The Weight of the Shirt: Being a Red in America
My kids know the look. My eyes narrow. The left half of my face curl bunches up. The forehead creases become visible from afar. It means I’ve spotted another United shirt somewhere on the street here in Washington, D.C. Or an Arsenal shirt. And the kids these days love them some Spurs gear. I’ll mumble something under my breath and look about with little hope of seeing Liverpool red somewhere nearby to balance the assault on my eyes. But it is almost always futile. United and the other big boys of the premiership own the streets of most American cities.
Or at least they did up until very recently. In the past twelve months or so I’ve spotted more and more LFC apparel out and about (I’m not including the poor young lad I once saw in a Charlie Adam kit). This is not a coincidence, of course. It has been about a year since Jurgen Klopp has taken over at Anfield and turned many “from doubters to believers.” If disclosure figures released in late February, 2016 are any indication, another factor is that Fenway Sports Group’s more aggressive approach to the commercial side of the game is paying dividends in the United States and elsewhere outside the United Kingdom. Back in the days when Liverpool dominated the English top-flight the club was unknown to most Americans. Those that kept up with the newspapers in the late 1980s would have been introduced to the club through the same reporting of the Hillsborough tragedy that hurt so many in Liverpool and beyond. But today the club is now poised to finally capture Americans hearts and minds in the era of the Premier League.
This is a most unlikely story. To be sure, the club’s remarkable if ill-fated title charge of ’13-’14 dramatically grew our fan base. But just a few years back in the depths of the Hicks and Gillett era there was a real shame being an American red. Liverpool fans wanted only to dream again but that venal and incompetent duo wrought a nightmare that threatened to destroy the club. ‘The Yanks’ took deserved blame for this crisis. We are fond of using the phrase ‘the weight of the shirt’ to talk about the difficult transition of transfers as they realise the immense size of the club. In those years, though, American Reds felt the weight of shame whenever we pulled on our shirts for it was two of our own that wreaked such devastation in and around Anfield. Perhaps luckily it was a different set of Yanks that brought LFC back from the brink. FSG is far from perfect. But the investment and energy that it has put into the club—and the hiring and locking-down of Klopp is exhibit A—is unmistakable.
So we American Reds wince every time we read Liverpudlians criticise the out-of-towners that come to Anfield every once in a while and can’t get enough photos and videos of the proceedings. It offends our sensibilities because many of us can only dream of visiting the ground and watching in person the team that we love. In fact, LFC fan groups have proliferated in leaps and bounds over in the past few years so that we can commiserate together about our distance from Anfield. The official club website lists thirty-nine such groups within the United States. There are numerous other, unofficial groups, that watch together in pubs such as Jamie Carragher’s watering hole in New York City. The traveling squad of Anfield Indexers that visited the states this past summer seemed to be impressed by the depth of fan support. We’ve shed tears after the Chelsea loss derailed our title run, banged our heads into walls when Rodgers capitulated at the Bernebeu, shouted as Lovren’s header rippled the net in Dortmund’s goal, and shed more tears after the flop in Basel.
Americans have also confronted the Hillsborough tragedy anew after the inquest jury found that the 96 were killed unlawfully. Numerous newspapers and news sites carried original reports of the jury’s findings in both news and sport sections. Cable heavyweight ESPN, which has had absolutely terrible coverage of football for many years, made a brave decision in purchasing Daniel Gordon’s documentary, “Hillsborough,” as the first of its “30 for 30: Soccer Stories” that were originally conceived to generate buzz for the World Cup. Though my evidence is merely anecdotal, the many football fans I talked with who watched the film were shocked at the extent of the coverup and the miserable treatment that had been meted out to the Hillsborough families over the years. For what it is worth, critics responded very favourably, too. “If Hillsborough had been released theatrically,” wrote one critic in Rolling Stone, “it’d be a serious contender for 2014 Best Documentary lists—and maybe even Best Film.”
The growing support for Liverpool Football Club in the United States need no longer be feared or sneered at by those in the United Kingdom. We’re not going to wreck the club. And as many of you that have engaged with American Reds on social media have probably found out, we know a thing or two about football. So embrace us, and perhaps one day when you come to visit us in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Dallas, you will cast a gaze over a broad thoroughfare or down a mall escalator and proudly pick out that famous red shirt emblazoned with the names of our shared legends such as Gerrard, Fowler, Dalglish and Rush. Up the Reds.