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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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era