The strange thing to admit now, though, is that apart from feeling as though of course I always knew Liverpool would end up losing the league to a strain of virus that originated in an animal market in Wuhan, part of me actually prefers it this way. Like any fan, I’ll be devastated if we are denied the league title we clearly deserve. But losing in extraordinary circumstances is what we’ve come to know and expect.
The Manchester clubs are the serial winners – the evil empires bankrolled by asset strippers and petro states. In my lifetime, both those teams – and, for a while, Chelsea – turned winning into a matter of relentless expectation, as if every trophy was just another sausage being spat off the production line.
What is perhaps more interesting is frustration. Not getting what you want. The pain and anger that come from missing out. If your every need is satisfied, you never grow up, you never find out what you really want. If following football is a displacement activity, something that provides us a space in which to feel a kaleidoscope of emotions intensely, to love and hate at the same time, then winning all the time is no use to us. If life is both hard and also full of joy, then being a football fan is at its best when that is reflected.
This ambivalence has only been intensified – and complicated – by the state of modern football. Major clubs are now glittering PR vehicles for the world’s oligarchs, plutocrats and dictators. In this world, drinking deeply from the intoxicating draught that is the Premier League becomes at best an act that requires some basic moral consideration: does the time and money I put into this contribute to propping up a fundamentally rotten system? This is the case for Liverpool fans just as it is for fans of Manchester City or, now, Newcastle United. It is also something that, as the lifelong City fan David Conn described in his book Richer Than God, taints the eventual victory. Once money has taken over, pure joy is hard to locate.
On the pitch, supporting Liverpool in recent times has tended to be about being the dramatic losers rather than the dominant winners. There have been incredible highs – the Champions League victories of 2005 and 2019 – but they have tended to be followed by years of frustration. That seemed to be over, with last season’s European glory rolling on into this season’s domestic demolition.