Football, football, football – is it more important than life and death? For The Purps, a community spirit that is an antidote to the riches of modern football is at the heart of their manifesto.
The Hallmark Security Football League Premier Division (the North West Counties Premier to you and me) is not one of English football’s more salubrious operations. The ninth tier of the footballing pyramid is as far removed from the glitz of the Premier League as you can imagine, but it’s not the comfortable trappings of elite level football that attracts 400-odd hardy souls to a HSFLPD fixture on a bright, breezy March afternoon. It’s something that reaches far beyond football.
CITY OF LIVEPOOL FC are the somewhat unlikely attraction on this particular occasion, as they take on Hanley Town in what looks like a formality on paper. CoL FC – more affectionately known as the Purps for the colour of their kit – currently sit top of the division, almost 50 points ahead of their opponents. The real spice in this match lies in the title race they’re locked in with city neighbours and closest rivals, Bootle FC. The Purps are two points ahead with a game in hand, as the two teams battle it out for the one guaranteed promotion place, which is a huge goal in the bottleneck that is the non-league system. This rivalry is made all the more intense by the fact that the two Liverpool clubs share a ground, making for a healthily feisty landlord-and-lodger relationship. New Bucks Park sits on a nondescript industrial estate in Aintree, on the other side of the railway lines to the racecourse: it is Bootle’s home, and they’ve been playing host to City of Liverpool since the Purps formed in 2015 (Bootle FC, by contrast, first formed in 1879, but this current iteration was founded in 1953). The upstarts have been on fast-forward since then, streaking past their hosts and assuming seniority. All very interesting, you may be thinking, but why should we care about the fortunes of two local football teams? Can we not just leave them to it, on their godforsaken industrial estate in Sefton?
“It’s unquestionably about community. And politics as well.” Paul Manning is more aware than most of how important teams such as City of Liverpool are to people’s relationship with the city. Manning is the club’s secretary and a founder member, and he speaks to me on the phone prior to the match versus Hanley. “I’ve seen football change, massively. Hillsborough was – correctly – a turning point for professional football in this country, and fair enough. But it then got exploited because of the free market economy.”
Manning is also a volunteer, juggling his own job with the administerial tasks of making sure matches take place and bills get paid. He does so because he believes that a football club should be about something more than just silverware and brand marketability, and that, if run successfully, they can be vital to the health of local communities. “Previously, owners of first division football clubs were the local butcher, businessmen who’d worked themselves up,” he continues. “The television money that came in at the start of the Premier League kind of changed them.” The Premier League era, buffeted by the winds of Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB, ushered in a new wave of rampant capitalism that saw FCs become PLCs, and slowly saw the decoupling of clubs – often with a hundred years of history behind them – from the values of their supporter bases.
A former member of the Spirit Of Shankly supporters’ group, Manning was part of the group who founded City of Liverpool, partly in protest at the running of Liverpool FC, the club he’s supported his whole life, under the auspices of their previous American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett. The same reasons that caused them to start a new club afresh are the very things that still attract new fans to the club today.
“Disillusionment was the first thing,” he says, which is a refrain often heard in Against Modern Football movements, which eschew the uber-consumerist trappings of contemporary British football. “It was a political thing almost,” continues Manning, “but not in a party-political sense. It was just about our brand of community politics and wanting to help people. We wanted to help the homeless, we wanted to help the hungry and we continue to do so. Professional football is necessarily individualistic and we’re not individualistic – we’re socialists.”
There’s a temptation to use this as a stick to beat the corporate beasts that profit from the national institutions that are pillars of the national game; but, given that the majority of owners of Premier League clubs are overseas investors, we can’t really expect them to be out canvassing on the doorstep every week. It’s also bad for business to get into politics when your primary role is to make money. “That’s exactly right,” Manning says in response to the idea that the people holding football’s purse strings are scared of talking about the things that the Purps are. “It’s not that they’re not talking about it, they don’t think about it. The business is to make money and the individuals are there to make as much money as they individually can make out of this enterprise.”
“The manager now, and most of the players, understand that the club sits in a community. In the first couple of years, the players were on at us, ‘Give us a prize, give us a bonus!’ And we just said, ‘No. There are people starving on the streets. You’ve got a job and you’ve got your football money coming in, but you want us to give you more money so you can get pissed while there’s people sleeping in sleeping bags?’ Not happening.”
The crowd at New Bucks Park are in boisterous mood as kick-off approaches, with occasional shouts of “PEEEEEEEERRRR-PUUUULLLLLL!” coming from The Shed, the seated area behind one of the goals where the Purple ultras gather. There are no flares (yet), but the atmosphere is definitely upbeat, expectant even. The team have been on a great run of form, but Bootle are hot on their heels. At the derby clash versus their neighbours earlier in the season, a purple wheelie bin was temporarily hoisted inside the ground, to the delight of the Purps and annoyance of the landlords. Today, the assembled crowd witnesses something altogether more picturesque, in the form of a steepling opening goal by Purps’ centre midfielder Karl Clair, hit from inside his own half. A replay of the goal makes the rounds of the football Twitter accounts in the days following, as much for the Hanley keeper’s flailing attempt at a save as for Clair’s sweet strike.
By the time he and the rest of the team make it into the bar after a tense 3-2 victory, Clair has even had a song minted for him by the Purps’ vocal brigade of singers. A knot of die-hards belt it out, as well as many of their standard numbers, in a joyous, occasionally raucous, post-match atmosphere inside the club house. This is the heart of City of Liverpool FC’s community, where the pilgrims gather every Saturday to roar their charges on. The core of their fanbase is made up of slightly jaded Liverpool and Everton fans, their numbers being swelled in recent weeks by curious visitors who want to see what the bandwagon looks like.
Prior to forming the club, Manning did his market research to find out what people wanted from a club of this stature. He also maintains a focus group of about 30 regular fans who he polls throughout the season, tweaking the offer accordingly. “A lot of the joy and fun has gone out of football, in our opinion,” he tells me, referencing the fan experience that left a bad taste in the mouths of many LFC fans after what happened under Hicks And Gillett. “We did just want to make people happy at the match again, make it so that people could have a laugh and have a drink with their mates.”
For fans who rarely get to see their ‘first’ club play on a Saturday afternoon anymore, the Purps offer more than just a viable alternative to alleviate weekend boredom. They offer an identity, something to believe in, something to be part of. Sure, you can be a Liverpool fan and feel part of the wider “family” that the club’s marketeers like to harp on about, but there you are one of millions and can just be another face in the crowd. At the level that City Of Liverpool are currently at, you can be a noise, have your voice heard, be recognised by the players or treasure your own intensely personal connection with a club. A club that actively seeks to improve the lives of the community it serves.
“There was a definite political activism feeding into the community aspect of the club, and the football was really just a representation of it because a lot of people can’t be arsed with politics,” Manning continues. “But if you do want to be part of the club – a shareholder, part of the community, and have an influence in the club and the direction that we take – then you are going to have to match the aims and ambitions of the club overall. And that’s about socialism, to be brutally honest. Or, we might call it commune-ism – not communism, but commune-ism, community-ism.”
Back in 2005, a group of Manchester United fans broke away and formed the club FC United of Manchester, largely in protest at another set of Americans – the Glazer family – who had taken over their club. With their reputation of stripping sporting franchises of their assets and squeezing money out of it, these fans didn’t like what they saw, so they started from scratch. Almost 15 years later, FC United sit in the National League North, English football’s sixth tier, and have a 4,000-capacity stadium all of their own.
The similarities between FC United and City of Liverpool are evident, but there’s a big difference in their identities: where FC United were seen as an alternative to fans of one club in particular, City Of Liverpool wanted a much broader remit. Manning admits that, at the outset, the Purps’ founding committee received some relational support from FC United; but, other than admiring the model employed, there was a faultline in it that they as founders weren’t comfortable with.
“As brilliant as FC United had been to get to that point, they’d basically cut the city in half. They’d replicated all the old rivalries of their parent club, Man United. And Man City fans in the city or in the area were excluded. We made a decision off the back of that, saying that this [CoL FC] has got to be for the whole city.”
With relative success on the horizon – fingers crossed – Manning and his committee have to look to the future, and one of the things they’ve taken from the FC United playbook is the goal of having their own stadium. “We’re coming to the point very shortly where there is no more revenue. We need that revenue [from match-day sales] and we need food outlets and we need to treat supporters in a better way in a match-based scenario. We need stadium sponsorship rights, we need pitch-side advertiser opportunities. That’s the glass ceiling. Not the football, but the ground.”
“The market of the Liverpool City Region is there for us, the desire is there for us. This club can be anything it wants to be, there’s no question in my mind.”
Although the grey area of having a ‘second club’ is one that I occasionally feel uncomfortable with – as a staunchly stubborn Tranmere season ticket holder – I can definitely see the appeal of getting swept up in the whole romance around a football club built on foundations and solid and noble as these. Paul Manning agrees. “It means a lot of different things to different people, but in a football sense I think it just means happiness and the enjoyment of seeing a local, successful team on the pitch in a successful club, giving us all pride, proving that we are the community.”
“We don’t need American hedge funds or Russian oligarchs, or whatever you want to mention, in order to have a successful and enjoyable football club in our community.”
Join us at Smithdown Social Club on 12th April for our event Purple Sole: City Of Liverpool And The Social Fabric Of Merseyside Football. Tickets at sevenstore.com/trim-trab.