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'It feels like purgatory' - what life is now like for an Irish Liverpool supporter

They may never walk alone but right now Liverpool’s army of Irish fans are self-isolating, wondering if their 30-year-wait to see a league title will ever end.

An Irish fan holds aloft the tricolour on the Kop.
An Irish fan holds aloft the tricolour on the Kop.
Image: EMPICS Sport

THE AIRPORT EXPRESS trundles out of Waterford at 2am packed with holiday makers and fanatics, dressed in Liverpool red, scarves wrapped around their necks, dreams floating around their heads. It is the 647th time Ray Malone has started out on this very personal pilgrimage.

He never walks, nor travels, alone – one of thousands who make this journey from Ireland to Anfield, fully aware there are thousands more who snidely dismiss them for doing so.  

“It’s a life thing,” Malone says before pausing. Today’s date, 15 April, is inked into his conscience, 31 years on since Hillsborough. Ray had a ticket for that game but in the end had to sell it because he couldn’t source a flight for under £400. “Had I been there that day, I’d have been scarred forever,” he says.

Still that afternoon had a deep impact, unlocking the emotions he had stored since his father’s untimely passing a couple of months previously. “I sobbed and sobbed,” he says, crying for his father and for the 96 lives that were stolen away on that Saturday afternoon. “My uncle lost a couple of his friends at Hillsborough, people like me who have a passion for their team. I’ve always had a strong bond with the club. But after Hillsborough, it deepened.”

Keith Thompson knows that feeling. At 45, he’s slightly younger than Malone, yet has lived a parallel life, his love affair with this English club starting at his front door. “My grandfather went to work in Liverpool in the 1930s, living there for well over 10 years, working on the railways, later serving in the RAF during the War,” Thompson says. “Now he was a passionate GAA man but there wasn’t any of that over there. So at the weekends you had a choice, the pub or football. That was when Anfield first came into our family. People often say to me ‘what are you doing supporting a team when you have no connection to the place?’ But my connection for Liverpool is from the Meath home I grew up in. It was from listening to my grandfather talk about the team of the ‘30s and ’40s, Matt Busby and Bob Paisley, a love of the club he passed onto my father and uncles. Then came myself and my two brothers.

“We were Meath fans in the summer, Liverpool in winter and spring. You’d Irish players right through the side, Heighway, Lawrenson, Beglin, Robinson, Whelan, Staunton, Houghton, Aldridge. But there’s more to it than even the family or the Irish connection.

soccer-fa-charity-shield-liverpool-v-tottenham-hotspur Dubliner Ronnie Whelan inspired a generation of Liverpool fans. Source: EMPICS Sport

“I was 14 when Hillsborough happened and remember that afternoon, the death toll creeping scarily up and up. It wasn’t just a city that mourned. I’m a father myself now and there’ll always be a sadness for fellow parents who lost their children that day. Anyone who goes to a football match should be able to come home. The injustice that followed, the lies, the cover-ups, made things worse. People deserve dignity and Liverpool’s fans weren’t afforded that by the British government or Yorkshire police force. It’s a club that means an awful lot to me. I know it’s in England, not here. But it doesn’t feel English.”

The reason for that is best explained by Limerick historian, Dr Brian Hanley. While he’s reluctant to sentimentalise the city’s Irishness, pointing to its low-key parade on St Patrick’s Day, which is dwarfed by the size of the Orange Order marches that go from Southport into the city centre every July, he does have a natural grá for the place after lecturing in the University of Liverpool.

Historically this was a divided city, not just between Everton and Liverpool, but between Catholic and Protestant, T.P. O’Connor serving as MP for the Liverpool Scotland constituency until the Irish Nationalist Party ran out of steam in the 1920s.

Another half-forgotten fact is that it was Everton, rather than Liverpool, who were the first English club to have a supporters club based in Ireland, way back in the 1930s. “The Second World War changed the city,” Dr Hanley says, “the creation of new estates replacing the older bombed-out buildings.” Integration of Catholic and Protestant was followed by the resurrection of Liverpool under Bill Shankly. “That’s when their Irish support base started to grow,” says Dr Hanley, “expanding further in the ‘70s to the extent that they were on a par with Manchester United by the following decade.”

Brian Hora was a child of the ‘80s. “Your team picks you,” this Roscommon man says. “There was something about Liverpool that I was able to buy into, not just the fact they were successful – because for most of my life, one false dawn has followed another. It’s what the club stands for, its sense of community.”

That togetherness was shockingly absent last week, however, when the club made the decision to place the non-playing members of its staff on furlough. “When I heard about it initially, I was very disappointed,” Thompson says. “If smaller clubs in England could afford to pay their non-playing staff then so could Liverpool. Fan power had its way, though. I’m glad they reversed their decision.”

So is Hora. “It was a mistake – they shouldn’t have done it because the thing about Liverpool is it is a community club. And I don’t see why there has to be a geographic boundary to a sporting community. Why shouldn’t Liverpool have Irish fans? After all, it is the only English city to have had an Irish Parliamentary MP. There’s something unique about the place. It might have an address in England but it’s an Irish city.”

Thousands will disagree and will point to the cities and towns in Ireland who have their own football clubs. Shop local, this constituency of League of Ireland fans will say. Yet the three men do. When Thompson hung up his boots five years ago, he was chairman, kit-washer and substitute goalkeeper on his local Sunday league team in the Combined Counties League. Every Wednesday evening and Saturday morning Hora drives to Inny FC, on the Longford/Westmeath border, where his seven-year-old son plays. As well as being a season-ticket holder at Anfield, Malone is a regular at the RSC in Waterford. “I was there in 1980 when Brian Gardner’s header brought the FAI Cup home; I was there for all bar four of the Blues’ games last year,” he says. “I organise the supporters’ club bus for away games. Football is a hobby; Liverpool is a passion. If you took it out of my life, you’d leave a hole there.”

Yet that is precisely what has happened since 11 March when lockdown and Coronavirus replaced Klopp, Kop and title-famines as the most dominant words in their conversations. They may never walk alone but right now they are self-isolating, wondering if their 30-year-wait to see a league title will ever end. “It kind of feels like a sporting purgatory,” Hora says. “You’re just wondering. You miss the sport so much. Football is the hour and a half in your week when you can completely switch off from everything else. They have to finish the season out. You can’t have an asterisk beside it. Not after 30 years.”

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That’s the irony. A title race that everyone agreed was over at Christmas may never be finished. “Ah, if the league is just handed to us, United fans will say it isn’t a real title,” Thompson says. “So I’d love to see them win it, even if it’s played behind closed doors. When this God-forsaken virus passes, we’ll get to celebrate then. In the meantime, we just hope they’ll get to play the games out.”

WhatsApp Image 2020-04-15 at 16.29.56 Ray Malone in Madrid for the 2019 Champions League final.

“Put it this way,” Malone says, “I’ve spent far too much money going across to Liverpool this year to find out know that the only thing I was watching were glorified friendly matches. Far too many games have been played to declare it null and void.”

A void is what exists now. “Look, we know in the greater scheme of things, sport isn’t as important as people’s health or their jobs,” Thompson says. “But don’t tell me sport doesn’t have a big place in our lives. It’s the light at the end of the week, an escape. For some people, say elderly people in ill health, football is all they have. You can’t say it’s just a game because it’s a game that brings everyone – rich, poor, healthy, ill – together. I’ve missed it terribly since the shutdown.”

We all have, whether it is football played at grass-roots, League of Ireland, Premier League or international level. “It’s my life’s passion,” Malone says. “I know there are more important things going on in the world, I do get that. I’m not insensitive to all the suffering out there. But you can’t just trivialise football as being only a game. It’s way more than that. For me, it’s linked to family, my parents especially. It’s a passion. It’s my life. Without Liverpool, without football, there’d be a hole. I’d be miserable.”

That’s why he makes those 2am bus journeys, figuring out his work schedule in advance so he can book the time off and book the affordable flights. Price dictates that he often ends up flying into Birmingham, two hours away from Liverpool by train. He got in and out of Kiev for the 2018 Champions League final for €287, pretty much knows the Birmingham Airport to Lime Street timetable off by heart and doesn’t even want to consider how much he has spent following Liverpool over the years. His last trip, just over a month ago, took two days out of his life and about €130 out of his pocket. “It’s worth it,” he says, “because I really love the club.”

That puts Ray Malone in rather large company.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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