Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Is Liverpool Football Club Dying?

It's a biting cold day here on Merseyside and I'm trying to get the blood flowing in my fingertips by writing a little bit about football. Yet this isn't entirely about football. This is really about how football is reflecting a broader cultural shift.

My argument begins with John W Henry but I don't suppose it's John W Henry's fault. Nor is it the fault of any owner of a football club given the way the world is going. Yet when John W Henry first appeared before the media that evening to confirm that the sale of Liverpool Football Club had gone through, it did feel like a good man had just ridden in to rescue a much loved institution from the hands of corporate mercenaries. I thought football at Anfield would survive and, more importantly, I thought my love of football would survive.

In many respects, Henry has lived up to my expectations. My disillusionment with football has nothing to do with the way he has gone about operating Liverpool as a viable business. My disillusionment is more structural than that. It has to do with the wider world in which Liverpool operates. It has to do with shifts which are destroying sport, literature, culture, and even blogging.

I began to think about the club and its relationship with the fans after I received a thoroughly depressing email yesterday afternoon from the editor of a well known LFC fanzine to which I've occasionally contributed my 'John W Henry' cartoon strips. I haven't contributed a cartoon in a good few months for reasons which weren't entirely unrelated to the contents of the email. The email reminded me of so many blog posts I've written over the years. It was the voice of a helpless man yelling into the void. It was a plea from a man who wanted somebody to say 'carry on' when every instinct in his body is to quit. I've been there. I know the place so well, I even keep my deckchair by the precipice. Every blog post I write I think might be my last because blogs, like fanzines, are dying a slow miserable death.

When I started to blog, nearly ten years ago now, it was a new era of communications. There were some truly great little blogs springing up. Others, however, were just horrible and produced no original content. These blogs would simply surf all the other blogs and recycled material as if it were their own. I was in contact with one eminent blogger at the time who was producing some amazing content and we'd occasionally exchange emails and complain about one particular character who was continually stealing our work. This character had contacted the pair of us separately, asking if he could use some of our material (for no payment). We'd agreed like I guess so many agreed, thinking the publicity was good. Yet as he cherry-picked our content, the readership of our blogs diminished. Meanwhile, his website flourished. It's now one of the internet's larger fish, with a big staff all employed to nick material from other websites and rewrite it as their own. It's a typical content aggregator. Meanwhile most of the little blogs where great content originated have long since died out.

All of this came into focus when the email arrived. It was an odd email for the editor of a Liverpool FC fanzine to send but more poignant because of that. It was to mark the closure of one of the oldest running Manchester United fanzines. 'Red Issue' apparently ran to 295 issues over 26 years. They have apparently called it a day simply because they've become disillusioned with football. “The game we’ve been clinging onto is gone.  Football now is happy-clappy families, half-and-half scarves, tourists and selfie sticks; there’s no point trying to fight that."

Apparently, things are no better in the world of the LFC fanzines. Football is catering to an audience who don't buy independently produced fanzines, which tend to be roughly put together by teams of enthusiasts. If fans want to hear the authentic voice of other football fans, the find it online through forums or blogcasts such as 'The Anfield Wrap'. The written fanzine doesn't appeal. On matchdays, they prefer to buy the glossily packaged pap penned by banal journalists who write in that glib tone that's popular among all magazines these days. It's a voice that's knowingly cheeky, adolescent and lowbrow.  It's a perfect embodiment of style over substance and it usually comes with a glossy pullout wallchart.

That, I suppose, is what the game has become. As I doodled last night's cartoon, I realised that as great as Ronaldo is as a footballer, it is hard to separate his substance from his style. Football is no longer about a solid defence or even a hard working midfield. It's the football Brendan Rodgers insists is the future. It's football packaged for the people who only care about the final third of the pitch. It's football of the spectacular strikes, the genius of one man followed by a densely packed ad break. It is Ronaldo in his Ferrari, by the pool, showing off his muscles. Football is Ronaldo's perfect smile and the dreadful metrosexualism which had infected a generation of schoolboys more interested in their looks than actually playing the game.

Yet the problem with this approach to football is the same problem we had as bloggers. If one or two large sites steal the highlights from what the smaller sites produce, those smaller websites will die out. In football, the tendency is for people to support teams that contain nothing but superstars. It's the dominance of Real Madrid or Barcelona. As Liverpool steal the talent from lower clubs, so too is the talent at Liverpool looking to move to Spain.

That the fans have also moved on is no surprise. Less than half a percent of the match day fans apparently buy a fanzine. Perhaps it's just the passing of an age. The long form of the essay is itself dying out. I'm aware that when people post links to my blog, they'll often append 'long but worth the read'. Yet I don't write long essays. This is only 1400 words long. I merely write longer essays that the 300 word click-bait churned out by media pundits who are instructed to strike quickly, provocatively, and depth be damned.

From the club's point of view, a fanzine is a trivial nothing. They have their media machines to feed the public. However, you have to question your loyalty to a club when, apparently, the club doesn't even answer emails from the editor of one of their oldest fanzines. Yet Liverpool Football Club surely isn't a great institution simply because of the trophies it won. Nor is it an institution because of how well they spin the media. The fans who buy the mechanizing are buying into something they believe is authentic. But that authenticity does not originate in all the other people buying cheap plastic tat. The authenticity came from the extended family of diehard supporters who filled (and, sadly, even died on) the terraces decade upon decade. Men like John W Henry and Tom Werner might look at the balance books. They might look at attendances and keep an eye on the league position. That's what they do and have to do. I look at people I know who have supported Liverpool all their lives and are beginning to question that loyalty. I suspect that something is deeply rotten at the roots of football.

Fanzines are dying. Manchester United have just lost one of their oldest and it sounds like Liverpool might be about to lose one too. Yet the sad irony is that football clubs survive because they are supported by the kind of people who make fanzines. The heartwood of the tree is the most important and once that begins to rot, you worry about the stability of the tree. Fanzines are football's heartwood. A fanzine closing today or tomorrow might not mean much in the world of the billions of pounds floating around modern football. However, it indicates a problem at the base of the business. It is a warning about that point in the future when today's casual fans realise that the great club they support is hollow at the centre. When those fans depart to the next fad in world sport, the loyal supporters won't be around to lend their support during the difficult days.

Fanzines die today but it's the clubs that will surely die tomorrow.

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