Catharsis. If there were one word to sum up what's happening to Liverpool right now, surely that's it. Think about everything that's happened since Liverpool last dominated English football. It could well be everything you've ever experienced. Your birth. Your favourite dog dying. Your first kiss. Your first pill and your first STD test. 9/11. Yewtree. Facebook. Cantona. Britpop. But if in the 90s every young British music lover wanted to be from Manchester, then in 2014, every young British football lover wants to be from Liverpool. With the most unlikely of title triumphs bearing down on the city's most famous club, I went to see if two and a half decades of mediocrity and sadness could be washed away – just for a moment – by Raheem Sterling and his mates.
Liverpool is an odd city. While London, Birmingham, Newcastle and Manchester seem more or less defined by cruelty, resignation, hating Cockneys and rain, Liverpool's emotional identity is more uncertain. The city gushes pride, violence and sentimentality at a time when the rest of the nation seems content to sit in the corner quietly staring into its empty pint glass, mumbling something about Thatcher before shuffling off to the nearest Tesco.
This sense of civic caprice is understandable. Liverpool has been through more drama than most cities. In my lifetime alone there have been the traumas of Heysel, Hillsborough, terminal industrial decline and riots to endure, as well as the heartbreaking, high-profile murders of James Bulger, Rhys Jones, Ken Bigley and Anthony Walker. You get why people here were livid when Boris Johnson called Liverpool a "city wallowing in victim status". Many of them must have known victims.
Of course, the main prism through which the world views Liverpool isn't news, or politics, or geography, or even its most famous band, Cast, but football. The way we understand Liverpool is through Liverpool and Everton FC, their achievements, their fans. And while Everton might be a huge club who've beaten their neighbours into a kind of stasis in recent years, as an outsider, Liverpool are the team whose fortunes appear most bound up with the city as a whole.
Of course, there have been tragic moments in this relationship. At Heysel, 39 Juventus fans were crushed to death and 14 Liverpool fans were convicted of involuntary manslaughter. At Hillsborough, 96 Liverpool fans never came home from an FA Cup semi-final. But look a bit deeper and it's obvious that the team has also provided light in moments of darkness. From the 70s, when the city's famous docks first started to be phased out, to the 80s, when the Chancellor was urging Thatcher to let the city sink into the Irish sea in a state of "managed decline", Liverpool were the dominant force in English football. When Toxteth was on fire and joblessness in the city was double the national rate, Liverpool were ruling Europe.
Roy Hodgson introduces Joe Cole, Danny Wilson and Milan Jovanovic
But since then, the club have kind of muddled around in mediocrity. For every Champions League win, there were disappointing exits after games against Benfica and Debrecen. For every Michael Owen, there has been a Jay Spearing, for every Xabi Alonso, a Florent Sinama Pongolle. The nadir of all this was probably Roy Hodgson's mid-table "Expendables", a team so bad that, just three years after his sacking, the only Hodsgon signing still deemed worthy of a wage is reserve 'keeper Brad Jones.
But the Liverpool of this season couldn't be more different. Currently sitting at the summit of the Premier League with points to spare, they are a young, fearsome footballing side, as dangerous and well-organised as a bomb plot, playing with a joy it feels criminal to see people getting away with outside of a school playground. Up front, they have the league's top scorer and the league's top English scorer. Behind them, they have Mowgli. The manager is a likeable, if slightly naff Northern Irishman who has just enough of the old school about him to disguise the fact that he really, really knows his shit. In Steven Gerrard, they have a man who's playing like he's just days from winning a 25-year-long war and in Jon Flanagan they have unearthed the next Jamie Carragher, a local boy who looks like he should be pushing trolleys round a supermarket carpark but has wound up as the on-pitch manifestation of the diehard Anfield support. Which, at this moment in time, must feel like the best fucking job in the world.
Twenty-five years after Hillsborough, 24 years after their last league title, and with their sworn enemies in Manchester suffering the sort of comedown you'd expect after celebrating for two decades straight, Liverpool finally – finally – seem ready to rule the land again. And from what I can tell, most of England is willing them to do it.
I decided to get on a train up to Merseyside to see what the prospect of Premier League victory is doing to the city.
This is the Albert Dock, once the heart of Liverpool's heavy port-economy, and now the home of its modern-day economy: tourism. The area now serves as a kind of Scouse Disneyland, full of statues of famous characters, a mock up of a Blitz-era house, mega-hotels full of tweens going to see McBusted at the Echo Arena, a Costa, a Tate and this rather disappointing attraction. Which, even for Japanese tourists who doorstop the people who now live in Ringo Starr's parents' house, looks like a waste of money. I mean, it's not even a fucking submarine, it's a yellow tugboat with the word "submarine" painted on it.
Still, everyone was having a lot more fun that I thought they would be. Walking around the docks, looking at the gleeful Thai daytrippers posing in front of the Liver Building, it occurred to me that perhaps the Chelsea fans I grew up with didn't speak for the rest of the world when they sang their songs about benefits, stolen radios and implausible food hygiene standards. Maybe the rest of the world doesn't see Liverpool like that at all.
Instead of seeing a city full of criminals who get their dinners out of bins, perhaps they see a city with New York-esque architecture, an immense musical heritage and a modern, people-led history that's a bit more relatable than London's kings, queens and Victorian serial killers. Hating other teams is a big part of what makes football so great, but I guess sometimes it pays to take the partisan blinkers off.
When tourists come to Liverpool, they come, in part, because of the football. The glories and tragedies of Liverpool have left an indelible impression on the psyche of football fans the world over. Manchester United may have won more in recent years, but that European glory – along with the haircuts, the accents and the stalwarts, from Shankly to Paisley, Dalglish to Gerrard – has rendered them an iconic global club, the kind that Manchester City and Monaco can only dream of being.
Look, it sounds like something one of those BBC sports presenting eunuchs would say, but honestly, the people here live for football. It was two days before the game against Norwich, and this proud dad was walking through town with his son, both of them clad in Liverpool and "Justice for the 96" regalia.
Like many of the cabbies we met over the weekend, Rodney was a massive Reds fan. "If I tell you I've been to seven European Cup finals, you probably wouldn't believe me," he told us. "It's hard to understand just how massive a club Liverpool is."
Rodney was also a survivor of Hillsborough, and a witness at Heysel. Scousers are often accused of living vicariously through the past – but when you consider that past is almost incomparable in English football, maybe it's just impossible for other fans to relate to a history touched with so much tragedy and triumph.
The town seemed to be in great spirits in our time there. I wondered how much was down to the sun being out and the weekend being imminent, and how much excitement was being generated by the city's two teams punching above their weight.
It's different in a place like London, where over eight million people spread themselves across a whole bunch of clubs, from Arsenal's Silicon Roundabout firm, to anarchist Clapton fans, to the guys in Turkish off-licences watching Galatasaray over your head as they blue bag your beers. It would be impossible to know if Chelsea beating PSG the other night provoked mass jubilation outside of say, a few pubs in Carshalton. But in Liverpool, it was easy to feel that certain something in the air. It felt a bit like the whole city was on pills.
One thing that Liverpool does have in common with any other place in the UK is binge drinking. It's probably one of the top four or five most popular destinations in the country for people who are getting married soon and want to vomit. Every bar in the centre had its own ragtag band of workmates, second cousins and slightly lost looking older people treating the city like a big prison hooch party.
Without wanting to sound like the nerd in the "Fight For Your Right" video, I'm not sure how I'd feel about men in inflatable penis costumes coming to my hometown every weekend. Still, I guess they're keeping a certain number of barmen, ambulance drivers and garment workers in jobs. Just because you make inflatable penis costumes for a living doesn't mean you can skip rent.
In the lobby of our hotel, we met this stag party of MMA fighters from Fife, which sounds like the start of a Sickipedia joke but was actually a real thing that happened to me in Liverpool. They invited us to take their photo, and were very keen on us joining them later in their hotel room to take some more, but alas, we couldn't find them.
Out in the street, I wondered what these fallen angels thought of Liverpool's form this season, but they were too busy nursing each other to have a conversation about Iago Aspas.
Elsewhere, I met a Liverpool fan called Sean in a local bar. He told me that the city was unrecognisable from how it was ten years ago, and that everyone was "quietly optimistic" about Liverpool and Everton's chances of ending the season well. "The club's been a bit up and down, going from the Champions League win to Roy Hodgson," he noted, gravely. If you hadn't gathered this yet, Roy Hodgson is about as popular in Liverpool as Paul Konchesky's mum. "But now it's finding its feet again. You can see the plan and direction of the way the club's going. I think you can say the same about Martinez at Everton, too."
Another guy we met was a Toxteth local, who now works on an oil rig. As a mixed race man, I was intrigued to hear what he thought of Luis Suarez, arguably the league's finest player, but one who is still harangued by opposition fans after being found guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra back in 2011. His attitude was forgiving but not defensive. "A lot of my friends who are black Liverpool fans post on Facebook, saying he'll always be a racist. But to me I don't think it's as clear cut as that."
It's tough to imagine Suarez ever being forgiven. Football is a culture that doesn't forget its enemies' worst attributes and lowest moments, which is why people still call Frank Lampard "fat Frank" even though he's been a top-level professional athlete for almost 20 years. For many, Suarez will always be a racist and for all the merchandise bearing his name around the city, Suarez sits in Liverpool as a not-quite golden boy.
The rest of the night worked out much like all nights in the UK. Piss and shouting and smart shoes with jeans.
On the day of the match, we paid a visit to the Hillsborough memorial, which stands just outside the city centre in a constantly replenished bed of tributes. Liverpool has a reputation as a city that is full of sentimentalists, teary-eyed past-dwellers "playing the tragedy card". But while there is something unnecessary about things like the "Dear Mr Hicks" video (in which Ian McCulloch compares bad football club management to rape, while standing next to Jeff from Peep Show), this is very, very different.
The gravity of Hillsborough is just so immense that being affected by it can't be classed as sentimentalism. Almost twice as many people died at the disaster than any terrorist incident in the UK's history, at a football game. Only to have the police try to cover it up, and for a national newspaper to accuse victims of pissing on rescuers. To think that it happened in Britain, let alone at a football match, let alone just 25 years ago, is astonishing.
I watched the game at the Camp and Furnace, a redeveloped warehouse that now acts as a bar, restaurant and club. Cabbies told me it was one of the best places to watch the football in the city, due to its thousand-capacity "fan park".
In London, such a place would most likely be colonised by Australians on comedowns and Power League wankers in Atletico strips. It would probably be just off Brick Lane, they'd probably make you queue to get in then ID you on the door and everyone in there would be a massive prick. But in Liverpool, a place like this became a hub for the whole community. From kids in Spiderman outfits running around knocking pints over, to beer bellied blokes in smart shoes, to hipsters, to grannies in make-up, girls in the Amy Childs collection and JP from Hollyoaks.
Only the scallies were absent, sadly, due to the venue's strict "no trackies" policy, but it was cool: I felt like I was at a wedding reception and the game was about to start.
Immediately, the place was plunged into nerves. To make it worse, it was a 12PM kick-off and the bar was packed, so it was hard to get pissed before the match. Watching a game without a pint in me for the first time since I was about 11 made me feel even more sorry for managers than I do already.
Luckily, the tension only lasted three minutes – Raheem Sterling leathered one in, quickly followed-up by Suarez in the 11th, and everyone exploded. Grannies were hugging hipsters, and kids started crying at the roar. Norwich have been hammered a few times this season and it seemed that Russell Martin and Michael Turner weren't going to enjoy their afternoons very much.
At some point, I noticed that a ton of people had Coutinho haircuts. I was quite pleased with myself at identifying this micro-trend, and wondered how much these people were basing their personal appearance on Liverpool's success. I mean, how many fans asked their barber for the Andy Carroll when he was at the club? Or the Paul Konchesky?
As we headed into the second, I found it an interesting test of my objectivity. On one hand, Chelsea's title challenge had all but ended the day before, with a miserable defeat to Sunderland. But on the other, I liked Liverpool. I was having a blast in the city, and I like their pacey, brutal style of playing. Alright, I wasn't gonna be getting a "YNWA" tattoo on my knuckles any time soon, but they probably deserve the league more than Chelsea and to me, Man City just seem like such a soulless outfit.
The mood in the room – combined with what I'd seen earlier at the Hillsborough memorial, Liverpool's team of young, English players and the daydreams I'd had about Gerrard winning his first title after refusing Mourinho's offer all those years ago – turned me, for one game, Red.
But Norwich weren't out of it yet, some erratic goalkeeping by Simon Mignolet let them pull one back through Gary Hooper. The Canaries were pressing like annoying lunatics and the home crowd were behind them – perhaps Liverpool's attacking style would come unstuck in the face of some good old-fashioned clogging and dogging.
Liverpool soon hit another through Sterling but then Norwich scored again too and the game was poised perilously. Norwich scoring twice was one of those things in football you can't quite explain, like when your £30m Argentinian wingers can't get past some League 1 lunks in a cup game: an almost supernatural oddity.
As the minutes ticked down, however, the crowd began to ease up. People were bouncing on their toes, licking their lips, victory was in sight. There was no way Gary Hooper could possibly score two goals in a Premier League game. Stats will tell you that such a thing is possible, but football is more spiritual than just stats. The gods were looking down on Liverpool at that moment and they were smiling.
When the final whistle blew, the place erupted into a roar, and then a scream, and then a chant of "We're gonna win the league!" Mathematically, it was still possible that they might not, but like I just said, sometimes football is more about the spirit than the numbers. And you can't deny that right now, Liverpool just have that look about them – the semi-spiritual swagger of champions.
And it seemed as though their fans saw that swagger, too.
As the fans started to spill out from the pubs, three pints deep and off to hazy Easter roasts at mums' houses, we made our way back to London, somewhat reluctantly. Walking alongside the Mersey, I realised that Liverpool is a city on the brink, and not just of a victory for a football club that had the good sense to replace one of its icons with a softly spoken iconoclast. If Man City or Chelsea were to win the league, it'd be special to a few people but in the wider narrative it'd merely be money meeting its expectations. But when you add in the resonances of Hillsborough and all the rest, a Premier League win for this club this season would be immeasurably special; the most ecstatic catharsis at a time when it feels like catharsis is disappearing from football.
And that's what helps make this team so exhilarating, even as a neutral. This is more than an underdog story because there's always an underdog – what's not always there is the shadow of history that this Liverpool side seem to be taking so much pleasure in throwing off. For my generation, Liverpool being good at football isn't a reality, it's a story, one that has been coated in layers of scorn and schadenfreude in the intervening years thanks to things like the Spice Boys, Harry Enfield's Scouser stereotype and the spectral presences of Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson, who seem to have been lurking at the edges of my consciousness since I was a kid, like a pair of old boilers clanking away in an airing cupboard.
As such, the idea of them winning the league feels both reassuring and novel; familiar and new at the same time. Liverpool is a city that is often accused of living in the past. It now has a great chance to escape it.
Find more of Tom Johnson's photography here.
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