It’s funny how life goes on and we often forget why we do what we do, or the origins of what we do.
Last weekend, I donned a Liverpool FC shirt for the first time ever, yet I have been a Liverpool supporter most of my life. How and why is that? Truth is, it’s a fairly recent trend for fans to wear replica gear. For many years, the most fans did was wear scarves in team colours or rosettes. Things changed from the mid-1970s.
I arrived in England in September 1961, as a 6 year-old; I started primary school a few days after the new school term had begun. (I don’t know if my father had planned our journey with that in mind; my mother had been in England already for a few months.) I had never played football before and I began playing at school in England, in the playground with other kids.
We had matches against other primary schools and I played in them from about age 9. My primary school played in red shirts/white shorts—the same as Liverpool and Manchester United, two famous English clubs, whom I had never heard of before going to England. Neither team had yet reached domination in England or Europe in the early-1960s. That would come from the mid-1960s and, interestingly, Liverpool’s success was also in the era of rising international popularity of the musical group, The Beatles, formed in Liverpool in 1960.
I honestly can’t recall how I came to associate with Liverpool other than through the coincidence of team kits, something that would likely influence a primary schoolboy. What I know to my core is that certain Liverpool (and Man United) players hit my consciousness as models for my play. Liverpool forwards Roger Hunt and Ian St. John, and Man U’s forward force of Bobby Charlton, George Best and Denis Law; though I loved the sparkly finishing of Tottenham’s Jimmy Greaves the most. At that time, no black players featured prominently in British football, and my eyes were on Pelé from an early age.
I saw teams play on TV a little; we did not have a TV in our early years and I remember watching at friends’ homes or even gazing throw a showroom window 🙂
BBC TV’s Grandstand was an important part of every Saturday afternoon, as it came with all the match scores of the day, before the programme ended at 5pm. Back then, matches started at 3pm, so ended around 4.45.
It wasn’t common in the 1960s for people who lived in London to support teams from outside London, and truly rare for them to support Midlands or Northern teams—they were almost in a different country for fandom; often they were a fan of the professional team nearest to them—transport access was not a trivial constraint—and if you moved you usually kept your team affiliation. East and West were separate, as were North and South in London football fandom. Over the years, especially since the Premier League formed and the power ranking of London clubs has changed, so has the fan base (ignoring overseas fans). It not simple to analyze, though some have tried.
Televised football in the UK came to the fore in the early-1960s, so I was not able to sit and watch every match, as is now possible. Very few live broadcasts had been done before then, with the exception of the FA Cup and the England-Scotland game. Most football news and views on TV came on Saturdays with Grandstand, which broadcast a range of sport till 5pm, after the football league match results. ‘The newly formed British television station ITV saw televised football as an ideal way of gaining a share of the audience from their only rival broadcaster, the BBC. The BBC meanwhile, started showing brief highlights of matches (with a maximum of five minutes) on its Saturday-night Sports Special programme from late-1955, until its cancellation in 1963.
An early attempt at live league football was made in 1960–61, when ITV agreed a deal worth £150,000 with the Football League to screen 26 matches; the very first live league match was in September 1960. But coverage faltered with smaller than expected audiences and as the Football League demanded a dramatic increase in player appearance payments.
However, ITV moved again into football, tentatively, in 1962 with Match of the Week, which showed highlights of regionally televised matches from around East Anglia. Later, came matches from the North East of England began under the title Shoot. League football was soon to gain a nationwide audience once more. In 1964, the BBC introduced Match of the Day – originally shown on BBC2 and intended to train BBC cameramen for the forthcoming 1966 World Cup. The first match was Liverpool’s 3–2 victory over Arsenal at Anfield on 22 August, and the estimated audience of 20,000 was considerably less than the number of paying customers at the ground. At the time BBC2 could only be received in the London area, although by the end of Match of the Day‘s first season it could be sampled in the Midlands. The programme transferred to BBC1 in the wake of England’s 1966 World Cup win and at last could be received by television viewers across the UK.’
Football results were important for two reasons—to follow how teams did and to get results for the ‘football pools’ sweepstakes. The most we would get were highlights and press reports.
In the United Kingdom, the football pools, often referred to as “the pools”, is a betting pool based on predicting the outcome of top-level football matches taking place in the coming week. The pools are typically cheap to enter, and may encourage gamblers to enter several bets. ’The traditional and most popular game was the Treble Chance, now branded the Classic Pools game. Players pick 10, 11 or 12 football games from the offered fixtures to finish as a draw, in which each team scores at least one goal.’
A big feature of the lives of early immigrants in the UK was focusing on the pools each week, hoping that a big win would come along and springboard people into financial security and better, especially for a passage back home. I recall Caribbean people sitting over their coupons working out their picks and then their possible results at the weekends, whether they were betting singly or in syndicates. See a story reported by Pathe News in 1963 of a Jamaican porter who won the then massive sum of £33,000 (equivalent to about £590,000 in 2020, or about J$105 million).
My parent, who knew nothing about football and did not support any team, were avid punters.
So, it was a round about journey to becoming a Liverpool fan and much had to do with the charisma of its manager, a gruff Scot, Bill Shankly, who lived and breathed football. His famous quote is: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”
So, I will claim fan rights with the team of 1961/62; going on 60 years of often quiet fanaticism. 🙂 That’s well before European domination in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Long before John Barnes, who probably catapulted the team into the consciousness of many Jamaicans. [BTW, I knew John as a youth player in Middlesex in the 1970s 🙂 ]
Shankly changed the image of Liverpool FC, first with a change of kit to the now familiar all-red in 1964/65 European Cup campaign to give a more ‘threatening’ image to the team on the Continent, and in making ‘You’ll never walk alone’ the club anthem. The song was from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1945 musical, ‘Carousel) and was redone and became a hit song for a Liverpudlian singer Gerry Marsden and his group the Pacemakers in 1963–another feather in the city’s cap.
Shankly began managing Liverpool in 1959, and it was under him that the team first competed in European competition in 1964–65, qualifying for the European Cup by winning the First Division championship the previous season. (After his surprise retirement in 1974, he was replaced by managers who had been his assistants and forging a long tradition of Liverpool being managed by people who had developed within the club’s systems and traditions.)
But, I lived 5 minutes from Queens Park Rangers (QPR’s) ground and they were then going to be my home team…till now…and all the giant-killing exploits in the mid-1960s and the rise from the then-Third Division to the top flight, including nearly beating Liverpool to the title in 1975/6, winning more matches than any other team. This was my point of maximum conflicts of emotions. Imagine, QPR’s first match that season was at home to Liverpool, to which I went and QPR won 2-0. Liverpool fans came in droves and were well represented in the ‘home’ end, where I stood. It was an eerie and surreal feeling.
QPR’s matches were the most accessible and I was able to go many Saturdays after my high school matches, which were played in the mornings, although a good two hour ride away. It’s where I learned most of my play, watching professionals close-up. I went a few times to Chelsea matches (in the days of Peter Osgood, John Hollins, Charlie Cooke), as I also had a local connection to them, being close to my school and the team that many of my school mates supported. Several Chelsea players would travel west to join QPR in the early-mid-1970s, and also form their managerial staff).
Anyone who has a pulse and exists in the world of serious fandom, knows that when your home town is in the mix for greats things, it’s a gift. This is a rare moment in life and it should be embraced. QPR had put little Shepherd’s Bush and themselves on the map with their giant-killing league exploit and then in a cup final, coming back from 0-2 down at half-time against the defending First Division team and League Cup champions, West Bromwich Albion, to win 3-2 at Wembley in 1967. The year after England won the World Cup.
I remember jubilation in the streets. What a time to be alive! I had been a year at grammar school and bragging rights from a fan of one of London’s ‘little’ clubs were huge.
I carried my support for Liverpool quietly most of the time—though, when I live in North Wales, which is like a Merseyside suburb, it got a better airing—but let it flow fully in these great moments in Europe; none was bigger than the comeback from 0-3 against Milan in the 2005 European Cup final in Istanbul.
That is until the demolition job on Barcelona in Champions League semi-final at Anfield in 2019.
I’ve replayed the winning goal more times than months in the year. That Spurs should reach the final in similarly dramatic fashion was magical—they’re my first-born’s team and we were long-time Tottenham residents.
I’ve gone over the Premier League 2019/20 winning season’s emotions already, and it’s still a tingling feeling to have the 30 year albatross fly away.