Steelers Fans Will Never Walk Alone

A day in the life of a sportswriter on holiday in Liverpool, England, where he realized that rabid fans, wild success, and strong tradition will never walk alone.

The cab driver was gouging me at 15 pounds, 40 pence for a two-mile drive from the Rail Station, but then again he did get us to the stadium in time for the tour. So I gave him a tip anyway.

And then he gave me one.

"Make sure you rub Shankly's shoes," the cabbie said. "It'll bring you good luck."

I was in Liverpool to visit Anfield Football Stadium last week. It was part of an extended visit for my family after the Steelers had played in London. My 13-year-old daughter cared that the Steelers had lost at Wembley Stadium, but she didn't care so much four days later when I agreed to her wishes for a three-hour train ride to Liverpool.

My daughter lives and breathes Liverpool soccer, and, as for me, I just wanted to walk where John Lennon walked. So, it became a plan, and out of the cab we popped.

As we passed through the gate we were greeted by the statue of the legendary Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly, arms wide open in front of the storied stadium's museum entrance. I rubbed his shoes, and noticed an inscription on the base of the statue:

"He made the people happy".

Shankly was to Liverpudlians what Chuck Noll was to Pittsburghers: a savior.

The tour guide told us that Shankly took over the moribund Liverpool football program on April 30, 1959 -- "The day I was born," my wife whispered -- and won the Second Division Championship, and then three First Division Championships, two FA Cups, four Charity Shields, and one UEFA Cup.

I really don't know what all of that means, but the fans in attendance at the mid-week tour nodded dreamily. I looked over at my daughter and she was wiping away tears.

Oh, boy.

"Today was the best day I could have ever asked for," she would later write on one of her web sites. "Seeing where Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez get ready for games, seeing the FA Cup, touching the 'This is Anfield' sign that legends have touched so many times, sitting in the Kop. This is a soccer player's dream and I still can't believe it happened."

It struck me that this is the reaction I so often see at Heinz Field, and the South Side practice facility, when fans go on tour: dreamy nods at pictures on the wall, trophies on the stands, and even the reporters working in the the press room.

Now, here I was on tour of an empty stadium's press room, and the guide was explaining to the 35 or so of us that he took us here -- into the smaller and more seldom-used press room -- for two reasons:

* One, to explain that corporate powers now force TV cameras to film the players at the podium with the names of those corporations -- pasted on the back wall -- in the shot.

OK, we have that in Pittsburgh.

* And, two, to tell us a humorous story.

It turns out that Shankly's assistants liked to drink beer before games in that room. It was then a "Boot Room," where the players' street shoes were held. It also served as the laundry room, so it was a pretty tight fit for those men.

Well, the teetotaling Shankly walked in on the boys before one game. Apparently they hid their beer and told Shankly they were talking tactics.

"That's good," Shankly purportedly said. "In fact, do it before every game."

So they did. Liverpool kept winning, Shankly's staff kept drinking, and the legend of the "Boot Room" grew in this hard-drinking, hard-working, hard-playing town.

"But then one day the corporations came along and thought it best to refurbish the room into what you see now," the tour guide said with a pause. "And we haven't won a league championship since."

Yes, we have that in Pittsburgh, too. We call them dry spells.

While Liverpool hasn't won a Premier League title since 1990, it won the FA Cup in 2005 and the European Cup in 2006. That return to world-wide prominence ignited the fan base, but it has since been rocked by seventh and eighth-place finishes in the Premier League in 2010 and 2011.

That's akin to losing five of your last seven games last season, all four preseason games this summer, and then all four games to start this season.

Yes, the Steelers fans who've barely stopped grumbling about Chris Kemoeatu missing his block, Rashard Mendenhall fumbling, and Ben Roethlisberger ignoring Hines Ward and Heath Miller late in the team's last Super Bowl appearance, a narrow loss, are now struggling to come to grips with 0 and 4 and sinking fast.

Of course, the Steelers haven't won Super Bowls since 2005 and 2008. It's the team's and the fans' right, their birthright, to dominate the league. So this 0-4 start means that people have to go.

Big people.


Is that unique? Does a team such as Liverpool, a proud, tradition-rich football power in a rusting, northern industrial city, carry such overinflated expectations from a rabid -- and some might say spoiled -- fan base?

"Fans here are very critical," Rob, my guide, told me after the tour. "We had some good years between 2005 and 2009, and that's made the fans believe it's again their right to be that good every year."

It's their right.

I am often notified of these rights today. In fact, it's sometimes an interactive nightmare.

In the old days, we all had our "Boot Rooms," where we could hide out and enjoy a beer and like-minded "tactical" talks. But now it seems there are only "Chat Rooms," where so many, it seems, want their pound of flesh.

"The Internet as been a curse to football fans," my guide, a thirty-something, said with obvious disgust. "It's been a curse to all sports."

He paused and added, "a curse to society."

"They should put THAT under a statue some day," I mumbled to my daughter as we left Anfield.

I was smiling soon enough, though, as we began touring the streets of Liverpool. But instead of meeting a Beatle, we met a Kink, Ray Davies, THE favorite singer/songwriter of my formative rock-n-roll years.

Ray was strolling through the Rail Station that evening when the fanboy inside of me noticed him and jumped up to shake his hand. He stopped to chat and I was able to introduce him to my daughter.

It was a dreamy end to a great vacation. The only better ending would be finding a way around our 7-hour layover in Chicago.

And I found that, too, thanks to an accommodating airline, which even waived the standby fee for some kind of promotion I had lucked into that day.

And then they put us in first class.

It had to be the shoes.

"Good luck to the Steelers," the guide said just before I left.

And may God save Liverpool, too.

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