Detroit Liverpool fans walk the walk in supporting beloved English soccer club

Larry O'Connor
The Detroit News
Amy Gilley, 37, of Ypsilanti sings "You'll Never Walk Alone" before a Liverpool Football Club match at Thomas Magee's in Detroit on July 22.

You nick them and they bleed red, but then again, so do their fierce rivals Manchester United when their epidermis is perforated.

So scratch that from the list of what separates Liverpool supporters from any other in the long list of rabid soccer fan bases. 

No, what puts the English soccer team’s followers a cut above from most is the ritual that played out Sunday among LFC Detroit’s supporter club members at Thomas Magee’s Sporting House and Whiskey Pub in Eastern Market.

The watering hole, which caters to boxing and international sports enthusiasts, will serve as a nerve center this Saturday when Liverpool plays Manchester United at Michigan Stadium. 

A live podcast is planned with The Anfield Wrap as Liverpool FC Detroit members will host supporter groups from Chicago, Toronto, Boston and Cleveland at the pub before busing to The Big House.

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Among those 100,000 souls, they will perform the same captivating ceremony they did when Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund flashed up on a row of TVs at Thomas Magee’s. The din among the red shirt-clad gaggle immediately halted as Gerry & The Pacemakers’ “You’ll Never Walk Alone” echoed over the P.A.

Members dutifully joined in the chorus, some hoisting red Liverpool scarves above their heads. As soon as the ICC encounter kicked off, patrons returned to nursing pints and urging their heroes to victory.

“Mo Sa-lah!” one fan chanted in honor of Liverpool’s Egyptian goal poacher who was seen on the bench.

The stirring if not solemn YNWA tribute makes “the hair on the back your neck stand up,” said lifelong Liverpool supporter and Wigan, England native Andrew Wagstaff, who is Saginaw Valley State University men's soccer coach and runs the English Premier League club’s international academy in Michigan.

From left, Ryan Borg, 30, of Eastpointe, David Belletini, 59, of Livonia, and his daughter, Sophia Bellentini, 18, of Livonia watch a Liverpool match at Thomas Magee's.

Wagstaff, who was not among Thomas Magee contingent, frequently inhabited Anfield, the club’s home ground for 126 years, including its infamous Kop before the standing area became an all-seater structure five years after 96 Liverpool fans died in the Hillsborough disaster.

“I will never forget being swayed and moved by the crowd,” Wagstaff said about the Kop, which once held up to 30,000 standees. “It was so packed. In some instances now, you think back and think that was pretty scary, but at the time you’re just in this mob of fans who are cheering and singing. 

“The whole atmosphere is just absolutely mesmerizing.”

Magee’s pub offers all the authenticity — minus the sawdust and spit — for Liverpool’s Detroit-based faithful, including a wood-carved rendering of the rallying cry “You’ll Never Walk Alone” done by Detroit artist Tom Kim. The artwork features prominently on one of the pub's dark green parlor walls. 

Above an archway is a metal replica of Anfield’s Shankly Gates. Bill Shankly served as iconic manager of the Merseyside club during its heyday of the 1960s and ‘70s, winning three First Division titles (1964, 1966 and 1973) and a UEFA Cup in 1973.

The charismatic Scot was soccer’s Casey Stengel whose often quoted line was, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death … I can assure you it is much more important than that.”

Neal Ruhl, 40, of Washington Township, poses next to a Liverpool FC flag that hangs on the wall in his garage.

Thomas Magee’s has become ground zero for Detroit’s Liverpool supporting masses. The LFC Detroit chapter has swelled from 80-90 hearty folks in 2013 to more than 500 in five years.

During the Reds’ Champions League final against Real Madrid in May, Thomas Magee’s had to send an overflow crowd of 500 people to nearby Pappy’s Bar & Grill and Firebird Tavern. 

LFC Detroit chairman Ryan Borg came away with a shiner from Liverpool's 3-1 loss. 

“When we scored, everyone celebrated and I caught an elbow to the face,” said Borg of Eastpointe, who works for a Tier I automotive supplier. “It wasn’t violent. It was a great problem to have to be surrounded by everyone we felt the exact same way.”

Such an atmosphere exists only because the proprietor understands, Liverpool FC Detroit members said.

“They are in the DNA of our pub,” said owner Erik Olson, who hosted a barbecue for the recently sanctioned Detroit supporters group as a thank-you. “As a businessman, I hate to say, ‘Oh, no, no. we’re not just a Liverpool pub. We like everybody.’ But you can’t deny the presence of the guys.”

Gratitude for the owner is mutual.

“There were a lot of games on Tuesdays at 3 o’clock where we only had two people here or on Sundays at 7 a.m. where there were zero people here or one person here,” said Roger Strye of Grosse Pointe Park, LFC Detroit treasurer who works in IT at Blue Cross Blue Shield. “He committed to us early and said to us, ‘I am going to be open for every game no matter what.’”

Detroit and Liverpool share a kindred spirit. 

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The cities have a similar blue-collar ethos and served as national punching bags for their respective socio-economic predicaments. While Detroit's greatest musical export was Motown, Liverpool gave the world the Beatles.

Beyond that, the team’s “swashbuckling, free-flowing” attacking style is eye-appealing, Wagstaff said. Liverpool games are among those featured weekly on NBC Sports Network.

“The reason why they’ve endeared themselves to fans is the style of soccer you see on TV,” said Wagstaff, whose Pontiac-based Liverpool International Academy – Michigan has chapters in Ann Arbor, Clarkston, Ferndale and Windsor. 

“Part of it is the bright red, it’s such a dominant color, and the characteristics the club stands for. It’s kind of a relentless drive to be successful, to roll up sleeves up and work, but also I feel it revolves around family and togetherness and a positive environment. I do believe there is a very good link between Detroit and Liverpool.”

Neal Ruhl, who is Detroit City FC’s play-by-play announcer, unabashedly touts his Liverpool alliance during Le Rouge’s livestreams. Ruhl lined up with the Anfield side after talking to co-workers at Oakland University where he is director of broadcasting.

“I was a fan free agent and they said, knowing you as we do you’d like Liverpool because they score a lot and they give up a lot of goals,” said Ruhl, who has a large Shankly-inspired “We are Liverpool” flag in his garage. “They beat teams they shouldn’t and they lose to teams they shouldn’t.

“And I said, ‘Hell yeah, I’ve been a Lions fan, sign me up for that. I’m in.”

Ruhl, unless summoned to call a United Soccer League game, will be among the expected 100,000 fans or so at Michigan Stadium.

Manchester United’s first visit at The Big House drew a then-record 109,318 to watch a soccer game in August 2014. The cavernous stadium is the perfect setting for a rivalry, which is separated by less than 35 miles but brimming with antipathy and hatred.

Some put it on par with Michigan-Ohio State.

"Can I call it for what it is? It's the Yankees versus the Red Sox," said Mitch Davis of Oak Park, LFC Detroit secretary. "It's two teams that don't want to admit it, but they always want to be better than the squad next door."

Fellow committee member Borg nearly spits out his Boddington's in disgust.

"I hate Manchester United more than I love Liverpool," he said.