Paul Rouse: Even when empty, Anfield retains a special aura

If you want to understand the deep connection between team and place, go to Anfield, writes Paul Rouse.
Paul Rouse: Even when empty, Anfield retains a special aura

If you want to understand the deep connection between team and place, go to Anfield, writes Paul Rouse.

TOUCHING GREATNESS: Liverpool full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold pays due respect to the iconic sign that teams pass as they emerge from the tunnel at Anfield. Picture: Getty Images
TOUCHING GREATNESS: Liverpool full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold pays due respect to the iconic sign that teams pass as they emerge from the tunnel at Anfield. Picture: Getty Images

In the early 1980s, Simon Inglis travelled around England and visited all 92 grounds belonging to clubs in the Football League.

Soccer in England was then in retreat. The numbers who were attending matches was falling at an alarming rate, hooliganism was rampant, and many clubs were in financial disarray.

And yet the football grounds of the country offered something that nothing else did — a sort of civic pride, a spirit that was impossible to adequately describe.

The building of these football grounds — some of which dated from the 1870s — was at its most prolific in the years between 1890 and 1910 when almost 60 clubs made their long-term homes.

The development of the grounds in the decades that followed across the 20th century was testimony to the growth of soccer as an industry and also paid eloquent testimony to the importance of a successful club to the prestige of a town or city.

One of those grounds was Anfield, the home of Liverpool Football Club. For Simon Inglis, there was no ground in England to match Anfield. It was not an architectural masterpiece and certainly could not compare with the fine style of Highbury.

But it had qualities that were different and utterly compelling. As Inglis wrote: “The Anfield Experience begins in the approach roads.”

The passion for the club was evident across all of these streets, with flags and banners flying from shops and homes.

And within the ground itself, the fact the pitch was of the minimum allowable length and the way the roofs crowded low onto the pitch, created “an almost claustrophobic atmosphere”.

It is, said Inglis, “an unnerving experience”, but the “most exhilarating” one in English football.

Football grounds were much more than just a place to play and watch matches.

A football ground was an expression of how a place felt about itself.

And, by the 1980s, you could almost trace the wax and wane of a town’s fortunes through the archaeology of its football ground — during years of boom, a stadium was an emblem of that prosperity.

For example, when Sunderland opened Roker Park at the end of the 1890s, pipe bands paraded through the town, there were steamboats sounding their foghorns on the River Wear and a ceremonial key was cut in gold to open the gates to the pitch. Sunderland was then in the pomp of its industrial prestige — but by the 1980s its grandeur had faded and it was no longer considered a major stadium.

But, in the 1980s, Anfield was in its pomp — if you wanted to understand the depths of passion that a game could provoke and also to understand the connection between a team and a place, you could go to Anfield.

As Inglis wrote, the Liverpool players “always seem that much taller as they emerge from the tunnel” was related to the intertwining of emotion and atmosphere, and “the psychological advantage it has given Liverpool either through fact, illusion or merely by suggestion is indisputable.”

This is not to ascribe to Scousers some sort of exceptional spirituality or insight into soccer. The key to it all, of course, could be found in Inglis’s endnote to his chapter on Liverpool in his book.

He wrote: “Anfield would not seem half so imposing if it were not for the formidable team who call it home.”

And that is exactly it.

Liverpool won because they had the team to win and then to keep on winning. And when they started to lose in the 1990s and couldn’t stop losing, Anfield could not save them.

To understand the craving for success that has defined Liverpool’s 21st-century pursuit of a Premier League title, you must understand the story of the 1970s and 1980s.

Before that decade Liverpool had been successful and had won leagues and FA Cups on a sporadic basis, but the true legend of the club’s greatness was forged in the 1970s and 1980s.

The extraordinary national and European successes of those decades separated Liverpool from the rest of the clubs in the country.

That it happened at the moment when the city slipped into the type of poverty that was increasingly endemic across traditional working-class communities in northern England lent still greater power to the achievement of the football club.

The loss, in particular, of jobs on the docks and in related industry, tore the industrial heart from the city and this was a decline that lent even greater perspective to success on the football field.

In all of this, it should be noted that this is no Scouse fairytale. The dark side of some of the club’s supporters was evident in the hooliganism of some of its supporters and in the events that led to the deaths of 39 Juventus fans at the Heysel stadium disaster of 1985.

But the team won and won again, and in the process created a legacy that endures.

Indeed, so powerful were the achievements of the teams of the 1970s and 1980s that when the 1990s brought decline, the club was simply unable to cope.

The sight of Manchester United winning championship after championship inspired a special type of loathing — and a parallel depth of pain in the obvious inadequacies of their own team for much of the last 30 years.

This week, though, it is deeply ironic that it is Manchester United fans of a certain age who understand well and good what Liverpool fans are currently feeling.

It is a feeling that is rooted in winning a championship that had come to seem as if it would remain forever out of reach. And it is a feeling, also, that holds not just the pure joy of success, but the relief of escape from the suffocating gloom of failure against the backdrop of previous unprecedented success.

Now, with United as distant also-rans — and patently well-short of holding a championship-winning squad — Liverpool seem perfectly place for an extended spell of dominance.

This is particularly the case as an ageing Manchester City team requires significant surgery and Chelsea — with a new unproven manager — are themselves unconvincing. No other club looks like contending.

There was a dark fatalism among Liverpool supporters in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis and the postponement of Premier League matches.

It was the kind of fatalism that made even Leeds United fans appear relatively balanced as they contemplated being denied a title in a season in which they were so far ahead as to be almost lost on the horizon.

And it would have been cruel on Liverpool supporters to be denied victory with a team about which there is so much to admire. They play with pace and they press relentlessly and they have some great players. They also have a manager who is likeable and brilliant.

To argue against them as being worthy champions would be a nonsense.

It is a shame for Liverpool fans that they are denied the opportunity to witness in person the claiming of the championship. But the next motivating cry will be to win it again, next time in front of the supporters.

And, anyway, there is a certain beauty to an empty stadium. Simon Inglis wrote that, throughout his life, when he was passing through a town in a train or a car, and saw a football ground, it captured his mind: “The merest glimpse of a stand or a pitch is tantalising.”

It did not matter that the place was empty — it was its spirit that mattered and the knowledge that it had “the ability to stage great events and great moments… Even when a football ground is empty it retains a special aura.”

That is Anfield.

- Paul Rouse is professor of history at University College Dublin.

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