Lefty Liverpool and Righteous Ronnie: The Strange Symmetry of L4 and America’s 40th President.
Lefty Liverpool and Righteous Ronnie: The Strange Symmetry of L4 and America’s 40th President.
By Justin Sharon
Within minutes of Liverpool’s improbable late victory against Crystal Palace — once dubbed “The team of the ’80’s” — the ’80’s officially ended with the death of Nancy Reagan. (Before the month was over Palace’s most famous fan — a five-foot-one-inch entertainer, name of Ronnie — would himself be six feet under).Visitors to my home have often remarked that I am probably the planet’s only person whose walls support shrines to those strangest of bedfellows, Liverpool Football Club and Ronald Wilson Reagan. (Although I am evidently not the sole individual — indeed, I am not even the sole individual whose initials are “J.S.” — with equal admiration for both the English port city’s most successful soccer side and Illinois’ favorite son).
As an American who came of age in that totally awesome time, and lived in Britain back then to boot, each loomed large over my adolescence. Admittedly Merseyside, home of Derek Hatton and his Trotskyist Militant Tendency, and ‘Dutch’ Reagan, conservative icon and arch right winger, are ostensibly polar opposites. Dig deeper, however, and an eerie overlap emerges between the team from Lennon’s hometown and the man who vowed to leave “Leninism on the ash heap of history”. The initial parallels actually date back decades. Both began dynasty building in 1964. That year Reds won their inaugural championship under Bill Shankly, famous for saying “If Everton were playing at the bottom of the garden, I’d pull the curtains.” An electrifying address at the Republican convention announced the arrival of Ronald Reagan, later to take such successful aim at the Iron Curtain. (One sage has suggested that the GOP, far from losing the Barry Goldwater-Lyndon Johnson contest by a crushing margin, actually emerged triumphant. It simply took 16 years to count the votes). It is in the 1980’s, however, where the two march most obviously in tandem. Both dominated the decade, each experiencing their greatest victories and most grievous setbacks essentially in lockstep.
Let’s take a lighthearted look at the spooky symmetry between the zip (L4, postal code of Anfield Stadium) and The Gip(per, America’s 40th president) over the course of ten titanic years…
1979 — “Georgia On My Mind”. Liverpool encounter trouble in Tbilisi as Dinamo dump them out of the European Cup in the Soviet Union. Almost immediately Ronald Reagan, vowing to destroy the Soviet Union, announces he will oppose Georgia’s Jimmy Carter for the presidency.
1980 — “Winning Never Gets Old”. Liverpool win the championship with an aging team. Indeed, for the title decider against an Aston Villa outfit managed by Birkenhead-born Ron (Saunders), the Reds are almost half a decade older than the opposition. Meanwhile Reagan becomes the oldest person ever elected to the Oval Office. On the evening of November 4 in the U.S., the soon-to-be-septuagenarian becomes the country’s 40th president, soundly defeating his Democrat opponent. This makes it already November 5 in the U.K. and Liverpool mark the occasion by recording, of all results, a 4-0 win against opponents managed by one Alex Ferguson. Sometimes life’s greatest triumphs contain within them the seeds of future defeat. Sure enough, in 1993 a Democrat finally reentered the White House after years of Reagan-imposed exile, and Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United ended their own Liverpool-inflicted eternity without a title.
1981 — “Shots Heard Round The World”. (Or, “Paris Hilton”). Putting a difficult start to the year behind them — Liverpool begin ’81 by failing to win five of their opening six league fixtures — the club conquers all come May, lifting the European Cup in the French capital. They do so with a shot from Kennedy, namesake of an assassinated American president. Sensing the futility of raging against a relentless right wing tide, Liverpool’s longstanding left winger Steve Heighway quickly decamps to the Minnesota Kicks. (As an aside, Reagan would win every single state save one in his second electoral tsunami. The lone holdout? Minnesota). By the end of ’81, alas, Liverpool were in an awful funk, reaching their lowest ebb in a 3-1 home defeat to Manchester City. Putting a difficult start to the year behind him — Reagan begins ’81 by being shot in an assassination attempt outside the Hilton in America’s capital — he conquers all come May. That month the commander in chief’s approval rating climbs to 68%, the joint highest of his entire eight years in office. By the end of ’81, alas, Reagan was in an awful funk, his poll numbers having plunged all the way back below 50%.
1982 — “Ronnie Earns His Spurs” (Or, “The Hunt For Red October”). Immediately after the mauling by Man City left Liverpool languishing in 12th place, Liverpool turn to Ronald Reagan’s ideological soul mate for salvation. Avowed Tory Graeme Souness is appointed club captain to Lazarus-like effect, inspiring an incredible comeback that culminates in another championship. (The skipper was such an acolyte of Mrs. Thatcher, a book about him bore the subtitle “The Legacy of the Iron Lady’s Man”). Maggie memorably remarked that Ronald Reagan “won the cold war without firing a shot” but Souness wasn’t about to take any chances, promptly winning a point against the Soviet Union with a precise shot. Liverpool’s other savior that season was a man named Ronnie, with Whelan scoring twice to defeat Spurs at Wembley and again against Spurs in that season’s title clincher. In October Reagan forsakes his cowboy spurs to kick a soccer ball on the Rose Garden lawn with Pelé, the legendary player from Brazil. Meanwhile Liverpool mark the month by lining up — not once, not twice, but three times — against an Ipswich Town team whose star striker was named Brazil.
1983 — “Kenny’s From Heaven / Star Wars”. For Liverpool, it’s a case of home comforts but trouble abroad. In his final season as manager Bob Paisley, who like Ronald Reagan would sadly succumb to Alzheimer’s, exits on a high. In the same month that Reagan assails godless communists as the “Evil Empire”, the “Red Devils” of Manchester United, coached by Ron (Atkinson), threaten to emerge triumphant at Wembley. Thankfully Ronnie (Whelan) swiftly vetoes that idea with an outstanding goal to secure another Milk Cup. Reagan, meantime, vetoes a dairy bill which “would reduce the downward desired effect upon milk production”. With Kenny Dalglish elected Footballer of the Year, Liverpool are easily crowned national champions. By contrast, the Warsaw Pact continues to prove problematic after Poland’s Widzew Łódź become the third successive outfit from Eastern Europe to eliminate the club from continental competition. For Reagan, it’s ultimately a case of home comforts but trouble abroad. The year begins badly, when figures released in early January reveal America’s unemployment rate at its highest level since the Great Depression. With the ghost of Herbert Hoover stalking the White House amid an inexorable increase in the nuclear arsenal, Hoover prophetically opt for early January to sponsor their only match at Anfield all season, against Arsenal. Yet Ron, like LFC, enjoys the last laugh. The economy starts a startling recovery, and that September more jobs are created than in any single month in American history. By contrast, the Warsaw Pact continues to prove problematic. Much to Moscow’s fury, Poland’s Pope John Paul II holds a private meeting with Lech Walesa, leader of the banned Solidarity trade union movement. This as the Soviets step up their saber-rattling by shooting down a South Korean airliner, and plans for a Strategic Defensive Initiative intensify in Washington. It all contributes to what many historians now consider one of the most dangerous years of the entire Cold War.
1984 — “Red Dawn / Morning In America”. Liverpool, a.k.a. “The Reds”, capture two out of three domestic prizes available. In addition to another championship, they beat “The Blues” of Everton into submission to take the Milk Cup final, with Souness scoring the winner. Turning to continental competition, in the semi-final Liverpool’s leader sticks it to the Eastern Bloc by pole-axing Dinamo Bucharest captain Movilă, subsequently stretchered off with a broken jaw. Souey skippers the side to European Cup final glory in Rome on his final appearance for the club to make 1984, statistically, the zenith of Liverpool’s dominance of the decade. Elsewhere a mustachioed man named (Ian) Rush is the talk of the town after enjoying a career-best season, scoring 47 times for Liverpool and 49 overall. Meanwhile untold numbers on Merseyside end up on the dole. Across the Atlantic, Ronald Reagan’s party capture two out of three domestic prizes on offer, winning the White House and Senate. America’s leader sticks it to the Eastern Bloc by declaring into an open mic, “I signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes”. That year’s landslide, where “red states” overwhelm “blue states” on the electoral map, make 1984 statistically the zenith of the Reagan revolution. He wins 47 contiguous states and 49 overall. Elsewhere a mustachioed man named Rush (Limbaugh) begins his conservative talk radio career and Bob Dole becomes Republican Majority Leader.
1985 — “Cold War”. For both Liverpool and Reagan, one of their finest ever years is immediately followed by an annus horribilis. The ill winds blew in early, with Liverpool’s icy encounter against Sunderland in January abandoned after 45 forgettable goalless minutes on account of snow. It marked an inauspicious start to 1985, which would eventually bring forth the horrors of Heysel in addition to the club’s first trophy-less season in a decade. A managerial change saw ‘uncle’ Joe Fagan make way for the much younger Kenny Dalglish. As for Reagan, the ill winds blew in early, with freezing temperatures forcing the president’s January inaugural to be moved indoors. Snow crucially obscured the grave markings of Waffen SS soldiers buried in Bitburg cemetery when White House officials conducted an advance visit. It marked an inauspicious start to 1985, which would ultimately bring forth additional horrors including a diagnosis of colon cancer. A managerial change saw Donald Regan appointed Chief of Staff, and the musical chairs extended to the Kremlin’s old guard, as 73-year-old Konstantin Chernenko made way for the much younger Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan makes his only presidential trip to Portugal, where that ill-fated winter a baby is born on the island of Madeira. He would one day come excruciatingly close to signing for Liverpool but is instead forever remembered as the one that got away. Twenty three years on he defeated an evil Russian-owned enemy in Moscow. Ronaldo was named after his father’s favorite movie star. The actor’s name? Ronald Reagan.
1986 “It’s a long, long while / From May to December”. For both Liverpool and Reagan, the worst of times is immediately followed by a year for the ages. Liverpool’s triumphant 12 months peak in May after winning what was only the century’s third league and FA Cup ‘Double’. Following a rocky start at Wembley, the Reds prevail thanks to a rotund playmaker nicknamed ‘Rambo’. Scouse power is further in evidence as Chris de Burgh, a lifelong Liverpool supporter, releases his hit song “The Lady In Red”. Come December, however, calamity had set in as a miserable month brings defeats by both Watford and Manchester United — LFC going goalless in each — and a desultory 0-0 draw with Charlton. As for Reagan, his triumphant 12 months peaked in May, with a 68% Gallup poll rating that equals the highest of his entire administration. America is awash in ‘Reagan, Rocky, and Rambo’ patriotism, and the ‘Teflon President’ ruled the Capitol Rotunda. Riding a wave of popularity, Nancy Reagan wears her trademark red at the centennial celebrations for Lady Liberty. By December, however, calamity had set in for her husband as an arms-for-hostages debacle prompts the swiftest ever plunge in presidential popularity, to 46%.
1987 “Anfield South and Oliver North”. For both Liverpool and Reagan, one of their finest ever years is immediately followed by an annus horribilis. Rush’s legendary goal streak finally ends, at ‘Anfield South’ of all places in the shadow of Wembley’s Twin Towers. (Hitherto, LFC had never lost whenever the Welshman hit the target). That spring he scored in front of a billboard for Tower Records but the die is cast after Arsenal tear down Liverpool’s woeful wall to net from a free kick. Rush leaves Liverpool after having reigned supreme from 1982-1987. His departure compounds the club’s misery as they end up empty handed. Regarding Reagan, in what supporters say is a rush to judgement, the Tower Commission issues a scathing report on the twin Iran-Contra scandals. With Oliver North the fall guy, The Gipper’s trustworthiness takes a huge hit. That spring, refusing to take ‘nyet’ for an answer, Ronnie makes his “tear down this wall” speech calling for freedom. The biggest bull market in Wall Street’s history concludes with a crash, ending an unprecedented era of wealth creation that lasted from 1982-1987.
1988 — “Trafalgar Square and Red Square”. The Reds and Ronnie both bounce back in spectacular style. Liverpool take the title with their greatest ever team to leave Manchester United and Alex Ferguson, a committed socialist from the shipyards of Red Clydeside, utterly vanquished. In May “The Anfield Wrap” rules the radio and LFC fans descend on Trafalgar Square for the FA Cup Final, although the team of Gerry and the Pacemakers is ultimately beaten. In May, wrapping up his presidency, the former radio announcer conquers Red Square to leave his audience of ardent Communists utterly vanquished. Making good on his promise to defeat the Gerrymander, Reagan inspires his party to a third successive White House win, the only occasion such a feat has been accomplished since 1945.
1989 — “The Two Ronnies”. (Or, “Win Just One More For The Gipper”). It’s the end of an era at Anfield, as Liverpool embark on their last successful championship season. A man named Ronny (Rosenthal) — described by one sportswriter as “a rogue rocket waiting to be aborted by mission control” — gets the goals that deliver an 18th title. And it’s goodnight from him, the end of an era in Washington as Ronald Reagan leaves office after eight eventful years. The Berlin Wall falls after the specter of S.D.I, which aims to intercept incoming Russian rockets, brings the Soviet Union to the brink of bankruptcy.
And so ends the peculiar symbiotic relationship between Liverpool’s Mighty Reds and President Ronald Reagan, a true ’80’s dream team. “We win, they lose” — Ronnie’s formulation for prevailing in the Cold War — worked pretty well as a mantra for both throughout the decade. If anyone had then dared suggest that, over a quarter of a century on, LFC would still be awaiting their next title, or that the Democrats would win popular vote victories in five of the next six presidential elections, men in white coats would have been instantly summoned. Many theories are espoused for Anfield’s subsequent 26-plus year wait to be crowned champions. But perhaps it was the signing, early in the fateful year of 1991 that also saw the CCCP cease to exist, of a workaday right winger by the name of…Jimmy Carter.