Monday, 4 October 2010

No More Booing – Why It’s So Important Liverpool Fans Pull Together


It’s only a game.

Well, that’s what they all told me. But in reality, it was the worst thing that they could have said.

A week after Oxford United’s relegation from the Football League I was still in a state of shock and according to everybody I knew, sulking. If it had been ‘just a game’ then I’d have gotten over it by now.

If I lose at FIFA or PES I’m a little irritable, but life isn’t too bad. That’s a game.

Whatever the naysayers think, football is much more than that. We all have our family and friends but for many, a football club is our second love and our second kin. To see it crumble and capitulate before our eyes is excruciating and provokes a unique sort of pain.

By way of explanation, I’m an Oxford United fan.

Being an Oxford fan is a totally different football experience to your own as a Liverpool supporter but the levels of passion are identical. The rest of my family are Liverpool fans, many of them Merseyside based. I never thought I would say this but I can truly empathise with them.

Whilst Tonbridge Angels were our Northampton Town, Hayes & Yeading were our Blackpool, twice. Every week we would trudge disconsolately away from a ground proclaiming that this was a new low. Every week we would convince ourselves that this was the bottom of the trough and every week we would be wrong.

Sound familiar?

In all my time following Oxford, until recently I had seen only relegations. I heard great stories of the famous Milk Cup victory in 1986, the legends of the club such as Briggs and Langan and glowing accounts of a goalscorer by the name of Aldridge. (Apparently he went on to do reasonably well for a club up north but to me, this was a past that I couldn’t relate to.)

In my eyes, Oxford United were my local club and they were one big disappointment, guaranteed to prove that every glimmer of hope was a false dawn. For Liverpool fans, the fear is that this is what the future holds.

What if your grandchildren don’t know what Liverpool Football Club stands for? What if draws against Birmingham and Sunderland are celebrated as good results? At this moment in time, life as a Liverpool fan is hard and it is difficult to see an end to the misery that is engulfing the club.

Whilst I understand that Liverpool and Oxford United are worlds apart, there are undeniable similarities between the decline in the fortunes of the respective clubs.

Both have a proud history, a period of time in which success (relatively), was the norm. Additionally, whereas Liverpool have acquired two American buffoons without the slightest understanding of the significance of their purchase, Oxford fans were informed that they were to be taken on a ‘journey’ by Firoz Kassam. This was true. Unfortunately, the journey in question was an inevitable decline through the football pyramid via Stockport and Torquay.

The mismanagement of both clubs is truly staggering and the worst thing for the fan is that whatever measures you take, you always feel powerless to prevent the next disaster. Whilst the protests at Anfield are admirable in their intensions (and I really hope they have an impact), owners have a frustrating habit of ignoring the wishes of the paying public.

As I see the anger that I can identify so closely with emanate from the rest of my family, I can only hope that Liverpool fans deal with the current situation far better than we did at Oxford.

At both clubs, there is the belief that the club should be doing much better. As the plummet towards the League Two relegation zone intensified, there was never a consideration for the fact that Oxford United could exit the Football League. Wembley in ’86, Jim Smith, Jeremy Charles…this was a club that could never actually be relegated into the non-league. We were ‘too big’.

Although it is always important to hold the history of the club close to your heart, now is the time to stop using it as justification for the entitlement of success at the club. Leeds United can support this point.

Liverpool are a massive football club but that alone will not guarantee a return to European football’s top table. It is far too early to be stating that Liverpool are in danger of relegation but the assumption that it can’t happen is just as simplistic as the claim that it will occur.

From the fans to the players at Liverpool, it is vitally important that the belief that there is a god-given right for Liverpool to be at the top is totally eradicated. This belief will not correct the sinking ship, hard graft will.

Liverpool Football Club is fortunate to have a magnificent fan base who know their football inside out. The conduct of the fans over the coming weeks and months is extremely important in the changing of the tide at Anfield and a re-positioning of their image on the wider football stage.

A mentality grew at Oxford that these players were nothing to do with the proud Oxford United, more a group of men that were single-handedly bringing misery to thousands. As a result, the relationship between the players and fans became increasingly volatile and every mistake was accompanied by boos.

Confidence will always play a major part in football and the willingness to remove every last drop from our squad did nothing to improve the fortunes of the team.

It would be foolish to suggest that the Liverpool fans’ reaction will solely determine the success of the team, we are all fully aware of the deep-lying problems within.

But this Liverpool squad is already packed with players who are afraid to take risks. The laboured nature of Liverpool’s football owes a great deal to the mental approach and attitude of the players. There are very few players in the squad who are willing to get on the ball and make something happen. Instead, they always look for a sideways or backwards pass.

Mass vocal criticism from within the ground will do little to improve this problem.

It is up to the manager to encourage his players to add bravery to their game, attempting to run with the ball, overlap on the wing or take responsibility in the midfield. Whilst the fans can’t tell the players to do this, they can quickly push them back into their shells.

When I heard of the in-fighting at Anfield during the Blackpool game, my mind immediately returned to a depressing day at Northwich Victoria which ended with a fan having a heated confrontation with a young Oxford player. The confidence we had once seen never truly returned.

Liverpool fans have a reputation for lifting their team when it is needed. Although the players are far from the quality that fans would like to see, they need positive backing from the fans now more than ever.

The growth of a negative atmosphere within the ground itself will exacerbate an already significant problem. At this moment in time relegation is not a serious worry but more results along the lines of those witnessed recently will see it become a far greater issue.

The problems at Anfield are many; player quality, strength in depth, tactics, ownership…… The list goes on and on. While the fans feel powerless to intervene, it is vital that the anger shown towards the owners remains separate from the football. By all means, vent anger outside the ground in protest at the current regime but remain supportive in regard to the team.

Cheering a team that have put Liverpool in the relegation zone may not feel natural but it will have far more beneficial impacts on performance than booing during the game. Very few teams have benefitted from such treatment.

Reading the reaction to Liverpool matches recently has taken me back to the bad times at my own club and although to many the linking of the two clubs will seem odd, I hope Liverpool fans will show the dignity that they are respected for in their darkest days.

Although it may feel as if turning on the manager and players is the right thing to do, you may not be able to appreciate the impact that negativity has until it is too late.

In May, Oxford United won a play-off final at Wembley to return to the Football League. It was the culmination of 18 months of each facet of the football club pulling together to improve a dire situation. Many times over the years I could see no way in which the situation could improve but it did.

Liverpool Football Club will have its own ‘Wembley moment’ again some day. However, a failure to pull together now will result in the length of exile being extended.

Channel your frustration into supporting your team – a failure to do so could put the club into a deeper hole than you ever imagined possible. Trust me, I’ve seen it happen.

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