On football, belonging and being a Liverpool-supporting Londoner

Come on you reds: the victory parade. Image: Getty.

There are 15 professional football clubs in London, and I don’t support any of them.

I was born and grew up in Lambeth, London, and I can see the Oval cricket ground from my window. If you ever cross the River Thames at night, you’re seeing my favourite view in the world. One side of my family is German, the other’s from Kent, but I love being able to say I’m from this city.

And yet, aged 5 – seeing Michael Owen’s goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup – I decided to support Liverpool. And apparently nobody in my football-hating family was minded to correct me.

In terms of the distance from my house, it might as well have been France’s Paris St Germain, Belgium’s Anderlecht or the Netherland’s Feyenoord.

It’s one thing Liverpudlians debating the notion of “Scouse exceptionalism”; it was quite another being a teenage Londoner arguing with other geographically-confused friends about the Manchester Ship Canal.

As a student, shuttling between Bristol and Liverpool by coach provided an outlet for the energy. Thoughtfully, Bristol continues to abstain from top-flight football, which gave us an excuse to head up the M5. The 2011-12 season was particularly memorable, as Liverpool rewarded our endeavour by cheerfully hitting the post and crossbar more times than any other team in Premier League history.

Belonging is normally something inherited, but club football has been global for decades. And if nobody’s there to indoctrinate you, then you do it yourself. In Official Supporters’ Clubs from San Francisco to Seoul, people re-structure their lives to wake up and stare very hard at this strange, infectious, red thing. They fall in love with the heroes and the miracles. They learn about Hillsborough, and Heysel, and managed decline.

I know that university friends now living in Nairobi, or Washington D.C, still sometimes feel guilty about how much mental energy goes into guarding the flame.

Can you really belong to something you’ve chosen? If we do tell ourselves stories in order to live, do we weave ourselves into the stories of the things we love – or do we weave theirs into us?

On Saturday 1 June, Liverpool beat Tottenham Hotspur to win the Champions League, European football’s premier club competition, for the 6th time.

The following day, a crowd of 750,000 people attended the victory parade in Liverpool. The last time Liverpool won the competition, in 2005, the BBC reported estimates that the crowd reached 1 million – or to put it differently, 2 per cent of everybody in England at the time.

For emphasis, those are the two largest crowds ever seen outside London. After the 2003 Stop the War March, the 2nd and 3rd largest crowds in all of British history were to celebrate Liverpool winning the Champions League.

These people could have gathered for religion, or music, or ornithology, but they didn’t. It’s true that many will have gone with friends and family, or for the spectacle, but just as many will have gone there for communion. Whether you care about football, and especially if you don’t, it’s important to appreciate the depth and power of self-selecting communities – and the lengths we go to sustain them.

As with any kind of fanaticism, it becomes your escape, soundtrack, punctuation. It’s how you measure time. You seek out your own media (or create it yourself), develop cultures and habits, and wage factional conflicts. You marinate in it.

It’s supposed to be a leisure activity. But I’m not the only one who, after a horrible week, has irrationally needed a result from my team like a personal favour. And I’m not the only one who has felt that when your team is doing well, they’re doing it for you, personally. Uncomfortably, unforgivably, it’s also likely that the “sanctioned madness” around football goes some way to explaining why rates of domestic abuse soar during international football tournaments. It’s supposed to be a leisure activity.

The club season has officially ended, and the fever has temporarily broken. Irrationally, I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little relieved. We can all pretend we’re excited for the Hampton Court Flower Show now, or the Proms.

But this enduring weirdness, this addicted worm, clearly isn’t going to go anywhere. Kindly, firmly, it’s sat itself down in my frontal lobe with a lifelong tenancy agreement. But come August, I’m glad the decision’s been made for me.

Samuel Kerr works in events for the New Statesman.


Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.


Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.


The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.

The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.