“Liverpool is a tourist club now. The top six in the Premier League are tourist clubs. It gets to Klopp. I think you can tell. When he shouts about the atmosphere, I think he’s sick of people showing up at Liverpool and making a big song and dance about it: taking a few photos, using a selfie-stick at the game. If you were watching on the telly in your house and it was the 42nd minute and you were still going for that first goal, would you leave and make a brew? You wouldn’t. But you see people with pizza boxes in the main stand. I just think, where has the club gone? Most football clubs now are sanitised and modern football is taking it away from its roots.”

Disenfranchised Liverpool supporter following his team’s 1–0 home defeat to Southampton, January 2017. 

Paul Manning’s nickname in City of Liverpool FC circles is Chairmao. The nickname is semi-affectionate. Manning is a Liverpool supporter. Liverpool supporters adore Bill Shankly, who once stood before a huge crowd at St George’s Plateau after his team had lost an FA Cup final saying, “Chairman Mao has never seen the greatest show of red strength.” The idea of a football club called City of Liverpool germinated because Manning had seen Anfield’s famous atmosphere slip away, with tourists in the ground’s famous Kop stand replacing the local community that once stood there. Shankly was a leader of a city. Mao was the leader of a country. Manning is the leader of a football club. Manning admits his approach is not always to everyone’s taste.

“I’d like to think the dictatorial reputation I have isn’t really a criticism,” Manning says. “I hope they are taking the piss out of me in a good way. Our club is based on equality. But you always need someone to take control in order to get it off the ground and make it run.”

Manning had grown up watching Liverpool in their greatest era, when the sides of Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan lifted four European Cups in just seven years between 1977 and 1984.

“We knew nothing else other than complete and utter success and domination,” he recalls. “We were completely and utterly spoilt on the joy of going to watch Liverpool win things.

“But the greatest privilege was being able to go with your mates on the bus and stand together on the Kop. That’s what the Kop was: a disorganised band of homogeny, groups of five and ten lads from different areas of the city that somehow knew each other whether they were from Kirkdale, Hunt’s Cross or Crosby. What brought us together was the Kop.”

By September 2014, months after Liverpool had gone closest to winning their first league title since 1990, Manning looked around the Kop in one of its quiet moments. Liverpool had not long scored and they were winning. The mood was sterile. “There were more people sitting around me with bags of clothes. No groups of young lads. No groups of friends close together. Everyone was split up in different parts of the ground. The atmosphere had turned. I was sick of it.”

Manning went home and fired off an angry email to eight like-minded Anfield match-goers, urging a get-together. Of the eight who attended that first meeting only Manning and Peter Furmedge, his deputy, remain involved in City of Liverpool FC. When a second four-hour meeting involved twelve people, the discussions inevitably fell back towards frustrations with Liverpool. Manning had identified in the meantime that his frustrations, though primarily with Liverpool, were also with elite football in general. “What Evertonians might be thinking never got a mention in the first meetings,” admits Manning. “I realised that if we were going to do something about our frustrations, it shouldn’t just be about Liverpool. It needed to be something new; something for everyone in this city.”

Manning learned that in the nine professional and semi-professional divisions below Liverpool and Everton in the Premier League, no clubs came from within the boundaries of Liverpool City Council. Just to the north, Sefton had five teams: Southport, Marine, Bootle, AFC Liverpool and Litherland REMYCA. Knowsley had one team in Prescot Cables. Wirral had Tranmere Rovers and Cammell Laird. Halton, which is nearby but not considered Merseyside, had Runcorn Linnets, Runcorn Town and Widnes FC. “Somehow, the big blob in the middle – the centre of our universe – had nothing other than Liverpool and Everton, which is remarkable when you consider the appetite for football in the city.”

More emails led to more meetings. More meetings led to a social-media presence. A social-media presence led to a following. A following led to a name. City of Liverpool were in front of the application boards of the FA, presenting their case for entry to the North West Counties First Division for the 2016-17 season. When I meet Manning, City of Liverpool are midway through their debut season. They are in third position and hold a realistic chance of promotion.

This, however, is a simple description in its most basic form of the process involved. The human impact of setting up a football club is raw. The beauty of City of Liverpool is its membership elects its committee. Whether Manning is voted in again as chairman by that committee is irrelevant because he plans to step down. “It’s going to be quite soon,’ he says. ‘I can’t keep doing what I’m doing. It’s been a massive physical, mental and financial drain on me. If you’re running a football club like ours you have to be prepared for a massive change to your lifestyle.”

Manning is married with three kids.

“Even before we kicked a ball, I was doing thirty to forty hours a week on City of Liverpool. When the games started, those responsibilities went through the roof. I was running round like a madman. I carry a lot of weight anyway. I was a heart attack waiting to happen.”

City of Liverpool is built on socialist principles, but to get there, a leader needed to emerge. And where there is leadership and true socialism, there is criticism. Where non-league football is concerned – when volunteers are involved – that criticism hurts even more. “It really hurts because you’re giving your time up for free, whether you make mistakes or not. You think, what have you done for this club? Ultimately, you’ve got to be a nutter to do it in the first place and a nutter to survive. Setting this club up has cost me a business because I became totally engrossed. I ran a call centre in accident and compensation claims. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t the biggest business in the world, but it was paying everyone involved a wage. I took my eye completely off the ball and focused on what had to be done with the county FA and various other authorities. And eventually my business withered on the vine because of football.”

The Delta Taxis Stadium is the home of Bootle FC. Towards the end of January, City of Liverpool, playing at home, are drawing at half-time with Litherland REMYCA, the team just one position and one point above them in the North West Counties First Division. Litherland’s ground, a sports park owned by Sefton Council, is the other side of a busy dual carriageway that runs out of Liverpool’s north end into flat fields and, eventually, towards Skelmersdale and Wigan. If a true rivalry emerged here it would be known as the Dunnings Bridge Road derby.

The game had kicked off at 3pm. Liverpool had lost at home to Swansea City earlier in the day. The logistics department of City of Liverpool decided to lay on a coach to help out those who wanted to be at both Anfield and the Delta Taxis Stadium. I arrive late because of prior reporting duties and as soon as I open the doors of my car, having parked up in the forecourt of a new industrial warehouse that stores hair and beauty supplies, a cheer goes up that makes me think Litherland have taken the lead because it’s not particularly loud and City of Liverpool’s attendances have averaged over four hundred since agreeing a ground-share with Bootle.

The sun was setting on the coldest day of the year so far. The Mitre footballs being used were so dirty, their last clean had probably been in autumn. City of Liverpool 2, Litherland REMYCA 3 soon became City of Liverpool 2, Litherland REMYCA 4, when Christopher Lowe, a defender, scored a header in front of the Dodge Kop stand.

Despite the prospect of imminent defeat, the enjoyment was flowing as much as the Warsteiner lager being served from the chalet-style clubhouse and sunk on the two-step terrace, where the bulk of the 628 attendance stood huddled like penguins, singing despite City of Liverpool’s demise.

The frustration is only small, with shouts of, “Get Daley on,” in recognition of Daley Woods, the striker, whose day job is a policeman. The presence too of Michael Roberts in midfield is a reminder of how far a talented footballer can fall. Roberts, a lean figure whose control of the ball is more advanced than any of the players around him, is 25 years old. At sixteen, Liverpool had taken him from Tranmere Rovers for £100,000. He had played for Liverpool’s reserves beside Raheem Sterling but in 2012 was released and his only competitive games before signing for City of Liverpool had been for Bootle, the town where he lived.

Liverpool supporters are great believers that banners in football grounds should contain punchy messages or witty remarks and, accordingly, City of Liverpool are the same. “Hated, adored, never ignored,” one reads. The supporter standing behind it, wearing a purple, white and gold-coloured bobble hat, proudly tells me he has given his Kop season ticket to someone else to follow ‘the Purps’.

When the final whistle blows, Litherland REMYCA are victorious and the celebrations not only reflect the prospect that Litherland are a step closer to promotion, but also the fact that beating City of Liverpool is already viewed as a coup. The North West Counties First Division had not received much publicity in recent years, certainly not since FC United of Manchester began their rise out of the league more than a decade ago. City of Liverpool were the best-supported club in the division, their average home gate for the season standing at 422 while the rest fell somewhere below 100.

Paul Manning had told me that City of Liverpool were gaining in popularity because the club’s priorities were clear. “We don’t exist because of what happens on the pitch,” Manning said. “We don’t care about players, the type who will leave you because they want an extra ten quid a week. We’ve already kicked out a few who think they are bigger than our club. We’re looking at this from the fans’ perspective. The reason why people are coming to the ground, seeing something different and feeling something different, is because it is different. The club is set up for the supporters: to create a supporter culture – to give supporters a voice in football, to make people come to a match and enjoy it; not to sit down and stay quiet or arrive at a ground and there’s a seventy-year-old man with his flat cap and his dog and all you can hear is the players and the two teams shouting each other. It costs a fiver to get in and instead you’ll experience a proper football-style atmosphere, something you don’t always get at non-league level: people singing, shouting and screaming. The standard in front of you is decent. And most of all, you’re amongst Scousers. OK, we’ve attracted a few foreigners and people from down south. But 90% of the crowd are people that you know or faces that you recognise and if you don’t know them you will soon. You don’t feel lost or alone. It’s a community.”

Though Manning says only positive things about FC United, the club formed in reaction to Malcolm Glazer’s purchase of Manchester United, he was keen to stress a difference, that City of Liverpool is more of a progressive movement rather than a protest – or, indeed, a dying protest like AFC Liverpool seemed to be, the club born out of the disastrous ownership reign of Tom Hicks and George Gillett at Liverpool FC. While FC United have since moved into a new stadium after supporters raised £3.4million and were averaging attendances of more than 2,000, AFC Liverpool were paying Marine £500 a game to play at their rather more modest albeit tidy ground, with gates rarely rising above the hundred mark.

Despite the mood not being as positive as it once was over at FC United, with the 2015-16 season undermined by legal action, resignations, gagging orders and then average league performance, Manning views FC United as “a complete and utter success story”.

“I think it’s inevitable you’ll have disagreements and splits at some point in a fan-owned club,” Manning says. “People say, ‘Oh, look at all the trouble at FC United!’ Yeah, that’s after 10 years of unparalleled sustained growth. They’ve raised £3.4million themselves and now they’re in their own stadium. Any infighting that goes on is natural. People have a say and their football operation is a socialist democracy.”

It was during a meeting with the FC United board that Manning and Furmedge identified what they considered to be a flaw in the set-up at Broadhurst Park, however. Manning can remember someone making a comment about Manchester City’s most recent victory; how lucky they supposedly were, emphasising how much disdain he still had for them. Manning looked at Furmedge. Furmedge looked at Manning. Manning speaks of it like a eureka moment. “We realised that, as brilliant as their club is, it’s a fault line,” he says. “They’ve chopped their market in half. Anyone who wants anything, FC United are there to help – they do brilliant things in disabled football, for example. But – they hate Man City…”

Instantly, Manning and Furmedge decided to make their football club appeal to supporters across the city of Liverpool, rather than just Liverpool FC. It has since been a challenge convincing Evertonians that City of Liverpool FC is also for them. “The attitude from Evertonians initially was, ‘It has Liverpool in the name, it’s a breakaway Liverpool club…’ It has been a hard task convincing people that City of Liverpool has nothing to do with Liverpool FC or Everton FC, we’ve got no history; this is a brand-new club for the whole city, everyone is welcome. ‘You can’t have Liverpool in the title!’ they’d continue.

“Where do you live, mate? ‘Liverpool…’

“What’s your postcode? ‘Liverpool…’”

The fact the club’s initials were CoLFC even made some Evertonians suspicious because it included the letters LFC.

“I don’t think we’ve convinced Evertonians just yet,” Manning admits. “At the moment we’re around two-thirds Liverpool, one third Everton. That’s mainly because there’s a culture at Liverpool for gangs of lads – or fellas – to go to the game together and that culture is not as widespread at Everton. I’d like to think at some point we’ll touch Everton’s hard-core support. It could be because they hate us but it could be because life isn’t so bad for Evertonians yet. They can still get tickets, they can still take their kids to matches without the prices being through the roof. In the Kop, dad-and-lad season tickets are like gold dust.”

John Coleman, the Accrington manager, told me non-league clubs on Merseyside are up against it because Liverpool and Everton are so dominant in people’s thoughts and Liverpool as a city is relatively small, so the fight for attention is more of a struggle than it is in Manchester. Coleman started his semi-professional career at Kirkby Town in the 1980s, the same decade South Liverpool were heading towards extinction, despite its history as the club to host the first match in British football history under permanently installed floodlights at their Holly Park ground in Garston. South Liverpool had provided Liverpool FC with two first-team players in Jimmy Case and John Aldridge. Coleman cited the demise of Kirkby Town and then its successor Knowsley United – as well as Stantondale, a club from the Orrell Park area, not far from the Delta Taxis Stadium where Bootle now play. Bootle had moved there after their old Bucks Park ground on Copy Lane fell into disrepair, a factor that contributed towards the club dropping into the Liverpool County Combination amateur league for six years before it started to rise again, re-entering the North West Counties First Division in 2006.

Manning believes the history of City of Liverpool will tell a different story because he has identified what other clubs have done wrong.

“Football’s not about football at this level. If you are trying to attract people to come and watch a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker, an accountant and an estate agent, and it’s only about what happens on the pitch then that is why it’s failing,” he says. “Because you’re not talking about kids, you’re not talking about families, you’re not talking about gangs of mates on the terraces, you’re not talking about having a beer, you’re not talking about having a laugh. Football at this level needs to be a spectator sport because football struggles with other interests. Does a parent want to take his son or daughter to watch football for the same price as it costs to go to the cinema? Non-league clubs are fighting for the entertainment dollar and they don’t realise it.”

When AFC Liverpool formed in 2008, many Liverpool supporters were drawn like moths to a flame and Manning admits to being one of them. Alun Parry founded the club, saying, “Many people have been priced out at Anfield. I do not blame Liverpool; their prices are low compared to other Premier League clubs. They are just too much for a lot of us.” Though AFC Liverpool are still competing, but only in the league above City of Liverpool, attendances have dropped after initial popularity and Manning believes this is a consequence of directors being unelected and therefore a misunderstanding about what supporters really want as an alternative to Premier League football: not just a place to watch matches, but rather somewhere they can influence the democracy of the club.

“We were only born five minutes ago and anything can happen in the future but we think we’ve found a niche for people in Liverpool to come and enjoy football again,” Manning says. “At the forefront of everything we do we ask ourselves, what do the supporters want? The football is dragging on the coat-tails of the support, not the other way around.”

Manning’s conviction is impressive. If there is one weakness to City of Liverpool’s current arrangement, it might be geography. The Delta Taxis Stadium is in Bootle and Bootle is in the borough of Sefton. It means that within Liverpool’s council boundary, the only professional or semi-professional clubs that exist remain Liverpool and Everton. Manning’s agreement with Bootle, however, lasts for only two seasons and you can understand why they ended up playing there when he tells the story behind the move.

To apply for the North West Counties League, City of Liverpool needed to make its application by the end of 2015. At that point, Manning was led to believe that a home would be found at Wavertree’s athletics grounds or Liverpool County FA on Walton Hall Park, where Everton considered relocating. While the deal for Wavertree fell through, the rejection letter for Walton Hall Park only arrived two months before the big deadline. “By that time, we had five thousand people following us on Twitter, people who were interested in the club, potential members.” Manning had to decide whether to postpone the launch for a year or seek a ground-share. After emails were sent to every club in the area, the only ones that responded were Tranmere Rovers, Litherland REMYCA, Prescot Cables and finally Bootle – with just over a month to spare. “We didn’t have a league to play in, a kit, a manager, a ball or any supporters when we agreed a ground-share agreement with Bootle.” Manning has since been criticised for the deal that was brokered, with Bootle benefitting greatly from keeping all the proceeds from sales at the bar. “Bootle are the licensee of the bar so there was no other way around it,” Manning reasons. “It’s not the greatest deal this side of the Mississippi. But back then, did we think we were going to fill the bar with hundreds and hundreds of people swigging ale morning, noon and night? Yeah, we did, actually. Bootle certainly didn’t.”

The challenge for Manning, then, is finding land for City of Liverpool to make a permanent home. He recognises that it must be within walking distance of a railway station for it to be accessible for people all across Liverpool – so they can have a drink at what also needs to be there, a clubhouse with a bar. He believes as well that the pitch must be 4G rather than grass so games never get called off and extra income can be made from it as a community facility.

The aim is to be away from Bootle by the start of the third season. “We’ve made an offer to purchase a plot of land in Liverpool,” Manning reveals. “We’re not waiting for a handout from the council. As a community benefit society, we can borrow money like it’s a mortgage and that should come in at around £1million. We then have to raise the deposit and the funds to build the stadium, which we’ll do through community shares. I reckon we’ll need close to the £500,000 mark for that. The new place, it won’t be a Manchester City style training ground, it will be a cowshed somewhere in Liverpool.”

Two of the sites being considered were in Tuebrook and Speke. In theory, Tuebrook would symbolically be more appropriate because it would be closer to Liverpool’s city centre than either Anfield or Goodison Park. Speke might be more practical because there is more space and the land is cheaper, though it is further out – and, perhaps, more of a risk because it is way to the south and this might result in some supporters from the north believing it’s too far away. A bit like Everton and Kirkby, perhaps.

“I don’t think the geography of the ground is going to be any problem for us whatsoever,” Manning insists. “If we can win the league this year and announce our ground plans, I think the roof blows off in terms of the interest in our club. I think we’ll be hitting a thousand attendances by the time we move to our new stadium. I believe we’ll maintain it as well, because the thirst for change is there.”

This is an edited extract from Simon Hughes’s new book On the Brink: A Journey Through English Football’s North-West, published by DeCoubertin Press.