The Kop end at Anfield, home of Liverpool Football Club, is famous throughout the football world for the loyalty of the supporters who occupy it. Their devotion is most eloquently expressed in choruses of You’ll Never Walk Alone, the anthem appropriated from the musical Carousel that is sung with almost messianic fervour before every home game.
In the past three weeks, however, Gérard Houllier, the club’s manager, has discovered that never is a long time and that Anfield can be very lonely indeed.
On Monday the club revealed that in early February Houllier was sent a letter by an anonymous supporter threatening his life if he did not resign immediately. Its author claimed to have knowledge of the manager’s daily routine and the layout of the Frenchman’s apartment in the city, details that left the manager and his family shocked.
Liverpool’s most famous manager, Bill Shankly, once famously remarked that football was more important than life and death, but Houllier’s correspondent plainly failed to see the joke.
Last week, after a humiliating exit from the FA Cup courtesy of a 1-0 defeat at Portsmouth that marked the low-water mark of a profoundly disappointing season, Houllier arrived at the club’s Melwood training ground to find graffiti demanding his departure daubed on the walls. Most offensive was a message that read: ‘Hope you die of Aids, Houllier.”
Criticism comes with the territory in football management, as any of the 92 men who make their living fretting on the touchlines of England’s league grounds would attest. But the extreme and deeply personal nature of the abuse levelled at Houllier emphasises the intense, contradictory and occasionally destructive nature of the relationship between managers and supporters.
Most of the time that relationship remains harmless, if not entirely inoffensive. All managers receive vivid advice from those fans sitting within earshot and most receive a lively postbag, particularly in lean times. Occasionally, however, supporters go further, often at a cost to the health of the manager. Last year Glenn Roeder was hounded out of office at West Ham by disgruntled fans, one of whom threw a brick through his daughter’s bedroom window at the family home.
The following day he collapsed with a brain tumour.
John Mullin, formerly manager of Burnley, left Turf Moor in 1996 after a supporter, dismayed at a poor run of results, set fire to his wife’s dress in a Chinese restaurant. To this day Mullin is reluctant to discuss the incident.
To a degree all managers lose their jobs because of supporters, whose happiness is directly linked to results and who regard expressions of discontent as a right earned through loyalty and the cash they pour into their club.
Author Hunter Davies, whose biography of Paul Gascoigne will be published in June, says protest is the only way the average fan can wield any power at all.
‘As a rule we are treated like shit,” he says. ‘We pay over the odds for programmes, food and merchandise and have almost no say in what happens at our clubs. We can’t vote with our feet and stay away because we have an emotional tie with the club, but we can boo and cheer. We can boo a manager or a player, and if we boo long enough they’ll go. It’s all we’ve got.”
For the men on the receiving end, however, the abuse can be as distressing as it is difficult for their bosses to ignore. Towards the end of an unhappy tenure at Nottingham Forest, Frank Clark received hate mail.
‘I received letters threatening my youngest daughter,” he says. ‘This was at a time when she used to go out in Nottingham quite a lot so it was very worrying. I talked to the club and I talked to the local police commander and it seemed it was a one-off. There is less patience and less tolerance around now but this kind of thing has been going on for years. Criticism goes with the job, but it has become far too intense and personalised.”
Joe Royle, currently at Ipswich Town and a veteran of spells at Manchester City, Everton and Oldham, agrees that the level of abuse has increased since he first entered the dugout in 1982.
‘It doesn’t say anything in my contract about 20 000 people having the right to shout and scream at me every Saturday, but that’s what happens these days,” he says.
The game may have changed but Houllier’s predicament has as much to do with the past as the present. All fans claim devotion, but nowhere is the sentiment more sincere than at Liverpool, where the bond between supporters and club has been forged through years of success and tragedy. For two decades Liverpool swept all before them, winning 11 league titles and four European Cups in the 1970s and 1980s under Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish.
There has been pain too. In 1985, 38 Juventus supporters were killed when a wall collapsed during rioting with Liverpool fans before the European Cup final in the Heysel stadium, Brussels. Four years later, 96 fans were crushed to death at Hillsborough, a tragedy that transformed British football but also marked the end of Liverpool’s dominance. The league championship was won the following year, but since then English football’s greatest prize has eluded the club.
Six years ago Houllier, a former schoolteacher, arrived at Liverpool from France charged with ending that drought, no doubt aware that he was joining a club that has not sacked a manger since 1958. He struck an immediate chord with the fans, pointing out that he had taught in the city, and praising the spirit and authenticity of its people.
He endeared himself further by winning three cups in 2001 and finishing third in the league. In October that year Houllier suffered a near-fatal heart attack at half-time during a game against Leeds, and on his return to the club the bond between manager and fans seemed stronger than ever. There is a fickleness in all supporters, however, and this season the Merseyside radio phone-ins that are a weathervane of the public mood have buzzed with discontent.
Not for the first time the greatest contrast with Houllier’s predicament lies along the M62 in Manchester, where, under Sir Alex Ferguson’s stewardship, United have replaced Liverpool as the pre-eminent team in England. Ferguson has a rhino’s hide, and while Liverpool fans doubt Houllier’s future, United supporters have gone into battle on behalf of their manager.
For six months Ferguson has been in dispute with John Magnier over the ownership of racehorse Rock of Gibraltar, and as a major shareholder in United Magnier has made life increasingly uncomfortable for Ferguson. The supporters’ response has been to disrupt race meetings at which Magnier’s horses have appeared, and threaten further action.
‘What gives Alex Ferguson the respect of the fans is his record of success,” says Andy Mitten, a journalist and editor of the magazine United We Stand. ‘Ferguson is hugely protective of the club and his players — his drive and even his bias continually endears him to fans. For Ferguson it’s all about United winning, and in the end that’s all any fans want.” —