Welcome to Red Letters.

Football, soccer, is a truly global game. It is also a game which means so much more than 22 players on the pitch and the two managers in the dugout. For 90 minutes at a time, this is what matters most, but surrounding that is culture, identity, and relationships.

To be a part of a club can often mean to be part of a family, a kinship, which only a small percentage in this world can experience. On the field, the collective and the individual combine to bring success. The same happens with supporters. It is a true collective game, where it is easy to feel as one with thousands of others; it is also individual, where the emotions you feel are your emotions, the experiences you feel are your experiences, and nobody else can understand.

Over the course of the 2019/20 season, two Liverpool fans, friends, will write to each other about those emotions and experiences. Michael MacCambridge, born, raised and living in the United States, is a best-selling author and journalist. Most importantly, he is a Liverpool fan, and can often be found watching the games at his local supporters' club.

His friend Neil Atkinson, born, raised and living in Liverpool, is the host of worldwide podcast phenomenon The Anfield Wrap. He, too, supports Liverpool, and has been a season ticket holder for 20 years.

Separated by the Atlantic Ocean, but brought together by a passion much stronger, this is their correspondence throughout the campaign, as they share their highs, lows, hopes and fears around Liverpool FC on a regular basis, as well as what it is to simply be part of their community following Jurgen Klopp and his side. 

We are fortunate enough to have access to everything they write. We hope you enjoy.

Best,

LFC Stories.

Previous editions: December 13 / December 6 /November 29 / November 22 / November 15 / November 8 / November 1 / October 25 / October 18 / October 12 / October 4 / September 27 / September 25 / September 20 / September 13 / September 6 / August 30 / August 22 / August 16 / August 14 / August 9 / August 2

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Red Letters

20 December 2019

Dear Neil,

So I got the jarring news Wednesday, a bit before the kickoff in Qatar. The Handsomest Man in the World is suddenly and inexplicably sick. The indispensable one, our talisman, our security blanket, the man around whom everything revolves, is bewilderingly down for the count.

Then, as if all that wasn’t bad enough, it turned out Virgil van Dijk was ill as well.

Greetings, mate. So sorry to hear about the sick spell that kept you from the Qatar proceedings. Being around children will do it every time. As the proud father of two, I could have told you that kids are wonderful but they carry (and often successfully transmit) gobs of germs. Especially this time of year. At any rate, I shan’t expect a response from you until next week at this time, by which point I hope that you will be fully recovered, and we will have celebrated Liverpool as Club World Cup champions, had a suitably festive holiday season, and gotten some kind of result on Boxing Day.

While you were busy projectile-vomiting on everything, I’ve been prepping for Christmas, and trying to keep up with the breakneck schedule of Liverpool goodness:

SATURDAY

The alarm goes off at 5 a.m., and there are two thoughts: 1) Why is the alarm ringing in the middle of the night?, and then, quickly, 2) Oh. Gameday. Get up.

I know other people who get up at 5 in the morning, but not many who do it of their own volition. I could, of course, sleep until 6:30 a.m. and then just watch the game in bed. I could also take the even more pragmatic course that Rob chooses, of setting the DVR to record the night before, getting up whenever he wakes up in the morning, then watching it.

But these Reds inspire commitment and a particular kind of devotion, and the pub has its own energy, so I’m up and out the door by 5:45. The streets are still dark at this hour in Austin. As I make the 20-minute drive to Riley’s through the light traffic, I wonder what percentage of cars around me are still out, from last night.

When I was working as a music critic in Austin in my twenties, headliners often went on after midnight, and played til 2 a.m. If you wanted to catch a bite to eat after the clubs closed, you could go to the 24-hour diner Kerbey Lane Cafe and, depending on your appetite, the topic of conversation and the company you were keeping, you might not get home until nearly 4 a.m. But before Liverpool, I was never up at this hour. Five a.m. is an hour for triathletes, hunters, competitive swimmers and other obsessives.

I suppose, by now, we qualify as “other obsessives.” There were a couple dozen true believers in attendance by the time things got underway for the 6:30 a.m. kickoff against Watford. Our lot was graced with the return of the whip-smart, self-possessed Laura, a Reds supporter who has been traveling around the world, off and on, since April, and is now planning a winter move to Australia. She raved about her time in Indonesia. And I was reminded again what interesting people I’ve met following Liverpool.

The game itself was perhaps the least-deserved clean sheet I’ve ever seen — Watford should have had three or four goals if they merely had the finishing prowess of a Brighton or a Norwich, never mind a Leicester or a City.

Mohamed Salah’s second goal, the game-killer, was a thing of wonder. I don’t do this often, but I had to re-watch it a half-dozen times later before I could sort out what it was he’d actually done, the act of sorcery that allowed him to not merely react to Origi’s fluffed shot, but precisely redirect it with his right foot goalward, and nutmeg the hapless Watford defender Christian Kabasele in the process. The Hornets’ film review will not have been a fun occasion for Troy and the lads.

Back to Salah. I know I’ve made this point before but I need to restate it: This thing where guys grab Mo around his neck and grapple with him has reached preposterous levels! I’m not saying no one ever does that to Messi or Ronaldo or Kane. What I am saying is, when it gets done to Messi or Ronaldo or Kane, a foul is called a much higher percentage of the time. I don’t know if this has to do with Mo’s rag-doll appearance, but defenders definitely try to bully him, and they are mostly getting away with it. I presume someone from the club has brought it to the attention of the referees’ association and the Premier League. But as of yet, nothing changes. This angers me far more than anything presently wrong with VAR.

Other than the (admittedly important) part where you kick the ball into the goal, Watford were surprisingly good. But not for the last time in this week did I watch the final minutes of a tight game thinking to myself that we were simply mentally tougher than the team we were playing.

SUNDAY

I’m at the Black Sheep Lodge at 1:30 in the afternoon, hanging out with the crew of Chiefs’ fans who watch the games. My daughter, back from college, has come along, sporting her Patrick Mahomes jersey. The Chiefs are rolling, playing remarkably sound football on both offense and defense, and leading 15-3 in a Kansas City snowstorm at the half, at which point I go to the men’s room. There, on the wall above the urinals, is a chalkboard, with the usual graffiti about the President (decidedly negative) and someone named Amber (decidedly positive), and then I see — in a sports bar in Austin, Texas, mind you (and not even, it has to be said, a sports bar noted for having soccer fans) — a line of terse graffiti with the standard epithet: “Eff Liverpool,” right next to a drawing of a heart, inside of which were the letters MUFC.

I couldn’t help but smile, and think to myself: Somewhere there’s a dislocated Manc who’s been having a really bad decade. I was tempted to write down something snarky in response (like “Bring Back Moyes!”), but I just let it ride. The Champions of Europe — and soon, one hopes, the world — have earned the enmity of our foes. And it must be all the more galling for United fans to know that Liverpool have accomplished this with a great team ethic, fewer resources, a kinetic, eminently watchable style, and a group of American owners who know what they’re doing. (And, to your earlier point, additionally aggravating for ManU that it’s been done against a Man City side that supposedly had rendered the concept of a league title chase totally unfair and thus irrelevant.)

What was surprising about the graffiti, beyond the simple fact of it, is that in the States at least, disliking Liverpool is far more the exception than the rule. I know many fans of other clubs who view Liverpool the way people used to view Brazil in international play: they have become a lot of people’s second-favorite team, because they do things right and they’re so fun to watch.

And, it has to be said, a lot of people’s favorite team as well. I see more new faces at the pub, spy more Liverpool jerseys and caps on the street. I know there is a small subset of our support that feel a certain disdain for these fans, and view them as bandwagon-jumpers or glory-hunters. But I love that people are coming around, and I only hope I can be as welcoming to new fans as people were to me when I started hitting pubs on Saturday mornings in the late ’90s and early ’00s.

I was thinking about this later Sunday evening, as I was reading Long Walk Home: Reflections on Bruce Springsteen, published in September, around the time the Boss turned 70. There are plenty of insightful essays, including one by that noted football fan Wesley Stace, and quite a lot of deconstruction going on, including a piece by Natalie Adler, who writes about the oppressive white-hetero-maleness of Springsteen’s audience, but notes that “as a queer woman, I have never felt left out of his music.”

As a devotee of both Springsteen and Liverpool, I think I understand where she’s coming from, but for me (and so many Springsteen and Liverpool fans I know), this fandom is not an exclusionary impulse but rather a decidedly inclusive one. I still view Springsteen and the Reds as this treasure I’d love to share, the same way I felt about the original British version of The Office, or Ann Patchett’s lovely novel Bel Canto, or Hamilton: An American Musical. This thing I love is so good, I want all my friends to know about it as well, so they can experience it and make up their own mind.

At times, the appeal of Springsteen and Liverpool seem to merge in my mind. So much of his music speaks to the idealism and faith that also marks Liverpool’s relationship with its supporters. “We Take Care of Our Own” is not all that dissimilar a sentiment, in truth, from “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

So I’m always pleased when I meet a new Liverpool fan. While I don’t hector people about Liverpool with the same relentless missionary zeal that I tried to talk everyone I knew into liking Springsteen in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I’m still delighted when someone climbs aboard, just I’m still heartened when I see an artist or fan I didn’t expect who appreciates Springsteen. I remember calling Rob one day, after we were both listening to your sadly-departed “The Rider” podcast, and being made up that my favorite Scouse hipster, Stephanie Heneghan, said she sometimes had Springsteen’s music playing in the background while she cleaned her place.

“This train carries saints and sinners…”

MONDAY

So it’ll be Atletico Madrid in the Champions League round of 16. Fine. Bring them on. But Simeone and his crew will be tough. There’s a breezy assuredness that I sense in many of our supporters that may be veering into the vicinity of overconfidence. Atletico is superb at making faster, more dynamic teams play games on their own stolid terms. I think, post-Barcelona, Liverpool are pretty much past the point of fearing any team, but I have a healthy amount of respect for Atletico, and I would expect our next visit to the Wanda Metropolitano will be more of a chore than our previous one.

TUESDAY

There’s a moment in Hornby’s Fever Pitch where he talks about the way football fans lose any sense of perspective on their passion, and cites a friend who went to watch a midweek game “against Luton reserves on a freezing January afternoon on his own — not in a spirt of one-upmanship or some kind of self-mocking, laddish wackiness, but because he was genuinely interested,” and how the same friend later denied this behavior was at all eccentric.

I was reminded of that line Tuesday afternoon as I arrived at Riley’s to watch what was Liverpool’s de facto juniors against Aston Villa. Much was made beforehand about how the game featured the youngest starting lineup in club history. As I looked out on the field, I had a corollary thought, better articulated by someone called @Extrospector on Twitter: “Average age: 19, Average shirt number: 67.”

I was the among the first at the pub for the game, and was soon greeted by my friend Jamey, a bear-ish, jovial chef, who said with a chuckle, “I guess it’s just the die-hards today.” At one point, before kickoff, the Riley’s manager, Stefon, strolled out of the kitchen and saw the lineup on the big screen and said, “There’s only about two names on there that I know.” I wasn’t far ahead of him.

But soon the place was, not filling up exactly, but populating. By the time Villa scored their first goal, there were at least a dozen Liverpool fans watching the action, with equal parts hope and curiosity. We delighted in hearing the “Si, Señor” song from the away support, especially given that Roberto Firmino was at that moment approximately as far away from Villa Park as we were. Mostly, we were just dazzled by how good Harvey Elliott looked.

And yet, this was for me clearly the most conflicted game of the season. Even as I was rooting for the fightback, I was relieved with the result. We all certainly wanted Liverpool to win the match. But at the same time, we certainly did not want what would have happened in the event Liverpool had actually won the match, which was two more midweek fixtures in January. Especially since we still have the West Ham game to reschedule. The League Cup has been great fun this year, and that Arsenal game was one for the ages. But, um, good riddance.

WEDNESDAY

I knew Monterrey was going to be tough. As Major League Soccer has matured, I’ve occasionally gotten my hopes up that my MLS team, Sporting Kansas City, might advance to the top of the Concacaf Champions League. They never do, simply because the Liga MX sides are tougher, shrewder, more technically gifted and more cohesive than the MLS sides.

I know we say it often (but not, I would argue, often enough): Alisson was just immense. The saves, the positioning, the leaping ability were all first rate. And there’s that thing where after he makes the save, when other goalkeepers look alarmed and start screaming at their teammates, where he comes up looking so unflappable.

This was, in its own way, as tense as the Salzburg game. Losing in the semifinal of the Club World Cup would have made Saturday morning’s game (for third place) an utterly dismal affair, and given sustenance to all those people who have been saying we should have sent the young lads to Qatar instead of Villa Park. Now that’s boxed.

During the game, on my group text, Sam and Bola were again opining that Jordan Henderson can’t win a header to save his life. Certainly not for that reason alone, we seemed particularly vulnerable at the back. But we also played much of the game without Fabinho at holding mid, Virgil at center back and Trent at right back… so, in other words, without three of the best players in the world. The writer Bill James has pointed out something about baseball that I believe is true with other sports as well: You can often take one accomplished player out of a lineup without a noticeable drop in defensive performance; all the players around him cover a little more ground to help out. But then, when you lose a second, or even a third player from a lineup, it all starts to unravel quickly. Players can’t cover a little more ground in more than one direction at a time. So it was on Wednesday, when we were repeatedly exposed, and it was up to Ali to save the day.

And yet, even as I was concerned, I never thought we’d lose. Toward the end you really could tell that Monterrey were knackered. Even as I nervously trying to figure out if the rules of the tournament mandated extra time or going straight to penalty kicks (it was the former), I felt that dagger coming on. And I was so gratified that the winner came courtesy of Bobby Firmino. He’s gotten some stick lately, as his form around goal has dropped. But I’d still argue he’s a must-start, because he does so many other things well. Watch again that marvelous over-the-back reverse kick to spring Mane on the break for the first goal against Watford. I love me some Divock Origi, but that spontaneous act of genius isn’t in his locker.

THURSDAY

For the second time in a week, I wake up to brilliant news from Liverpool. Last week, it was Klopp signing a contract extension. Today, it’s the Minimino signing. And again, I find myself so grateful that FSG — and Mike Gordon and Michael Edwards and all the rest — are in place. I know that Klopp is the one essential figure, but we now also have arguably the best organization in club football. And when a club as strong as Liverpool can find a bargain like this, and extend the contract of the best manager in the world, the future is extremely bright. My question to you: Given the Minimino signing, and what we’ve seen of Liverpool’s shrewd, exemplary work in the transfer market (and notwithstanding your fervent work on the Mbappe 2020 campaign), wouldn’t pursuing Jadon Sancho be a lot more consistent with Liverpool’s overall philosophy than pursuing Kylian Mbappe?

FRIDAY

This morning I see the conclusion to The Guardian’s ranking of the 100 best players in world football and Liverpool has two of the top three; three of the top five; five of the top 11; eight of the top 34. Ten players overall! As my buddy David notes, “All Liverpool starters bar VVD’s rotating center-half partner will be in the top 100. Brilliant.” You needn’t be one of the experts voting to sort out that each of those 10 players has improved under Klopp’s tutelage. (Meanwhile, Philippe Coutinho’s ranking has now fallen to No. 100.)

And as I look over the list, I realize: I felt something similar to this measure of gratitude and delight when Born in the U.S.A. made Springsteen a superstar 35 years ago: Now everyone knows.

We are in a Liverpool moment, riding the wave. Long may it last.

So now we forge onward, and try to settle a decades-old score with Flamengo. Meanwhile, Christmas is upon us, even in Texas, despite the abject lack of snow. The tree is up (it’s small, but it’s real), the stockings are hung from the floor-to-ceiling CD case with care, Otis Redding is singing “Merry Christmas, Baby” and the spirit of Christmas is in the air.

Hope you feel better, mate. What kind of nurse is your beloved Brockle? I imagine that she would be nurturing and omnicompetent, but would take no guff from the patient in question.

Feel better, enjoy Saturday’s final, and have a great Christmas week.

As ever,

M.

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Michael MacCambridge is the author of ‘America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured A Nation,’ and several other books. He lives in Austin, Texas.