The celebration of what would have been John Lennon’s 80th birthday, coinciding with the re-start of the English football season produced the usual silly season journalism: the combination of Liverpool, soccer and the Beatles being far too much for people to keep their heads. Locally, Mark Heywood of The Maverick produced an article in which he assured us that Liverpool was a socialist football club and we got a lot about the advanced political thought of Lennon (always referred to as “John”).
The truth is interesting but different. Professional soccer was born in Lancashire and even now it is remarkable how Lancashire clubs dominate. Usually the richest cities (Paris, Madrid, Turin, Milan, Barcelona) dominate, so you’d expect London clubs to lead the way. They don’t. Instead Liverpool, Everton, Man City, Man United lead with a long Lancashire tail behind (Burnley, Blackburn, Preston, Bolton, Blackpool etc) .
I grew up on Merseyside amidst the two ruling passions of the area, rock music and soccer. Although mine was a rugby school, we played soccer in the schoolyard every day of the year. Liverpool in the 1950s still had an extensive Atlantic trade and this meant that American rock ‘n roll records circulated in Liverpool long before they got to London. You could sometimes see black American seamen in the streets and they all seemed to be R and B experts.
Liverpool was always deeply conscious of its connection to America. As a child I remember my father showing me the chains in the dock walls in Liverpool where the slaves had been tethered, for there was no hiding the shameful fact that Liverpool’s maritime glories had derived from the slave trade. But the huge Irish migration to the US had created family links to America for many Liverpool Irish families.
One result was that quite obscure black US groups like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers would play to packed audiences at the Liverpool Empire. Indeed, fading American rock stars soon learned they had fans on Merseyside long after they’d lost theirs in Memphis. In later years, when his career had a long downward dip, Roy Orbison would return time and again to Merseyside and North Wales where he was always massively popular.
To say that soccer was a religion was to miss the point. There has been a huge Irish migration to Liverpool, both Protestant and Catholic, and sectarian feelings were strong. Everton was known as the Catholic club, Liverpool the Protestant. My father, though cheerfully atheist himself, had an Orangeman father and I suspect this was why he signed for Liverpool. He was a phenomenal centre forward and had just scored 120 goals in a season for a local club. (“Mind you”, he said, “eleven of those were penalties. And you should never miss a penalty.” He certainly didn’t.)