“All of us at News UK – The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun – were told to go down to London for our social media training a few years back,” recalls journalist Phil Thomas.
“We were all sat in different groups in a conference room. The woman next to me stood up, said her name, that she was the religious correspondent for The Sunday Times and would tweet live from the abbey on a Sunday morning. So the person running it told her how to go about it online.
“Then I stood up. I said, ‘I’m Phil Thomas, Merseyside football correspondent on The Sun. I refer you to the words Merseyside and Sun’. They said I could sit straight back down.”
By then, keeping a low profile online and off was a key requirement for Thomas.
He had been working at The Sun for eight years and was focused on covering Blackburn and Bolton, along with some rugby league, when he was offered a promotion in 2003.
Mike Ellis, The Sun’s man on Merseyside since 1969, was stepping down after more than three decades on the patch. Thomas, often alongside Ellis to help out on busy European nights in the Anfield press box, was the obvious successor.
“It’s like if you’re a player for Carlisle and have the chance to join Liverpool – you don’t turn it down,” Thomas says.
“There was a certain amount of trepidation, but if the situation back then had been what it eventually became, I would have made my excuses and furthered myself in other areas.”
The trepidation stemmed from Wednesday 19 April 1989. That morning, The Sun published a front-page splash headlined The Truth, heaping indignity on misery for Liverpool fans in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster.
In the years since, that ‘truth’ – originating from a Sheffield press agency, amplified by The Sun and reinforced by South Yorkshire police officers – has been conclusively debunked by a campaign for justice headed by the families of those affected.
But when Thomas started his Merseyside role, The Sun had yet to make any of its three subsequent public apologies. The Hillsborough Justice Campaign’s attempt to spread a boycott of the paper nationwide had only just begun. And relations between the nation’s biggest newspaper and one of its biggest football clubs were in a strange state of limbo.
Immediately after that infamous front page, there was personal sympathy for Ellis.
“Mike was liked, he was admired, he was a very nice guy,” explains Dave Prentice, the current Head of Sport at the Liverpool Echo and a sports journalist on Merseyside since 1987.
“When The Sun did what they did, he was appalled personally. He knew people at the club and was close to a number of players. The rest of the pack basically accepted that he had been turned over by his news department and a lot of people at the football club felt the same way.”
When Ellis, who had ghost-written for Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley, told Liverpool Chief Executive Peter Robinson he intended to resign over the issue, Robinson helped persuade him to stay in post.
But the relationship between their respective employers was irrevocably changed.
The Sun was still present at Liverpool but passive. By the time Thomas took on the role, it was understood that, while he would be allowed to attend matches and take part in press conferences and pool interviews alongside the rest of the press pack, his newspaper would not be granted any one-to-one access or insight into the club on an individual basis.
Thomas had various ‘ins’. When Brendan Rodgers was appointed in 2012, Thomas was one of the few on the Liverpool beat to have a number for him and a relationship with the new manager, having interviewed him at Swansea. He was on good terms with several first-team players. He knew Matt McCann – in charge of communications for Liverpool – when he was just a teenager commentating on rugby league for local radio.
His unique situation meant he could not convert those leads into anything in the print. Neither was he expected to, with his editors exempting him from the considerable pressure others felt under.
“If there was a Luis Garcia exclusive in another of the papers, for example, nobody at The Sun would be asking why I didn’t get it,” explains Thomas.
The few exceptions reinforced the unspoken rule.
In 1992, while Ellis was away on holiday, The Sun held back an interview with then-manager Graeme Souness, resulting in its publication on the third anniversary of Hillsborough. Souness describes the interview and the lasting hurt it caused as the biggest regret of his football career.
On another occasion, club sponsor Carlsberg ran a promotion offering Sun readers a free pint, only to pull the plug in the face of hundreds of calls and letters to the company headquarters in Denmark.
Thomas wouldn’t ask for exclusives, Liverpool wouldn’t give them. The arrangement couldn’t hold though.
“When I started in the job, you would never advertise who you worked for, but you didn’t walk around thinking I am going to get smacked in the mouth,” explains Thomas.
“But it gradually got worse and worse.”
Festering injustice, combined with more effective technology for fans to organise and publicise a cause, focused feeling at The Sun.
“At first it was not a threat to life and limb, but it did become hairy at times,” Thomas says.
“I would go to pick my pass up at Liverpool when they had a little shack outside. ‘Phil Thomas – The Sun’ was never written on the envelope, it was always just my name just in case there were any fans kicking about.
“I would always keep my lanyard zipped inside my coat so no one could see it. I was never introduced to anyone as Phil from The Sun.
“But at least at Anfield there was security. Foreign trips were the worst. On some, I would have to stay in my hotel room. Airports on the way there and back could be tricky. I would always avoid any Irish bars, where lots of fans go drinking, when on the road.
“You developed a fine ear for bullshit. If you heard of someone saying they would smack the bloke from The Sun, you got an idea who the major players you needed to look out for were. As I say, it got hairy on a couple of occasions.”
And then, after 28 years of uneasy co-existence, it was over.
In February 2017, following discussions with the Hillsborough families and less than a year after the front page of The Sun and the first edition of the News UK stablemate The Times had strikingly failed to feature an inquest ruling the 96 Hillsborough deaths as unlawful killings, Liverpool banned The Sun.
The paper was locked out of Anfield, Melwood and all club-hosted events. The Sun couldn’t even buy photographs taken on club property, with capital letter captions on agency images reminding potential purchasers ‘THE SUN OUT, THE SUN ON SUNDAY OUT’.
Across Stanley Park, Everton followed suit two months later after Kelvin MacKenzie, the man responsible for that 1989 front page, used his column to compare midfielder Ross Barkley to a primate and poke fun at wage levels in the city.
Thomas, watching at home, thought he had seen his job disappear from under him in the space of a few weeks.
“I remember sitting in my office for about six hours, Sky on with the scores coming in, but I couldn’t tell you any of the results,” he says.
“Suddenly I thought, I am minister without portfolio here. Have I effectively been made redundant because my job doesn’t exist? I was very, very low.”
Thomas was OK. He is still with The Sun, initially writing features before moving to work predominantly on the Sunday paper.
He keeps his stint on Merseyside in perspective. His difficulties don’t compare to those suffered by others and his job, at times lonely, was a privileged one.
“There were times when it was crap, really crap.I would come home and think I really don’t want to do this anymore,” he concludes.
“But there were other times. Sometimes you are at so many sporting events you almost become a little blasé about it, but there are certain ones you watch and think ‘I will never forget this’ and certainly being in Istanbul in 2005 was one of those.
“And when it was getting me down, I remembered that I’m not getting up at five in the morning in the pissing rain and digging up the motorway to save up enough money to go and watch the team I love getting beat 2-0 on a Saturday.”
His old role lies vacant. With so many more ways to connect with supporters and so little to be gained by Liverpool, both as a club and city, in readmitting The Sun, it may be that Thomas is the last to ever fill it.
This article was originally published on 11th May 2020.