Long-standing love affair: Irish eyes riveted on Liverpool’s title quest
Club has long had a massive and passionate support base this side of the Irish Sea
Liverpool’s Mo Salah celebrates with teammates after scoring his team’s first goal against Watford. Liverpool are bidding to win their first Premier League title in 30 years. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/via Getty Images
Just as Irish racing’s most compulsive fixture takes place in the Gloucestershire town of Cheltenham, it’s no big stretch to argue that the most evocative sporting story in Ireland right now is Liverpool closing in on becoming champions of England for the first time in 30 years.
Only geographical pedants can quibble with the English Premier League being this country’s winter national pastime. Nothing else comes close to commanding the attention of so many, so thoroughly, and so widely, across the sporting spectrum.
Even those convinced of rugby’s righteousness or the virtue of GAA localism can’t escape the overwhelming sweep of a national obsession with cross-channel football that ensures most anyone with a sporting pulse has ‘their’ team.
The logic of that, especially when it runs parallel to notorious antipathy for the England national team, is a perennial debate which has nothing to do with science but proof instead of the cross-channel game’s profound appeal.
Why certain clubs provoke such passion is often simply due to who was top dog at a certain impressionable time in people’s lives.
There’s a generation weaned on the Leeds United side of the 70’s who in balding middle-age remain staunch fans. There’s even a weird sect of Notts Forest diehards allowed roam unsupervised. By any standards though, Liverpool’s fan-base in this country is different.
Some of that is obviously generational too. The club was dominant for years until famously knocked off their perch by Manchester United. Yet even fickle success couldn’t budge support levels for Liverpool here throughout Alex Ferguson’s reign at Old Trafford.
There are cultural reasons for that. Up to 75 per cent of actual Liverpudlians claim Irish descent after all. Liverpool is closer to Dublin than Cork and has been playfully described as Ireland’s second capital, something to reinforce a Scouse sense of separateness from the rest of England.
Nevertheless, Grand National trips on the train from Aintree to Liverpool Central used to supply annual evidence of mannered ‘Scallydom’ that left me no wiser as to why the city’s most famous club should resonate so much across the Irish Sea.
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But it’s simple really. Football matters in Liverpool. As in really matters, in way it doesn’t anywhere else. In terms of identity wrapped up in the fortunes of a professional football club, perhaps only Barcelona can come close in comparison.
Loading so much meaning into something as trivial as football can seem skew-whiff sometimes in terms of perspective. But whether you live in Toxteth, Tuam or Timbuktu it’s obvious one thing this particular triviality isn’t is irrelevant.
The legacy of the overwhelming Hillsborough tragedy is the most awful evidence of such resonance. Already a symbol, the club has been required in appalling circumstances to become even more than that and responded with a rare dignity.
To make contrasts with other clubs in terms of significance is unfair since they have been mercifully spared such a context. But it is there with Liverpool and only the most tone-deaf can fail to appreciate how poignant it makes the story of their progress towards a potential Premier League title.
Another victory over Watford on Saturday puts Liverpool 10 points clear. They’re already European champions. On Wednesday they go on branding duty by travelling to Qatar for the World Club Cup, the value of which is debatable.
What isn’t arguable at all is the maelstrom of emotions involved in resuming the dream of once again sitting on top of the game in England for the first time in three decades.
Just as rugby counts in New Zealand in a way it never can here in terms of national identity, so too do the fortunes of Liverpool matter to its devoted fans in a way crucially different to any other football club.
Maybe there are blinkered Man Utd or Arsenal fans unprepared to acknowledge that, or the romance of their great rivals’ odyssey, but that’s a lack of perspective which suggests headgear so full-cupped as to be blinding.
For the rest of us it only helps the romantic appeal that Liverpool’s manager Jurgen Klopp so obviously ‘gets’ this wider context.
The German is clearly as emotionally intelligent a man as he is as charismatic a coach. Even a little incident like his apology last week to a translator he felt hadn’t done his job properly was carried out with a combination of sincerity and humour that makes him a notably attractive personality.
As sensitive as the Scouse nose is to bullshit, figures such as Shankly and Dalglish indicate a readiness to invest in magnetic leadership personalities. Pulling off a title win after such a long gap will ensure Klopp receives similar status.
Almost as important is the way he’s going about it. The term ‘Gegenpressing’ might be an import but it is essentially what Liverpool teams have always done, aggressively chasing down the ball when they don’t have it and jealously maintaining possession when they do.
The result is thrilling, attacking football crucially rooted in a team taking the initiative and backing themselves. It flirts with disaster sometimes which suggests there’s likely to be a twist or two in store yet and the promise of more compulsive viewing.
Crucially too it is a team assembled for a fraction of what other European heavyweights have spent.
Now that Salah, Firmino and Mane are established as world football’s most potent attacking triumvirate it can feel almost inevitable when in reality it was anything but.
Virgil Van Dijk really has become the world’s best defender but such status wasn’t assured when they bought him. Andy Robertson cost peanuts. Local boy Trent Alexander-Arnold cost nothing. By the standards of their rivals, this isn’t a side built on overwhelming financial clout.
It all contributes to a narrative that’s fascinating millions around the world. But in a country so in thrall to the English game, how the Liverpool story unfolds is going to be watched with compulsive interest here in particular, no matter what the geography might indicate.