Since the demise of South Liverpool in the early 1990s, the city of Reds and Blues has been without a non-league side. But as Johnny Phillips explains, that’s all changed thanks a to a new club with the local community at its heart…
The setting couldn’t be more inauspicious. After a short rail journey a handful of stops up the Northern Line from Liverpool city centre, the train stops at Aintree. Leaving the station, the next step of this well-travelled sporting route involves crossing the busy Ormskirk Road and walking directly through the entrance gates of Aintree racecourse, home of the Grand National.
But that’s not the venue for this particular event. Instead, heading down the road which doubles back over the railway line, and making a couple of left turns into an industrial estate, there is another sports ground to be found. The Delta Taxis Stadium is the home of Bootle, who play in the North West Counties League Premier Division.
This season they agreed to share their stadium with a newly-formed neighbour. City of Liverpool FC were established in the summer of 2016 and applied to join the North West Counties League Division One. Just a few months into their short existence, the club has come to symbolise the power of community spirit and just what can be achieved when it is harnessed in the right way.
The story began a couple of years before their formation. City of Liverpool FC chairman Paul Manning was chatting to the club’s co-founder Peter Furmedge about the distribution of non-league football teams in the region.
“Myself and Peter started looking at why Liverpool didn’t have a non-league football team,” Manning explains. “The outer boroughs of the region like Sefton, Knowsley and Halton all had loads of teams but the big blob in the middle, Liverpool, had no team. It was because there was no pitch to accommodate a team.”
And so the process began of trying to alter that anomaly.
“We had two years’ worth of work before we called a public meeting to launch it,” Furmedge adds. “I drew on a lot of experience I had with Supporters Direct and other clubs that had recently started, but it was difficult. We still haven’t found a ground so we share with Bootle. Wheels are in motion to get our own place and the council have been quite cooperative, with some of the senior officers involved in our search for a ground.”
— Johnny Phillips (@SkyJohnnyP) December 10, 2016
There is a cautious optimism that the club will one day be able to move to its own stadium inside the city limits. But for now, that domain is occupied by Liverpool and Everton.
There was once a third team inside the city boundaries. South Liverpool were formed in 1935 and played at the once-impressive Holly Park in Garston. They count Reds’ greats Jimmy Case and John Aldridge among their former players.
The club was in such rude health in the 1980s that it had its own Youth Training Scheme – the only non-league club to have one. But by 1991 South Liverpool had been wound up owing to financial difficulties, and Holly Park is sadly now just a car park for an adjacent railway station.
“We wanted to give people an alternative. There’s Liverpool and Everton if you can afford it and if you can get a ticket, but if you can’t the alternative is pub football,” says Manning. “We’re not knocking that. Liverpool’s Sunday and Saturday amateur football is of a very high standard but we thought people would want a facility in Liverpool where you can come and bring your children in an enclosed ground. We felt the city of Liverpool deserved that alternative.
“Personally I’m a Liverpool fan and at Anfield it’s virtually impossible to source tickets even if you can afford it. Normal working class people, the people who ultimately own football in this country, can’t access tickets.
“The globalisation of football has taken it away from the local fans, certainly in the case of Liverpool supporters. It might not be so bad at Everton as yet as they’ve long had a local owner in Bill Kenwright but now they have got a foreign ownership group I think it’s in the post for Everton fans as well; the scarcity and price of tickets going out of kilter with earnings.”
This is perhaps the crux of why City of Liverpool FC look well-placed to succeed. There is a desire for something different to what is on offer in the professional game. The Delta Taxis Stadium is far from an impressive venue but City of Liverpool have turned it into a great place to watch football.
Holker Old Boys are the opposition for this December fixture, and an hour before kick-off fans are starting to drift into the ground, heading for the bar or putting up banners, such as one behind the goal which reads “Reds + Blues = Purples!”. The purple shade for City of Liverpool’s kit was chosen, not as a mix of Liverpool and Everton’s colours, but because it is the city’s civic colour. The team go by the nickname of the Purple Partisans.
‘Come on La – you going the match?’ is the question emblazoned across the front of the matchday programme, with a touch of colloquial self-parody. The bar is busy, with a deal on four lagers for a tenner. But that’s not the only cash exchanging hands. Bucket collections for local charities are taking place. There is also a foodbank run by the club in aid of the region’s neediest.
Well done @CityofLpoolFC who have acted in the true spirit of a community club by rescinding Paul Nuttall's membership.
— Tony Barrett (@TonyBarrett) February 20, 2017
“It’s tough times for people out here. This is definitely about community, not about capitalism. We’re doing our bit. There is a strong sense of community in this part of the country,” Manning adds.
Their work isn’t just confined to matchdays. A week later, City of Liverpool members were delivering Christmas gifts to Mrang, a charity in the city which supports refugee and asylum seekers. The club have also secured a main sponsor who fit their ethos – Regenda Homes is a not-for-profit social housing landlord.
By kick-off there are almost 500 inside the ground, congregated mainly in the covered terrace next to the changing rooms and, perhaps of more relevance, by the bar. The supporters are in strong voice and remain so throughout the afternoon. “When we applied to join the league we budgeted for 150 but it’s blown that right out of the water,” Furmedge reveals. “Even 150 would have made us the best supported club in the league.”
“I’ve been in non-league football for 20 years and I’ve managed in front of bigger crowds but nothing like this,” says manager Simon Burton. “We only get four or five hundred who come down but they never stop singing and chanting all game. It’s like, for want of a better description, being at a proper football match higher up. They really get behind the team and it is like having that extra man.
“Even if you go and watch Liverpool nowadays you’re talking fifty or sixty quid a ticket and to come and watch us is only a fiver. We’re a good side and we’ve got good players. So to pay a fiver to get in with the atmosphere you’re getting, it is really good value for money. The best thing about it is the people who come down and watch.”
Burton left Runcorn Town in the summer to take the job, moving his backroom staff with him. “I spoke to the chairman and he sold me the dream, what the big picture looked like. We were only together for 45 minutes and I bought into it. It was a bit of a leap of faith because we didn’t even know which league we would be in. We had a base of players we knew we could bring with us, then we had open trials and gradually over pre-season we built a side.”
— City of Liverpool FC (@CityofLpoolFC) December 13, 2016
As Holker Old Boys discovered, it’s a side that is improving every week. City of Liverpool run out 6-1 winners. ‘Everywhere you go, always take the Weso with you,’ sing the fans as centre-half and local favourite Allen Weston scores an unlikely double. The win puts the Partisans top of the table.
Winger Declan Gregson believes the support is giving the team an extra dimension. “It’s unbelievable, they get involved, have a few drinks and you wish you were in the stand with them. That’s why whenever we score we always go and celebrate with them. We get involved with them before and after the game too. Footy for a fiver is a lot more affordable. It’s a joint thing with Everton and Liverpool fans, but they put all the rivalry aside and support the Partisans together.”
Another factor which encourages Reds and Blues along is the three o’clock Saturday afternoon kick-offs. With seven separate television packages sold by the Premier League in the latest rights deal, which began last August, the chances of Liverpool and Everton kicking off at the traditional time and day for football are slimmer than ever.
Among the crowd for the Holker Old Boys match are a gang of Norwegian supporters. They have come over for the next day’s Liverpool fixture at home to West Ham, and word had reached them of the lively goings-on this season on this drab corner of an industrial estate in Aintree.
“In terms of the Premier League we think it has gone from the local fan and we’re hoping this can fill a gap for people,” Manning says. “Not the whole gap, we’re not asking anyone to walk away from Liverpool or Everton, that’s unrealistic, but you can come here as an alternative and support The Purples. It’s interesting, on our matchdays there’s no mention of Liverpool or Everton, we’re all Purple!
“It’s mad to think we are now checking the results of matches like Whitchurch Alport vs. Sandbach United. There are 500 people here who 12 months ago would never have dreamed of checking non-league results but they’ve found a niche here that they are enjoying.
“Our main aim is to build a community stadium in the city of Liverpool in seven or eight years’ time, if we don’t do that I will have considered it a failure. We haven’t achieved our goal yet, we haven’t got a ground in the city yet, but we are very proud of what we have done so far.”