‘I want to hear human voices reacting to something’
Liverpool fan Tony Evans, author of Far Foreign Land, berates the sanitisation of modern football.
‘I feel like Liverpool Football Club wants to get rid of the likes of me.’
It’s not quite what you expect to hear from a man who has just penned a book about his life following Liverpool teams over the past 25 years, but when it comes to the changing face of football, Tony Evans is not a happy man. Far Foreign Land recounts his journey to watch Liverpool win the European Cup in Istanbul in May 2005. But as Evans notes in the foreword, telling the tale of that trip to Turkey meant reliving his trips in the 1970s and 80s when Liverpool reached five European Cup finals, winning four of them.
The resulting book is an entertaining collection of tales that seeks to explain the fan culture of the past – something Evans believes is being squeezed out by the ever-increasing attempts to sanitise the game, largely driven by money. Along the way, he recounts the terrifying atmosphere in Rome in 1984, and the violent and disastrous reaction to it, which led to 39 deaths in Brussels in 1985. He also provides an account of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, when 96 people were crushed to death at the FA Cup semi-final.
And so it is that I’m talking to Evans on a rainy night in London, drinking in a pub near the offices of The Times where he is deputy football editor. A pub so devoid of punters and atmosphere that we get kicked out before 9pm because they’re shutting up. It’s a far cry from the Liverpool boozers Evans frequented in the past, like the Yankee and the Flat Iron, usually mobbed with chanting fans.
Much like the atmosphere-free pub, Evans despairs of the way the game has been changed. ‘What Istanbul showed me more than anything is that the clubs don’t want to keep in touch with their local roots’, he says. ‘They’re always looking to extend their market and they’ve lost the point of what it’s all about. They’re sowing the seeds of their own downfall. They’re marketing it now like pop music. You can’t take your kids to the match ‘cos it’s £100 for the tickets. The whole thing is sanitised so you can’t scream and shout, the players can’t tackle. Where’s it going to end?’
One of his biggest bugbears is the way the sound of the crowd is now obliterated. In his book he writes about Liverpool’s victory in the final in 2005: ‘At a time when we should have been singing our songs, the public address system pumped out a deafening cacophony of pseudo-classical music, repeated versions of You’ll Never Walk Alone so that even we had too much of it and the appalling We Are The Champions by Queen. All at decibel levels that would leave Ozzy Osbourne pleading for earplugs.’
I was similarly dismayed when these tactics were employed during this year’s World Cup. The main reason to spend large sums of money actually attending a football match is to interact with thousands of other human beings. ‘That sound that was “atmosphere”, people getting excited, has been replaced by music’, says Evans. ‘What I want is human voices reacting to something.’
One of the strengths of Evans’s book is the way he explains what was attractive about being a fan in the past while steering clear of any of that ‘mock heroic gibbering’ that accompanies hooligan memoirs. ‘There was violence at matches; that is undeniable’, he writes. ‘However, fewer punches were thrown, fewer kicks landed, than the public at large believed.’ Football fans were nonetheless criminalised. In an era when working-class men were regarded as the enemy within, many revelled in the sense of lawlessness that went hand-in-hand with going to the match.
‘Travelling fans had two options in dealing with what was happening around them: laugh at the entire hooligan scene or become part of it’, he notes in the book. ‘[T]here were those who aspired to be “generals”, who talked of “ambushes” and “battles”. And there were the rest of us, who chuckled at them.’
Nonetheless, there were plenty of times when it ceased to be a laughing matter. In 1984, Liverpool played Roma in the European Cup final. By coincidence (and poor planning), the game had long since been arranged to take place in Rome. So what was supposed to be a game staged at a neutral venue ended up being played on Roma’s home ground. Liverpool fans were flying into enemy territory.
After landing in Rome, the Liverpool fans were taken by bus into town. ‘Carloads of youths in cloth-topped Fiats shadowed the coaches, pulling alongside while an occupant popped up through the roof to fire a flare or hurl a brick at the bus – all at motorway speed.’ The Liverpool supporters were taken to a disused funfair and kept under armed guard. Small groups of Liverpool fans in the city itself were slashed with knives by locals on scooters. When Liverpool had the temerity to win the penalty shootout and lift the trophy, a riot broke out. Thankfully for Evans and his companions, the Roma fans were soon too busy fending off attacks from their city rivals Lazio to lash out against the Liverpudlians, who fled back to their coaches.
The sour atmosphere of Rome made itself apparent the following year in Brussels, when Liverpool met another Italian team, Juventus, in the final. Wound-up by the abuse they received in Italy, and arriving from a UK riven by the miner’s strike and unemployment, the Liverpool supporters were in belligerent mood. Evans writes: ‘We were radiating aggression. The ultras had made us suffer but it would not happen again.… Minor misunderstandings quickly escalated into full-scale confrontation, much to the shock of the Italians.’
When fighting broke out on the terraces inside the ground, the retreat of Juventus fans in one section led to the collapse of a wall; 39 people were killed in the crush. Here, Evans is critical of the attitude of many fans. ‘[I]nstead of admitting our own culpability, seeing how our bad attitudes and fear created a situation where people would die, we immediately found other guilty parties to blame and put the victims out of our minds.’ While Europe’s footballing chiefs UEFA and the Belgian authorities were culpable for their shambolic organisation and the decision to use the crumbling Heysel stadium, the deaths would have never occurred but for the fighting.
It is this ability to balance the excitement of the period with a sober assessment of the consequences when things got out of hand which makes Evans’ book so enlightening.
Interestingly, there is very little biographical detail about Evans in the book, save for a passing reference to working at Stamford Bridge, home of Chelsea. (He was editor of the Chelsea-owned Football Monthly at the time and enraged the chairman, Ken Bates, by keeping a portrait of Liverpool’s legendary manager Bill Shankly above his desk.) Given that Evans has a chequered CV featuring stroppy law student, estate agent, American football writer, and trombone-player with Liverpool band The Farm, he has plenty of tales to tell. But, as he tells me, he was keen to avoid the book turning into a sentimental memoir. ‘Some people aren’t happy unless it’s Angela’s Ashes’, he notes ironically as we settle down to a fifth pint.
As a near lifelong Liverpool fan who had the misfortune to grow up in Birmingham, I read the book with more than a little jealousy, deprived as I was of the camaraderie of being part of the crowd. But while Evans mourns the way the modern game can casually dismiss community and locality as important, his outlook is not designed to exclude the likes of me. Instead, he wants to see a return to a time when what Bill Shankly called the ‘holy trinity’ – manager, players and fans – was what really mattered.
I guess I’d better start learning the words to ‘I Am A Liverpudlian’.
Far Foreign Land is published by Naomi Roth Publishing. (Buy this book here.)