Monday, 17 February 2020

Liverpool in the USA: The supporter groups creating slices of Anfield across America

You have to journey as far as Tennessee to find the secret to Liverpool’s success this season.

Late goals against Wolves, Monterrey, Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, Arsenal, Manchester United and Leicester have all proved decisive during the course of a remarkable campaign – and it turns out the Nashville Supporters Club is to thank. Jonathan Slape, president of the group, revealed a long-standing tradition: when the team needs to score late in the game, all of the assembled fans switch to drinking bottles of Budweiser. It’s inexplicable, but what Slape modestly calls the ‘fairly good success rate’ is beyond dispute.

It’s also good news for Budweiser, as the number of supporters packed into the Party Fowl chicken restaurant has been known to swell to as many as 600. This figure was for the Champions League final in 2019, while a solid average of between 70 and 80 people come along to support Liverpool every week.

Such quirks and traditions have been a common feature of the more than 30 accounts shared with me by presidents of Official Liverpool Supporters Clubs (OLSCs) across the USA. A 45-minute drive to Murfreesboro, the other official group in Tennessee, brings you to a long-established ritual of a shot of Jack Daniels Fire before every game. The group leader here, fittingly called JD, says that this has been going on since the very first time the club gathered to watch a game.

In Texas, a considerable road trip away, the members have to be even more creative with their drinking. Austin is six hours behind GMT, so the earliest kick-offs mean a 6:30AM start. Alcohol cannot be legally served at their usual (strictly Liverpool-only) pub at that time – so the fans bring beer to the parking garage across the street.

But life as a supporter in the USA isn’t all about the alcohol arrangements. Steven Wilson, the president of the Austin group, told me of the plans to bring The Anfield Wrap to Texas in March – the podcast and fanzine will be hosted by the Delaware group this year too. The Austin club also arranges for a Liverpool legend to visit annually: the likes of John Barnes and Alan Kennedy have come in the past. Additionally, Wilson has helped play host to a fan-fest in Texas, working alongside Liverpool and NBC, which was attended by more than 2000 registered supporters.

The founder and chairwoman of the Carlsbad, California branch, Amy Kate, is aiming to eventually hit even bigger heights. She is one of the founders and partners of KOPCON, a three-day event held in Las Vegas. It has a stated aim “to unite supporters all over North America for a great weekend of events, music, player meetings and drinks” – the previous iteration, held during the Champions League final, was a huge success.

Kansas City

The scale of the support so many miles away from Anfield is overwhelming. More than 50 supporter groups span 33 states, and those are just the official ones – the club has a waiting list of others seeking affiliation.

The reality of the numbers is astounding. The president of the Kansas City group, Kyle Miles, estimated 700 active members in the KC metro alone. For the Champions League final, this number swelled even further and The Dubliner had to turn people away due to reaching its fire code limit.

Kevin, from the Chicago group, shared a similar account. He said: “Our email list is about 2000. For big matches our 200-person bar is at capacity and we have overflow options – for really big matches there may be a line out the door before it opens.” Like Texas, Chicago has to cope with some 6:30 starts. Unlike Texas, average lows for this time of year are around -8 degrees Celsius. Even so, a reliable core of at least 30 – usually closer to 80 - make it to the bar for every match without fail: the passion and dedication of American fans should not be underestimated.

This goes beyond just cheering the team on during games, although they do plenty of that. The majority of official supporters clubs were eager to speak about their charity initiatives. Lots of worthwhile local causes are bolstered through the efforts of Liverpool fans – in Indianapolis, for example, the fans raise funds and hold warm clothes drives for homelessness relief organisation SOAR. Chairman Trey Higdon was so keen to share this with me that he interrupted his honeymoon to reply! Meanwhile, in New York, the oldest supporter group in the country works to raise money for the Father’s Heart Ministries hunger prevention programme.

Liverpool-based charities are also helped by a lot of the supporter groups. This in itself is fairly remarkable – this is a city thousands of miles from where these fans live, with a football club serving as their only connection to Merseyside, and yet the bond this creates is strong enough to prompt many American supporters to give generously to Liverpudlian causes. In Richmond, Virginia, there is a collection at every game: as well as raising money for a local foodbank and animal charity, donations are also directed to the North Liverpool Foodbank and Liverpool Dog Rescue. Last year, over $4000 was raised and split between these four charities.

The Liverpool family in Houston
Other OLSCs choose to work with the LFC Foundation, while in Columbus a group are planning to take part in a virtual 5k run in parallel to the Run for the 96 in Liverpool. The Kansas City group have partnered with Jamie Carragher’s 23 Foundation. In Des Moines, there have been auctions and raffles held for Sean Cox. Dunboyne is close to 200 miles from Liverpool, while Iowa is another 3800 miles further than that, and yet the unifying force of the club is strong enough to move people from Merseyside to the Midwest to raise money for a fellow fan in need. The Murfreesboro group encapsulate this unity with a touching tradition. President JD Deckard explained: “Each half-time, first-time visitors sign our banner. Once signed, you're no longer a visitor. You're family.”

The vocal minority who bemoan ‘tourist’ fans when some of these groups make their pilgrimages to Anfield would do well to remember that these people have quite literally been feeding the hungry of the city. Supporting abroad is inevitably a different experience to supporting as a local, but these people are by no means casual in their backing. Liverpool sucks people in, it shapes not only your view on football but your view on life – the reality of it is that the club truly is a family. Anyone who comes to Anfield should be treated as though they are being welcomed home.

Of course, this is literally true for some of the US-based fans. These are diverse communities, and many of the groups feature Liverpool locals who have since moved stateside. Glendon Hart, president of the Palm Beaches group in Florida, is originally from West Kirby. Bryn Griffiths, who founded the Chicago group before moving to Wisconsin and forming another one in Madison, was born to Liverpudlian parents. The chairman of the Houston club hails from Walton. Some sort of Scouse heritage is not a prerequisite for joining a supporter group, but these are by no means insular groups exclusive to American locals.

In fact, the welcoming nature of the official supporter groups is one of their key features. As well as the bands of regulars, they all play host to travelling fans to some degree. Two people from Shrewsbury showed up in Indiana, and were welcomed in to watch the FA Cup game. Nashville host a steady stream of tourists hoping to catch a Liverpool game while paying a visit to the home of country music. Palm Beaches’ Glendon Hart refers to ‘The International House of Liverpool’ – his Florida group often count South Africans, Australians, Finns, Swedes, Poles, Russians and Mexicans among their number. More people are always welcome: the Jersey Shore group estimates that match-day visitor figures are growing by about 10% every month, a trend of growth mirrored across the USA.

The experience that greets such visitors varies significantly from group to group. While there are plenty of similarities that run across all of the supporter clubs, each has its own unique identity. Time zones help to dictate the kind of matchday experience that can be expected - Al Rounds, chairman of the Portland group, said: “Since most of our games are fairly early we have a relaxed and family-friendly atmosphere”. ‘Fairly early’ is somewhat euphemistic – in Oregon, a significant number of matches kick-off at 4:30AM local time. Rounds is quick to note, however, that the biggest games more closely resemble ‘full-on rock concerts’.

This party feel is familiar to fans in Indianapolis and Des Moines, where the OLSCs have been known to set off pyrotechnics. The ‘Kansas City Kop’ has also certainly earned its nickname, with what Kyle Miles describes as ‘a special group’ regularly creating an atmosphere of which Anfield itself would be proud.

Things can get similarly raucous in Milwaukee, in the group known as the ‘Cream City Scousers’. Anthony Perez recounted his experience of the Champions League final: “The goal celebration for Salah’s penalty was unreal. Unlike anything Three Lions Pub had ever seen before. Unlike anything the entire block had seen before, as evidenced by a neighbour calling in a noise complaint. But June 1st 2019 was no day to quiet down.”

The earliest starts in Orange County, California are more likely to be accompanied by coffee and doughnuts than flares and noise complaints, but there is still a designated standing area in the pub known as the California Kop. David Jennings noted a particularly relaxed atmosphere in Long Beach, putting it succinctly: “It’s California, so a lot of people arrive last minute”. In many ways, this is the beauty of the supporter groups. Each and every member is there for the same reason, the same reason people congregate in Anfield so many thousands of miles away - but the shape the support takes is governed by the nature of the communities in which the fans meet.

The individuality of the groups is so significant that some of the OLSCs organise ‘away trips’ to fellow fan groups, allowing them to experience the support from another perspective. The Palm Beaches group took the inspiration to become official from a visit to Fort Lauderdale, while the Charlottesville and Richmond groups have organised coach trips to watch matches with one another on multiple occasions. Kansas City have made trips to Omaha and St Louis. This is one of the most vivid expressions of the camaraderie that exists, among the US fans in particular but also within the wider global Liverpool fanbase.

This, really, is the ultimate message to take away. Liverpool Football Club is the commonality that pulls together a vast diaspora of people, in so doing creating a community capable of acting as a genuine force for good. In the words of Craig McKnight, chair of the Cincinnati group: “That is the thing about this club as a whole, the world is brought together under a crest”. This unity also lends millions of voices to the choruses of You’ll Never Walk Alone sung in unison from Anfield to Albuquerque: on this wave of noise and support, Liverpool might just ride to the title.

Monday, 20 January 2020

Front threes, combined XIs and Manchester United’s quest for relevance

As a younger sibling, I can understand the plight of Manchester United. Though they were founded chronologically prior to Liverpool, they share many traits with a second child.

They lived for a long time in the shadows, watching on with begrudging respect tinged with envy as Liverpool conquered all before them. Even when the Red Devils’ time came, each accomplishment was tinged with the knowledge that it had all been done before – the benchmark had been set, and they were simply measuring up to these impossibly high expectations.

For a brief, ecstatic period, their star shone brightest: through decades of graft, they finally laid claim to the title of most successful club in England. The attention was theirs, they were the new benchmark. And then, just like that, they weren’t.

Like the kid from the state school who made it to Oxford then went back to live with his parents while his sister carved out a successful career – this is all hypothetical, of course – United fell swiftly from the perch they had spent years constructing. Already, the waters of their success have been muddied: Liverpool’s Champions League, Super Cup and Club World Cup titles have left them requiring snookers in the form of Community Shields to cling on to their claim of the biggest trophy haul.

More importantly, the shift in the trajectories of the two clubs has been seismic. Just as Liverpool’s ‘come back when you’ve won 18’ banner felt increasingly hollow up until the day the challenge was met, equally it seems inevitable that even United’s contrived trophy count including the showpiece season-opener will be surpassed sooner or later. For all the kid from Old Trafford may protest, the big brother is back on top.

This is not easy for them to take. As the derby approaches, historic clips have inevitably surfaced – videos such as Dirk Kuyt netting the exemplar poacher’s hattrick would once have been the hit of nostalgia Liverpool fans needed just to get through the weekend, but with only more success on the horizon they can look forward with confidence. For United, retreat into their past glories is the only place of safety remaining.

Some, though, choose to stand and stay swinging. This is where things get embarrassing. Again, it is hard not to feel sorry for them – all Liverpool fans of a certain vintage will remember the days of trying to sneak players into combined XIs in school debates, kidding themselves that the two clubs remained at least on a par. The truth of the matter, though, is that this season Liverpool’s own ‘combined eleven’ has a record points haul for this stage of a campaign. United are 5th, with a tally that could have seen them as low as 10th in previous years.

One of these teams is not like the other. Jurgen Klopp cannot yet be compared with Alex Ferguson, who it is far easier to praise now that he is not the cause of constant torment, but he has had a similarly transformative effect on his club. He has awoken the ‘sleeping giant’ – that comforting phrase that serves as a crutch to underperforming clubs – and restored them to the status of the greatest team in the world. There is no particular shame in the fact that Manchester United cannot match this: nobody can.

This comes as little solace, though, to the United fans – the rivalry is too deep, the habit of measuring up against Liverpool too ingrained.  The advancement into the latter stages of the Champions League, the unlikely survival of top four hopes: these will never wholly satisfy, not so long as the side from Anfield overshadow it all.

These frustrations have manifested themselves in the form of claims that United’s front three somehow eclipse Liverpool’s. Aided by social media accounts eager to cash in on the potential for engagement, statistics showing that the front three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah have been outscored by that of Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood and Anthony Martial have spread like wildfire.

The numbers are of course correct, but presented without context they are utterly meaningless. They cannot be separated from the positions of their respective teams – while United fans can clearly be pleased that their forwards have an eye for goal, they should have a closer look at the Samba d’Or holder and the previous two African Player of the Year winners before attempting to make favourable comparisons.

Truly world class forwards should be facilitators as well as goal-scorers. Goals win games, as those pushing hard for Rashford’s inclusion in Liverpool/United XIs will incessantly tell anyone prepared to listen, but it must be asked how the Old Trafford outfit have become so reliant on the front three. Naturally, some fingers must be pointed both at the quality behind them and at the manager. However, there is more to it than that.

Roberto Firmino can be found deep in midfield as often as he can be seen running off the shoulder of the last man. Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah are not averse to shifts as auxiliary full-backs, covering spaces left by the marauding runs of the two full-backs following a turnover of possession. The European and world champions operate as a unit, getting the best out of the team as a collective. This requires far more intelligence from the front three than lurking on the halfway line ready to break: it will be recalled that they played far more in this fashion two seasons ago, when Mohamed Salah broke the Premier League goal record.

If Liverpool wanted to limit themselves to counter-attacking raids, their front three could eclipse United’s numbers with ease. We have seen them do it. There is duly a whiff of desperation about the comparisons, which ultimately are merely a cry for relevance as the club slides towards the risk of obscurity.

That is not to diminish Rashford, Martial or Greenwood individually, all of whom look like reasonable talents. If United can hold on to them, they are in a far better position to claw their way back to the top than Liverpool found themselves in at their nadir. Perhaps, before too long – probably with a different manager at the helm – a reasonable debate can be had about who would get into a combined eleven. For now, though, the last cries of defiance in the face of a record-breaking Liverpool team ring empty.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Spurs 0-1 Liverpool: Player ratings

Alisson Becker
Liverpool had to work for it, but a 1-0 triumph against Spurs in the capital was enough to move them an astounding 16 points clear of second-placed Leicester City. It was a determined performance from front to back, and Klopp’s men weathered some second-half scares to emerge victorious. Everybody came out of the game with credit, but there were some standout performers. Here are the player ratings:

Alisson: 9
You know you’re having a good game for Liverpool when Gary Neville singles you out for praise. The Sky co-commentator pointed out that a string of ‘easy’ saves for the stopper were only made to look so simple by the Brazilian’s impeccable positioning. His handling was also faultless – as Spurs pushed for an equaliser late on, any fumble could have proved decisive. The distribution was as accurate as ever: very occasionally he picked a pass that put the defence under unnecessary pressure, but ultimately the whole defensive unit has trust in each other’s ball-playing abilities. An excellent performance.

Trent Alexander-Arnold: 8
Anyone still determined to place question marks over Alexander-Arnold’s defensive qualities would have been given pause for thought by his performance in this game. He marshalled Heung-min Son excellently for most of the match, stepping up to the plate when the South Korean began to push forward more in search of a goal. A recovery challenge that put him off when he was through on goal was the most eye-catching moment, although much of his best work was done in quietly shepherding the wide forward into safe positions. It wasn’t Trent’s best day going forward, but we saw the other side of his game.

Joe Gomez: 6
The first game since his return to the side where Gomez has looked a bit shaky, but ultimately he still played his part in keeping another clean sheet. Lucas Moura caused him problems early on, and he was forced into a professional foul on Son, but he coped well with the threat of a second yellow hanging over him for much of the match. A loose pass that nearly let Dele Alli in on the hour mark earned him a rollicking off Virgil van Dijk, but his partner was able to bail him out.

Virgil van Dijk: 9
Another colossal performance from the big Dutchman. He kept his head when everyone else started to look a little shaky, injecting the element of composure needed to weather the eventual Spurs storm. His big challenge to deny Alli was a decisive moment in the match.

Andy Robertson: 7
A bit rash from Robertson at times – he lunged into a couple of hefty challenges, and was probably fortunate to end the game without a booking. He supplied some good deliveries, though, and was largely effective defensively. Serge Aurier put in a quality cross from his flank late on which Giovani Lo Celso should have converted, but it would be harsh to attach too much blame to the Scotsman.

Jordan Henderson: 7
The captain looked a little vulnerable under an early high press from Tottenham’s front line, but as Liverpool seized control and Spurs settled back into a more familiar Mourinho shape he came into his own. He put in a great cross for van Dijk, although the Dutchman was narrowly offside. Minutes later, he put in a brave header which many would have shied away from – this allowed Salah to pick out Firmino, who scored the goal which proved to be the winner. He was arguably guilty of being a little negative when Tottenham continued to sit back at 1-0, but in the end a second goal did not prove necessary.

Gini Wijnaldum: 5
Not the best day at the office for the Dutchman. He was largely anonymous going forward, occasionally showing off his ability to glide effortlessly past players but mostly just serving as a conduit to receive and recycle passes. On another day, he would have had to take the blame for an equaliser – it was he who was robbed by Lo Celso with fifteen minutes to go, forcing Alexander-Arnold to intervene and unsettle Son. He came into his own more in the final few minutes, where his continued energy was impressive and allowed Liverpool to escape out of their own half.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (subbed for Lallana, 61’): 7
The former Arsenal man looked like he was enjoying himself against Spurs, constantly providing progression from the middle of the park. This came at the cost of a few stray passes, but he regularly looked likely to make things happen in the first half. His driving runs were too much for a distinctly underwhelming Tottenham midfield. A quieter second half, withdrawn on the hour mark for Lallana.

Sadio Mane (subbed for Origi, 81): 8
This one may seem a little generous, but Mane put in an excellent all-round performance. In the first half he was a live wire, exploiting the inexperience of Japhet Tanganga and causing him real problems. He also picked some intelligent passes infield when others would have favoured the overlap, exploiting the lightweight Spurs midfield. He did not make the most of a difficult chance on 35 minutes, volleying into the ground and over, but took up all the right positions. In the second half he was less active going forward – he still forced a good save out of Paulo Gazzaniga from a header, but his most notable work was in his tracking back. He was regularly found deep in his own half supplying an extra body as Mourinho finally pushed men forward, so it was something of a surprise when Klopp replaced him with Origi.

Roberto Firmino: 8
A typical Firmino performance. He showed off some great feet, supplied a finish and routinely harried the Spurs back line. A remarkable turn early on was one that will make highlights reels, although he probably should have finished past Tanganga on the line. He got his revenge on the youngster in the 37th minute, completely selling him with a delicious feint before firing beyond the goalkeeper. A couple of flicks to teammates didn’t come off, but there was a merciful reduction in the misplaced simple passes that have crept into his game recently.

Mohamed Salah: 8 (subbed for Shaqiri, 90’)
Yes, it’s parity for all of the front three. It was a great collective performance from them: they all put in the defensive yards, while putting together some attacking combinations that were at times as intricate and fluid as we have seen from them. While Firmino got the goal, it could have been any of them – Salah had to overcome the attentions of Davinson Sanchez, who was usually quick to push out to him, but his tricky play in tight areas created more space for Mane in particular. He also bested the Colombian centre-half sometimes; he could not quite find a final finish of his own, but claimed the assist for the goal.

Lallana – 6
Origi and Shaqiri – N/A