The Dubai crowd, many in their new Liverpool tops, break into a chant of “Oh Mane, Mane”, just as the two guests they’ve come to see prepare to take centre-stage.
Gareth Roberts and John Gibbons might laugh at being called celebrities, but they’ve become known to millions of football fans around the world.
The two representatives of The Anfield Wrap (TAW), a podcast dedicated to all things Liverpool FC, are on a three-day stay in Dubai before heading east where they’ll be watching Liverpool take on Crystal Palace in the Premier League Asia Trophy.
From Huyton to Hong Kong. With a short stopover to view the world from the top of Burj Khalifa.
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) July 15, 2017
At the Ramee Rose Hotel, home of supporters’ club Dubai Reds, they are doing what they do best; engage with Liverpool fans from around the world, thirsting for authentic stories coming out of the club and city.
For Roberts, Gibbons and the other TAW founders, what started as a vocation has turned into a dream day job. TAW now has 125,000 followers on Twitter, 85,000 on Facebook, 28,000 on Instagram, and YouTube channel with 8,000 members. Its various podcasts get over 200,000 downloads a month thanks to its unique content which includes interview with current and former players like Xabi Alonso, Jamie Carragher and Lucas Leiva, not to mention the boss himself, Jurgen Klopp.
It’s a global phenomenon, one of the most popular of its kind with several supporter awards to its name.
“There’s always been a fan culture that’s off to the left of the mainstream media,” Roberts told FourFourTwoArabia.com. “I think now the lines are blurred, people are coming to us for news and opinion perhaps more than the mainstream media at times.”
Football supporters, and not just Liverpool’s, have embraced podcasts and fan TV channels as the voice of real fans, doing for a modern audience what fanzine culture did in the late 80s and early 90s, except on a global scale.
“The media’s moved on,” said Roberts. “Print, while not dead, is certainly on the decline. I used to produce a printed fanzine called Well Red. I put hard graft into it, I was working at night, I was working at weekends. I had loads of people contributing to it, but it just didn’t stand up in terms of sales. It did ok, people liked it, people enjoyed the content. But there are a couple of generations of people that now don’t ever pick up a printed magazine or newspaper or anything like that.”
A crisis at Liverpool, at one of the club’s most depressing periods, conspired to produce TAW in 2010.
Birth of TAW
“It was around the time of Hicks and Gillett, so Liverpool fans were active online,” said Roberts. “Several contributors at TAW now, including myself, were quite active. Neil Atkinson was the chairman of [fan group] Spirit of Shankly at one stage, I obviously had the fanzine. Andy Heaton was involved in the Spirit of Shankly as well, and we were all pulled together by this one common cause.”
With no Liverpool podcast coming out of the city, by supporters “who go to every Liverpool game home and away”, Roberts and his friends saw an opportunity. No half measures were taken to produce the best possible service.
“What we wanted to do from day one was for it to be fan-produced but look professional as much as possible as well,” Roberts, a digital journalist, said. “With the website, I had 24 articles lined up for the launch. So when it launched it looked a busy website.”
When it came to the podcast, TAW team hired a professional producer and recorded at Parr Street Studios in Liverpool. With no precedent, or model, to gauge progress against, they had to learn along the way.
“Literally from show one, the feedback was fantastic,” said Roberts. “People were saying this is great, I want to listen to it. People from all over the world were listening from day one, which is why we can now come to places like Dubai.”
With more and more podcasts and fan TV channels, a sense of community, and competition, has grown between TAW and other supporter groups.
“I think there is a little bit of rivalry like in any sort of field, but it’s fairly friendly,” he said. “For instance there’s Redmen (TV) who do video, we’re more focused on podcasts, but we’re friends with them. We’ve done stuff with them, they’ve done stuff with us.”
TAW crew are also keen to big up supporters of rival clubs who’ve dedicated their lives to similar projects.
“It’s taken off more and more and it’s not just at Liverpool,” Roberts said. “It’s at Arsenal as well. And we’re good friends with the lads who do United We Stand (printed fanzine), Andy Mitten and Steve Armstrong. They get really good numbers, they sell six , seven thousand copies,. We’re friends with them despite the rivalry and we go on their podcast at times and they come on ours. It feels like there is a bit of network building around the world, around podcasts, and around telling the story of being a passionate fan going to matches home and away.”
“Learn the songs”
The Dubai crowd lap up the stories. TAW presenters maintain constant dialogue with the fans and there’s a quiz after one of the breaks. Occasionally, the crowd breaks into songs about former heroes Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez and Fernando Torres. Roberts and Gibbons happily join in.
— Dubai Reds OLSC (@DubaiReds) July 14, 2017
Privately Roberts, who hails from Gerrard’s home town of Huyton, admits that while he’s immensely proud of the bridge-building role he plays these days, there was a time when he had a far more parochial view of supporting Liverpool.
“When I first started going to the football in 1990, I went with lads from Huyton, West Darby, Dovecot, all from a five-mile radius from my house, and that’s all I ever knew,” he said. “I used to go to the match sometimes, and I’ll see two lads coming in from Norway maybe, and to be perfectly honest I used to stare at them and think ‘what are they doing here?’.”
“I’ve grown up,” he added, laughing. “I’m a well-rounded individual now.”
“Doing what we do with TAW, we’ve been to Australia, to America, to Spain and now Dubai,” Roberts said. “We’ve been all over, and I’ve spoken to fans all over the world and honestly I’ve changed my outlook. All of those people are no more or no less of a fan than I am. In fact I honestly think when people are getting up at five in the morning to watch Liverpool, would I do that? All I ever had to do was take the bus.”
The last line gets a big laugh from an appreciative audience when repeated later. Those who haven’t been to Anfield are no longer outsiders.
Make no mistake, however, Roberts is never as passionate, or issuing a rallying call to arms, as Gibbons jokes, as when he discusses the match day experience.
“What I want is for the fans who come into the ground to support the team, be passionate about the team, don’t take photographs, get involved with the culture of supporting Liverpool Football club.”
His first piece of advice for those hoping to visit Anfield is simple: “learn the songs”.
Everything that happens inside the ground on match day, he insists, should be about dragging the team towards three points. Selfies can wait until the opposition are “sent on their way”. Nothing else matters.
Just as well that TAW boys share this worldview with the manager they believe will bring the glory days back to Liverpool.
Klopp, The Perfect Fit
“I’m confident because of the man at the top to be honest,” Roberts says. “Klopp’s a fantastic manager and the way he’s managing everyone is brilliant. He’s not just managing a football team, he’s managing the fans, the way Anfield should be. He’s spoken about the importance of atmosphere and I’m sure behind the scenes he’s managing the owners as well, which is important.”
Not surprisingly the 2008-09 and 2013-14 seasons, when Liverpool fell just short of ending the long, painful wait for a Premier League title, come up. Maintaining progress and consistency have been missing following such highs and the duo agree that Klopp’s transfer policy of quality over quantity is the way forward.
“Liverpool have made that mistake in the past,” Roberts added. “They’ve gone for a certain player and then maybe dropped down to rung two, or three, or four, and we end up with a player who’s not really good for Liverpool and that’s meant that standards have slipped over the years.”
A Bright Red Future
Having retained the nucleus of last season’s squad, a few additions to strengthen the bench are needed to ensure the mid-season slump of Klopp’s first full season is not repeated. Though fans remain frustrated over the potential additions of Virgil van Dijk and Naby Keita, Roberts is willing to be patient.
“I’m really hopeful for next season,” he said. “I think Salah is a good signing, brings pace to the side. He’s someone who if Mane isn’t there, can stand in for him. And if he is there, the two of them can swap wings, I wouldn’t fancy defending against that. I think we’re heading in the right direction. Every season now it’s so close at the top. There are four, five, or six teams that go into ever season thinking we can win it. And I think Liverpool next season will be one.”
As Roberts and Gibbons wrap up the show, Liverpool are about to kick-off their second pre-season friendly against Wigan. They’ll spend following day taking in Dubai before moving on to Hong Kong were they will again entertain a new audience. Roberts is proud he has become a voice for his club and city.
“You cannot question the dedication of people all over the world who are getting up at mad time to support Liverpool,” he said. “It’s brilliant for me, because what I learned about them, is that for so many of them it’s not just about the football, they buy into Liverpool, into Liverpool people.”