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.

The statue of Bill Shankly outside Anfield stadium. Photo: Getty
The statue of Bill Shankly outside Anfield stadium. Photo: Getty

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.”