Liverpool Football Club, which forms one of the upper echelon teams in the English Premier League, came into prominence for two recent events: one was the acquisition of the club by John Henry and his associates, better known in the United States for their ownership of the Boston Red Sox baseball club. Foreign ownership of beloved English club teams – Manchester United is owned by a U.S. group, and Manchester City is owned by investors from the Middle East – has changed the face of English soccer both for better and for worse, and anxious Liverpool fans were waiting to see what the club’s new owners were going to do.
The second recent event was the sale of the club’s talismanic goal scoring forward, Fernando Torres, to rival Chelsea. Torres was worried that Liverpool was going to fall out of the upper echelon of English football so fled to a club with better prospects. English soccer clubs are deeply tied to their location and to their fan base, and a club’s every move is watched carefully. If one is unaware of the ties that bind an English soccer club to its town, John Williams’ erudite (though pedantically slow-moving at times) book on Liverpool brings its fans’ fealty to the spotlight.
While clearly an ode to the club that shares the town and fandom along with rival Everton, Williams is, if anything, quite objective in his writing. The early history of the club details many of the shenanigans that helped the town fathers establish it, while the middle section of the book chronicles its initial failures and, later on, its stunning success at the highest level of soccer in England.
Two events toward the end of the twentieth century, however, significantly altered the club and people’s perceptions of it. Both had to do with that shameful phenomenon so closely identified with English soccer: fan hooliganism. In a match in Belgium in 1985, an altercation between fans of Liverpool and Juventus escalated into multiple deaths and considerable property destruction. A similar event four years later in a match involving Arsenal sealed the impression of Liverpool fans as hooligans. Williams reconstructs these pivotal events carefully and makes a case that many parties in addition to Liverpool fans were culpable.
This is a book for a true fan – a fan, more specifically, of the band known as the Merseysiders, which outsiders know as the Liverpool Football Club. Williams covers the club’s history, warts and all, with the keen eye of a sociologist and historian, but also wearing his fan’s hat all the time.