I grew up in the dark yet magical Liverpool of the 1980s, a time when Liverpool FC won so many trophies that the team seemed to be on a permanent victory parade through the city’s streets, showing off their latest piece of silverware (watch the Super 8 footage here.) As a third-generation Everton fan in his formative years, witnessing Liverpool’s stars perpetually cruise by aboard an open-top bus was a searing sight. The players lolling casually around the cup on the front of the upper deck, a pose that suggested winning had really been no sweat at all.
The victors would occasionally chuck down packets of sponsored chewing gum from their lofty perch towards their adoring, rucking fans. I would always grab a packet, but because the booty was associated with the enemy, I could not consume it in public. I would chomp on it guiltily in the privacy of my bedroom, replete with its single bed, surrounded by posters of my grim-faced Everton heroes, late into the night.
Once Manchester United knocked Liverpool off their perch in 1993, my quandary disappeared -- as did the free gum -- along with Liverpool’s ability to win a title, seemingly forever. In the newly bloated financial reality of the Premier League era, United, Chelsea, and then Manchester City fans quickly learned to view Liverpool as a faded, impotent threat defanged. English football’s equivalent of Grey Gardens.
A dizzying, populist run of 11 straight victories has changed all that. Liverpool prepare to battle Chelsea this weekend, with their fingertips on a long-coveted 19th title. A question, long dormant, has suddenly sprung back to life. While Liverpool’s irresistible football has rolled over all rivals like a Brendan Rodgers Love Train, what are the city’s rival Everton fans to make of it all?
Back in the '80s, when A Flock of Seagulls fleetingly ruled the world, I resented Liverpool’s glory to my very core. Philosophically, it felt like an absolute wrong. Practically, it automatically left me on the losing end of the ages-old "bragging rights" debate that raged endlessly on our school yard, as it did in workplaces and pubs across the city. While Everton had their own glorious moments in league, cup and European competition, Liverpool always seemed to find a way to trump them.
Yet, as much as I abhorred Liverpool’s success, I could not help but adore its contribution to our simmering, defiant and, to me, beautiful city. In the '80s, Liverpool was economically troubled, yet the Reds and the Blues made it English football’s capital. An intoxicating halo, first established by The Beatles, that reinforced the uniqueness of the city. Football and music gave our town a global recognition that other urban areas -- say, Birmingham, Newcastle and, at the time, Manchester -- did not possess.
I benefited from that halo firsthand. Once, as a high schooler, I was on a sluggish train to Barcelona that was overrun by a band of Real Madrid hooligans. The gang worked their way down the train, breaking windows and menacing passengers in compartment after compartment. I happened to be traveling with two childhood mates from home, none of us blessed with fighting powers. As the sound of smashed glass and graffiti spray paint crept ever nearer, we flipped frantically through our tourist guide, desperate to discover how to scream "not in the face" in Spanish, to no avail. The Madridistas ripped open our compartment door, bandanas covering their faces.
"Where you from?" they bellowed. "Liverpool," we stammered back. The boys looked at each other, then shook our hands respectfully. Exiting the compartment, they proceeded to create mayhem in the carriage next door.
It is in this spirit which I face up to the present day Liverpool FC, a team who, even if you detest them, must be admired. The 25th anniversary and open wound of the Hillsborough tragedy has given Liverpool’s campaign a noble mission, one which every Everton fan connects to and stands by. Yet, on the field and in the front office, the team’s dream season has been propelled by a glut of interwoven storylines, each one coated in its own magic.
From the entrepreneurial spirit infused by American owners John Henry and Tom Werner, who, like dog whisperers, have turned disgruntled want-a-way Luis Suarez into a madly motivated, statistic- and narrative-defying Superman. To Rodgers, who has transformed himself from an envelope-wielding and cliche-ridden figure of mirth -- post-"Being: Liverpool" -- to a tactically astute leader who must be taken seriously. To local hero Steven Gerrard, who has morphed from an aging warhorse into an inspirational figure fit to be canonized.
Above it all, they have a collective ethos, melding the once-erratic skills of Daniel Sturridge, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling, Joe Allen and even the gripple-grappling Martin Skrtel, into a formidable whole capable of seizing the moment when the big four are all in transition to prove that everything can change and anything is possible. That's a message that any English football fan should be able to cheer for.
Last Sunday, I was on the phone while watching the first 30 minutes of Liverpool’s close-run win over Norwich City. On the other end of the line was Jamie, one of my childhood mates, a fellow survivor of the Barcelona train-ride indignity and a lifelong Everton fan. I asked him how he viewed Liverpool’s pulsating romp towards the title. After thinking for a moment, he described his experience of watching Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League miracle in Istanbul, where they fought back from 3-0 down against AC Milan to win the game on penalties.
"The game was so irresistible and Liverpool’s human spirit so admirable, I found myself starting to cheer for them at around the 60-minute mark," he admitted sheepishly. "By the time penalties came around, I was out of my seat rooting for the Reds as if my life depended on it," he said.
"But once they had won, the cameras cut to a close-up shot of the beaming smile on Steven Gerrard’s face as he lifted that Champions League trophy high above his head. The second I saw it, I felt sick in my mouth and regretful I had spent a moment supporting them," he said. "That is exactly how I expect to feel if the final whistle goes and Liverpool win on Sunday."