Paul Amann felt relaxed as he sat in Anfield waiting for a meeting with Jürgen Klopp. Balmy late August, not long after the opening game of the 2021-2022 Premier League season away to Norwich.
Liverpool had ransacked their hosts at Carrow Road, winning 3-0. But the headlines focused on a chant sung by a vocal minority of visiting supporters at Norwich's Billy Gilmour, who, because he was on loan from Chelsea and was derided as a "rent boy".
Since Amann established Kop Outs - an LGBT support group for Liverpool supporters - in 2016 contact with the community wing of the football club was regular and progressive. The club arranged a meeting to discuss the troubling chant.
As an activist, Amann is practiced in meeting senior figures. So he was clear in his mind about what he wanted to say to the Liverpool manager. The door opened.
“I was thrown out of my stride because up pops Virgil van Dijk to pass on his and the team’s solidarity and respect,” he laughs. “And Jürgen himself came in then and was lovely and really listening and asked pertinent questions to test his own understanding.
"He clearly got why we wanted people to stop chanting that chant. But it gets better! After that, Jordan 'Hendo' came in - my absolute hero. That's when I turned into a fanboy."
Behind the mirth is a deeply solemn message of the ties between club and people. Liverpool edged Chelsea out of a FA Cup final in Wembley last Saturday after a gripping penalty shootout, repeating the manner of their League Cup win over the same opposition.
But it was the chorus of sustained boos during the ceremonial teams meet-and-greet with England’s prince William and through the rendition of God Save The Queen which was the source of chattering and scolding afterwards, in the house of commons in London and in the newspaper columns.
Klopp, when asked about the issue, offered a measured response, pointing out that there must be a reason for the protest.
Those chanting it may not be conscious of the history but the driving forces for their behaviour can be traced back down many decades
“I know our people that well that they wouldn’t do it if there was no reason for it. And I’m not here surely not long enough to understand the reason for it, is for sure something historical and that’s a question you could answer better than I could ever.”
The Telegraph then reported that British prime minster Boris Johnson "slaps down" Klopp for defending the booing. In a livid piece published in the London Independent this week, the writer Tony Evans outlined the rationale and energy behind the crowd hostility towards the anthem and an anti-monarchical stance: that it was the latest in Liverpool's on-going protest against England's prevailing class system and the establishment indifference.
“What does this have to do with football?” he wrote in the piece. “A lot. The word “Scouse” is an insult that was reappropriated by those it was used against. In the poorest areas of Liverpool, a century ago, the malnourished residents - who were children of immigrants and who mainly identified as Irish - relied on soup kitchens and cheap street vendors for food. What they were served was ‘Scouse’, a watery stew.
“Scouser was a pejorative term used to mock the poorest. When “Feed the Scousers” echoes around stadiums it is expressing a deep folk memory that is imbued with anti-migrant and anti-Irish sentiment. Those chanting it may not be conscious of the history but the driving forces for their behaviour can be traced back down many decades.
Nowhere else is poverty sneered at in this way by outsiders. No one sings “Feed the Geordies” or “Feed the Mancs” even though other places have much more deprived areas.”
There’s a bleakness behind the chant- nothing new in football. But the escalating inflation and economic crisis that is slowly strangling Brexit Britain, with food costs lurching into unprecedented territory, has sharpened its relevance.
John Grant, who lectures in history and politics at Liverpool Hope is a regular at Anfield and feels the atmosphere at games this season has been redolent of the early 1980s.
That intensity of emotion, combined with the fabled pursuit of the quadruple (the Premier League, the FA Cup, the Champions League and the League Cup), is what has made this season indelible in his mind. Irrespective of whether his team adds to their haul, 2022 is a season to remember.
“And I’ll tell you why. I have never known the Liverpool crowd to be as political as they have been over the past few seasons,” he says. “There is a beautiful banner that only comes out now and then. It goes near enough end to end in the Kop and it reads We are Not English, We Are Scouse. And that sensibility is tied in with booing the monarchy and the national anthem.
“You can hear them booing the monarchy in 1986 when Liverpool played Everton in the Cup final. It is the sense of entitlement they are booing. And it ties in with social and injustice and the cost-of-living crisis that is going on across the country right now. Liverpool is just more vocal than other cities.
“I’m not the most high-octane political person but I do have a strong sense of injustice. And when you hear some of the conversations about, if you don’t have enough money, go get another job. The chancellor of the exchequer (Rishi Sunak) is a nigh on millionaire and his wife doesn’t declare all her taxes. It stinks, really.”
Grant is a Hope boy; there's a photo of him somewhere in his pram waiting with his mother in the line for tickets to see the team play Real Madrid in the 1965 European Cup. He is currently researching a fanzine published in the early 1980s called The End.
Among the editorial staff was Peter Hooton, future lead singer of The Farm. "It caught the mood of the times through humour." The mood then was dominated by the Toxteth Riots and mass unemployment - set against the fabulous escapism of Liverpool's 1981 European Cup win.
"The release, after 30 years, of the state papers of the Thatcher administration in 1981 confirmed what Liverpudlians knew about the conservative party attitude towards the city. Advising against Michael Heseltine's bid for a £100 million urban regeneration investment, then chancellor Geoffrey Howe warned Thatcher the government "must not expend all our limited resources in trying to make water flow uphill" and that the option of "managed decline" should not be discounted.
In the lead-up to Liverpool’s unlikely 2005 European Cup triumph, Evans wrote a tough, self-rebuking piece on his behaviour on the day of the notorious 1985 European Cup final, when 39 Italian fans died after a wall collapsed following a stampede in the dilapidated Heysel stadium.
Evans does not shy away from laying out his participation in the drinking and looting and the dark, ugly mood which preceded the game. But he does try to establish the context; that many fans were wary after the events of the 1984 final against Roma, when Liverpool fans were assaulted to general indifference.
“The British media, we felt, had barely reported one of the worst outbreaks of violence in the game’s history,” he recalled. “We were used to confrontation, but not necessarily at football matches.
"The first half of the 1980s was perhaps the city's lowest point, philosophically and economically. Scousers were labelled as thieves in the press, the city's working class moved ever leftwards as Margaret Thatcher was feted and the culture gap between Liverpool and the rest of England was stretched to breaking point."
The phrase "managed decline"- shocking in its conservatism - was revealed when the Hillsborough campaign for justice for the 97 victims of that stadium disaster was entering its third decade in pursuit of official accountability and an acknowledgement of the facts.
The race to blame Liverpool fans for the disaster, the smear campaign by the Sun newspaper, the police cover-up and lies left a permanent hurt and anger across the city. It echoed with the sneering establishment portrayal of Liverpudlians; the Scouse 'calm down' stereotype invoked in old Harry Enfield sketches and mimicked by community secretary Michael Gove in an addled television interview he gave just a week ago.
“So that sense of not belonging to the rest of the country, those elements were sewn not at the FA Cup last Saturday but four decades ago,” Grant continues. “It makes them sick, the sense of entitlement, it makes the blood boil. There is a section of society that will never touch or experience difficulty - possible hunger, being cold, not having a worthwhile job and not maybe much to look forward to in life. And our current prime minister epitomises that. He has no sense of feeling for the people around him.”
When Grant thinks about the pop cultural portrayal of Scousers, he can see that it has created a stigma.
“But it also deepened that sense of otherness.”
It was that quality which attracted Amann to the city. He grew up in Lincolnshire, the son of a Trinidadian who came to Britain in 1958 and worked in the British royal airforce. By the time Paul first came to Liverpool to study in the 1990s, he was already a steadfast Liverpool supporter because of his father.
"When I was a kid, he idolised Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley. I grew up with that. I think it was the values that Shankly espoused. A lot of people talk about Bill Shankly as a bastion of invincibility but one of my favourite quotes is one his granddaughter Karen told me: 'We are pro-Liverpool but we are anti-nobody.'
“My father faced more than his fair share of prejudice coming from the West Indies and he is a very generous man and he adopted that generosity of spirit that he would also dole out with the cheeky competitive side that Shankly had as well.”
Shankly-isms have become part of England football folklore and the sharpness of wit has travelled through the generations and forms one of the characteristics of the Kop. Rogan Taylor, an academic and a former chair of the Football Supporter’s Association, is the last word on Kop lore.
His stand-out moment, as he told The Irish Times in an interview in 2005, was at Tommy Smith's testimonial, two nights after the European Cup win in 1981. The Kop crowd, mischievous and still exultant, sought to liven the evening by singing instructions to other parts of the ground. They chanted for the Anfield Road terrace to sit down.
“And bugger me, but they all sat,” Taylor said. “Then it sang for the main stand to rise and all the older season ticket people rose. Then it called on the director’s box to stand and you could see what was going on there, that it was a statement of power and letting everyone know where the heart of this club was located.
“And you could see all the old camel coats thinking, ‘fuck it boys, we better stand up here.’ And then, see, the Kop took it that bit further and it did this genius thing where it sang for itself to sit down. And then the Kop sat. It was the most powerful piece of street theatre I ever saw in my life.”
The Wembley protest was not about theatre as much as about being heard. The low key but unwavering support of Jürgen Klopp ran a straight line to the clear-eyed socialist tenets by which Bill Shankly lived his life. Klopp’s £15 million salary is the most obvious example of the untethering of financial limitations within the English game.
However, his social and political comments are infrequent and seem in perfect synchronicity with those of his adopted city.
“He gets it. He is hand in glove,” says John Grant. “The Irish get it. The Irish come here for weekends and they just get the city. I think the same thing happened to Klopp.
“When he first came here, he went out with his wife to have a beer and thought he wouldn’t be bothered. And I think he was out for a smoke and all these girls were coming up to his missus and were saying, we’ll take you shopping, we know all the good places.”
In 2022, the good places in Liverpool - shopping or otherwise - are in abundance. The city has taken immense strides since the sinister consideration of a graduated lapse into dereliction as evinced in that infamous government letter.
Why should we take pride in Englishness when Englishness does not take pride in us? I can understand that. I am also pro Liverpool and anti-nobody
The docklands are sparkling tourist attractions. The city centre is booming. The football teams are worth half a billion pounds to the wider economy. The improvements are general. When Paul Amman was growing up, his parents wouldn't allow him to go to football games to shield him from inevitable racist abuse.
Since he set up Kops Out, his engagements with Liverpool have demonstrated the club’s sincere intent to make sure that the anthemic You’ll Never Walk Alone is adapted as an article of faith so that none of their fans feel marginalised.
“To me, that is special. They actually engage with that.”
His meeting with Klopp was broadcast on Liverpool forums and the effect was instant.
“Because so many more decent fans felt empowered to stop others. And also, the vast majority of fans didn’t even realise that singing the chant was being homophobic. And many not only stopped chanting it, they then became allies. And we owe a huge debt of gratitude to so many genuinely lovely fans for that.”
Although Amann has been living in the city for 20 years, his local friends often tease him that he isn’t a ‘proper’ Scouser. But the feeling of being at a remove from England seeps into anyone living in the city. Assertions of exceptionalism leave Liverpudlians open to jibes - as was the tone of a 2004 Spectator piece written by Boris Johnson in which he took the city to task.
“’Self-pity city’. Slurs like that stick in the memory,” says Amann. “It creates a sense of: why should we take pride in Englishness when Englishness does not take pride in us? I can understand that. I am also pro Liverpool and anti-nobody. I might not have been booing had I been at Wembley. But I wouldn’t have told anyone not to boo.”
This weekend, another football league season closes in the city. On Thursday night, Everton edged out Crystal Palace 3-2 in their nail-biting battle for Premier League survival. On Sunday, Liverpool must win their final game of the year and then hope that Aston Villa, led by the Kop's enduring boy-idol Steven Gerrard, execute the shock of the season against Manchester City.
Even in a club with an unreasonable faith in football magic, that outcome is highly improbable.
“If you are first, you are first,” went one of Bill Shankly’s famous aphorisms. “If you are second you are nothing.”
Perhaps. But if Liverpool do finish within a point of City, they’ll have done so by playing some spellbinding football and losing just two league games since last August. Keeping pace with this City team, whose limitless financial reach was recently evident in the £51 million signing of Erling Haaland for next season, feels like a miracle.
Liverpool’s celebrated 85/86 league-cup double winning side had the luxury of drawing 10 and losing six games over that league season. Shankly’s third and final league title, in 1973-74, was achieved with seven defeats and 10 draws. The margins for error are close to non-existent.
And there’s an awareness of Liverpool, even as tens of thousands prepare to head to Paris for the Champions League showdown against Madrid, that this is a dream-time, revolving around the unique alchemy created by Klopp.
It has been a rare season, irrespective of what happens over the coming week. In a fretful anxious year, the city’s biggest football team has been a vital source of joy and escapism.
“Yeah, that phrase, the opiate of the masses,” says Paul Amann. “This is a thriving city in parts but we have tens of thousands living in abject poverty worrying about whether they can heat their homes and eat. People do not feel that the state is acting in a way to effectively support people. People have been failed in so many different ways.
"Football is a wonderful, lovely distraction from everyday life and it is the life of the banter of the city. Not everyone here supports Liverpool, of course! The footy does lift your spirits. When we got the second trophy, the vibe was terrific. And we have a team of players who want to do stuff to address the social issues of the city, like Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander and many others who come from dead working-class backgrounds who want to do right by this city.
"These are not photo opportunities. They do things all the time. Sadio Mane has just sponsored a scholarship at LU management scheme. And when you put that with the football, well, it has been brilliant, yeah. It felt like it was slipping away at some points during the season. And the way we have fought back. It's still City's to lose. But it's been a hell of a ride."