STRONGER TOGETHER:

The social power of football in motion on Merseyside

“Feed the Scousers,

“Let them know it’s Christmas time”

Within five minutes of the first whistle in Liverpool’s 3-1 triumph over Manchester United, that chant - both mundane and moronic - chorused in the away end at Anfield and was audible in the worldwide coverage.

A day earlier, when Manchester City beat Everton by the same scoreline, a section of their supporters loudly sung those nine words on loop at the Etihad too.

It’s the most woeful time of year for brainlessness hiding beneath the banner of ‘banter’.

The two lines, recited on repeat to the tune of Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ is, as per the original track, a painting of an erroneous stereotype, patronising, and doused in misguided self-righteousness.

It also illustrates a lack of awareness of the grim reality: last year in England and Wales, 600 homeless people died on the streets or in temporary accommodation.

Manchester was listed only behind Westminster, Brighton and Hove as well as Camden for having the most rough sleepers.

United and City fans who lend their voices to the chant are not the sole offenders: it happens up and down the country during the festive season as was evidenced during Liverpool's victory at Wolves.

In January, End Hunger UK revealed that over one in 10 adults, and almost one in four parents with children aged 18 and under, are skipping meals due to a lack of money.

It’s not something to gleefully sing about. It is a national crisis.

But to spotlight the dimwitted behaviour rather than shine a light on those actively trying to make a difference would be a travesty.

Here then is a real reflection of Scousers and how their grassroots initiatives are helping galvanise not just Merseyside, but communities around the country.

HUNGER DOESN'T WEAR CLUB COLOURS

One October afternoon three years ago, Ian Byrne and David Kelly were attending a meeting near Anfield and saw a snaking queue around a community centre.

“I thought it may have been for bingo or something to that effect,” the former recalls. “We walked up and were told it was people desperately waiting for food. That painted such a graphic picture for us.

“Of course, you know about the poverty issues, but seeing it like that - so raw, right in front of you - was shocking. We got taken to the back to see their pantry, which had bare shelves because of the sheer demand for food.

“The staff were dividing packets of pasta to try and make sure everyone had something they could eat - that tore through our hearts.”

Byrne, a Labour councillor for Everton and a Spirit of Shankly member, and Kelly, of Blue Union and the Football Supporters Federation, were sparked into action.

“We thought to ourselves, ‘what can we do here?’. As I’m a Red and Dave is a Blue, we figured we’d start a foodbank collection outside Anfield and Goodison Park because of the amount of people who attend games and because football is a unifying experience: it brings people together.

“So the Everton Supporters’ Trust and Spirit of Shankly joined forces to make it happen. It initially started with us putting wheelie bins received from the council outside the grounds for donations, but at our Merseyside Derby drive this month, we collected 10 tonnes of food alone.”

Fans Supporting Foodbanks - under the banner Hunger Doesn’t Wear Club Colours - was birthed in 2015 and their small beginnings have since transformed into a titanic force for social change.

Assisted by Liverpool and Everton - the clubs provide reach, credibility, access to players and donations of their own - the real superheroes are the volunteers who so happily part with their time, along with the generosity of match-going fans on both sides of Stanley Park.

The collection at Anfield was so expansive post-derby that the FSF van nearly broke down while carrying the load and another trip had to be arranged for the following morning in order to retrieve the rest of the supplies.

The FSF concept has spread beyond Liverpool to Manchester, Newcastle, Huddersfield, Hull, Charlton and Leeds with continued growth leading as far as Ireland.

“What we’ve seen is real solidarity amongst fans,” notes Byrne.

“When Liverpool and Everton fans go to away games, they take donations for the local foodbanks and we receive a lot from supporters of the host clubs as well.

“To see it becoming a national collection rather than an area-specific one is warming: your fellow fan - regardless of whatever team they belong to - is not the enemy, it’s the people in charge of policy who have overseen these conditions that we have to fight who are the enemy.”

Fans Supporting Foodbanks goes beyond matchday collections to bind communities. Last Wednesday, the team's morning started at St Aloysius Catholic Primary School in Huyton, where the kids helped create Christmas hampers using items they brought in for underprivileged families.

The next stop was a multi-faith creche run by the Muslim community in Wavertree, where donations were also waiting for the team, who were serenaded by children belting out ‘let’s help the world’ in unison.

“Fans Supporting Foodbanks have been the heroes of Merseyside football over the last couple of seasons because they have set an example of what can be achieved when there is solidarity and when people come together to help others in need,” says Tony Barrett, Liverpool’s head of club and supporter liaison.

“The worrying thought is what would have happened had they not done so, because without their efforts the problem of food poverty would be even worse.”

There are various endeavours across Merseyside, which Barrett believes highlights a “heightened determination to stick together” because Liverpool “are pretty much on our own politically and emotionally.”

He points to the fundraising for Sean Cox - a father-of-three who was attacked outside Anfield before the first leg of Liverpool's Champions League semi-final against Roma in April - as one example.

“The bucket collections were driven by Spirit Of Shankly who deserve an unbelievable amount of credit for what they did and so does everyone else who has supported the Cox family,” Barrett says.

BOSS Night have staged fundraisers, pubs around Anfield have done their bit, taxi drivers gave free lifts to the Cox family and any number of ordinary people have made donations on Go Fund Me sites. Again, this is about individuals acting as a collective.”

Everton defender Seamus Coleman made a £4,300 donation, explaining at the time: “I think football is great for sticking together. Rivalries go out the window with stuff like that; you don’t see a crest or a jersey, you see a man who came to support his team and unfortunately it didn’t end too well for him that night.”

And as Dave Downie from the award-winning Blue Room podcast puts it: “No matter how heated and divisive football gets in Liverpool, the people of this city will always come together to support causes far more important than what we see on a Saturday afternoon at Goodison or Anfield.”

Spirit of Shankly chair Jay McKenna agrees.

“We feel we’ve got a role to play in our local communities,” he explains.

“We know that in this city football is an anchor, regardless of your circumstances. Whether you’re struggling, just getting by or doing well, it’s likely that you understand football, it’s likely that you’re a Red or a Blue and if you aren’t, you will know people that go to the match and are passionate about either club.

“It’s a constant in people’s lives, it’s a positive in people’s lives.

“We stand by each other in times of adversity, there is a sense of camaraderie amongst Scousers. We’re a proud city, we know we’ve got our faults and failings, we’ve been through incredibly difficult times, but people don’t want to show that they’re down and that they’ve been beaten.

“It’s that pride in our city and in our fellow citizens that makes us want to help - not so we can feel good about ourselves, but because we care. This is just what we do as a city - not just as football fans, but as individuals who believe in building a better society.”

Ordinary people going to extraordinary lengths to make a difference seems to be the norm in Merseyside.

Take, for example, An Hour for Others, who count Liverpool right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold as an ambassador.

Founded in 2014 by painter and decorator Kevin Morland alongside his partner Gillian Watkins, it encourages individuals and businesses to share their time, skills and resources as well as engage in acts of kindness to uplift the community.

From Richie Clayton and Peter Graham decorating the bedroom of a family in need, to former Reds defender Rob Jones and his wife paying for the full Christmas shop of a mum with two kids, the breadth and variety of help they provide is astonishing.

Five years ago, another great concept was launched. Vorny Redmond, who experienced the perils of being homeless first hand, endeavoured to assist those on the street through Christmas, leading to the Shoebox Full of Love campaign.

“Initially, the collection of boxes started in her mum's front room, but it has grown so much that we have been able to help organisations who deal with all kinds of vulnerable people and families,” explains volunteer Sam Armstrong.

“Some are homeless, some are coming out of care, some are children still in care - basically a lot of people who would not receive any gifts at Christmas without the donations.

“The campaign also has other requests throughout the year, particularly from domestic violence cases who have to leave a situation with nothing. As an antithesis to the ‘Everton wives, run for your lives’ shout, which I despise, we ask for items to help these individuals.

“We also ran a School Supplies campaign this year for uniform and stationery items to go to the same organisations and families.”

Rent A Space have provided storage solutions for Shoebox Full of Love, while BOSS Night raised in the region of £400 during their post-United gig.

Through the Owen McVeigh Foundation, meanwhile, local children suffering with cancer are afforded unforgettable life experiences.

The charity was founded by Mark and Joanne in memory of their 11-year-old son - a regular at Anfield - who tragically passed away just three days after being diagnosed with leukaemia in December 2015. It has been supported by Liverpool, who carry a tribute range of merchandise in the club shop with all proceeds going to the foundation.

“The city has a well established history of solidarity and it’s always most evident during bad times,” Barrett says.

“There is a willingness to stick together that has probably been forged by a collective feeling that if we don’t help one another no one outside of the city is ever likely to help us, not willingly anyway.”

CLUBBING TOGETHER

Through Red Neighbours and Everton in the Community, both clubs have also displayed a determination to elevate their people.

The latter’s Home Is Where The Heart Is campaign has been particularly impactful.

The idea was sculpted on a Friday night in November 2016, when Everton Under-23 coach David Unsworth, his backroom staff and the full squad took part in a Goodison Sleepout to raise awareness of homelessness.

A fundraising target of £230,000 was surpassed by £14,000 just seven months after the initiative was launched, and a further £60,000 was raised as 23 members of the Supporters’ Club network embarked on a cycle challenge from Sligo to Goodison.

Seamus Coleman, who joined Everton from Sligo Rovers in 2009, Duncan Ferguson and the board of directors all made personal contributions to the cause.

This resulted in a house being purchased close to the stadium, which offers 16-23-year-olds who have fallen on hard times or are no longer in the care system, a place to stay in Liverpool.

“Our community programmes are right at the heart of everything that we do. It is one of our core values and is part of the fabric of the club,” says EitC CEO Richard Kenyon.

“The support for Everton in the Community and the work that we do comes from the very top with the chairman.

“Bill Kenwright has always been hugely supportive of our work; he knows the area very well and understands the issues that we are dealing with and that’s meant that those working for the charity have been able to be brave and pioneering - tackling some of the region’s most serious issues head on -  as they know the support has always been there at the highest level of the club.

“Our CEO Denise Barrett-Baxendale, who drove the charity forward for many years, is also Chair of Trustees for Everton in the Community. The charity and the work that we do across Liverpool and beyond is part who we are and is ingrained in all of us from the very, very top.”

Red Neighbours, meanwhile, adopts four key pillars: tackling food poverty and promoting education, supporting the elderly community, improving fitness as well as providing memorable experiences for young people.

Last season, 700 local school children attended their Free Breakfast Clubs, 1,768 meals were provided to local families through the club’s work with Fans Supporting Foodbanks and 330 pensioners joined their monthly events at Anfield to help combat social isolation.

“As a journalist, I got to see close up a lot of the community efforts that Everton do and it’s irrelevant that I am now employed by Liverpool as I will always respect and admire their work,” says Barrett.

“I covered their Home Is Where The Heart Is initiative, which was brilliant, and various other schemes which have had a really positive impact so Everton should be proud of what they do.

“I wouldn’t be comfortable shouting from the rooftops about what Liverpool do, but our work through Red Neighbours, the LFC Foundation and various other community schemes is there for all to see.

“What I would say is that both clubs share a sense of responsibility when it comes to contributing to the local community. They might do things differently and there might also be times when we don’t get things right, but the basic principle of wanting to help when possible is probably as strong now as it’s ever been.”

Both the Liverpool and Everton squads have also fully bought into the charitable efforts.

Whether it’s Richarlison helping with EitC’s disability programme or Andy Robertson contributing to the foodbanks, there is continued engagement between the players and the people of the city.

And it’s not just about making someone’s day, but effecting a tangible difference to the daily lives of many.

“Across our 40 programmes – covering more or less every social need in one of the most deprived areas in the country – more than 20,000 people a year benefit,” Kenyon highlights.

“Many have said that Everton in the Community has helped to not only change their lives, but save them as well.

“The significance of the impact that we make might not always be understood and we have more to do in terms of explaining the breadth and depth of what we offer.

“For instance, we are working with the Home Office to address serious organised crime, have been supporting the rehabilitation of young offenders for over five years and helping young children at risk of developing mental health issues in primary schools.”

IN EACH OTHER'S CORNER

Everton, Liverpool and their supporters have been influential in promoting mental health awareness too.

“Around 18 months ago, conversations with colleagues, friends and fans revealed just how much of an impact austerity was having on the emotional well-being of young people,” explains Joe Blott, a committee member of Spirit of Shankly.

“As we looked more closely, the situation became starker - we picked up that 84 men take their own lives in the UK every week.

“Most of them fit the same age demographic as match-going supporters - 20 to 35 - and we thought all too often we don’t spot the early warnings, the little signs, the minor changes - sometimes they’re not even there for us to see.

“We joined Time for Change to support their Be In Your Mate's Corner project and the response was positive. The tragic loss of Liverpool fan Neil ‘Yozza’ Hughes, who took his own life aged 31 in November 2016, really hit home for us.

“We realised we weren’t doing enough to check up on each other beyond just casual chats on a matchday. We realised we could do so much more to raise awareness, to help, to show support.

“We collaborated with two local charities, Paul’s Place and the Liverpool Mental Health Consortium to learn more about and push their campaigns. We have also been made aware of the local SOBS (Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide) and how vital their backing is to families.

“We got in touch with Liverpool, via Tony Barrett, to see if they could help our mental health awareness campaign on 10 October - World Mental Health Day.

“Around the same time, we spoke with Phil Reade from the club who informed us a documentary would be made - Through the Storm, which would document Jason McAteer and Chris Kirkland’s struggles with depression.

“We got involved to provide a fan's perspective and Peter, Yozza’s dad, gave his account of the devastation suicide can leave behind.

“The effort and care that went into the documentary was a credit to the club and we also had awareness messages from Andy Robertson and James Milner, which proved very effective.”

Everton, meanwhile, are planning to develop, build and maintain a purpose-built mental health facility called The People’s Place in the shadow of Goodison Park.

With a fundraising target of £1m, the campaign aligns the Blues with Chasing the Stigma, which aims to end the discrimination around speaking up and seeking help.

In November, musicians Louis Berry and Jamie Webster - in association with BOSS Night and The Anfield Wrap amongst others - held a mental health awareness concert at Liverpool’s O2 Academy.

Talk Tonight was in memory of Yozza and Mick Woodburn, who had taken his own life a month earlier, but it was also a call for solidarity and celebration; for openness and caring with all the funds raised going to Paul’s Place and James’ Place.

For Jamie Carragher, born an Evertonian in Bootle and revered as a Liverpool legend, the care shown by the city’s clubs and supporters prompts immense pride.

“The rivalry in this city is as big as anywhere in Europe, but both sets of supporters feel the struggle every day through their own problems or the difficulties facing their family or friends,” the former defender-turned-pundit says.

“The clubs have been incredible too. When there is a crisis, there is no city better at uniting.”

Carragher's own 23 Foundation is another in a long list of entities devoted to the betterment of Liverpool.

Football's social power, so strong here, is vitally sweeping through the country. And where there are good people with big hearts, there is hope.

“We’ve seen examples in the game where despite having all the odds stacked against them, a team finds a way to overcome that and thrive,” McKenna says.

“It’s the same in society - we have to find a way past all the troubles. We have to believe and we have to stick together.

“Amid the despair of poverty and all the other issues we face, there is always hope through the continuous help of so many.”