This is Anfield: symbol or fortress?
One of Brendan Rodgers' first acts as Liverpool manager was to find the oldest-known version of the “This is Anfield” sign and re-hang it above the players’ tunnel at Anfield. It appeared to be a clever nod to Liverpool’s past, a way of instilling himself into the club folklore early. Most importantly it was a way of stepping into the shoes of a dynasty of managers, in particular the most famous of all, Bill Shankly, who hung the original.
As part of Liverpool folklore, the “This is Anfield” sign looms large. The strategy writers Johnson and Scholes (no, not Paul) in their work on culture and strategy write of a “cultural web” where symbols mean a great deal in how organisations and groups perform. Anfield is packed with such symbols, the Shankly Gates and Statue, the Paisley gates, the Hillsborough Memorial, the Kop. Only the Kop and the “This is Anfield” sign are designed to deliberately affect the result of the game.
The legend about the sign is that it is there to intimidate opposition teams. To let them know they were about to walk into “Fortress Anfield” or the “Coliseum” as our most eloquent of commentators, Stuart Hall, calls it. Shankly said it was to remind 'our lads who they're playing for and to remind the opposition who they're playing against.' After drawing nine and losing four out of their 19 league home games last season, it can be seen that Anfield has become anything other than a fortress. Brendan Rodgers knew this, and although he talked about the folklore behind the sign when he put it up, there was surely the desire to produce the intimidatory effect of which Shankly spoke.
The problem is that legend also has it that Bob Paisley, when asked about the sign, stated that it really made good players play better and bad players play worse. The effect was agnostic of the players’ team. He knew that Liverpool almost always had a greater number of “good” players than any other team they faced, so it would lead to an aggregate increase in performance for Liverpool and an aggregate decrease in performance for the team they were facing. Essentially, it was a sign that weeded the “men” from the “boys,” and Liverpool had more “men” playing for them than anyone else.
The truth of this has been apparent this week, when Di Natale played like a man inspired, as Udinese took all three points from the Europa League match at Anfield. He, alongside other older players, had apparently urged their manager, Francesco Guidolin, to field his strongest team, and allow them to play at Anfield. His performance proved Paisley right. Good players want to play at Anfield, and they are inspired by it, no matter the team colours they are wearing.
Rodgers' problem is that his squad is full of men who are intimidated by Anfield and playing like boys. So much so, that he is actually bringing boys in to replace them. Too many players in red walk under that sign, and do not tap it for inspiration, but cower under it in fear. Liverpool no longer boasts better players than many of the teams they face. If Paisley was right, the maths just isn’t stacking up for Liverpool and their famous sign. Maybe Rodgers should quietly take the sign down and think of another way to “stand on the shoulders of giants”.