It is a week since Liverpool ended their 30-year title drought and as they prepare to face Manchester City as champions, I am yet to unhook myself from the intoxicating red rush of eulogising articles, videos, podcasts and social media content I have been mainlining ever since. If it is going to be another 30 years until the next title win I am taking in everything, even grainy footage of Jürgen Klopp gegenpressing the hell out of a dance floor like a man six tequilas into his daughter’s wedding reception.
I should point out that, Like the vast majority of Liverpool’s estimated 700 million supporters around the world, I am not a Liverpudlian. Indeed, I grew up in Wollongong, New South Wales, and now live in Melbourne, Victoria. About as far from Liverpool as one can get. Depending on your view of such things, this might define me (though in a way it would not if I were, say, a Sunderland supporter) as a glory hunter.
Worse, some might even describe me as a “plastic”. But if that popular pejorative suggests I am a Johnny-Come-Lately with little more than a passing knowledge of the club’s fixture list, much less its history, then I would not know my Ronny Rosenthals from my Ronnie Whelans, would I?
Either way, on the face of it, it is an odd and not always satisfying thing to follow a sporting team based somewhere you are not. Such fans cannot possibly have the same connection to their chosen club as a local. The latter’s identity as a supporter is all but coded into their DNA and then reinforced every time they step outside their door.
As I have discovered for myself during pilgrimages to Anfield in 1989 and in February of this year, reminders of a Liverpool-supporting local’s affiliation are evident everywhere, even in the blue (hair)shirts worn by the city’s penitents. They flow from the lips of shopkeepers, taxi drivers, passengers on the bus; they’re painted onto the walls of the town; they echo in the pages of the local paper; they hang palpably in the air on match day.
And then, off in the distance, is Anfield, rising above the bunched homes of the faithful like a basilica, an ever-present promise of salvation. To dislike football and live in such a place must be brutal.
By contrast long-distance supporters must make do without all of this. Yet despite missing out on these deeper levels of richness and connectedness, and despite their having to suffer alone when it all goes as pear-shaped as a midfielder living off past glories, meat pies and beer, they continue to be devoted to their adopted team.
They read everything they can get their hands on, they watch all the videos, they buy merchandise, they even shell out for overpriced tickets for one of their team’s pre-season world tour matches and are so genuinely happy to finally be part of things they will suspend their disbelief by singing You’ll Never Walk Alone as if it’s a cup final and not a meaningless friendly-cum-branding exercise.
More to the point, even during the confluence of a pandemic and a climate catastrophe when they would be better placed fortifying their bushland boltholes and teaching their children to garrotte someone with a shoelace, they still find the desire to get up in the middle of the night to watch their team play. And what do they do then? Why, they spend half their time watching through their fingers, or pacing the room, or wishing the whistle would blow because all this caring is agonising.
Like many now middle-aged Australians, I started following English football in the late 70s and early 80s when Jimmy Hill’s Match of the Day screened on ABC TV every Monday night. Being somewhere other than suburban Australia boosted the appeal of English football, but I was drawn to the game, the crowds, the singing and the often manic, menacing, mud-spattered spectacle.
When the kids in my team naturally chose someone to follow I opted for Liverpool. Slick, skilful, moustachioed and resplendent in red – and with Australian Craig Johnston bolstering their ranks – they were also winners. Was I a glory hunter? I suppose I was. But I was 10, and who else was I supposed to choose? Birmingham City?
Before long, however, I had fallen for them in a way that reminds me of a line in Stephen King’s novella The Body (filmed as Stand By Me): “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12.” Forged uncynically in my youth, my passion for Liverpool has sometimes been reduced to a small flame – like a pilot light on a gas burner – but it has never guttered out, and it has been readily ignited by the likes of Robbie Fowler, Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Luis Suárez, Mo Salah and Klopp.
As an adult, I have tried to replicate such devotion to a Melbourne-based A-League team but it just has not happened. Too old, too tired, too busy, too cynical. Feeling a little like I’m trying to arrange my own marriage (because, forget love, this local team will be good for me), I have attended matches, watched games on TV, admired the talent on offer and appreciated being part of the crowd. I still do. But try as I might I simply have not come to care in that all-encompassing and wonderfully irrational way. I can but envy those who do.
It may bother some people that I feel a lot more for a football team based 17,000km away than I do for one 6km down the road but so be it. Blame Jimmy Hill if you must.