Liverpool fans make themselves heard after Anfield protest walkout
Some Liverpool fans brought black flags, others carried flyers urging fellow supporters to register their anger at next season's ticket price rise by walking out in the 77th minute against Sunderland at Anfield on Saturday. When the stadium clock hit the magic number, a resounding thump of seats signalled that the movement had gained popular support.
By Monday, as club owners Fenway Sports Group (FSG) discussed the wisdom of prices such as the £77 match ticket (up from £59) that prompted fan groups Spion Kop 1906 and Spirit of Shankly to lead the call to exit, the chant that had circled the stadium -- "Enough is enough, enough is enough, you greedy bastards, enough is enough" -- was no doubt still ringing in their ears.
It had been followed by a deafening "You'll Never Walk Alone," a reminder that protesters were acting out of love for their club, but manager Jurgen Klopp was still persuaded to admit that it was "my problem too" on Monday.
Coincidentally or not, his team crumbled from 2-0 up after the exodus to hand Sunderland a point while around a quarter of the 44,179 crowd made theirs by leaving. The two late goals were conceded to a ghostly hush as the red specks of vacated seats became swaths -- scars of the damaged relationship between a club and its fans.
The Liverpool hierarchy, which had yet to comment on the walk-out with ticketing discussions ongoing, cancelled a planned online Q&A with chief executive Ian Ayre on Monday, but the strength of feeling among fans who spoke to ESPN FC was clear.
Among them was Lee Delaney, who sat in the Paddock in the Main Stand -- from where there was a concerted exodus directly in front of the directors' box. He had mixed feelings about walking out but was certain on his feelings towards the club's owners, comparing them to their predecessors -- unpopular fellow Americans Tom Hicks and George Gillett.
"The phrase going around is 'turning fans into customers,'" he said. "The club don't understand the difference. We're a very different beast. This is like Hicks and Gillett all over again. The real money from the new stand will come from the corporate side. Those aren't the people they need to keep happy. Corporate guests could support Chelsea next week."
According to Ayre on Friday, the "transforming fans into customers" slogan -- which spread via social media after appearing on the website of Fenway Sports Management, a subsidiary of FSG -- was used clumsily in marketing literature and did not refer to Reds fans.
The Liverpool CEO had said the price structure had "something for everyone;" the club pointing to a decrease or freeze for 64 percent of season tickets and 45 percent of matchday tickets, along with a range of initiatives for local and young supporters.
But a long-term local fan who did not want to be named felt those in the Kop were no longer a priority for FSG.
"They're taking the piss," he said. "Ian Ayre said beforehand fans won't pay more to finance the new stand. But they're not interested in local fans -- they're after tourists. It shows what the owners think of us. We remember what happened when the club wanted to regulate fans who brought banners -- this is more of the same. They trade on the atmosphere and that comes from regular fans -- not daytrippers."
Season-ticket holder Harry Cain said his Main Stand ticket is to increase from £869 to £979 or £1,029, depending on which new category he chooses once the new tier with 8,500 extra seats and expanded hospitality facilities opens next season. "How can you justify that for local people?" he asked.
That £869 meant Liverpool already charged its season-ticket holders the highest modal price per match in the Premier League.
And there are those, such as supporter Jim Sinclair, who view this as acceptable.
"If I'm honest, I thought the walk-out was pointless," he said. "It's not like the majority of the Kop are the ones paying the £77, is it? If FSG spend over £100 million on the stadium they can charge what they want.
"It's not a charity. It's hard to manage the expectations of diehards at a club that's lost a bit of its pizzazz. I don't hold it against FSG -- they've put their hands in their wallets for players before and if they do that in the summer, it's worth it."
Lifelong Liverpool fan James Harris, from Reading, argued not all rare visitors to Anfield were tourists. "My dad grew up in Liverpool and his family were Reds, so I was too," he said. "Relatives sometimes gave me their season ticket, but now I pay for membership to try to get in. That's been frustrating.
"The game has changed. You can't be a big, successful club in a sustained way without being obsessed with revenue. It's sad. Stadiums need to get bigger and ticket prices go up or there isn't enough to invest for success, so I'm more sympathetic with the owners.
"People move around -- should they only support the local team, and keep switching? That would be worse than only going to Anfield occasionally when you don't live locally."
Robert Thellmann travelled from Staffordshire on Saturday for his first trip to Anfield. He had mixed feelings about the walk-out -- although supported its opposition to price rises -- and said accommodating both regular and new fans was difficult.
"I'm not sure leaving is fair on the players," he said. "It's hard to decide what the best protest is. But people are right to be angry.
"I'm 22, so being able to afford football is a big consideration, and season-ticket holders have priority. Liverpool announced some £9 tickets and ways of getting younger people in, and that's good. Inflation affects everything, so football will be the same. But if they're making extra on top of that, it's unnecessary."
One local fan who already felt priced out was Martin Rollinson, who goes to Anfield occasionally but was once a regular. He felt the new prices suggested the club no longer cared about local fans and would be paid by one-off visitors who were seen as lucrative.
"The club's owners must see ticket revenue as extra profit," he said. "They've built the new stand, then they'll want to sell the club for a huge sum. I can't go into the club shop -- it's not there for me. You can get club merchandise cheaper in shops in town. Why is that? They want money from one-off visitors."
He said the link between generations attending matches risked being broken. "How am I supposed to take my lad to the game?" he said. "Me and my mates have been saying for years normal working people have been left behind."
Ayre had said on Friday that "no one is being priced out" and added that the £100m Main Stand was funded by FSG "interest-free and they don't take a penny out of this football club."
That did nothing to dissuade the dissenters from voting with their feet the following day. And, as the club examines its options amid talk of further walk-outs to come next month, he still has much to do to win them over.
Tom is ESPN FC's Liverpool correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @writertombell.