The date was 2 May 2004. I found myself outside Anfield before a match without a ticket. For various reasons – it was only Middlesbrough, it was the tail-end of a less-than-stellar season (Gerard Houllier would be sacked a couple of weeks later), the money I was contemplating spending looked more useful going on my impending nuptials – getting inside the ground didn’t seem to be the most pressing matter in life. Yeah, I know, what a part-timer. Emboldened by this knowledge, I waited until a few minutes before kick-off then asked a tout, easily identifiable by their Uriah Heep-like demeanour (NB not really), how much a ticket would cost. “£45”, came the reply from the servile lick-spittle (NB not really). “Forget it,” I instantly declaimed, puffing my chest out in the manner of a cartoon astronaut (NB not rea . . . okay, you catch my drift). “Face value or nothing”. The tout knew the score. £25 changed hands and mere moments later I was in the Kop having triumphantly stuck it to The Man.
The incident contained a few valuable lessons. For a start, my triumph was not quite as Caesar-like as I first imagined. The couple sitting beside me asked what I’d paid for the ticket. It seemed their son had had to cry off at the last minute and they’d sold the ticket at the ridiculously knockdown price of £15, so the tout had still made a decent profit on the transaction. Still, it taught me that touts, a species that hitherto I had considered to lie somewhere between Evertonians and amoebas on the food chain, can serve a useful function. With the best will in the world there are going to be circumstances where someone ends up with a ticket that they don’t need. In this case the couple were refreshingly realistic about what had gone down. They were happy to take the hit on their ticket to save themselves the grief of hawking it around Anfield. So while I still think the tenth level of Hell is reserved for telemarketers and those selling a ticket for above face value, it was handy to know that someone shorn of the desperation of the day-tripper could pick up a ticket for face value by waiting until a few minutes before kick-off.
Or so I thought. Because on 5 November 2011 when Liverpool took on the might of Swansea City it became clear that the world had changed. Having circled the ground enough times to leave a trench for future archaeologists to inaccurately speculate over and having three touts say they had nothing, one finally offered me a ticket for £150. 150 knicker! Five minutes after the match had kicked off! For Swansea City! Mrs d was in the ground with a season ticket that on a per-unit basis cost one-fifth of that! All of the above was rammed into the derisive “No!” that greeted such a preposterous offer. Ten minutes later the price had dropped to 60 notes. This was haughtily spurned as well, and in the end I was able to console myself with finding out that Stanley Park was nice at this time of year and not paying anything at all for the dross that followed.
150 quid! The truly astonishing thing is contemplating how much the touts must have been charging for tickets a couple of hours before kick-off to some pitiful day-tripper who had travelled from far, far away in the hope of gaining access to the Holy of Holies – and yes, I realise that strictly speaking I was day-tripping myself, but I know there’ll be other opportunities in the near future. Anyone who has come from anywhere which involved travelling across Runcorn bridge – happy birthday, bridge! – or didn’t go along the M62 would be tempted by those crazy prices rather than endure a wasted trip. And a lot of people will have come from a lot further away than that . . .
This is the point at which articles about touts and ticket prices veer off into the won’t-someone-think-of-the-children territory, but we’ll leave that for another day. Besides, it’d be a bit cheeky to bemoan touts having tried to use them myself. If the club can’t come up with a proper system for keeping tickets out of the wrong hands – wasn’t that what the Fan Cards were meant to do? – then it’s inevitable that a secondary market is going to emerge, and it’s up to the individual to not tout their ticket rather than expect touts to go all Francis of Assisi on us. No, what really struck home about the prices being demanded is the staggering potential of the brand that is Liverpool FC.
I realise that using terms like ‘the brand’ when it comes to a football club is anathema to most, the domain of ponytail and red brace-wearing ponces. But language is not neutral, and there’s no better term for explaining the value that lurks beneath the football club, the football club itself being [sickbag] like a mother’s love – priceless [/sickbag]. And it is that simmering Vesuvius of money-making potential that moved Ian Ayre to speculate recently on the merits of breaking up the cartel that is the Premier League’s collective bargaining deal with Sky. It’s often forgotten in the rush to pound the naked capitalism of the Dirty Digger – and throughout the ongoing phone-hacking scandal, few people have enjoyed News International’s discomfort more than myself – that the deal with Sky is a long way from naked capitalism. If a regular market consisted of twenty companies ganging together and selling their product exclusively on a five-year contract and splitting the proceeds amongst themselves, they’d be broken up faster than you could say Milly Dowler. When small clubs like Bolton and Everton (snigger) routinely bleat that they can’t compete with the moneybags clubs, they conveniently forget that there are far more brutal business models out there, ones that fit in much better with the anti-monopoly laws of the UK and the EU. Spain is the classic example, where each club flogs their wares individually. All the money inevitably flows to the duopoly that is Real Madrid and Barcelona. And it’s not hard to see something like that happening to Liverpool should we be released from the Bolshevik shackles of the collective Premier League deal.
Just think of it. Liverpool can sustain a business model where people are willing to pay hundreds of pounds for a ticket to see them play Swansea City. And this is despite over twenty years of mediocrity (with one shining exception, of course). There was a joke doing the rounds after the recent Manchester derby that Citeh fans hadn’t seen their team give Man Ure a five-goal beating since Chelsea did it a few years back. It’s a gag that would be often be re-tooled to dismiss glory-hunting Liverpool fans. Yet that would be to ignore that a whole generation of Liverpool fans around the globe have adopted the Reds as their club despite a distinct lack of success. We are a leviathan, and the Lilliputians are holding us back. The sooner we cast off their pathetic threads, the better.
And yet . . . Ian Ayre invoked the need to be released from said constraints by the need to be competitive in Europe. This makes sense. The long-run revenue projections of Madrid and Barca must dwarf those of any team in the Premier League – Man City are an obvious exception, but if Uefa succeed in making those rules on expenditure needing to be a percentage of turnover stick then they’re going to hit the skids soon enough. But is that how Liverpool really want to be competitive? We’ve shown we can cut it in Europe. Even at a relatively iffy period in that season we played them we swatted Madrid aside and have come out ahead in our various jousts with Barca over the years. The problem is that we can’t compete in England. Throwing out collective bargaining will benefit other teams too, Man Utd and Arsenal in particular. So while we may have fewer worries about playing Swansea, so would the other leviathans in England. All other things being equal we’d be no better off. In fact, the sense of anguish at repeatedly coming up short would be even more acute.
And besides, do we really want to be That Team? The ones who snuffed out any lingering dreams that a Nottingham Forest or a Leeds United could aspire to charge through the divisions to the very summit? My heart says yes: screw every last one of them against the wall, LFC comes first every time. My head says no: you’d be reducing the top flight to a La Liga-style farce against a succession of embittered teams without any guarantee that it would give us the success we crave. What’s the solution to that conundrum? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. . .