Over the past fifty years or so, the city of Liverpool has mostly meant three things to the world beyond Merseyside: music, left-wing politics and football. Tony Evans, the Evening Standard football columnist and fan of the Reds, our visitors on Saturday, ticks all three boxes.
The one-time trumpet and trombone player with The Farm wrote one of the best football books of 2018, Two Tribes, about the 1985-86 season, when Everton and Liverpool competed for the League Championship in the aftermath of the Heysel Stadium tragedy and against a backdrop of protest against the rule of Margaret Thatcher.
But it covered far more ground than the distance between Anfield and Goodison Park, ranging across social and political issues too.
“I was disappointed that people have seen it as a Liverpool or even a Merseyside book,” he says. “Liverpool and Everton were the two best teams in Europe but the book also deals with West Ham, who had their best ever league season and finished third.
"Had Liverpool not won at Chelsea in their last game on the last day of the season, a postponed game on the following Monday between Everton and West Ham at Goodison would have been a title playoff.
“But the ‘two tribes’ are not Liverpool and Everton. Really they were the rich and the poor, Thatcher and her victims - which was us. Liverpool was the centre of that battle at that time. The first half of the book is more political than social and that is the more valuable part.
“There is almost too much of the football, as good as it was, and as entertaining as were the characters involved. [Everton captain] Peter Reid and [goalkeeper] Neville Southall were brilliant on the politics of it all. Neville is committed and passionate. I called him one day at half-past one to check something and next time I looked at my watch it was four o’clock!
“It’s a snapshot of a society and a game that was about to change. ‘85-‘86 was a watershed for football. Nothing was the same after it and society was totally transformed under Thatcherism. Thatcherism itself was a revolt against traditional Tory one-nation patronage, it was the rise of the grammar school boys, the vulgarists who wanted to grab as much as they could.
“They were rejecting the class system just as much as the so-called Militant Tendency were. Pre-1985 you couldn’t imagine something like The X factor and the ‘Me’ generation.
“It was a time when you wanted to be involved, whether in was in politics, football or music.
"You felt it was all part of a resistance to Thatcherism. I was in The Farm, who went on to have hits after I’d left. All Together Now is one of the best pop records of the 1990s.
“I’d never learned to play an instrument but when I got suspended from university for a year I learned the trumpet - it was hearing Dexy’s Midnight Runners that did it. My first gig with The Farm was in front of six people. The second was at the Liverpool Empire supporting the Style Council.at their first gig, a benefit for the City council, in front of 3,000 people.”
“We did a lot of miners’ strike benefits.. The Yorkshire miners had a sense of themselves as the backbone of Britain and for them to be called ‘the enemy within’ by Thatcherites really destabilised them. In Liverpool we sort of gloried in it. I know everybody looks back on their twenties as a great time because it’s when they were young, but it was certainly a vibrant time.”
Technically, he was unemployed, as were many people all over the country, and he looks back on that time not as wasted but as one of opportunity. “The only reason I was able to have the time to do it was because I was on the dole. Now if you’re unemployed you have to go on courses, which has taken away an opportunity for the working classes to be creative.
“It has been counter-productive. You restrict the arts to the comfortably wealthy who can afford to do it. Being able to claim benefits allowed J K Rowling to develop her writing. One of the side-effects of the welfare state was a more creative society.”
His move into journalism began during a spell in the USA. “I had two weeks’ holiday and never went back,” he said. “I was working on buildings in Southern California, age 28, physically fit, but then I thought: ‘What are you going to be doing when you’re 50?’ I thought if I could talk, I could write and started applying for jobs on local papers in LA.”
Like many Brits, he found that his accent worked in his favour, even though it was (and still is) the scouse brand of the Queen’s English rather than Hugh Grant’s. “A woman liked my accent so gave me a go writing local business stories. Eventually I got poached and on my first day at the new paper they asked me if I could be automotive correspondent. They didn’t know I’d only taken test five weeks before.
“I also started writing soccer reports on Orange County local games and one day the LA Times asked if I knew anyone who could cover a high school [American] football game. I said that I could do it although I had to persuade them. When I came home I started looking at the Guardian media jobs page every Monday and went for a job as editor of First Down the American Football magazine. They asked about my experience so I showed them a copy of the LA Times with my report in it.”
He got the gig and went on to work for the Sunday Times and The Times, eventually becoming football editor at the latter. Further promotion might have involved making the decision to put rugby or cricket rather than football on the back page, so he went freelance and now shares his opinions through the pages of the Evening Standard and on various broadcast outlets.
The Standard got him a press pass for Albion’s recent 2-2 draw at West Ham, but although he was impressed – “When they went 2-0 up I thought they might nick another one on the break,” he says – he still thinks that Liverpool will be too strong at The Amex on Saturday. Even after their potentially morale-sapping first Premier League defeat by Manchester City?
“I don’t think the City game will have had that much effect,” he says. “It was a game of small margins. Okay, City were the better side but they’re one of the best teams in Europe.
There’s a sense around Anfield that Liverpool can roll over the lesser lights and, really, that is anyone outside the top five.
“I wouldn’t underestimate Brighton but Liverpool have the pace and movement up front to score at least a couple of goals. It’s a different Liverpool this season. They have been relentless. Any clearances the opposition makes, they pick up and put the pressure straight back on. Brighton might look to break but they could struggle to get out if they sit too deep.”
In short, he expects a match similar to Albion’s 1-0 defeat on Merseyside early in the season. “Brighton will have to defend and I don’t think being at home will make too much difference. Liverpool have been better away from home than at Anfield if anything and they will look to attack.”
Two Tribes, Bantam Press £18.99