In a way, it was one last joke at Liverpool’s expense. Right, you’ve won the league for the first time in 30 years on a baking summer’s evening: now everybody, stay at home! And of course, most did. They’re the ones you probably didn’t see. They stayed at home in Kinshasa and Kuala Lumpur, in Malmö and Manhattan, in Wallasey and West Derby. They gathered in WhatsApp groups and Zoom watchalongs and sat in their living rooms and bedrooms, quietly savouring.
Meanwhile, a few went out. They’re the ones you probably did see: the ones waving their red smoke canisters, holding up their replica Premier League trophies, tooting their horns. In recent weeks there was a strange pseudo-debate over the prospect of Liverpool fans descending on Anfield to celebrate their title win. On one side we were presented with the idea of football fan as brainless beefcake, drawn irrevocably to revelry like a fly to shit. On the other, the football fan as noble and pious martyr, whose intrinsic virtue must never be questioned, let alone impugned.
Perhaps it ultimately should have surprised nobody that football fans are neither superior people, nor inferior people, but simply people. In moments of triumph or moments of trauma, football offers something we all need from somewhere: shared pride, a common emotional canvas, a sense of belonging at a time when we have scarcely felt more apart from each other. Winning your first championship since 1990, an achievement that for many will have been a lifelong consumption: is the urge to seek out human companionship at a moment like this really so strange?
Of course, at most clubs, “30 years of hurt” that also generated 14 major trophies – including two Champions Leagues – is the sort of drought fans would happily sign up for. Yet Liverpool has never judged itself by the standards of most clubs, or indeed by the standards of most cities. Partly this is a question of geography, partly a question of culture, partly a question of politics. A proud port town that has traditionally looked outwards to the high seas, rather than inwards to its own country, for inspiration and kinship. You didn’t need to be a Militant-voting, flag-waving scouse separatist to feel the disconnect. The sense that England was some other place, over there, and that on some level the feeling was entirely mutual.
The unashamed exceptionalism that has fuelled some of Liverpool’s proudest achievements as a city has also turned it into a target. It’s 16 years since the infamous Spectator leader that chided the people of Liverpool for wallowing in their “victim status”, for “an excessive predilection for welfarism”, for refusing to “accept that they might have made any contribution to their misfortunes”. And yet to this day, trawl through online forums or read social media or listen to chants by rival fans, and you will hear those very same tropes rehashed in one form or another. The editor who published the article, meanwhile, just so happens to be the prime minister.
And so with the possible exception of Manchester United, there is no other club in English football in whom rival fans are more emotionally invested, no club whose failures and calamities are more eagerly awaited or celebrated. The unbridled glee with which many fans still celebrate their title collapse in 2014 – Demba Ba, Stevie Gerrard, that slip, that song – is hard to imagine ever being replicated for, say, Chelsea or Tottenham or Manchester City.
Perhaps inevitably, Liverpool’s modern narrative has been built on resistance, of overcoming the odds, of taking on greater powers: whether over Hillsborough, or the tide of new money that transformed English football in the early 2000s, or even in protesting against their own owners. Above all, they have been railing against the idea that this is a place with more past than future, that their golden era has gone for good. That hurricane of rage, of irresistible just cause, has fuelled some of their greatest triumphs on a football pitch: Olympiakos 2004, West Ham 2006, Barcelona 2019. But over a gruelling 38-game season, it has more often proved a millstone.
The crowning achievement of Jürgen Klopp, therefore, has been to overcome the challenge that has ultimately sunk every one of his predecessors: to block out the noise. To set history to one side. To shout down the cynics and the doubters with a new and unanswerable cry of their own. There is a widespread perception of Klopp’s team as an essentially emotional vehicle: one fuelled by passion and fervour and the irresistible Anfield roar. In fact, this season Liverpool’s football is more accurately defined as the pursuit of immaculate, imperial control: an ordered, structured unit built on rock-solid defence, relentless pressing, endlessly rehearsed patterns of play, an even temper. Half of their 28 wins have been by a single goal: the highest proportion of any champions since Leicester in 2016.
In order to make history, first Liverpool had to let it go. It’s tempting to spy parallels between the Liverpool of the 1980s – a city scarred by discord and decay – and the Liverpool of 2020, a city labouring under a decade of austerity, whose finances are in their worst state since the second world war, according to the mayor, Joe Anderson.
But at the very least, the red half of Liverpool will cherish this rare moment of communion: one of those times when everything else seems to fall silent, and all you can hear is singing.