Criticism and support can coexist. Switching your brain on, doesn’t mean switching your heart off, writes Ryan Vrede.
I wish I wasn’t emotionally invested in Liverpool Football Club. But I am. Deeply. I wish my formative conditioning related this club allowed me to access a stoic position, one that ensures my emotional state remains constant whether they win, lose or draw. It would make my world a more consistent place.
Alas, that has not and probably will not happen. I’ve willed it to. I’ve even told myself I don’t care. Last week I sent a long, rambling WhatsApp message to my closest guy friends about how I had no, or at the least, very little, emotional investment in a club who don’t know I exist. I told them this is a cold, transactional relationship that, at its ideal, plays out like : I support, they win, we’re both happy.
In hindsight, I was lying to them. Worse yet, I was lying to myself. I know this because I no longer have a TV remote. Well, I do, but it is broken into a million little pieces, like my heart after Liverpool folded so pathetically against Leicester at the weekend.
The sight of the eviscerated remote reminded me that, despite my claims to the contrary, I was indeed deeply emotionally invested in this team.
And that’s ok. I can’t unlearn the conditioning that triggers my emotional response to a Liverpool result, and I don’t want to.
I’ve thought a lot about why this is so. I think I have a theory. Without wanting to belittle the experience of fans of other clubs, Liverpool is different insomuch as you are invested in the romance and ethos that is woven into the fabric of the club, as much as you are the result of a football match. To many, I’d even offer most, ‘You’ll never walk alone’ is a declaration of solidarity that transcends football. I’ve experienced this often.
The first time I watched Liverpool play, was for the League title against Arsenal in 1989. Michael Thomas scored the goal that denied Liverpool the title. The Liverpool players and supporters were in tears. So was I, captured instantly by the deep connection between those two groups. In the wake of the defeat, the fans sang ‘You’ll never walk alone’ from their soul. In that moment, it felt to me like those words engulfed the players, comforting them in their time of need.
My experience is just that, mine. This experience is undoubtedly shaped by my own need to belong to something meaningful. Others’ may be, and most likely is, different because we all experience Liverpool differently. And this is the point. To support Liverpool is to strap in for a journey comprised of a myriad experiences. The intensity of the experience is the hook.
Those who are a little older than me would have had their emotional connection to the club deepened through the Heysel and Hillsborough disasters. Others still by the heartbreak of that 1989 defeat to Arsenal and the subsequent rebound in 1990. Until Jordan Henderson lifted the Premier League trophy last year, there’d been a 30-year wait between League titles. This period was marked by more pain than pleasure, but both function to deepen the experience.
Many rival fans accused Liverpool supporters of going overboard when the team won the League title. They can’t relate because they haven’t been immersed in ‘The Liverpool Experience’, made more intense by virtue of the fact that in Jurgen Klopp, the club has a manager that is as invested as the fans are. This, combined with his technical and tactical competency, is at the heart of his popularity, and the reason why the majority of Liverpool fans will never call for his sacking. It would be the worst kind of betrayal for a man they see as one of them.
Triumph functions as much as football tragedy in The Liverpool Experience, specifically dramatic-late triumphs, often from positions games that seemed irredeemable. Examples of this abound, and include: The 2005 Champions League final, the 2000/1 and 2005/6 FA Cup finals, the 2016 Europa League quarter-final against Borussia Dortmund, and most recently, the second leg of the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona, a team saturated with superstars, including the biggest of them all, Lionel Messi.
I was overcome with emotion on these occasions, as I am now that Liverpool are in the midst of a nightmare title defence. So I understand the emotional component of The Liverpool Experience. What perplexes me are those supporters who chastise others who criticise the team’s performance.
I’m not referring to a clutch of idiots who have called for sweeping personnel changes, including Klopp’s sacking. That is plainly premature.
No, I’m perplexed by those who don’t understand that criticism and deep, unwavering devotion can coexist. These people often quote the line: ‘Don’t support us in the good times, if you can’t support us in the bad ones’, as if this somehow bestows them with a virtuous status in fandom. This self-righteous garbage needs to stop. To them there is a hierarchy of fans and those that criticise the club not only occupy the lowest levels of this imagined hierarchy, they also completely disqualify themselves from partaking in the joy of any future success.
This is a wholly unsophisticated view, one rooted in emotional immaturity, and emanating from minds that are trapped in a maze of mediocrity.
Most reasonable fans understand that the injuries Liverpool have sustained has undermined their title defence. That context is not lost on us, as our critics would like you to believe. It is the nature of the performances that vex my very soul, and that has got nothing to do with the injuries to key players. Virgil van Dyk being injured has got nothing to do with Trent Alexander-Arnold giving the ball away multiple times during the course of the match, or Mo Salah having the chance-to-goal conversion rate of a second-division striker, or Thiago having inadequate defensive competency to play in a midfield three who desperately need to be defensively sound, given the non-specialists playing in central defence behind them.
There can’t be a uniform way of supporting a football club that is elicits as much emotional investment as Liverpool does. And supporters who expect this are deluded. I’ve learned that I can’t switch off my heart as it relates to this football club. Similarly, I can’t switch my brain off. My devotion is deep and unwavering, but emotion is toxic when it blinds you to reality.