City of Liverpool FC’s climb to the Evo-Stik League was completed this past weekend, and four years after their formation, it was sweet reward for the many who have lent a hand. Engulfed from the beginning has been chairman and co-founder Paul Manning, who despite trying to find some form of happy medium, remains dedicated to building a non-league contender in the very image of ‘the city that fought back’.

They are a club that stand apart for the right reasons, but one of non-league’s most upwardly-mobile outfits, City of Liverpool FC, will admit they have got it wrong sometimes. Formed in 2015, the Purps’ story, and that of striker Tom Peterson, was documented on here last summer.

Ten months on, the supporter-owned club are celebrating their second promotion since beginning play in the 2016/17 season. Craig Robinson’s side dramatically clinched the Hallmark Security League (North West Counties) Premier Division last Saturday (27th April) with a 2-0 win at Irlam.

As he spoke in the build-up to the league campaign drawing to a close, chairman and commercial director Paul Manning was quick to highlight some of the pivotal moments that helped put them there.

“There’s been so many. Just unbelievable moments throughout the season, key moments, not just scoring goals but defending as well.

“We were away at Winsford at a very critical point of the season, 1-0 up, virtually the last kick of the game, one of our centre-halves, Anthony Brown, headed the ball back, over the goalie’s head, it’s bouncing, it’s going in, we’re about to draw, and Danny Dalton, our other centre-half, comes back and clears it off the line. That’s a moment that sticks out to me.

“The first game of the season as well, away at 1874 Northwich. They were at that point considered to be a title rival, and we beat them 6-3 in the end, but I think we were 6-1 up on 80 minutes.

“It was an absolutely fantastic performance and it was actually the marker for the whole season. It was the point we put our flag down and said ‘we’re here and we’re going for this.’

“So that was a very big moment, but honestly, I could name you 20.”

City of Liverpool FC chairman Paul Manning (left) with striker Jamie McDonald and the North West Counties Premier Division trophy. Photo: Amanda Manning

With tenacious endeavour, it stands to reason that not everyone on the way will take kindly to it. COLFC are a club with much to identify with, pinpointing inclusivity as a fundamental ideal from the start, while all funds generated from member fees go to developing the club or to community outreach programmes in Liverpool.

Nevertheless, Paul admits there was perhaps an air of cowboys kicking open the saloon doors at times in their early days, though with no ill intentions.

“We’ve made mistakes throughout, of course we have. In a personal sense, no doubt about it, I’m quite an abrasive personality, and in some respects, part of that abrasive personality is the reason the club has been successful, because I am quite driven, got tunnel vision – ‘we’re going for it and we’re not stopping.’

“Obviously, people can get hurt along the way with that, which I don’t mean, and I’m not particularly proud of. Also, when we first formed, our relations with the North West Counties Football League weren’t the best; we as a club were quite abrasive.

“We’ve learned all that, and that’s why we’re bringing in someone who’s got a relationship already with the Evo-Stik League who can smooth out our rough edges a little bit, because we have got tunnel vision. It isn’t just me, my colleague Peter Furmedge, the other board of directors, we’re going for it.

“This city needs a top-level non-league football club and it can be as big as it wants. We’ve got the foundations in place and it can be as big as the city wants it to be, in supporting it.

“From our perspective, we’re not stopping.”

Working in lively purple unison with the momentum their results and promotions have generated has been a fervent fan culture. For supporters priced out of or disillusioned with trying to follow today’s game at the top level, non-league is the antidote.

At COLFC, the red of Liverpool and blue of Everton mesh, though the official reason for the purple is that it is the city’s civic colour. Regardless of Premier League allegiances, the Purps represent affordable football on a Saturday afternoon, free of games being moved for TV coverage, sometimes at the last minute and with scant regard for those in the stands.

The fanbase is a buoyant one, with a plethora of chants and songs for those on the pitch, even though Paul prefers to go under the radar in that sense.

“Someone did try and start one for us – myself and Peter Furmedge – and we just said we’re not in it for that. Some of the shouts from our supporters and some of the songs are great, but to be honest, I don’t hear them; I’m totally focused on the football and engrossed.

“Last night’s game at Burscough, I couldn’t speak to anyone, I was stood on my own; I kept trying to find myself a little corner and people kept coming up and finding me! I don’t have any favourite chants but our supporters are great; they’re very innovative.”

While last weekend’s promotion meant it was a case of ‘Automatic for the Purple,’ it is more shades of Richard Ashcroft than R.E.M. in the scene Paul just described – ‘Alone with Everybody.’  His efforts are expended on giving the city and the community a club for everyone, yet he was craving a peaceful spot from which to see that next step, the next win, achieved.

It can also be a lonely place taking on so much responsibility, though his family and fellow volunteers for the club are anything but exempt in that.

“Well, the balance is completely out of kilter. Luckily, I’m self-employed, I work from home, but my paying job has become my part-time hobby, and my hobby – starting and running a football club – has become my full-time, unpaid job.

“It does just take over your life, and not just my life, there’s six directors, there’s 30 other volunteers, there’s Craig Robinson the manager who’s basically a volunteer as well. The whole of the club is focused and driven towards winning the next three points.

“Luckily, I’ve had some brilliant support this year from various volunteers who take even just small bits off me, which have freed me up to make a living, put food on the table for my family, because last year, I was virtually doing everything.”

Having won the Hallmark Security League First Division play-offs and the league’s Reusch Cup and Macron Cup in their inaugural season (2016/17), the Purps came 4th a division higher in 2017/18, as well as lifting the Reusch Champions Cup. This season saw them making headlines after drawing Chester FC away in the FA Cup second qualifying round. The 4-0 loss to their National League North opponents was no disgrace, given the three tiers that separated the sides.

As well as the aforementioned board addition, Paul shares more of the plans that were already being put in place prior to promotion being rubber-stamped.

 “You do have to start planning, you can’t wait for pre-season and then you’re in a new higher level of football. We’ve got some basic planning in place and we’ve started doing some things regarding the financial aspects.

“Obviously, in theory, it’s going to cost more money to be in a higher league, players will probably train twice a week, we may bring in new players, we may naturally lose some players. We started to plan around improving the club’s finances for next season.

“We’ve got a groundshare agreement with Bootle, the TDP Stadium at Vesty Road is graded for Evo-Stik West, so we’re okay on that front, so we have started planning for next season.”

The club are now officially up to Step 4, but to secure their own stadium was a primary objective from the beginning. Their groundshare at Bootle – the side they dramatically overtook on the last day after losing top spot to them a game earlier – is agreed for a further two years.

At the end of February 2018, it was announced the club had been granted the chance to draw up plans for a stadium on a former playing fields site in Fazakerley. The plot is just outside the Liverpool city limits, in Knowsley, but overseen by Liverpool City Council.

The Purps were subsequently trying to develop a comprehensive business case to allow the council to grant them a long-term lease to the site. Paul gives an update on the current state of play.

“To be honest, and brutally honest, we’re in exactly the same position as when we made the initial statement. We’ve got an exclusivity agreement on the site with Liverpool City Council, but the site is covered in a mound of who knows what?

“It’s been there for ten years. It’s a big site, this – eight hectares of land – as I say, covered in some kind of rubbish.

“Liverpool City Council own the site but the site is actually in Knowsley, which is an adjoining borough, so from Liverpool City Council’s point of view, they’ve got to spend x amount of money remediating the site to get it into a blank canvas that we can use. Then ultimately, there’s no financial benefit or impact for Liverpool City Council, because all the rates that we’d be paying and the planning would then be with Knowsley.

“With austerity, government cuts, local councils – certainly Liverpool City Council – have been sort of ravaged financially; I don’t think they have the financial clout to spend this x million pounds to remediate this site to physically give us the lease. So we’re constantly chasing the council, we’re not really getting very far in that sense, so we are looking at other options now.

“We’re quite close on agreements on two other sites as well; much smaller, but we are aware, as a club, that we can’t groundshare forever. We’re gonna hit a limit of what we can achieve on the pitch, because of the money we’re spending in a groundshare; not just the money we’re spending but the money we’re not making on the bar, on the food, on a proper club shop and merchandise, that sort of thing.

“We have to get our own place; it’s key to the future of the club.”

Coming from Huyton, Paul played in the successful junior football club Bovis in Liverpool – ex-Leicester City defender Jimmy Willis among the former players to turn pro – before dropping out in his mid-teens as those around him began developing physically much quicker. He resumed with pub football as an 18-year-old, enjoying it for a time and competing strongly before ‘injuries got me, and life, family.’

With two daughters, Paul and wife Amanda then had a son, with Paul forming a junior club and helping out as a coach. Over a decade on, his role today brings various different demands, though his understanding of the game and where it fits within Liverpool is more applicable than ever.

Knowing the city, what it signifies and what it stands for – what it has had to fiercely and tirelessly stand for – he offers his response to the question of how Liverpool has changed and developed through the 80s, 90s and into the 2019 we see.

“In an infrastructure sense, it’s a beautiful city, visually. We’ve got an amazing waterfront and a fantastic city that’s constantly evolving and you might say gentrifying, which in some ways is a bit of a shame and other ways it’s nice.

“It’s a massive tourist venue now and that’s great. From what we’re seeing in a football sense, and almost in a political sense, the city is more activist, if that’s the word I’m looking for.

“The campaign to ban The Sun and keep them out of the city, which started 30 years ago, that’s now a generational thing. Younger people who probably weren’t even born when The Sun did this smear campaign, now actively campaign to keep it out of the city.

“I think because of that, the right-wing sort of ideology and any of these groups have never gained a foothold in the city, and when they come to the city to march, they get met by 10,000 people at Lyme Street. The public do not allow right-wing groups to come to our city.

“That all comes back to the activism of the Hillsborough justice campaign and the campaign to not buy The S*n. We’re really proud of that, and we tap into that of course (at City of Liverpool FC); I’m a Hillsborough survivor, Peter Furmedge is.

“To see that activism in younger people in the city and to keep that heritage as almost a rebel city -there’s a book about it being the city that fought back – and that’s Liverpool. Liverpool is a city that will stand on its own two feet, with its own opinions, and fight and argue and scrap for themselves, against the rest of the country if necessary.

“We’re a bit like that ourselves (at COLFC), I suppose, and quite proud of that.”

For any individual or organisation, it is easy to talk about being inclusive and welcoming, but it can be an altogether different challenge when trouble rears its head. Many indeed turn a blind eye in such a situation.

In non-league, like football in general, the myriad positive attributes sadly come with bleaker aspects. In committing to being a club that refuses to discriminate or exclude, Paul tells how sticking by that has sadly already brought its perils.

“It was just what we wanted to do, but as time has gone on, we have had a couple of instances now, mostly in this season, of sectarianism, which in this day and age is ludicrous, as far as we’re concerned. We had people displaying a flag which wasn’t very nice, so the other side of the sectarian argument, they start singing songs.

“We banned four people earlier in the season, because we’re just not having it; City of Liverpool Football Club has to be inclusive. It is inclusive to everybody, except those who won’t give inclusivity to other people.

“So we banned four people initially, and that sort of took the sting out of it a little bit, but it has rumbled on over the course of this year, and we’re still dealing with it now, unfortunately. At the end of the day, we will not have creeping in of right-wing ideology into our football club, and considering where we are in the football ladder, we feel pretty isolated, if I’m brutally honest, in this fight.

“At the top level, there’s lots of propaganda, campaigns and all the rest of it, but at our level of football, down here where we are, Step 5, all kinds of things get said, all kinds of things happen, and we’re taking a stand, at our little football club. We haven’t had much support in that but we are taking a stand, and it’s cost us in a personal sense; for me and my colleagues, threats.

“We’re targets for groups and people now, which is not nice, not nice for our families, because we are only volunteers, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to do the right thing. Our club cannot be seen to be accepting of any kind of this ideology; also far-left ideology as well, because we’re not into extremism, at all.

“We’re a left-leaning club, but at the core of that, really we just want to help people. It’s not a political finger-pointing exercise; we just need to help our community.

“That does mean the whole community, though.”

In the three years since that first game – away to Prestatyn Town in pre-season – the Purps have refined plenty in regard to how they operate. It includes their online communication, as Paul describes when asked of any misinformation there has been about the club.

“There’s been a bit of jealousy, as there is in football. We’re successful and we’ve been quite brash, and in that sense, that’s going to attract people who don’t like what you’re doing and who look to find all kinds of things.

“At the end of the day, we know what we’re doing and we know we’ve got our genuine reasons for everything we do, and we’re good people just looking to win the next three points. Along the way, we want to help our community as well.

“If there is any misinformation about us, we tend to just ignore it and crack on. If we fought everyone on Twitter, you’d never achieve anything.

“You talk about mistakes we made and we learn from, quite early on, in that first season, we were involved in every Twitter argument. We got some good advice off the North West Counties League, who said ‘just don’t respond, and anyone who carries on hounding you, you just block them.’

“We’re open to criticism, don’t get me wrong, but if it turns into a campaign of criticism, from someone who’s got 51 followers, you’re not using our timeline and our followers to abuse us. We just block people, unfortunately; that’s just the nature of social media for us at the moment.”

In the face of any hardships, Paul and those involved at the club have been frequently reminded of just why they do it, and there is nothing quite like a final-day title win to reinforce that. When it comes to what he takes most satisfaction and heart from in doing this job, the answer is twofold.

“The thing that gives me most pride is winning football matches, and that comes from our city; our city has got a proud heritage of being a hugely successful football city. We export footballers, coaches, football people, all over this country, to go and ply their trade, because there was nothing in the city, which hopefully there is now.

“So, pride in our football ability is demonstrated in that we’re going for the double, and we’re a successful football club and we’re ambitious, so I take pride in that. I also take a lot of pride in just seeing happy people at football again.

“People go to Premier League matches – I still go myself occasionally – and it’s mostly a routine, a habit. You spend that money, you go with your mates, you do this, do that.

“At our level, we have created a joyous football club that brings a lot of happiness to a lot of people’s lives, and that is something we’re immensely proud of.”

There is still a Macron Cup final against 1874 Northwich (at Altrincham) to look forward to this Saturday (4th May), but double or no double, the Purple Partisans can attack their preparations for next season with huge excitement now. A new level awaits for Craig Robinson’s title-winners and for all those on the terraces and behind the scenes.

For the chairman, does anything else manage to find a way in there alongside family and football?

“I’ve got my own family – wife and three kids – and I’ve got a much bigger family of about 30/35 people; we’re all very close. Other than that, next biggest thing is the Purps; that has taken over my life, taken over my family’s life, all of my family are volunteers as well.

“Then really beyond that, it’s Liverpool FC, my lad’s junior football; I’m not a coach now but he still goes and plays every weekend. It’s mostly all focused around football and family, and they’re possibly the two greatest things in the world.

“I would have usually added beer into that but I stopped drinking about six months ago! Football and family – what else is there?”

“(Music?) Well, music, yeah. David Bowie, Bob Dylan and a bit of Bruce Springsteen.”

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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