“These people are not simply fans, they’re more like members of one extended family.” – Bill Shankly
Another pre-season, another overseas tour. Liverpool touched down in Hong Kong in the early hours of Sunday morning and almost immediately their social media outlets filled up with images of players and staff interacting with beaming supporters and sponsors.
While it’s genuinely heartwarming to see supporters, the vast majority of whom have never had the opportunity to see their heroes in the flesh, get intimate access to receive autographs and take selfies with the likes of Jürgen Klopp and Jordan Henderson, it also highlighted, for some, the contrast between how accessible Liverpool seem to make themselves when on an overseas tour to how out of reach they appear once closer to home.
Lately there has been a photo and short video clip circulating on Twitter that appears to present a different side to Liverpool’s relationship with their fans. I’m referring to the photograph of the security guard with a german shepherd outside the Melwood entrance and the video of the players filing past and ignoring autograph hunters as they board a coach.
The images tell us a story, but they don’t provide us with any context to the situations we view. For instance, it was later clarified by the club that the guard in question was not permanently stationed at the entrance, but was instead conducting a routine sweep of the grounds. At first viewing the video clip doesn’t look good, but again we do not know what the context behind it was.
What’s become clear through the social media reaction to these images is that a feeling exists among a section of the fan base that local and other domestic-based supporters are being increasingly kept at arm’s length by the club. The video in question emerged on the same day the travelling party landed in Hong Kong and immediately began a charm offensive with their hosts. As far as PR goes, Liverpool have probably had better days.
Day 1⃣ of #LFCTour!
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) July 17, 2017
In fairness to Liverpool, there is a risk of a vehicle accident occurring when large groups of people congregate on what actually is quite a narrow residential street outside of Melwood. The club rightfully have to bear in mind the health and safety of its supporters at all times.
Liverpool believe they are compensating, to a degree, by increasing the frequency in which their players visit local schools in and around the area of the training ground. Indeed, there were some nice images of Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson visiting children at a junior school just before Christmas last year. This is highly commendable and surely much more meaningful to kids than simply receiving a quick scribble on a scrap of paper.
There was also a video released yesterday of the players visiting a children’s hospital in Hong Kong. The images were truly touching. This was the club at its best and is not a one-off by any stretch. Every Christmas the squad visits the local Alder Hey children’s hospital too.
The club’s community department are also also extremely active with their own programs year-round. Indeed, it might be the case that too many outreach events are happening under the radar and, if that’s the case, then the club should do a better job of telling us about it.
We have to be realistic. This current incarnation of the club cannot make its employees available all the time for all and sundry. It goes without saying that there will be occasions where supporters just cannot mingle with the playing staff. However, could Liverpool be doing more to build better relationships with those supporters at home? It’s arguable they could.
The club may have had little choice but to ban the players from providing autographs at the entrance to Melwood, but they haven’t provided a viable alternative to those who now don’t have access any other way. They’ve allowed a feeling to foster that the club wants to control its interactions with fans and spontaneity appears infrequent.
We grew up reading stories of Bill Shankly answering the phone to supporters desperate for cup final tickets and asking them how many they needed. We grew up reading stories of supporters being able to mingle with the players in the main stand car park after games and training.
While there are still some examples of players mixing with supporters in a similar fashion, it’s not what it once was. It’s arguable that it just isn’t realistic any longer.
Liverpool were due, until weather decided otherwise, to take part in an open training session while in Hong Kong.
Having occasions where they can be included into the intimacy of the training ground is testament to that.
In fairness, some clubs elsewhere in England do take steps to better engage with those on the terraces. If you go down the leagues you’ll find clubs that lay on annual open days during pre-season for their supporters to attend.
These take place in the summer holiday’s to ensure that kids can come along and they get an opportunity to meet the manager, meet the players and have pictures taken with everybody. This takes place on just one day of the year, but having the opportunity to meet your idols has a longer-term effect.
A smaller English club depends upon their supporters coming through the turnstiles each week to help keep the club afloat. As such, they’re more willing to go the extra mile in terms of making themselves accessible to fans. Liverpool don’t have the same problem. Corporate boxes asides, attendance is an afterthought now when compared to the vast riches entering the clubs coffers by virtue of television money and sponsorship.
Even discounting that, Liverpool know that they can always fill their 54,000 seater stadium, come what may. We’ve seen from the recent members sale debacles that the demand for Liverpool tickets far exceeds the supply.
Liverpool know they have repeat business on tap. Whether it’s you, me, or somebody else sitting in the same seat one week to the next, we’re worth the same to them.
Chef Jürgen Klopp 👨🍳 pic.twitter.com/oz3D5AMs27
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) July 19, 2017
Some of the disquiet we’ve seen on social media amounts to perception. There’s an argument that Liverpool are willing to engage strongly with its supporters when it suits them. We see this on the overseas tours. It’s not a question of Liverpool being too accessible when meeting their support overseas, it’s just a matter of consistency. I’m happy that the club pushes the boat out for its international supporters when they visit them.
They should do. These fans are just as much a part of the club as anybody else and despite how intimate some of their access looks, I’m sure every one of them would willingly trade that for the opportunity to watch a Premier League or Champions League game at Anfield.
But what we’ve seen and read in recent days is a lot of voices who believe that Liverpool should do more to to reestablish the type of relationship the club used to have with its supporters. Liverpool do appear to be making steps to address the disconnect some fans feel towards the club.
Just back from this meeting. Would encourage anyone with a view on rail seating to attend Saturday's open meeting in Liverpool. https://t.co/nshfBlJk63
— Tony Barrett (@TonyBarrett) July 18, 2017
The appointment of Tony Barrett as head of club and supporter liaison is an important step – though I do feel sorry for his now overworked Twitter feed. Supporters expecting him to work miracles will have to be patient, but there’s no doubt that he recognizes some of the concerns supporters voice to him.
Bill Shankly once talked of there being a holy trinity at Liverpool; the players, the manager and the supporters. Liverpool would be wise to bear this in mind.