This week's Red Letters, answering one of the most important questions
LFC Stories: In our latest installment, Michael MacCambridge and Neil Atkinson discuss how to makeby Michael MacCambridge, Neil Atkinson
Red Letters / February 14 2020 - Among the Lads: Liverpool and The Growing Ranks of Women Supporters
Welcome to Red Letters.
Football, soccer, is a truly global game. It is also a game which means so much more than 22 players on the pitch and the two managers in the dugout. For 90 minutes at a time, this is what matters most, but surrounding that is culture, identity, and relationships.
To be a part of a club can often mean to be part of a family, a kinship, which only a small percentage in this world can experience. On the field, the collective and the individual combine to bring success. The same happens with supporters. It is a true collective game, where it is easy to feel as one with thousands of others; it is also individual, where the emotions you feel are your emotions, the experiences you feel are your experiences, and nobody else can understand.
Over the course of the 2019/20 season, two Liverpool fans, friends, will write to each other about those emotions and experiences. Michael MacCambridge, born, raised and living in the United States, is a best-selling author and journalist. Most importantly, he is a Liverpool fan, and can often be found watching the games at his local supporters' club.
His friend Neil Atkinson, born, raised and living in Liverpool, is the host of worldwide podcast phenomenon The Anfield Wrap. He, too, supports Liverpool, and has been a season ticket holder for 20 years.
Separated by the Atlantic Ocean, but brought together by a passion much stronger, this is their correspondence throughout the campaign, as they share their highs, lows, hopes and fears around Liverpool FC on a regular basis, as well as what it is to simply be part of their community following Jurgen Klopp and his side.
We are fortunate enough to have access to everything they write. We hope you enjoy.
Previous editions: February 7 / January 31 / January 24 / January 17 / January 10 / January 3 / December 27 / December 20 / December 13 / December 6 / November 29 / November 22 / November 15 / November 8 / November 1 / October 25 / October 18 / October 12 / October 4 / September 27 / September 25 / September 20 / September 13 / September 6 / August 30 / August 22 / August 16 / August 14 / August 9 / August 2
13 February 2020
So let me tell you about our fellow Red supporter, a woman named Stef.
She was at the Irish pub Slainte in Baltimore, down by Fells Point, several years ago, among a crowd of people at the bar, watching Liverpool and hollering at the TV screen, as one is wont to do.
One of the regulars there — a young American — noticed her exhortations, and asked, with perhaps more than a hint of condescension, whether she was only there at the behest of her boyfriend.
“No,” Stef patiently replied, “he’s actually here with me.” Her beau Matt confirmed this, explaining that Stef was a diehard Liverpool fan, and he was only along to provide emotional support and enjoy Slainte’s excellent breakfast spread.
But the regular remained skeptical that Stef — a smart, compact woman in her 40s — was a genuine Liverpool fan. So he challenged her to explain the offside rule.
At which point Stef proceeded to get a few salt and pepper shakers, and illustrate and recite all the intricacies involved with “nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent.”
Then and only then, finally convinced, did the chastened regular buy her a Guinness.
You will surely have heard, and probably witnessed, stories similar to this, of avid female supporters being patronized, mansplained to, and occasionally, outright challenged. That’s a part of their reality, and a part of what I want to discuss this week: the growing ranks of female supporters within the Liverpool universe. It’s a welcome development, and also a topic about which I suspect you have strong opinions.
When I started following Liverpool in the late ’90s, the soccer bar scene (at least in the Midwest) was static. Uniformly male, largely expat, mostly bitter. It was a good place to go if you enjoyed watching drunk, sullen 60-year-olds muttering at the screen.
Over the past 20 years in the States, there’s been a transformation. As the game has grown in popularity, and the audience following Liverpool has grown larger, our crowds at the pub have grown younger and more diverse. Women have become a vibrant, vital part of the Liverpool FC experience. I don’t go to enough other supporters’ bars to know if this is true to the same degree for every single club in the Premier League. I only know that going to the pub these days is a richer, more varied experience, more “co-ed,” as we say in the States.
I suspect -- and I’ll be interested in your take here -- that while other social movements surrounding the club (like new songs) often start on the Kop and work their way out to supporters around the world, this is one social phenomenon that has likely started on the outside, and worked its way inward. I wonder if there might even be a higher percentage of female supporters in the US than in England? In England, certainly, there seems to be a higher percentage of female supporters watching games on TV than watching live at stadiums.
In the U.S., 40 percent of the NFL’s weekly viewing audience is female, and the numbers for the NBA aren’t far behind. But the change in soccer’s viewership feels even more dramatic, and I think part of this has to do with the nature of social history in this country. The landmark Title IX legislation in 1972 — guaranteeing equal opportunity in all areas of educational institutions, including organized athletics — birthed an explosion of female athletes in the States (at the start of the ‘70s, only one female in 27 participated in organized high school sports; by the end of the decade, it was one in three), and brought about a change that resonated far beyond playing fields.
A generation later, bolstered in part by soccer becoming a scholarship sport at most major universities, the U.S. women’s national team won the Women’s World Cup in 1999, and in the process prompted something I’d never seen before — not merely men cheering for a women’s team, but doing so with abandon: dudes completely buying in, painting their faces, proudly wearing Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly jerseys. In the 20 years since then, as soccer’s profile kept rising, the composition of the soccer crowd at pubs has changed radically. We have nearly 300 members in the OLSC Austin group, and fully 20 percent are female.
Another factor that has undeniably helped in Austin is the venue where we watch. As the OLSC group bounced around spots in the early ‘10s, not all the locales were particularly hospitable. There was a place called Johnny’s, with a Scouse proprietor, but it was an unapologetic dive, whose bathrooms reportedly looked like something out of Trainspotting. Then there was the downtown Irish pub Fado, dark, almost windowless, which at times could feel somewhat sketchy. Our current spot, B.D. Riley’s in Mueller, is in a burgeoning commercial district, with a pond, a walking trail, a weekend farmer’s market and a children’s museum all just around the corner. It’s a place where a woman could comfortably venture alone.
Befitting Austin’s reputation as a progressive city, our group has been relentlessly inclusive — there’s been at least one woman on the executive board for most of the past decade, and our current chapter president Steven works assiduously to rein in some of the more laddish buffoonery that still pervades, especially on the group’s Facebook page.
And yet, even in the midst of all this progress, there’s been the occasional instance of men behaving badly. A couple of years ago, among the packed masses for the Kiev final, one of our diehard female supporters was groped by some random guy, who was never identified. A year later, in the midst of the joy of Madrid, one of our other female supporters was verbally abused by an expat who rarely comes to the pub, the one ugly blight on an otherwise glorious day of victory. It’s true that these were isolated incidents, and they occurred on unusual days when a lot of non-regulars were around. But it’s also true that each one was a setback for the environment we’re trying to foster, one in which women, people of color and anyone else who might love LFC would feel not only free to join but actively welcomed.
I wonder if you’ve faced similar incidents in all of your experiences with LFC? One of the first things I noticed when I started listening to The Anfield Wrap was that it was very pointedly not just a stereotypical mix of middle-aged white Maxim magazine-reading guys. Instead, there existed a surprising and persistent diversity, which seemed too consistent to be anything other than intentional. It was on TAW that I first heard the ace reporter Melissa Reddy, and I soon became accustomed to TAW’s numerous female commentators on the podcasts, invariably committed and knowledgeable. It closely reflected the reality I was seeing at the pubs in the States.
Has the transformation been as dramatic over there as it was over here? And do you think the change is as noticeable in the stadium on game days as it is around the country and throughout the world among supporters?
I’ve known for a while I wanted to write you about this, so I spent some time in the past month talking to several of our female regulars. One of the things I noticed instantly was how many women supporters used to play the game, or still do. A couple of years ago, when I began coming to Riley’s for games, one of the first women I met was Katy, a spirited weekend athlete who at the time was sporting an impressive shiner from a soccer ball hitting her smack in the face. Because so many of the women in our group have played, they frequently have insights into positioning and formations that a lot of male fans simply don’t possess, no matter how conversant they may be in the statistical minutiae of the game.
The traditionally male environment of a soccer bar has been its own world, and not that dissimilar to what Nick Hornby described in his first visit to Highbury, at age 11, to watch Arsenal (“I remember the overwhelming maleness of it all… words I had heard before, but not from adults, and not at that volume”).
For the most part, the women supporters I have spoken with don’t really object to the language. It’s their physical space that many remain sensitive to. Big goals in big games prompt spontaneous celebrations of hugging and high-fiving that are closer to a mosh pit than anything else I’ve ever seen at sports bars. While those moments of elation and abandon are some of my best memories, as well as the most chaotic — you’ll recall the story of my friend Declan losing his wedding ring during one manic celebration — it’s also true that it can be intimidating for some people.
In listening to these women, I have come to believe that two things are simultaneously true: When Liverpool scores a big goal, virtually all of the men in our group who celebrate, and start hugging everyone in sight, are doing so without any shady ulterior motives, simply out of a spontaneous expression of joy; at the same time, in the very same situation, some women can be made to feel as though their physical space has been breached, even invaded.
“It can get a little intimidating,” said one female supporter. “Some men are a little more cognizant of who they’re next to, but some guys just aren’t.”
Of course, other women are totally comfortable with the celebrations. “I wouldn’t want men to stop hugging me because I am a female and fear they are invading my space,” said one supporter. “I want to be celebrated with because I’m a fellow fan cheering a goal or a win.”
It seems to me that this conversation is part of the process of the changing nature of the soccer experience in the modern age. No longer is it 11 white British males walking on the pitch to be cheered by 60,000 other white British males. The game — and the pubs — are better for the changes. And for the discussion that surrounds them.
And as in all of these matters, a little common sense goes a long way. Or as one of our supporters and former chapter president, Meghan, put it: “It’s Kindergarten-level stuff: Don’t be an asshole and keep your hands to yourself.”
The female supporters I know do not come lightly to their devotion. Laura was a true believer at an early age. The daughter of an American Air Force father and a British mother, she lived in England, Italy, Spain, Scotland and the U.S. before she turned 14. Her father became a Liverpool fan in the ’80s, and passed his love down to his daughter, who still remembers her first Liverpool jersey (the yellow away kit from 97/98, which was used as the third-choice kit the following season). Others who came to it later were equally captivated: Libby first got involved during 13/14 — “the Suarez season,” as she describes it — and was immediately struck by the camaraderie, the singing, the sense of common purpose, which reminded her of the fraternity of fans growing up in Northern California, where the San Francisco Giants baseball team was the club of her youth.
Jacqui, as I mentioned last summer, grew up with Souness, Lawrenson, and Grobbelaar posters on her wall, and she’s perhaps the most plugged-in supporter I know — I don’t think I’ve ever sent her a newsflash, a meme, or a rumor that she hasn’t already heard or seen. Amanda is a longtime fanatic who now has an executive position at our OLSC chapter; and she can proudly put event-planning for Liverpool shindigs (like the John Barnes visit) on her professional resume. Meghan has traveled all over the country to watch Liverpool on their American tours (and even got a Klopp hug in the process), and went to Liverpool for the 10-year Istanbul reunion. Susan is such a devoted follower she has a picture of herself with Jordan Henderson up on her mantel. And after 17 years together, Stef and her guy Matt eloped to New Orleans over the weekend, but that was only the second most extreme thing she did last week: two nights before leaving she finally got a Liverpool tattoo, which she designed herself.
I respect and admire this level of commitment, but I can’t even begin to keep up with it. All the pictures on my mantel are of family members, and though I love my Reds, I have historically drawn the line at bumper stickers and body art.
These women and their deep devotion to the club speaks to something else I’ve noticed: Generalizations are dangerous, and there will of course be exceptions, but the women supporters I know tend to be more loyal, more patient, and more contemplative than many of our male supporters. They frequently wait to reach an informed conclusion rather than jumping to a hasty one (or, as Grace Paley once put it, “There is a long time in me between knowing and telling.”)
All that having been said, I probably should add one thing: In my experience, the women swear at the TV just as profanely, creatively, and nonsensically as the men do.
My mentor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in the ’80s, a brilliant professor named Donna Leff, has done decades of extensive research on the effect of minorities in the newsroom. She began her work in the ’70s, at a time when there was a great deal of pushback against preferential hiring and Affirmative Action in the U.S., and much hand-wringing over whether there would be a backlash against minorities who were promoted with less experience. But the ultimate takeaway from her research was both simple and profound: it was that having minorities in the newsroom, on editorial boards, in executive positions, changed the nature of the assumptions, the nature of the discussion, and the nature of the debate.
I believe the same thing is happening with Liverpool supporters.
This worldwide living organism that embodies “We Are Liverpool” continues to evolve, and we are in the process of seeing it shift, more or less decisively, from How Things Were toward a new, more expansive and diverse What Will Be.
And I’d go a step further. If we as supporters want to continue to stand for the things that Liverpool stands for, and be the best version of ourselves, we need to not merely accommodate these changes, but actively welcome and encourage them. That might mean some guys will have to temper their behavior, and some assumptions about the pub or the stadiums that have long held will no longer apply. So be it.
In the end, the greater good will be served, and the group will be stronger.
And none of us will walk alone.
14 February 2020
Well there is a lot in that. Men not respecting women’s personal space - there’s a surprise! However whenever I watch a game in the US, when we do shows there it seems a more generous balance and I like it. I think playing and watching can be divided up and are more divided up in the UK but one of the things that has worked for the US is indeed that more women have played the game.
In general, across most of the western world, sports is a traditional male space. Men control the information, the facts and figures. Something else I notice when I am in the US is the US Sports television media and its relentless commitment to sports shouting on screens. Mostly about men’s (and traditional US) sport and mostly done by men. One of the things soccer being newer and soccer being played as much if not more by women does is shift the traditional ownership of the knowledge, the information, the facts and figures. It still leads to absolute nonsense like having to explain the offside law to some total boor and bore but on the whole I think the door is a tiny bit more ajar.
That is something which isn’t the case here. Because men hold the knowledge. Get to ask the questions. Control the entrance exam. So much of football knowledge is geekish. There is something nerdy about it, about all sports really. Facts and figures. Within so much of it is an eight year old boy collecting and swapping stickers and numbers. Knowing the truths. These bastions become the starting posts, the finishing lines.
It makes it harder for women. One of the reasons - very far from the only one I hasten to add - I think Mel Reddy is so good, for she is the very best of us, is that she has spent years having to prove herself. Jurgen Klopp’s Reds start every game at 0-0. It is part of their brilliance. They are humble. They graft. Mel Reddy has started so many games 3-0 down. And still she wins. She wins again and again. She walks into room after room and has to prove herself and there she goes again. Perhaps now she doesn’t but she will never stop working, never stop being brilliant. It is now ingrained.
I’ve had immensely intelligent, confident women come on to do Anfield Wrap shows and worry about getting the smallest detail wrong and the knock on effects that will have for the perception of them and the wider perception of the gender speaking about football. I’ve had Rob Gutmann wax lyrical for twenty minutes about the brilliance of the Newcastle United side of 1987/88 while watching Liverpool dispatch them 0-4 on a show. They were 19th at the time the game was played. (Being fair to him they did go on to finish 8th). Rob didn’t care and nor should he. But then nor should she. Any of the shes.
But women do. Understandably so. Any casual look at the way women who speak publicly about any sports get treated means they are being entirely logical to be hugely concerned. Women needing to be more concerned about how they speak than men. If that isn’t a working definition of patriarchy then I don’t know what is.
The discussion around gender and football starts for me, here, as a conversation around tickets, around who controls tickets and what they do with them.
Prior to the start of the 2018/19 season Liverpool played Torino at Anfield. Heading up to the ground it was striking the number of families, women and people of colour there were heading to watch The Reds. The number was far greater than it normally is. And at the end of the 2018/19 season when the bus tours Liverpool, a whole city comes out. Families, women and people of colour.
Liverpool’s support is diverse - equal to or (arguably) greater than the diversity of the city itself, Liverpool’s support in the ground is not particularly diverse. Because tickets are locked up.
Torino was a one off game where it was easier to buy tickets, where the attendance wasn’t dominated by season ticket holders. I think this is a key point. Who holds the season tickets has been baked in since the mid-90s. Predominantly white men - many of whom have actually been there since the mid-90s or have passed along. To other white men. But there is something else crucial about season tickets which gets missed:
They presume you will be able and will want to attend every game.
Before you buy the ticket you have no idea when the games will be. Even after the fixture list comes out those games can and will still move. They presume if you are a parent you will not have to worry about childcare. It’s not a wild follow-up sentence to say that this sort of attitude towards who looks after the family unit in the absence of one parent has been skewed in favour of men having the time away. That the space is male. That your dad goes to the football. It’s his release. His time away. The flexible inflexibility, the inconvenience of football. Plans will change around it, predominantly for him. For his football. It has always been so.
But the Torino example is telling. If you want more diversity in football grounds then abolish season tickets. If you want a different away crowd, abolish loyalty. That would allow supporters to buy tickets for one off games when it is convenient for them. The very commitment of 19 occasions when you have no idea when they are; the sheer inability to break into the list of season ticket holders at Anfield, the inarguable truth that the networks that have grown around the games both home and away have been held, controlled and run by white men who are much more likely to offer other white men spare tickets as they come up - simply because they know more white men who go the game, who are looking for spares, who know who to ask and why to ask and when to ask, not because of any conscious bias but because of something ingrained in generations - all this leads to a reality which isn’t a closed shop for women but is a more limited one.
Just to be clear - there are a lot of women at Anfield. I would point out it skews towards older women in the same way it skews towards older men. Again, having been around to be part of what is baked in helps massively. In general Liverpool has a good relationship with women wanting to be part of the football, be part of the conversation, be around the whole enterprise. As good as anywhere else in the UK I’d suggest. The intentions are mostly there but practical change in terms of who is in the ground, in terms of how this is meant to work, in terms of the structural situation? There is none.
In reality no one wants to abolish season tickets, no one wants to abolish loyalty. But then I suppose I would say that. Because it actually favours me. The long term structural situation favours me and people like me. If that isn’t a working definition of patriarchy then I don’t know what is.
When you discuss The Anfield Wrap one of the biggest challenges in terms of getting more women’s voices on is when the shows are. Male contributors are much more relaxed about time away from both job and home to discuss football. Thank god they are on one hand. But on another it is telling. Women are more likely to have jobs which involve being in a fixed location and when they are not doing those jobs are far likelier to feel the need - whether true or not - to be home, to fulfil a “caring” role. This is baked into society. The Anfield Wrap is at times fighting an almighty battle to change this and of course it can’t on its own.
We try a lot of different things. It’s good that you and other people notice we make an effort to not be the same type and tenor of voices every show, every week but frankly we should try more, should do more, should make the show as diverse as the worldwide wider supporter base is. But firstly we do exist in the city and do need to reflect that. We also do want people to discuss Liverpool in person - shows are much more personal when everyone is in the same room together. Also when we try we get pushback from the customers. People like the familiar. It’s true.
In addition as mentioned above it is just easier if you are one of the lads. You will come under less scrutiny and will have been doing an element of barroom chat about Liverpool your whole life. An absolute walk in the park. You’ll have the confidence for it too. It’s structurally easier, even here.
One of the reasons I am increasingly irritated by howls of derision around moves for kick off times away from the traditional is that the howl is actually in part that the kick off times traditionally work for the traditional matchgoing public. The howls of derision tend to come from organisations which have been around for a while. Organisations which tend to have been controlled by traditional football supporters for a period of time and set up in a way which defines how they function going forward. You know. The lads.
It’s underpinned by the notion that the people who have always gone should always get to go if they want, the idea that - yes - fandom is best defined by going to every game and that every game should be as easy as it can be for the people who like to go to every game to go to.
While I respect - truly do - the commitment of the every gamers, that just isn’t for me. Had I really wanted to go to Norwich - a game I am very excited about this weekend - I could probably have sourced a ticket (the sheer privilege of that by the way) had I needed to though it would have been graft. It’s a minimum of 5 hours there and 5 back or a stayover and that just isn’t convenient for me whenever it kicks off with relation to my relationships, my job or my health. So I will sit it out. That’s sound. The away end will be brilliant with or without me. Will be full with or without me.
I’m reminded of a conversation I once had with Steve Graves, that maybe a season ticket that got you 14 homes and 7 aways wouldn’t be a bad thing. I don’t know if I am entirely ready for that but I can see its potential appeal.
The point is that we have even defined true fandom in a way that skews towards the long term structural advantages and privileges of being male. We have skewed the organisations and the battles in our favour and we show no signs of that letting up.
I’m fascinated by - and in a small amount of awe of - the late adopters of the game who are women. I spent a lifetime having a ball thrown at me in almost every circumstance and just got on with it. That isn’t the case for everybody.
(I don’t play enough/at all at the minute, Michael. When I stop to think about this is makes me sad. It is a cart/horse question. I want to get fitter so I can play but I am not getting fitter in part because I am not playing)
One of the by-products of the success of the England Women’s national side (whose nickname I shall never use) is that women who had been told implicitly or explicitly that playing wasn’t for them - remember our disgrace of a Football Association banned women from playing the national game for 50 years - realised that actually it was. There are now small women’s leagues around the country, many of them with women who have adopted playing in their 30s and 40s. It’s a brilliant thing, something to be delighted by. Some grass, a ball and a goal. A great day ensues.
In terms of practical next moves, in terms of what my one sentence, “this is what we should do” thing is here, well, I don’t really have one. Be sounder. Offer spares outside the established networks when we can. Encourage women to come on aways. Talk to them and listen to them. They have jokes, they tend to have better ones.
Support women pundits, encourage the voices to come out which aren’t the usual. Karen Carney and Emma Hayes have been excellent on 5Live recently.
All of this would make the whole thing stronger as you say. It does matter a great deal.
Anyway, two men talking about the patriarchy. At length. We need to be careful, we verge on the ridiculous…
Norwich will be a blast. Atletico will be stressful. We should all enjoy it.
Neil Atkinson is host of the Anfield Wrap - download their free app on IOS and Android.
Michael MacCambridge is the author of ‘America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured A Nation,’ and several other books. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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