The statue of Bill Shankly outside Anfield stadium. Photo: Getty
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How the Liverpool Supporters’ Union proved it’s possible to change football for the better

The work of the Liverpool Supporters’ Union, known as Spirit of Shankly, is a much-needed good news story in modern football.

A lot has been written in this space about what is wrong in modern football. So here’s an upbeat story. It’s about how the worst of times can become better times if people work together. And it is a rebuttal to those who argue that it is impossible to change things, especially when you’re up against the rich and well-connected.

Late last month, Liverpool FC supporters’ union Spirit of Shankly (SOS) was named Cooperative of the Year at the Social Enterprise North West Awards. SOS was formed just five years ago. It beat 20 other organisations, with the judges saying they were “particularly impressed with the work the coop undertakes for its members and supporters. We hope other clubs follow in the footsteps of SOS”.

SOS organises low-cost travel for supporters, works with credit unions to offer saving and loan products for season tickets as alternatives to affinity credit cards, campaigns for regeneration around the club’s Anfield ground that will benefit local residents as well as millionaire players and owners, has succeeded in designating the club’s ground an asset of community value under the terms of the Localism Act and has been a leading force in the nationwide fans’ campaign against high ticket prices.

Roy Bentham, an SOS committee member, said the award mattered because it “sees us as a credible body campaigning for all things for the betterment of football in general”. All in all, not bad for a body once described by the hierarchy at Liverpool FC as “a very small, yet highly-motivated group of agitators” who were “the sporting equivalent of the Khmer Rouge”.

The group was formed in January 2008 when the club was beginning to drift under the ownership of American tycoons Tom Hicks and George Gillett. Liverpool were trailing non-league Havant and Waterlooville 2-1 at home in the FA Cup, and sections of the famous Kop stand began to sing “Liverpool Football Club is in the wrong hands”. The chanting was met with loud disapproval and booing by other fans in the stand – criticising your team during a game is a step too far for many – but just five days later some 350 fans, including reps from fanzines and fan websites, packed into The Sandon pub to discuss the club’s ownership crisis and a host of other issues affecting fans.

The call went up to form a supporters’ union (it was noted that a city as militant as Liverpool didn’t have a union for supporters) that could bring all Liverpool fans together. It was suggested it take the name of Bill Shankly and, after a second, larger, meeting at the city’s Olympia Theatre, SOS was established, with a set of aims, an open, paying membership and an organising committee. Early activities focussed on exposing the hollow words of Hicks and Gillett, who had promised much when they took over – as monied new owners in football are wont to do – but who were slowly loading the club with debt and diminishing its once great reputation as they did so.

There were, in those early days, direct actions such as the bolting of the gates to Anfield and the digging of Stanley Park to highlight undelivered promises on the building of a new stadium, but there was also a conscious effort to build something more lasting and holistic than a single-issue protest group. Mass marches were frequent, along with stay behind protests. SOS also managed to get Tom Hicks locked into the ground and both owners locked out on another occasion

On 4 July 2010, SOS held an Independence Day rally in Liverpool in which it declared supporter independence from the club’s owners. It was an important step, heading off the usual tactic of under-fire owners who seek to make their own interests synonymous with those of the club they have temporary custody of. By October 2010 Hicks and Gillett were gone, forced out after an ugly High Court battle involving RBS and a £237m debt. The court ruled the pair were guilty of “the clearest possible breach” of a corporate governance agreement they had signed with the bank.

The club was eventually taken over by another American tycoon, John Henry, whose Fenway Sports Group also owns the Boston Red Sox baseball team. Henry met representatives of SOS and said: “ If it wasn't for yourselves and supporters doing what you have, we wouldn't be here now.”

SOS now boasts 20,000 paid-up members, and its voice is heard regularly on the wider issues of the game’s governance as well as on those specifically affecting Liverpool fans. It has formed strong bonds with supporters groups at other clubs, been recognised as a Trust by Supporters Direct, the fan governance umbrella organisation that a committee of MPs recently recommended should be given greater independence and support from government.

There are those who doubt that the US tycoon currently in charge at Liverpool is doing more than whispering honeyed words in the ears of SOS members while it suits him to do so, and others who point out that the organisation’s robust approach means its relationship with the club on a day-to-day level is not as close at it could be. But there are others still, experienced in the traps that can befall an opposition that begins to achieve its aims, who will argue that SOS’s influence is very real.

SOS has, astutely, set out its aims in stages, beginning with holding the club’s owners to account, but clearly stating the ultimate aim of “supporter ownership of Liverpool Football Club”. It’s a neat way of combining pragmatism with ambition, and of ensuring that the core purpose is never compromised. As SOS’s James McKenna said after the High Court victory: “You get a new manager, you get a new chief executive and you get a new chairman, and still the same issues exist. Ideally, we’d like the supporters to be in charge.”

I asked McKenna if he thought that was a realistic objective. He told me: “I’ve often been asked if I really believe we will one day own the club. I’m not sure many believe me when I say we will. It might not be in my lifetime, but one day supporters will take the keys to Anfield, they’ll sit in the boardroom and the days of leveraged buyouts, failed promises and the soap opera that supporters up and down the country endure through the football authorities “ownership neutral” stance will be a thing of the past. The years of hard work and campaigning – many forget we are all volunteers at SOS, doing this in our own time – will be worth it.”

Mention supporters being in charge and, very quickly, someone will say it’s not possible, certainly not at a big club in the world’s richest league. But SOS is there, working away, growing, being recognised, achieving successes. The club’s current owner, says some insiders, is one who “gets it”. He recognises the fact that supporters are the lifeblood of a club, and not just as a PR phrase. Of course, the fact that the team is doing well on the pitch and playing some thrilling football always makes things look better, but manager Brendan Rodgers has made much of reconnecting with “the Liverpool family” and the club’s traditions as he has fashioned a remarkable renaissance.

In doing so, he has done something that too few people in football understand. He has reconnected with the thing that makes any club special – its unique spirit. That spirit is, more than anything, a product of former manager Bill Shankly’s approach. There’s an interesting examination of the culture at Liverpool that Shankly helped to forge by Simon Steers on the Tomkins Times fan site, but it’s Shankly’s own words that do the job best. It’s a famous quote, but one which explains why the Liverpool Supporters’ Union took the name it did, and which provides inspiration for those everywhere who believe a better world is possible.

“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.”

 

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

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Let's face it: supporting Spurs is basically a form of charity

Now, for my biggest donation yet . . .

I gazed in awe at the new stadium, the future home of Spurs, wondering where my treasures will go. It is going to be one of the architectural wonders of the modern world (football stadia division), yet at the same time it seems ancient, archaic, a Roman ruin, very much like an amphitheatre I once saw in Croatia. It’s at the stage in a new construction when you can see all the bones and none of the flesh, with huge tiers soaring up into the sky. You can’t tell if it’s going or coming, a past perfect ruin or a perfect future model.

It has been so annoying at White Hart Lane this past year or so, having to walk round walkways and under awnings and dodge fences and hoardings, losing all sense of direction. Millions of pounds were being poured into what appeared to be a hole in the ground. The new stadium will replace part of one end of the present one, which was built in 1898. It has been hard not to be unaware of what’s going on, continually asking ourselves, as we take our seats: did the earth move for you?

Now, at long last, you can see what will be there, when it emerges from the scaffolding in another year. Awesome, of course. And, har, har, it will hold more people than Arsenal’s new home by 1,000 (61,000, as opposed to the puny Emirates, with only 60,000). At each home game, I am thinking about the future, wondering how my treasures will fare: will they be happy there?

No, I don’t mean Harry Kane, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker – local as well as national treasures. Not many Prem teams these days can boast quite as many English persons in their ranks. I mean my treasures, stuff wot I have been collecting these past 50 years.

About ten years ago, I went to a shareholders’ meeting at White Hart Lane when the embryonic plans for the new stadium were being announced. I stood up when questions were called for and asked the chairman, Daniel Levy, about having a museum in the new stadium. I told him that Man United had made £1m the previous year from their museum. Surely Spurs should make room for one in the brave new mega-stadium – to show off our long and proud history, delight the fans and all those interested in football history and make a few bob.

He mumbled something – fluent enough, as he did go to Cambridge – but gave nothing away, like the PM caught at Prime Minister’s Questions with an unexpected question.

But now it is going to happen. The people who are designing the museum are coming from Manchester to look at my treasures. They asked for a list but I said, “No chance.” I must have 2,000 items of Spurs memorabilia. I could be dead by the time I finish listing them. They’ll have to see them, in the flesh, and then they’ll be free to take away whatever they might consider worth having in the new museum.

I’m awfully kind that way, partly because I have always looked on supporting Spurs as a form of charity. You don’t expect any reward. Nor could you expect a great deal of pleasure, these past few decades, and certainly not the other day at Liverpool when they were shite. But you do want to help them, poor things.

I have been downsizing since my wife died, and since we sold our Loweswater house, and I’m now clearing out some of my treasures. I’ve donated a very rare Wordsworth book to Dove Cottage, five letters from Beatrix Potter to the Armitt Library in Ambleside, and handwritten Beatles lyrics to the British Library. If Beckham and I don’t get a knighthood in the next honours list, I will be spitting.

My Spurs stuff includes programmes going back to 1910, plus recent stuff like the Opus book, that monster publication, about the size of a black cab. Limited editions cost £8,000 a copy in 2007. I got mine free, as I did the introduction and loaned them photographs. I will be glad to get rid of it. It’s blocking the light in my room.

Perhaps, depending on what they want, and they might take nothing, I will ask for a small pourboire in return. Two free tickets in the new stadium. For life. Or longer . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times