Around the time of Liverpool FC’s formation in 1892, travelling shows from the States were all the rage, attracting huge crowds as they toured the length and breadth of Great Britain. Now nearly 120 years later, Liverpool are hosting their own American circus, as unpopular owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett battle with compatriot John Henry to be the ringmaster at Anfield. In the public farce that’s been played out since Hicks and Gillett’s arrival in February 2007, all that’s been missing has been the accompanying Sousa march being frenetically bashed out on a Wurlitzer.
Since taking over, Hicks and Gillett have incurred the Liverpool fan’s wrath over their controversial running of the Reds and have been accused of asset stripping the Merseyside club. The fan’s anger at the chaos that has enveloped their club brought about the formation of the supporters group ‘Spirit of Shankly’ in early 2008. The group held their first official protest in February 2008, refusing to leave the ground after a game and the following year they successfully prevented Hicks attending a game at Anfield after picketing all four entrances to the ground. February of this year saw them launch a huge billboard campaign across Merseyside. Their primary objective is to remove Hicks and Gillett from the Anfield boardroom (they have an ultimate aim of Liverpool becoming a fan owned team) and have been the driving force behind the protests against them, but the fractious relationship between supporters and owners has gone well beyond the demonstrations and banners that have become a common sight at Anfield on a matchday, with incidents ranging from unpleasant to downright bizarre.
There was the extremely unsavoury incident in January 2010 where Tom Hicks Junior was forced to resign as a director at the club after sending an expletive-ridden abusive email to Stephen Horner, a member of Spirit of Shankly who had contacted him expressing concerns over the club’s financial state and Benitez’s lack of funds. However, this disgraceful behaviour was not by any means one way traffic, with Gillett revealing that he and his family had received death threats, purportedly from angry Liverpool fans.
There were lighter stories as well. One of the more unusual incidents from the civil war on Merseyside was the theft of Jamie Carragher’s 30th birthday cake, which was snatched from the Liverpool vice-captain’s party, only to be returned later on, a splinter group of Spirit of Shankly claiming responsibility for the theft in 2008, that brought much valuable media attention to their cause. At the start of October, filmmaker and Liverpool fan Mike Jeffries, who co-wrote the screenplays for the Goal
With the club now on the verge of being sold to another American, Boston Red Sox owner John W. Henry, Spirit of Shankly are understandably treating the news with ‘cautious optimism’, although many Liverpool fans are just desperate to get rid of Hicks and Gillett, regardless of who replaces them. “We need to rid the club of Gillett and Hicks,” says James McKenna, who helps run Spirit of Shankly.”It does not matter where they come from as long as they understand Liverpool Football Club. That was the problem with Gillett and Hick, they never really got Liverpool.” However, despite Henry’s good record with the Red Sox baseball team, the fans aren’t about to get carried away. ‘We have fought long and hard to get rid of Hicks and Gillett and we don’t want more of the same,’ adds McKenna, ‘We hope these people are the right owners to take over Liverpool Football Club.’ Other Reds fans are less enthusiastic, Professor Rogan Taylor of Liverpool University, who is also a founder member of the ShareLiverpoolFC group admitted: “I don’t feel any great excitement about the prospect. John Henry’s got a lot of respect in the sports world over in the States, our problem is, will they understand anything about the way it actually works here and the kind of culture on which this stuff grows?”
Only time will tell if Henry has honourable intentions for Liverpool, but at least the fans know that in Spirit of Shankly they have a powerful and passionate supporters group that is capable of challenging even those at the very top of the Anfield boardroom. Should Henry prove to be as unwelcome as Hicks and Gillett, Spirit of Shankly will be there to let him know. Club owners may come and go, but the one constant, the one guarantee of a football club, is its supporters. As Taylor says: “Hard times are nothing new for football fans; we’re built for this stuff.”
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