Football reflects society. You can take the temperature of life in Britain by examining the game and events surrounding it. These days the nation and the sport feel pretty sick. Not just because of Covid-19.
After Liverpool won the league on Thursday night, thousands of people flocked to Anfield to celebrate, flouting social distancing rules with blasé disregard for the pandemic. On Friday things got worse. This time the waterfront was the site of a mass gathering. Flares were fired at the Liver Building and the iconic landmark was set alight.
Joe Anderson warned that this would happen. Liverpool’s mayor cautioned against the Premier League’s Project Restart and said: “There’s not many people who would respect what we were saying and stay away from the ground. A lot of people would come to celebrate so I think it’s a non-starter.” Politicians love to be proved right. Anderson must be feeling pretty smug.
Those of us who were aghast at Anderson’s comments look stupid now. It was hard to comprehend that the mayor of a city that has suffered so much from the dehumanisation of football fans could glibly make such sweeping assumptions. Yet he did. And he was right?
He is only correct in a world without nuance, which is pretty much where we reside now. Anderson’s intervention came at the end of April. What was life like in those long forgotten days? Well, there was no football. The streets were deserted. Shops were shut. Lockdown regulations were black and white. No one had realised when Anderson spoke that public-safety boundaries were malleable.
The public were not aware of Dominic Cummings’ long drive to freedom, sorry, Durham. The man who was involved in creating the coronavirus regulations appeared to ignore them and was praised by the Prime Minister for following his “instincts” rather than the rules.
George Floyd was alive and anonymous. Black Lives Matter protests were unimaginable. Television cameras captured deserted streets, not young people filled with righteous fury. Statues could rest easy and their ‘football lads’ bodyguards were still trapped in their homes internalising racism.
There had been no prolonged PR campaign to downgrade the threat of coronavirus and create a philosophical environment where fear of death was less important than “getting the economy moving.” The Government even ended the daily pandemic briefings this week. The message: the worst is over, the crisis has passed. It isn’t. It hasn’t. Beaches are crowded, partygoers are clashing with police in Brixton and the worst set of politicians in living history are standing idly by.
Anderson does not deserve praise. The mayor was right but at the wrong time. Eight weeks ago there was no danger of mass, football-related revelry. Two months ago Anderson created an avoidable controversy.
This was the week Merseyside needed leadership. Where was the mayor? There were hardly any fans outside Anfield on Wednesday for the game against Crystal Palace but there were clear indications that danger lay around the corner. Life has almost returned to normal in many places. Most businesses have reopened – even plenty of pubs are selling takeaway pints – and a sense of normality has returned. A new, ugly normal.
On Tuesday Bournemouth was overwhelmed by beachgoers. If Anderson’s warning had been sounded earlier this week, it would have been timely. The mayor could have gathered Jurgen Klopp and senior policemen before the fixtures and called for restraint. Klopp told supporters to stay at home but his authority is limited. Why did Anderson appear to show no leadership at all when it mattered? It’s likely that if he had, not a single journalist or fans’ advocate would have demurred. The looming crisis was predictable. Instead Anderson said nothing.
The best politicians judge the mood and seize the moment. It seemed that Anderson misinterpreted the conditions in April and did not have a grip on events this week.
This does not let the Liverpool fans who took to the streets off the hook. The area has already suffered its own football-related ‘biological bomb’ after the Atletico Madrid Champions League tie in March caused a spike in coronavirus deaths. If there is a second wave of fatalities in two weeks’ time it will be an appalling, avoidable legacy of the title win. The recklessness was nauseating.
History means that Liverpool supporters will always be held to a higher set of standards than most other fanbases– or lower, according to their detractors. Football fans became classic folk devils in the 1970s and 80s and because of this an environment was created where the most outrageous lies could be told and believed after the Hillsborough disaster. Those untruths have been categorically exposed in the past decade but too many people will look at this week’s events, nod knowingly and say, “see, we always knew what they were like.”
Many of those at Anfield and at the Pier Head will have been wearing tee-shirts and badges promoting ‘Justice for the 96.’ They have undermined the campaign in the past few days.
It is unfortunate for Evertonians that they will suffer, too. The events feed the stereotypes of Scousers as irrational, sentimental, mindless and dangerous. The same goes for fans of clubs across the leagues. There is still a deep-rooted suspicion across swathes of society – even among people who enjoy the game and go to the match – that other supporters are intrinsically dangerous. Point-scoring is counter-productive and just makes things worse.
Hardly anyone will remember Bournemouth beach in five years. They will recall Liverpool’s bad behaviour in detail. If partygoers cause chaos on Brighton’s shingle at some point in the future, few will link the disorder to this week in Dorset. No one will say “typical beachgoers” in the way they casually spout “what do you expect from football fans?”
It does not excuse misbehaving Liverpool supporters to say that conditions in this country make their actions depressingly predictable. Widespread foolishness and worthless, self-serving politicians created a perfect storm of stupidity which could have fatal consequences across Merseyside and farther afield.
In hindsight, Anderson’s prediction in April was premature and deserved to be called out as hyperbole. In June it would have been appropriate to bring his concerns to public attention and act upon them. In the end Mayor Anderson turned out to have all the resonance of an empty drum.