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.

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