With Project Restart announced, freelance journalist and Liverpool fan Kate Battersby believes that that a club with grief at its heart should know, in these tough times, how to celebrate fittingly a surely inevitable and deserved Premier League title.
It’s all my fault. On 6.22pm on Sunday 19th January, exactly as Craig Pawson blew full time on Liverpool’s 2-0 win over Manchester United, I posted on social media: “I think… it’s going to happen.” The responses were divided between those twilight souls baffled by what “it” was, and right-thinking people who grasped instantly what I meant. Thirty years after Liverpool last won the League, we were 16 points clear at the top with a game in hand. We could lose six of our last 16 games and still make the yearned-for Premier League title a reality.
One appalled fellow supporter replied: “We don’t say that. We don’t think that.” But even as his comment appeared, the Kop were for the first time daring to give voice to the dream: “We’re going to win the league. We’re going to win the league. And now you’re going to believe us, we’re going to win the league.”
By March, the chasm between Liverpool and the also-rans had opened to 26 points. Just two more wins needed to put matters beyond mathematical doubt. And then… a world engulfed by uncertainty and death. Now June approaches with Project Restart attempting to find a unified plan, putting the title within touching distance, yet I’m struggling to know how to feel.
First, a confession: my Liverpool back story isn’t heavy on cred. One mate (Spurs season ticket holder) dismisses me as “a follower, not a fan” because my devotion has been armchair rather than pitchside; and while I type these words with fingertips which have brushed the Anfield sign in the players’ tunnel, anyone who has ever heard my cut-glass accent knows the streets of L4 are not mine (the phrase “makes the Queen sound like a bit of rough” has been heard).
My late dad hailed from just across the Mersey in Wallasey, but he and my brother were immune to all sport. It was my older sister Carrie who got me into it. I copied everything she did, so when she declared herself a Liverpool fan, my nine-year-old self followed suit, regardless that we lived in Sevenoaks. Liverpool won the League that year, 1973, the first of 11 titles I would celebrate between then and 1990.
The great days have been legion. But after 1990, the League-winning muse turned her back on us. The decades since have rankled so much that last year I struggled to be thrilled by our sixth Champions League win. The Premier League was all that mattered. And then Liverpool’s magical domination of this season came to pass. At long last, the prize would be ours. No one could envisage anything to stop us, until precisely that unimaginable factor arrived.
Now the restart is lurching nearer, I want what Liverpool surely will have – the title – and what we can’t have… unarguable clarity. I want the trophy raised in front of a delirious Kop. I want the victory parade and the ridiculous happiness. I don’t want allowances made and patronising gracious acceptance that the giant points advantage made it a done deal. I don’t want teeth-grinding ‘banter’ about tainted triumph and being gifted the title. Is any win more congealed than a moral victory?
At the same time, I’m filled with shame at thinking any of this. Whatever Liverpool may be denied is vanishingly unimportant at a time when tens of thousands of families are torn apart by grief, and countless livelihoods shredded, with so much more of the same still to come. How can the ultimate outcome of Liverpool’s season be of consequence to any equitable human?
This, after all, is a club which understands bereavement. Sport loves a good statistic, but the one figure engraved permanently on Liverpool hearts is that of the 96. Moreover, it is impossible to discuss a Reds’ title win in the age of coronavirus without echoes of the most famous words ever uttered by a Liverpool manager: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
So if we wonder how to feel as title winners – however that title may arrive – perhaps all we need to do is ask ourselves… what would Shankly do? Dignity is not a word often associated with football, but Shanks had it in spades. He would find the words to honour everything that is right. He would find the way. We can too, by letting go of all the aggrieved thoughts about elements beyond our control. Liverpool can do it by setting a new standard – not just by the margin of domination over the rest, but by the way we mark it.
This of all years is not a time for bitter focus on the cheap bragging which has been lost, but for pride in all the intensity of victory found at huge price. A triumph of wisdom, painfully acquired in the terrible era of Covid-19. Our Premier League win at last, yes – but something even more. A unique prize in unprecedented times, ours alone, and one for which we can be truly thankful, for every bit of what it means.
*Kate Battersby began her working life as a secretary with MI6 and then ITV’s World Of Sport, before becoming a sportswriter with the Daily and Sunday Telegraph. She was the first (and to date, the only) woman to be chief sportswriter on a Fleet Street newspaper.
*Photo by Alex Ridley