Earlier this year a video by RedMen TV went viral. It wasn’t the usual fan channel mixture of incandescence and impossible demands. Instead, a young Liverpool supporter made an almost poignant observation about what he felt was a subdued atmosphere and a disconnected Anfield crowd during a defeat against Southampton that saw his club knocked out of the EFL Cup. His summary of the experience was punchy: “It’s just like a tourist club now”.
Supporters of all clubs are used to changes in their matchday experience (the use of the phrase ‘matchday experience’ being one of them). The problems of being a ‘tourist club’, meanwhile, are perhaps only the concern of teams in the top half of the Premier League. But to hear it from a young fan of a club whose legend is so closely associated with the community from which it emerged, struck a nerve.
Across Stanley Park and all the talk is of new investment, new aspirations and, above all, a new stadium. Everton have agreed a deal to buy land on the city’s Bramley Moore Dock, on which they intend to build a new 50,000 capacity stadium. Meanwhile on the pitch, Ronald Koeman is trying to build a club that will attract and retain international names and crack the top four. A spanking new ground will help with that, but in leaving Goodison Park, their home for 125 years and the only ground in Britain with a church in one corner, might the club also not lose something along the way?
In advance of this weekend’s Merseyside derby, I spent a couple of days in Liverpool talking with supporters of both Merseyside clubs for a short Guardian film. I sat in the victorian saloon of the Lion Tavern and spoke to Dave Hardman and Liz Watts, who’d been following Liverpool home and away for four decades and felt the club no longer cared whether they attended matches or not. At the top of the Radio City tower I met 20-somethings Paddy Boyland and Matt Jones who opine professionally about Everton on the airwaves and are at peace with the idea of more corporate boxes at Bramley Moor if it means Champions League football.
Some of the views I heard were questionable: the Evertonian sense that Liverpool fans are desperate for them not to get a new ground in case they attract bigger crowds; the attempt by Liverpool fans to draw a line between long-standing Scandinavian fans (ok) and ‘tourists’ from further afield (not ok). But the overwhelmingly majority of opinions, and there were many, were considered, nuanced and born out of deep affection for their respective clubs.
These opinions found consensus on one central point: the atmosphere inside their stadia is not what it was. Diagnosis as to the causes ranged from the aforementioned tourists, to corporate fans, to the redistribution of seats that have broken up long-standing groups of supporters and even ennui, with some match-goers only able to get excited about the most prestigious encounters and sometimes only at certain kick-off times (evenings are better).
The solutions the people I spoke to proposed were sensible and, among them, surely the idea of safe standing in football grounds is one whose time has come. At the other end of the scale, a ‘selfie stick section’ was also mooted.
Two iconic British clubs, whose identities are so finely entwined with their communities, are no more immune from the forces of globalisation and gentrification than any other, it seems. But they do have control over how they respond to the change.