In March, when Liverpool were 25 points clear at the top of the Premier League, I traveled to the city and was surprised to hear the team on everyone's lips: Manchester United. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side had just upset Manchester City 2-0, which meant that Liverpool needed only two wins to clinch their first league title since 1990, when a 23-year-old Jurgen Klopp signed his first professional contract as a player and only five members of the current squad had been born.
And yet many Liverpool fans were still afraid to say their lead was safe because of the tantalizing, agonizing near misses they'd endured over the years. Their team was top of the league with just three games left when beloved captain Steven Gerrard slipped to gift Chelsea a goal -- and Manchester City the title -- in 2014. Five years later, Klopp's team recorded an unprecedented 97 points -- and still lost the title to City by a point. This time, with only one loss all season, it seemed as if nothing could stop the Reds. Until the coronavirus pandemic halted play indefinitely.
As the Premier League mulls resuming play behind closed doors in June, Liverpool fans wait and wait, hoping that COVID-19 won't end a historic season prematurely. England's top flight remains committed to finishing the season, even as the French and Dutch have canceled their leagues entirely. Before the pandemic brought football to a halt, I spoke to Liverpool supporters across generations, from young people who have only ever known the anguish of league defeat to older fans who have been awaiting a return to the glory days. This is what winning the league would mean to them.
Ryan Cullen, 34
It all started with an Instagram comment. Ryan Cullen was on his lunch break at his barbershop in Newry, Northern Ireland, a town of about 30,000, when he saw a post by one of his favorite players, Adam Lallana. "He had really good hair, so I would always be looking at him and thinking, 'God, I could give him a really good trim,'" Cullen remembers about that day in 2016. On a whim, he decided to comment: "If you'd ever like a trim, just chat me. It'd be a real pleasure. I'm a big fan. Keep killing it this season." He went back to work and forgot all about it. That night, when he was lying in bed, his phone pinged. It was Lallana, asking him to come to his house. Cullen was on a plane by the next morning.
From then on, until the coronavirus lockdown, he flew from Northern Ireland to England every two weeks to tend to the style needs of Lallana and Jordan Henderson. (Danny Ings was also a client, before he moved to Southampton.) Lallana likes to try different styles, but Hendo? "He's like, 'If it's not broke, don't fix it,'" Cullen says with a laugh. "I can do his blindfolded." His friends wonder whether he gets tired of traveling so frequently, but Cullen wouldn't give it up for anything. "I never thought I would experience this. Yeah, you get up early in the morning, you spend half the day in the airport, but there's so many perks to it. I get to see my work on TV. The guys look after me in terms of going to matches. I'm literally living the dream."
On that long-awaited day, coronavirus willing, Cullen hopes to have an additional buzz: "Hendo's going to lift the trophy over his head, and there he is with a Ryan Cullen haircut."
Chloe Bloxam, 18
In Chloe Bloxam's family, a baby born meant a name added to the waiting list for a Liverpool season ticket. (Unfortunately, anyone looking to add a newborn now is out of luck; the waiting list closed a few years ago with more than 25,000 people on it.) In 2016, a ticket, which starts at about £800 ($994) a season, finally came up, and the family decided that Chloe, then 15, should be the one to get it. Teenage girls are few and far between in the male-dominated stands, but she doesn't feel out of place. Sitting on a couch at the office of Anfield Wrap, a local media company known for its LFC-centered podcasts where she is an intern, she says: "It's a magical thing being there, to actually be sitting in the Kop singing songs that were made when I wasn't born."
Though just 18, she has witnessed Steven Gerrard's last game ("It was really emotional; he spoke to us, the fans"), the loss to Real Madrid in the 2018 Champions League final ("I didn't cry because I thought we'd go on to do something the next year") and the mind-boggling 4-0 comeback over Barcelona in the 2019 Champions League semifinal ("I proudly sobbed, I just didn't know what to do with myself"), to name a few.
None of her experiences can prepare her for the moment when Jordan Henderson lifts the trophy for the first time in her lifetime. She and her brother Mark, who was born the year Liverpool last won the league, had planned to celebrate at Anfield together, but the coronavirus lockdown means they can only FaceTime each other. "If it's behind closed doors, I'll be a bit sad because it's the first time in 30 years we'll win this league and I won't get to see it," she says. "But as long as we get the trophy, I'll be happy."
A student at Liverpool Football College, a school backed by Steven Gerrard, Bloxam wants to dedicate her life to football, as a coach, as a journalist or in another aspect of the game. What she has ruled out for sure, though, is refereeing. Why? VAR. "I don't want anything to do with that," she says with a laugh. "It's too much pressure." Whatever she does ultimately choose, her goal is clear: "If I can sustain a season ticket all my life, I'll be happy. I don't really need anything else."
Damian Kavanagh, 51
"I want to show you something," Damian Kavanagh says from the corner of a dimly lit pub, pulling out his wallet. He fishes out a neatly folded piece of paper, unfurling a black-and-white screenshot from Sky News listing 14 questions. They are the 14 questions asked by the Hillsborough inquest that finally, after nearly 30 years of struggle, exonerated Liverpool fans such as Kavanagh for the deaths of 96 fans in April 1989. Kavanagh carries the paper with him everywhere, alongside a photo of his family, to remind him of what he survived and the subsequent fight for justice.
"I didn't think in my lifetime we would achieve what we have achieved," he says about that exoneration. "I thought when we're all gone, people would look at it more favorably, so to have it in this lifetime has really helped people."
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Liverpool last won the league the season after Hillsborough, 1989-90, and it was the only one in the past 34 that Kavanagh didn't attend. It was too painful. "I was in tears at 'You'll Never Walk Alone,'" he remembers. "It was too emotional, too raw, so I quit. I thought I'd never go back. I thought I'd never miss it." But as Liverpool closed in on the title that year, a family friend persuaded Kavanagh, then 20, to take his spare ticket for a few games (Kavanagh now questions whether they were actually spare). Somewhere in there, he rediscovered his love for the game.
He has emotional memories of each and every one of Liverpool's recent trophies. He watched the Champions League final in Istanbul alongside the son of a friend who had been killed at Hillsborough. He took his son to his first Cup final in 2006 and thought of how his own father had been there when Liverpool won its very first FA Cup. After Divock Origi scored the final goal in the Champions League final last season, his son broke down in tears at the thought of his grandfather, who had died in 2011. And Kavanagh believes the same thing will happen when Liverpool win the league. "My son's never seen us win it. It's mad, isn't it?" he says. "There must be fans who thought they'd never see it."
And on that day, Kavanagh won't just be celebrating for himself but for his father and his grandfather, and all the generations of Liverpool fans that came before him. "This is a family connection, a generational connection. Before the game, you're singing 'You'll Never Walk Alone.' You're not singing it for that team that day, you're singing it for all the generations."
Amina Atiq, 25
Amina Atiq grew up with Liverpool FC all around her, but it wasn't until Mohamed Salah stepped onto the Anfield pitch that she really started to feel the game was for her. When the 25-year-old, who came to the U.K. from Yemen as a child, watches Liverpool matches with her family, "somebody will be shouting in Arabic and someone will be shouting in a Scouse accent," she says. She sometimes sees Sadio Mane lounging in his slippers at an Arabic café near her home in Toxteth, one of Liverpool's most culturally diverse areas. A spoken-word artist and activist, she incorporates football -- Salah and Mane, in particular -- into her work fighting racism and Islamophobia around the city. "I talk about how football brings people together, and Mo Salah became an example of that," she says. "That's really inspiring a lot of young Yemeni men and boys to feel valued, to feel that they are worthy in this city."
Marleen Watts, 82
When Marleen Watts was a young woman, she'd drive with her husband to the airport, kiss him goodbye and fly off alone -- to Paris, Rome, Brussels, wherever Liverpool were playing in the European Cup. "I used to say to him, 'When Everton get there, you can go,'" she remembers. He never did.
Nowadays, the 82-year-old, who worked for the club for 30 years, doesn't go to many matches. "You can't get the tickets, to be honest," she says from her home near Manchester. But she is looking forward to seeing Liverpool win the league again in her lifetime. "It was the norm for us to win," she says of the '70s and '80s. "That's why I didn't keep anything. I gave things away because I thought, 'We'll win it again next year.' To go this long and live so near Manchester, I thought, 'Oh god.' But now it's fabulous."
Dominic Wong, 50
Dominic Wong grew up just outside of London, but he supported Liverpool from the start. Not only were they the dominant team of his childhood, but he felt accepted and protected by the fans. "I would never have supported either of my local teams because they had significant infiltration by the far right in the 1970s and 1980s," he says. "What I found was nobody cared about the color of your skin in the LFC away end, and the older fans would look after and protect the younger ones like me."
Today the 50-year-old lives in Birmingham with his wife, Rachael, and kids Buster and Issy, and travels to Liverpool matches across the U.K. and Europe. Buster went to his first away game when he was just 6 months old. Now 13, he has been to 125 matches. The Wongs hope to retire to Liverpool once their kids are grown.
Last October, the family took a trip that had everything and nothing to do with Liverpool. To watch the Reds take on Spurs, they traveled to Gambia, to a shack decorated with Liverpool flags and murals. Dominic had helped set it up. After his friend Paul, a taxi driver from outside Birmingham who often drove them to away matches, died of a heart attack, Dominic wanted to do something to remember him. A Gambian friend of his wife's was looking for a project. The result? Big Paul's Video Club in Gambia, named in his honor, where locals could watch Premier League matches on the big screen. People travel from miles away, often on foot, each weekend. Sadio Mane, from neighboring Senegal, is a favorite.
Dave Hardman, 61
Last summer, after 40 years of going to Anfield, Dave Hardman made an unthinkable decision: He gave up his season ticket. At least it would have been unthinkable once, and some of his friends treated him as if he'd lost his mind. But to Hardman, it felt like the right thing to do. "I've fallen out with modern football in general and Liverpool Football Club in particular," he says from The Lion, the pub he manages a few blocks down from the city's famous docks.
His Evertonian father took him to his first match in 1964, when league leaders Liverpool were upset 2-1 by Swansea in the FA Cup quarterfinal, and even in defeat the 5-year-old fell in love. As a season-ticket holder, he traveled as far as Chicago and Moscow and Morocco to support his team, and he started working at The Lion to pay off his debts from the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul. But over the years, as more and more money rushed into the game and TV deals changed the kickoff times and ticket prices soared, Hardman felt disillusioned by it all. "There's no consideration for the fans. I feel disenfranchised," he says. "I accept that Liverpool Football Club needs to make money and a business needs to expand, but there has to be a line. The club know they can keep taking and taking and taking without giving much back. They have an endless stream of customers."
He says he's not alone in his disenchantment. "A couple of the lads have said, 'If we win the league this season, we might do the same thing. That's it. The monkey's off our backs. We can retire.'"
Hardman still watches every game and recalls scorelines and goals from decades ago instantly (the 1977 Champions League win in Rome is his favorite memory). He still doesn't wear any blue, not even socks or underwear, on derby days against Everton, and he still pours a whiskey for good luck before European nights. His email still contains the number 86, because that was the year Liverpool beat Everton for the league title and the FA Cup. And he'll still celebrate when Liverpool finally win the league. But he has turned down the chance to go to games this year and insists he doesn't regret his decision, doesn't wish he'd stayed on for just one more season. "If I could tell the future, I'd have won the lottery by now," he says. "I don't like thinking like that. It's self-defeating."
The Lion Tavern closed indefinitely because of the pandemic on March 20, just days after winning an annual award for best pub in Liverpool. Hardman has no idea when he can reopen. He misses football desperately -- "There's nothing to talk about" -- and hopes that Liverpool can still win the league in front of fans. He won't be among them. "I did actually think about this. If games are opened to the public, there might be tickets floating around," he says over the phone. "If I was going, I'd let you know first."
Paula Kadiri, 57
Paula Kadiri goes to Anfield matches wearing a Liverpool shirt bearing the number 96 and the name of her cousin, Jon-Paul Gilhooley, the youngest of the 96 fans who died at Hillsborough in April 1989. "He went in and he never came out. He was only 10," she says. She wishes the team could have won the title last season, the 30th anniversary of the stadium disaster, or in 2013-14, when her other cousin, Steven Gerrard, was captain. "He probably would have dedicated it to all the 96 who died." But she won't complain if Liverpool win it now. "This year it's like it's gone full circle. Our team went downhill after [Hillsborough], and it's taken us all this time to get back to where we belong."
When Evelyn MacDiarmid was a girl, her mother would buy a cake every Saturday. But if Liverpool lost, her father wouldn't eat it. Now 91 years old, she doesn't go to Anfield anymore, but she prays for the team the night before matches. As she sits in her living room with her family of Liverpool season-ticket holders, son Ronnie, 71, grandson David, 44, and great-grandchildren Scarlett, 12, and Sammy, 10, they reminisce about games gone by. Ronnie's first was back in 1962, against Spurs, and once David was born, Ronnie would take him to Anfield and sit him on his knee during games. Scarlett and Sammy both play -- right and left wing, respectively -- and Sammy's favorite player is Liverpool-born Trent Alexander-Arnold, "because he's Scouse."
Going to games is woven into the fabric of their lives, and they miss it dearly now that the league has been suspended. David hopes the season will finish, even if behind closed doors, and it isn't lost on him that being kept from the trophy by a once-in-a-lifetime plague is classic Liverpool. "The moment you're meant to have your greatest joy in 30 years, it's curtailed by unprecedented events," he says. "We never do things easy. There's always a twist."