When you inherit a club by birthright, there's a canon of history that comes easy for the simple fact that it's always present. In other respects, it comes hard for the simple fact that, well, it's always present.
When you inherit a club by choice later, sometime in the future subsequent to your birth, that canon takes an intentional sense of purpose to come to you at all. Perhaps not in the same way as it might to someone born into a Red household some small distance from the Mersey, that history nevertheless acts on you on its own account, because you let it. Learning that history, allowing it to ingrain itself in the fiber of your love for the sport and the club, allowing yourself to be hopelessly smitten with the idea that this club - the one you decided to love at some point or another - is going to be the one you get up for week after week, is a process that's never really done for the adopted fan living in another city in another country. It's a process that feels second nature somewhere along the way, generated by the affect the history has on you over time as it continues to inform your understanding of what it means to support this club.
For well over a decade now, Hillsborough has been the event that's stuck with me whenever I consider what it means to put on for LFC. It's hardly a surprising admission. So here I am, on the eve of another massive Cup Final for the club, some two plus weeks removed from the biggest day in Liverpool history, and I suppose this moment may be the last possible one to occasion some thoughts on what it looks like from the other side of justice achieved after being so long denied.
Leicester City have been crowned Champions. It was a thrilling story of sports triumph and it's not even a little bit hyperbolic to say it's one of the best sports narratives ever (if not one of the unlikeliest). Neither is it hyperbole, however, to plainly say that it's at best the second most important, second most honorable and emphatic and incredible and, yes, unlikely thing to happen in the world of British soccer this year.
Just over 27 years after 95 Liverpool fans were killed in Sheffield - Tony Bland, the 96th, died about four years later after life support was removed - a second coroner's inquest was concluded and a jury found, officially, fundamental facts about the way these 96 people died, about who was to blame, about the role of football supporters and supporter culture had on the events at Hillsborough. It was an emphatic victory - so emphatic that easily the strongest refrain following the verdict was a question, to no one in particular, about why it had to take so fucking long when the facts were so fucking obvious - and put to bed some of the most disgusting lies ever said out loud about sports fans, yes, and also about the dead.
There's something I often say as I stake some sort of rhetorical claim in an argument online or off: when the harm inflicted upon us is done on behalf of the State, it's the most grievous kind of harm since it undoes the social fabric of trust necessary for government to have credibility. It's exactly the kind of lefty prose I'm known to drop, and I'm not even a little bit sorry about mentioning it here. The harms inflicted by the events at Hillsborough, precipitated by official negligence and lack of care, aggravated by a series of lie placing blame falsely on innocent football fans, repeated by officials and journalists alike, were particularly insidious and viciously protracted over the course of 27 years.
When you go to a football game, you expect to come home. When you are killed, you expect the wheels of justice to turn, even if slowly, inevitably towards truth. Both remain true.
Exposing the malfeasance that led to one of the biggest sports disasters in history while also exposing a massive government cover up that has been allowed to persist, shaping policy and debate and perception of Liverpool fans and Scousers more generally? I mean, holy shit. It does not get more significant than that.
What a victory.
It's unclear what truly goes into choosing to jump on board a lifetime of supporting one team or another. To say it sort of just "happens," is both entirely correct and entirely insufficient. It's certainly easier, if less precise, than tracking through the moments in time as they happen. And defining moments, even where they exist, are sometimes muddled in our recollections as we try to create a memory to define our first love for the club.
I remember plenty of those first twenty or so matches as a fan. Sixteen or so were watched at one of two pubs in Bath (plus one, I think in Oxford? /academic name drop come get some), and then sporadically for the rest of that 2002-03 season. They had a League Cup run that fall I was in Bath, later winning it, which was admittedly quaint as fuck to try to care about while I got schooled on the league/domestic cup/continental cup structure. My attention was split, too, first by a University of Bath squad inexplicably qualifying for the First Round Proper of the FA Cup - homies were the first team in 120 years to knock that out - and then, when I got back to Geneva, a William Smith lacrosse team that went deep into the NCAA tournament. (Seriously, my good friend started in goal and she was amazing, and is incidentally one of those people who is so smart it's uncomfortable. It was fun as hell.)
Which is just to say while I can track many details from those games, I can confidentially say that there's no defining moment I can point to where the time before I was not a Liverpool fan and the time after I suddenly was. All the same, by the time two years had passed and LFC was making an improbable run across Europe and right through Istanbul, the strongest memory I have is the familiar devastation that settled in after Milan went up three and the script seemed all but written. Two years and about eight months on, the choice about whether I was going to love this club was made, regardless of whether I can locate the moment of the making. When the third goal went in, I looked briefly across Bidwell from my seat at Aroma and the familiarity of the feeling was unmistakable.
What followed, as different from the kinds of storylines Buffalo sports have given me for as long as I can remember, gave me the kind of hope I haven't been able to shake.
For all the things I love about this club, I can't much shake the feeling that I am both enormously lucky and unfortunate to live an ocean away from the matchdays and coach greetings on Anfield Road, from the spirit of the city being alighted by an altogether epic win against Dortmund, from beating United whenever and wherever it happens, from that palpable feeling of joy and hope that pervades the air when this club starts to go on a run, from the sadness of loss, from the ongoing grief of those the 96 left behind, from continued acts of government malfeasance and from justice delayed, justice denied.
It's both easier and harder, to be set apart from the constant emotional baggage of following a club with such complicated history and to be forced to concoct those localized feelings of joy and hope on your own.
I may lack a defining moment to point to and identify as the true birth of my life supporting this club, but there's little doubt that the history - the history of loss, of perseverance, of protracted periods of utter shit, of belief and of dreams - was what sealed the choice to love a soccer team six or so hours and a long line at UK immigration away. It's as important, if not vastly more important, than the results on the field. I love this club because of what they can do in moments that demand greatness. I love this club because that feeling of endless persistence is shared by supporters, shared by and between club and fan. I love this club because after years of loss and on-the-pitch failure and off-the-pitch trauma, the Kop still sings out in common voice, still understands its role in sustaining a stadium and a city and a football club, and there's not a eye in the crowd unconvinced of the imminent golden sky.
I love this club because it is the gathering point for a group of people that never accept defeat, never balk at the possibility of justice, and who have stood for that undeniable character, grace and strength all the while being told they would have to wait for the kind of peace they sought.
27 years. The greatest victory Liverpool has ever known.
Of Justice for the 96.
A final opportunity to see how frequently and how directly the club can alight the hearts of its supporters and how the strength of those supporters can embolden and harden the will of the club. It's an opportunity to see - before some time off this summer, before a host of new faces come in to don the liver bird on their chest and wait patiently for the history to be imparted on them - what it looks like to support Liverpool Football Club with the long and thankless toil of JFT96 somewhat in the rearview. What it feels like to love this club without an unending sense of anger and frustration of 27 years of hearing lies every time someone speaks of 'The Truth.'
Up the fucking Reds.