As the two teams strode onto the field in Manchester, England, an audience of 70,000 people rose to their feet and sang for their heroes in unison. At the same time, a small group of devout worshippers held their scarves high and chanted with equal if not greater volume, as if their voices could be transmitted through the television screens.
This coalition of fans gathered at the Victoria Freehouse in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Freehouse, as it is known by its regular customers, sits on the waterfront of Philadelphia by the Delaware River. A nondescript black and white awning with the bar's name in minimalist font provided cover for the entering customers on this gloomy, wet day that coincided with one of the biggest rivalries in world football: Manchester United vs. Liverpool. The match was taking place 3,400 miles from the Freehouse, but the distance had no impact on these Liverpool supporters. Liverpool, and the entire English Premier League, has developed a large, intense following across the pond.
When I entered the Freehouse 45 minutes before kickoff, there were already at least 50 people there. One half of the crowd was huddled by the bar, clenching teacups and half-empty pints of Carlsberg beer. The other half of the group sat at the tables opposite the bar, devouring everything from a full English breakfast to burgers and buffalo wings. I would later discover that there was a second floor, full of tables and chairs and more TV screens to fit the fans that couldn’t find a place by the bar.
The Freehouse had brought together a wide variety of Liverpool fans on this particular day. Several British accents could be distinguished. There were jerseys of former Liverpool players, like Phillippe Coutinho, and current Liverpool players, like captain Jordan Henderson. A father walked in with his son. A mother walked in with her daughter. There was a young woman sitting at the very front of the bar, reading a PowerPoint presentation on her laptop about completing an APA research report. But they were all at the Freehouse for the same reason: to support Liverpool Football Club.
The Victoria Freehouse opened its doors in 2012. It is owned by Ed Strogen, a 35-year old from Hatherfield, NJ. He did not intend for the bar to become the home of the Philadelphia Liverpool Supporters Club. In fact, Strogen himself has not been a Liverpool fan for long.
“My stepdad is a Liverpool fan and he said, ‘There is nowhere in Philly that has a significant base so you should support them and start playing their games.”
Seeing a potential business opportunity, Strogen, who is also the bartender, began to occupy the television sets with Liverpool matches. He also began to open early when there would be matches outside of the normal bar hours. But, as he explained, the initial crowd consisted of himself and one or two others.
Match after match, year after year, the bar would become slightly fuller with Red and White shirts and other paraphernalia. And match after match, year after year, Liverpool showed signs of improvement. Before Strogen knew, the front of the bar felt like a can of sardines every week.
This very feeling became more prevalent as the inception of the match inched closer, and the few remaining diners took their final bites and stood to join the now-inebriated fans by the bar.
What followed is the audible signifier of the start of every Liverpool match: the signing of the team anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” The song is seen as not only an indicator of the intimate relationship between the Liverpool players and their supporters, but also serves as a differentiator between the true fanatics and casual fans. If you are real Liverpool fan, you know all of the words to the anthem. As the groups of Liverpool supporters both in the stadium in Manchester and at the bar in Philly belted out the lyrics of the anthem, they also engaged in the tradition of raising a Liverpool scarf above their heads. The scarves, usually with the phrase “YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE” on one side, are a badge of honor for Liverpool fans, and they are handled with great care.
The final lyrics of the song softly faded into the air, the scarves put back around necks, and the match was underway.
From this moment on, a group of young men near the front of the bar were leading a variety of chants; some focused on individual players as they completed a pass or took the ball away from a United player, and others centered around the team and the fans themselves. Two of these men were Matt Bess and Jimmy Pirolli, recent graduates of Temple University and avid Liverpool supporters. Bess and Pirolli met at the Freehouse three years ago, and they are one example of the many friendships that the Freehouse has created.
“Literally everybody that I know here is because we went to the games,” Bess said. “My roommate now is someone I met at this bar, and we’ve become best friends. The crowd here is always incredible.”
Bess and Pirolli were enjoying the game with several other friends. And by enjoying, I mean screaming obscenities at the screen every time the referee would make a decision that went against Liverpool. Every time I turned from watching the game, I would see the bartender with one Carlsberg pint in each hand headed right toward the group.
“Carlsberg. Always. You always drink Carlsberg,” Bess articulated.
As the first half wore on, there was a tangible sense of frustration among the Freehouse contingent. Liverpool, who had won the first eight games of the Premier League season, were not playing at their dominant best. One of their star attackers, Mohammed Salah, was absent due to injury, and it was having a definite effect on Liverpool’s offense. Man United was playing stifling defense, breaking up Liverpool’s quick passing movements and maintaining measured possession while also preventing the Reds from establishing any kind of rhythm.
But Pirolli and the rest of the people at the bar continued to chant in support of their team, regardless of their current performance. This is something that drew Pirolli to pick Liverpool when he was deciding which club he wanted to support.
“As an American sports fan, when do you hear 60,000 people singing in unison? It’s not even that common in soccer all over the world. Just to have that really shocked me. I saw that bond between players, fans, and coaches.”
The rain began to come down at Old Trafford and continued to trickle down the awning of the Freehouse. The first half hour of the match had gone, and the sudden, instantly recognizable smell of fish and chips permeated the bar. A strong tackle was put in by Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino, and Pirolli began a chant referring to the player as “Bobby” as if they were good friends.
And then came the first blow - Man United 1, Liverpool 0 in the 36th minute. After a controversial no-foul call, United went up the field and a calm finish by Marcus Rashford put the Red Devils in front of the Reds. Bess’s hands went straight to his head, and the looks of shock were consistent across the faces of the supporters.
Bess, though angry, had hope. He had seen Liverpool come back in big games before. His favorite game ever at the Freehouse, he said, was the second leg of the 2019 UEFA champions league semifinal against European powerhouse FC Barcelona. After losing the first leg 3-0, the Reds came back and rose from the ashes in truly dramatic fashion, winning the match 4-0 and the tie 4-3.
“We went nuts. We went absolutely nuts. It was an incredible day.”
The Reds followed this up with a 2-0 victory over Premier League Rival Tottenham Hotspur in arguably the most important club football game of the year: The Champions League Final. Both Pirolli and Strogen chose this match as their personal favorites at the Freehouse.
“That was the craziest day we’ve ever had here,” explained Strogen. “It was a really fun day from start to finish, everyone was in a good mood. It was awesome.”
Pirolli described some of the celebrations after the victory: “We marched about 30 blocks to the Tottenham Bar…We didn’t do anything too wrong, but we wanted to chant past their bar. We walked past, and they did not like it.”
So, it was clear that this Liverpool team was capable of winning from behind, but would they be able to do it again this time?
The bar area had become so full by the start of the second half that the servers had to announce when they were walking by. As the volume of human bodies increased, so did the tension. The second half followed a similar pattern to the first; Liverpool was unable to create many scoring opportunities even though they had a majority of the possession. It would take something extra to get the Reds back in the game.
The 70th minute past, and then the 75th, and the 80th. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp made all three of his substitutions, throwing on new attackers to try to find a breakthrough…
Wham! Goal. 1-1. 85th minute. Out of nowhere. And the goal scorer would be none other than Adam Lallana, a player who suffered a recent major injury and who had not scored a Premier League goal since May 2017. A low cross trickled through a sea of bodies and found Lallana anxiously waiting at the back post, ready to tap the ball into the net as it came to his right foot.
Mayhem ensued inside the Freehouse, even if for a few brief moments. There was jumping and hugging and animalistic screaming and fist pumping and high fiving, and then there was chanting and singing and scarf-waving and more jumping. And there was relief that Liverpool had equalized. And belief that they could go on and win the game.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was Manchester United who had become famous for going behind and scoring goals very late in matches to sneak ahead and win games that they maybe shouldn’t have. This phenomenon came to be known as “Fergie Time,” named after their extremely successful manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who was the constant during Manchester United’s most successful period in their history.
On this day and in this match, however, it was Liverpool who was trying desperately to give their bitter rivals a taste of their own medicine. But Liverpool is not Manchester United with Ferguson at the helm, and there was not that same magic on this occasion. The match finished Liverpool 1, Manchester United 1.
It was neither the result that the fans in the Freehouse had hoped for nor expected from their team. But as the final whistle came and went, the Freehouse crowd unanimously applauded to show their support for the players and the club even with an ocean separating them from the match.
“I’ve never been to England,” explained Bess. “None of us have been to England, but we still love this team. The players, the coach, the entire team.”
The intense connection between the team in England and the fans in Philadelphia was obvious. You could see it. You could hear it. You could even taste it. For Pirolli and many others, Liverpool plays a very large role in their life.
“These are the games that I schedule my life around and schedule work around...It just means more to me. They are so far away, and I haven’t been there yet, but I feel so much more connected with each and every player that wears a Liverpool kit.”
The passion for Liverpool does not end with the regular Philadelphia supporters that pack the Freehouse for each and every match. Strogen went on to explain that there are travelling fans who prioritize booking a hotel close to the Freehouse. Even further, people will step off of a plane and make their way directly to the bar, arriving with a Liverpool jersey on their back and a suitcase in hand.
The English Premier League continues to develop an extremely strong, devoted fan base in the United States, and the Victoria Freehouse is a tangible example of that. Through increased access to games and marketing by NBC Sports, as well as a general increase in interest in soccer in the US, places like the Freehouse have come to life; there are havens across the country where fans of a specific club can congregate and collectively show their passion in a country that does not host a single Premier League game.
Bess, Pirolli, Strogen, and many other like-minded Liverpool fanatics will continue to schedule their lives around Liverpool Football Club matches and find their way to the bar at the Freehouse, exemplifying that world-famous anthem; the Liverpool team truly does never walk alone.