RED OR DEAD
written by Joey A.X.
photographs by Janette Beckman
There is a Red Sea present that even Moses couldn’t part, already five shots and ten pints deep each, buzzing louder by the moment, and flooding all corners of the pub. It’s 7: 30 AM, and despite the sun still crawling over the snow-dusted power lines, the crowd is already resplendent. It’s Match Day morning and Liverpool is about to kick off against bitter rival Manchester United in one of the fiercest bouts of bad blood in all of global sport. The hatred on the field is only outdone by the hatred off it. The scarlet color of both teams uniforms make for appropriate wardrobe on the day.
Christy’s Irish Public, a flag and scarf adorned haunt in the towering gothic shadows of Yale University, is far away from the stadium lights in northwest England, yet it doesn’t feel like it today. The five-hour difference is no factor for missed beats. The only shock is that the sport of soccer, particularly the Premier League, with all its star power, heritage, and high drama took this long to get here. It’s the 202nd meeting between the two footballing titans since 1895, long before those across the pond were fired up over it. It doesn’t matter. The greatest things on earth not only survive but flourish under new lights, they say. There’s no better example of that than this.
How a soccer club thousands of miles away could mean so much to so many seems a travesty at first take. But step back, and the Manet becomes clearer. This is not just any collection of cleat wearers. This is a wildly unique compendium of castoffs whose time has finally come, it seems. Add the narrative they represent under the banner of LFC’s rich history whose Molotov cocktail of ingredients are in equal parts screaming glory and gut-wrenching heartbreak, and it makes even more sense.
The Reds are the kings of anxiety and anguish on a level perhaps only known to Red Sox and Cubs fans prior to the last few years stateside. The hard charging us vs the world chip on the club’s shoulders is also the yoke carried by its fans around the globe. To support this club is like being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed amphetamine salts as a remedy. Perhaps it’s no wonder then that it’s stateside supporters have gone from a handful of pint pounders in scarves to a full-blown coterie that no longer operates in the shadows of dank pubs.
Soccer, as a spectator sport, has been on a meteoric rise over the course of the last decade. Its comeuppance is due to several nonlinear serendipities across various cultures that have broken the dam for the sport stateside. The popularity of the video game FIFA, the marketability of superstars like Beckham, Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar, the sports unique relationship with trend, pop culture, fashion and geopolitics and the fall of the NFL, mired in a steady stream of one awful controversy after another, have all moved the needle triumphantly for the other type of football to grab hold of droves of rabid new fans in the states. Last summer’s World Cup smashed ratings and records; a massive American broadcast deal with NBC for the Premier League, the sports most legendary league which features 20 of the worlds most successful juggernaut franchises across the U.K., didn’t hurt either.
In the 90’s, it was a labor of love to watch matches. Today, NBC’s stellar coverage makes it almost harder to not watch. Live games, highlights, pundit coverage, and apps are literally everywhere in crispy 5K. Sure, the Prem is based in England, but everything about it is global. Gone are the days of British players filling the ranks for teams like Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, City, and LFC.
All the EPL teams feature world-class talent from all over the globe. LFC’s famous front line is comprised of Sadio Mané from Senegal, Roberto Firmino from Brazil, and of course breakout superstar Mo Salah, who hails from Egypt. Manchester’s XI features Paul Pogba, a black Frenchman who’s global clout is akin to LeBron James. Even America’s domestic league, the MLS, once regarded as the smallest of our “Big 5” pro sports leagues is on pace to leapfrog the NHL this year in TV ratings alone. It’s a good time to be a soccer fan, kids. Full stop.
English football is steeped in rich history and tradition and is just as much its own ecosystem as it is a soccer league. The rivalries between teams represent blood feuds that can be traced back to the War Of The Roses. Matches become proxy wars in many ways, and the team you support says more about who you are internally and what your belief system is than what type of formation one prefers to attack in. In a great many ways, this is where Hooliganism stems from. Class, politics, socioeconomics and self-identification craft the perfect storm. This is not just a game. It’s never been.
With technology connecting the globe in ways like never before, these ideologies are transcending the city neighborhoods and pubs in England and entering the hearts of those who exist far outside the Windsor’s empire. And just like any great story, the characters that incite the strongest emotions are the ones who battle insurmountable odds and roar fearlessly in the face of the system. Liverpool football club is born from that mold more than any other. It should actually be no shock to anyone then, that the passion the club resonates is becoming what it is across the pond now. LFC is not a team, it’s a family, an ideology, and a lifestyle. Its motto, You’ll Never Walk Alone adorns its family crest.
To understand the cult that surrounds LFC one must first understand the historical roots of northwest England where the city is found. It’s a hard-nosed, blue-collar, salt of the earth region if nothing else. Dockworkers and Irish Catholic laborers built the city with sweat and blood, a stark contrast to the elevated poshness of London. Liverpool’s culture, Scouse dialect, and soul is beyond unique. As often is the case in such places, the Balls-And-Bootstrap theology would go on to create a community of underdogs who would welcome you with open arms but not hesitate to clench a fist.
That same underdog heart is exactly what’s unifying across the globe for all races and creeds who make up the LFC family. It resonates most deeply in the northeast corridor of the USA, where optimism, rebellion, and revolution run in the blood. Anfield Stadium, the club’s home since the late 1800’s may be located in Liverpool, but it’s magic extends across the pond laterally to the port towns of Boston, New York, New Haven, and Philadelphia.
Boston and Liverpool share a ton of similarities. They’re more or less directly across from each other on the map, have a history born out of a spirit of independence, and share a good deal of Irish diaspora and a chip on the shoulder that only dark horse grit can create. It makes sense that Boston is the granddaddy of American LFC culture. LFC Boston is perhaps the nations most historic supporter club that boasts a huge membership and long-standing history. Their home pub, The Phoenix Landing, is somewhat of a pilgrimage for American LFC fans, and with great reason.
Founded by lifelong LFC fan Kevin Treanor in the ‘90’s, who also owns pubs on both sides of the Atlantic, it was an obvious move to open a home for his fellow Reds. When John Henry, who also owns the Boston Red Sox, purchased the team in 2011, LFC started to become a part of Boston’s cultural fabric. Sure, there are fans of other teams who reside in Boston, but it’s vastly incomparable to the love for LFC. Even the team’s uniform designer and manufacturer, New Balance, is Boston based. Anfield Stadium and the Sox legendary home, Fenway Park, even look eerily similar. They’re time machines in today’s climate that prefers to construct stadiums that look like malls from Bladerunner 2049. Tradition not only matters, but connects.
What began under a decade back as a few homies huddled in dimly lit pubs on Saturday mornings, using a game as an excuse for drinking whiskey and Guinness at 10 AM, has grown to include mob scenes that have outgrown many of the original spots and packed much larger spaces. One of these American LFC Mecca’s is a 3-floored super pub on West 39th in Midtown Manhattan, opened by retired club legend Jamie Carragher that bears his name.
If the supporters that started LFC Boston are Bill Russell, classic flag beaters, and forefathers that created the game, so to speak, then Carragher’s is LeBron James. Carragher’s elevated the bar and spared no expense in creating a massive shrine to the team that’s brimming with passionate supporters over an hour before each kickoff with massive screens that line all the walls. The screaming, chanting, and rowdy energy at Carragher’s rivals even the most raucous environment in England on its best days.
“I’ve been coming to Carra’s since I moved to New York from Liverpool in 2014,” said Gavin Harkes in a thick Scouse accent, born and raised in Liverpool. “It just bang on captures the whole culture. You know, prior to coming to the states we all kinda had this idea that the Yanks didn’t really like or get football. Or, say, the footy culture just didn’t exist here. Not only is that wrong but it appears to get more and more wrong every match. It’s beautiful really. Even the ugly bits are beautiful. The fights and some of the shite to say that come with the whole culture sometimes. It’s amazing. I’m proud, mate. Proud to know youse all and have youse with us.”
With the team involved in a heated two-horse race for the title against the superstar roster and the seemingly unlimited funds of Abu Dhabi oil money funded Manchester City, these are epic days. You can’t write scripts this good. It’s the red wave of long shot spirit pitted against the sky blue skyscraper of one of the world’s wealthiest franchises who purchase star talent the way kids purchase chips at corner stores. Every little point counts on the race for the championship now. The crowds are bigger, and the passion louder. Red or dead.
As with all subcultures that break into the consciousness of the mainstream, the soul naturally starts to change to paint broader strokes for broader returns and profits. This may be the one exception to that rule. Save for the players and coaches and those on the team’s payroll, there’s no possibility to make a wild profit here. Sure, supporter clubs sell the typical scarf and t-shirt merch and such, but those profits typically just cover the cost of making them. No one is doing this to turn a buck.
This is truly and only about love. Most of the team’s supporters in both the states and abroad actually spend far more money than they will ever make back from LFC. It doesn’t matter. It never will. LFC represents a belief and inspires a passion that is worth far more than the price of a Salah kit or a ball cap. LFC is the avatar for all the underdogs, all the believers, all the dreamers and all the pirates and poets.
Regardless of the outcome of the season, the red flags will still fly. The world, and particularly a hotly divided America, could and should take a lesson from LFC. We’ve been in need of a beacon for unity and inspiration and a community that cares simply because caring is good. “Us vs them” can be a great thing when the us covers all backgrounds and the “them” is the soulless, passionless corporatization and bastardization that targeted ad campaigns and divisive political agendas creates. Out of all the bullshit the exploitation of subcultures creates, the one thing it can never harness is the power of love for loves sake.
We all still get chills every time the anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone gets sung before and after kickoff. From Anfield Stadium to the pubs across the map, it is a connective spirit that can never be broken that the song represents. No matter the sad state of global affairs currently, Liverpool Football Club is proof that the believers and the dreamers will never walk alone.
Raise a pint for that. Come on you Reds!