertising ball that they've turned into an impromptu stretcher, something's wrong. I had no idea at the time how bad the policing had been. I had no idea that there was a coverup.


Clip: [00:07:23] Hillsborough was a series of institutional failures, followed by a cover up of the highest order.


DG: [00:07:29] Hillsborough pitted the victims and their families against a complacent judiciary and corrupt police forces. The ramifications of that case are still working their way through the British courts. In addition, they had to face a mendacious popular press, most especially Rupert Murdoch's The Sun, which aided and abetted a police cover up.


Clip: [00:07:49] The Murdoch papers got it all wrong, they just fed exactly what the police said to them. I mean there was extraordinary collaboration to make sure there was one story put out.


Clip [00:07:58] It was the worst thing we ever did as a newspaper, it was our deepest shame.


DG: [00:08:02] Fans of both Liverpool and Everton combined to organize a boycott of The Sun on Merseyside and to this day nearly 30 years later, it is almost impossible to buy a copy of The Sun in Liverpool. The representatives of the victims families and their many allies in Liverpool finally forced a new independent inquiry into the tragedy.


Clip: [00:08:23] It is right for me today as Prime Minister to make a proper apology to the families of the 96. These families have suffered a double injustice. The injustice of the appalling events, the failure of the state to protect their loved ones, and the indefensible wait to get to the truth. And then the injustice of the denigration of the deceased, that they were somehow at fault for their own deaths.


DG: [00:08:45] The truth has emerged, justice awaits.


Clip: [00:08:48] So on behalf of the government, and indeed our country, I am profoundly sorry that this double injustice has been left uncorrected for so long.


DG: [00:09:04] Liverpool the city and Liverpool the football club survived Hillsborough. But for a moment, it looked like the football club might not survive the attentions of two Americans.


JM: [00:09:14] Late 2007, I think was when the wheels really begin to come off for people.


DG: [00:09:20] The team was sold to Tom Hicks and George Gillett.


JM: [00:09:23] The typical brash American.


DG: [00:09:32] American robber barons that is. They had a track record of super risky leveraged financing, and bad management of sports franchises. Faced with the ruination of their clubs, the fans said "enough is enough."


JM: [00:09:39] It took something as a catalyst. I think it just built up and built up and built up until we felt a point, well hang on. We've all got something to say. We are from Liverpool, everyone has something to say. Everyone has an opinion.


DG: [00:09:51] But opinions need to be organized if they are to count. This was the moment that Spirit of Shankly was born, mobilizing to get Hicks and Gillett out of Liverpool before they bled it dry, drawing on that widespread sense that whoever holds the deeds, this club belongs to its fans. Shankly, wherever his spirit now resides was surely nodding in agreement.


Clip: [00:10:14] They don't care about fans. Liverpool Football Club, is in the wrong hands.


DG: [00:10:20] Hicks and Gillet finally packed their carpetbags in 2010. A US consortium—Fenway Sports Group—bought the club and though they have proved competent, they are no less commercially minded. In pursuing those commercial aims they have traded on Liverpool's history the spirit of Bill Shankly.


JM: [00:10:38] This is a football club, it has a history that is sold on, you know the fans and the atmosphere and that's changed significantly since the 70s and 80s.


DG: [00:10:48] How much of that is left I wondered? I wanted to know if the spirit of solidarity that had mobilized fans in the face of tragedy, corruption and greed was still active in Liverpool today. Or was it just a thing of the past? The question took me to a mosque in Birkenhead, just across the River Mersey from Liverpool.


Dave Fitzpatrick: [00:11:06] Any specific requests on the menu next week? How do you feel about burgers?


Clip: [00:11:11] Yes! Yes!


DF: [00:11:13] Burgers and some onion rings. Yeah? Alright, next week burger and some onion rings.


DG: [00:11:18] This mosque used to be a furniture shop. On a Sunday morning it’s an impromptu canteen, the only place feeding the homeless on a Sunday. The food distributed here was collected by a group of local football supporters now known as Fans Supporting Foodbanks.


Clip: [00:11:35] Any chance of a bit of cheese innit?


DF: [00:11:41] Always gotta be cheeky . . .


DG: [00:11:44] Dave Fitzpatrick, who organizes these mornings, might be an Everton fan. But like Shankly his tongue is only half in his cheek.


DF: [00:11:50] Unfortunately, it's a British trait of starving people. We've seen it happen around the world. We see in Ireland, we see in India and everywhere else that goes with it.


DG: [00:12:00] Dave is a member of Fans Supporting Foodbanks. The group is made up of Liverpool and Everton supporters who take on poverty and hunger in the Liverpool area. Proud of their cross-club collaboration.


DF: [00:12:11] You could say we're a strange city. You know, John'll support Everton, but his brother Peter might support Liverpool.


DG: [00:12:20] The organization’s tag line is “Hunger doesn’t wear club colors.” It began two years ago when a couple of fans—one for Liverpool, one for Everton—started collecting food in a wheelie bin outside of a pub on match day. Now, Fans Supporting Food Banks supply a quarter of the food distributed at north Liverpool’s food banks. They collect dried goods at every Liverpool and Everton home game. And serve hot meals on a Sunday morning.


DF: [00:12:45] Today for example. We've done roast chicken, fresh veg, and mash for not just for the homeless, for anyone in need of a meal. The chicken was provided by Fans Supporting Foodbanks. The veg was supplied by Carpenters Limited, which is a big local firm. The chicken was cooked in a Christian church, it was brought to a mosque to be fed to the local community by members of the local community. Which is what Fans Supporting food banks is all about.


DG: [00:13:16] Liverpool is not alone. Fans Supporting Foodbanks now have sister organizations at 30 other clubs throughout England. No surprise really. All over the UK homelessness and poverty—especially in work poverty—has been sharply rising. It's only a couple of miles as the crow flies from Birkenhead to Anfield, but on days like that, they feel like worlds apart.


Clip: [00:13:43] Welcome to Liverpool!


DG: [00:13:43] But I've never actually been to Anfield. And with Spurs, my first football love, in the form of my life, I thought why not.


DG: [00:13:55] We took our seats for the game, and what a game it was.


Clip: [00:13:59] (Game noise) He scores!


DG: [00:14:05] Liverpool were pretty much on top for 80 minutes, and then—


Clip: [00:14:08] It's Wanyama. Wow!


DG: [00:14:12] Absolute rocket of a volley from outside the area.


Clip: [00:14:16] He's ripped the net out! Victor Wanyama with a screamer for Tottenham!


DG: [00:14:23] Suddenly it's 1-1 and the place absolutely explodes. About five minutes later Tottenham gets a slightly dodgy penalty.


Clip: [00:14:32] Kane potentially to win it for Tottenham.


DG: [00:14:34] And unbelievably, Harry Kane, who can't miss a thing and put a foot wrong, steps up and misses it.


Clip: [00:14:42] Karius saves and—


DG: [00:14:45] Your heart sinks, you think wow, we are actually going to steal this thing in the 87th minute 2-1, and he misses the penalty.


Clip: [00:14:54] Unthinkable stuff. Inside the last five minutes of what becomes now a melodramatic game at Anfield.


DG: [00:15:02] Worse, 3, 4, minutes later and we are now into injury time, Mohamed Salah pops up in front of the Tottenham goal.


Clip [00:15:11] Salah, again—


DG: [00:15:14] And slots it home.


Clip: [[00:15:15] Goal Salah! Oh wow! That is brilliant!


DG: [00:15:20] And then the place goes really crazy. The guys in the seats behind had literally toppled over, it was like a kind of Goya painting where you've got loads of distorted figures in black and white tumbling on top of each other, their mouths agape, their eyes wide.


Clip: [00:15:43] The man has defied physics! And he has probably won it for Liverpool in stoppage time.


DG: [00:15:51] And then this Tottenham, the greatest Tottenham team of my life. Managed to find a penalty in the fifth minute of injury time.


Clip: [00:16:01] Never drama! Kane! Last kick!


DG: [00:16:05] And this time, Harry Kane slots it home.


Clip: [00:16:08] Scores!


DG: [00:16:09] 2-2, game over. Absolutely sensational entertainment.


Clip: [00:16:14] Drama and trauma and intrigue and thrill!


DG: [00:16:20] I loved the game. I loved every single second of it. I loved the whole buildup to the game, I loved being in Anfield. I loved the smell of the place, I love the sounds, I love being immersed in its environment and neighborhood.


DG: [00:16:37] I don't think there is any unadulterated joy in this world, and in football particularly. But you know, you take your pleasures where you can in this world, both sporting and political, and I felt like in Liverpool that day I took a little bit of both of those.


DG: [00:16:57] Next week, we go to India. My guest Supriya Nair will fill us in on the nocturnal and solitary existence of being an Italian football fan in a country that would rather be watching cricket.


Supriya Nair: [00:17:09] I certainly feel like my definitive connection with AC Milan is broken if I'm not alone in a darkened room, possibly weeping silently into a pillow, eyes streaming, heart pounding. Wouldn't exchange it for anything else.


DG: [00:17:27] In the meantime, please check out our website Subscribe to the show at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts, and write us a review. Tell the world! Speaking of which, if you know someone who would like the show, share the joy and tell them.


DG: [00:17:47] This show is a production of Jetty Studios. The senior producer is Raja Shah. Producer and sound designer, Meradith Hoddinott. Our editors are Casey Miner and Kanishk Tharoor. Kyana Moghadam does the social media, Graelyn Brashear does the audience development. Graphic design is by Sophie Feller, podcast operations are by Jordan Bailey. Game of our Lives is recorded at the SoundTown Studios in Bristol, England, with engineering by Richard de Mowbray. Our music is from Bang Data. You can hear more from them at Our executive produce is Julie Caine and our general manager is Kaizar Campwala. I'm David Goldblatt, and I'll see you next week.