‘I wanted to contribute to political causes outside of football’: Stig Inge Bjørnebye and the Liverpool dockers’ strike

Seaforth Dock is only a short detour on the route from Melwood to Southport. A mundane mish-mash of low-density office buildings and shipping containers piled high like hay bales, the supercars shuttling between Liverpool’s training ground and their owners’ sprawling seafront pads speed past obliviously.

Back in the mid-90s it was the scene of the dockers’ last stand, a bitter, two-year fight against the backdoor reintroduction of casual labour.

Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman were the strike’s most famous supporters. Their local connections, international profile and the catchy copyright infringement of their t-shirts’ ‘doCKers’ logo – revealed after Fowler’s final goal in Liverpool’s 3-0 win over Brann Bergen – brought the publicity the dispute’s mere details had failed to generate.

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But it was the man who provided the assist for that Fowler goal who actually veered off the route home to Southport to show his solidarity in person.

“I remember the directors driving through the gates and they were quite aggressively jeered,” says Stig Inge Bjørnebye as he looks back on his visit to the picket.

“It was a small visit. I took them by surprise after training one day. I was curious about the strike and the reasons behind it, so I went there and stopped for a bit. We were very privileged to play professional football and you had a situation where people are out of a job.

“I was the one asking questions, because they were there every day. We had a good conversation. I remember it as a positive experience for me and for them.”

Tony Nelson, one of those who met Bjørnebye that day, certainly agrees

“The thing we all liked was that there was nothing to Stig Inge’s visit. He just tagged himself to the end of the picket line of about 200 people. He never spoke to anyone beforehand or announced he was coming.

“People started recognising him straight away but he was a quiet man, very understated. He just wanted to offer his support – not as a footballer particularly, just as a human being.

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“Other celebrities who came down would come right into the middle and speak to me or some of the other lads and ask about morale and the like, but not him. He wasn’t there to wear the shirt, or do this or that; he was there because he was Stig Inge Bjørnebye and he had a conscience.”

The cause crossed club rivalries. Then-Everton striker Duncan Ferguson made a sizeable donation to the fighting fund, while Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson offered up items to be auctioned at an event.

One Ferguson was the son of a Mossmorran gas rigger on the Fife coast and the other, famously, a former shop steward in the Clyde shipyards.

Bjørnebye lacked the same immediate connection, so what inspired a 27-year-old Norwegian – in the midst of a short, competitive career in a foreign country – to get involved? Especially one who was embedded in the dressing-room culture, caricatured at the time as all-cream FA Cup Final suits and showbiz froth.

“It’s always been important from my growing up to be aware of what’s going on around you,” Bjørnebye adds. “Robbie was a local boy and when he did that gesture, I asked him a few questions about it. It was a bit of a discussion in the dressing room after the match if I remember right.

“Some players want to think football and breathe football all the time to get through the training and matches. I am a little bit the opposite. I needed other things to occupy my mind with.

“If I can contribute to people outside of football, and to political or cultural causes, that’s a thing I will do from time to time. I wouldn’t say I am an activist, but it’s important to care about other people as well.”

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It’s a point that Bjørnebye now makes to young players coming up through the system at Rosenborg, where he works as sporting director. Community engagement is something the Norwegian club takes very seriously. This year, first-team players have been visiting schools in Trondheim to combat bullying.

“It’s good for the players as it’s educating them. They will become better footballers by being concerned about what is going on around them,” Bjørnebye says.

Twenty years on from the end of the strike, Nelson isn’t sure that the links between dockers and the city’s footballers would be as strong if the dispute took place today.

Instead he imagines socially-minded supporters groups – the likes of Spirit of Shankly and Everton Supporters Trust work alongside each other to collect donations for local foodbanks at matches – stepping into the breach. But it’s all academic anyway.

“You don’t get strikes like that anymore,” he reflects. “Even a day’s strike is a big thing nowadays.”

What you do get is the creeping return of the working culture that the dockers were protesting against. Their predecessors at Seaforth and elsewhere had successfully pushed back against a system in which they were forced to congregate each morning and wait to find out who had a day’s work. The unlucky ones either had to wait until lunchtime to see if they could pick up a half-day, or go home frustrated, under-worked and unpaid.

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It was the fear of a similar arrangement returning that inspired a walkout which lasted more than 850 days, before the Liverpool dockers finally accepted a settlement which secured their pensions – albeit at the cost of returning to their roles – in January 1998. It was the end of the strike, but not the story.

Nelson now works to help others in need, including those caught in the zero-hours catch-22 that was the focus of the strike.

He and some of his former colleagues founded The Casa – a three-story building community hub – in Liverpool’s Hope Street. Alongside a not-for-profit bar, the organisation offers free advice on housing, employment, benefits, asylum and family law for anyone who wants to drop in.

“We have lots of people coming in that are going through hardship. Our workload has increased dramatically in the last few years,” says Nelson.

“Although it was 20-odd years ago, people know about the Casa, where it came from and what we do. On a Friday before a Liverpool game, we have people from all around the world coming in.”

They often ask about Fowler’s protest and Nelson can direct them to a picture of Toxteth’s finest and his famous t-shirt hanging on the wall.

There is no similar memento of Bjørnebye’s support. But then the Norwegian’s contribution was always about standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the dockers, rather than front and centre.

This article was originally published on 27 September 2018.

‘I wanted to contribute to political causes outside of football’: Stig Inge Bjørnebye and the Liverpool dockers’ strike
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