It’s easy to be cynical about Liverpool’s exhibition match against Sydney FC on Wednesday. It was announced abruptly, just six weeks before the game. At least four retired Reds players will be wheeled out, and, with the game to be played just three days after their last match of the Premier League season, fears of a second-string side being deployed linger.
The team won’t arrive until late in the night before the match – their fourth friendly in Australia in as many years – providing little, if any, time for fan engagement.
However, one of their most famous faces is intent on challenging the perception of foreign clubs coming Down Under to make a fast buck, and wants to make sure the Reds leave behind something more than empty merchandise stands.
Craig Johnston spent seven seasons at Anfield winning five trophies with the Reds during the 1980s and now deep into his retirement, the Liverpool legend is working behind the scenes to establish a permanent pathway between his old club and his homeland.
“I’ve been talking to them about legacy components where they can make a difference from all the other clubs who come in and go,” he said. “It takes time to shift that, but 100 per cent they’re taking it seriously because they appreciate the fan base here.”
Having barely engaged their Australian audiences for decades, Liverpool bombarded them in recent years. Games in Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane precede Wednesday’s clash, and there was a legends tour played in between. According to Johnston, the link between Australia and the club is as much cultural as it is hinged on their success from the 1980s.
“Liverpool has very much got a lot of Irish history, tradition and heritage and so does Australia… I think Australians and scousers have a very similar attitude, dry sense of humour, sense of irony,” Johnston said. “There’s a sense of rebellion, a sense of mistrust of authority and that’s ingrained in us Australians as well.”
Liverpool are looking to establish a firm presence in Australia. It was sparked by the reception the club received in Melbourne, where more than 90,000 fans provided their warmest welcome outside of Merseyside. It soon followed with an academy linked with the Southern Cross University in Lismore, a tie with the Craig Johnston Cup – aimed at assisting with the football development of school students – and as Johnston hints at, is set to continue with a larger scale presence at Australia’s grassroots.
“Getting to more kids on their youth development front, which they’re doing as part of their LFC academy,” Johnston said. “I think Liverpool will strengthen that pathway between Australia and Liverpool, the city itself. There are several things I’ve been working that will come out down the track and it’s based on legacy.”
It’s a program spearheaded by Johnston, a proud Australian, and as he never represented his country on the international stage, it’s one that carries a sense of atonement. He’s remaining tight-lipped on the final product, but the reception to Wednesday night will strengthen Johnston’s case to the club.
The expected crowd of 75,000 that will fill ANZ Stadium will do his cause no harm. For all the cynicism, the punters haven’t been put off and the promise of former players Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger and Steve McManaman lining up only strengthened ticket sales.
It’s a game that will line the club’s coffers with Aussie dollars once more, but if it comes with the caveat of Johnston’s bid to provide direct pathways between Australian parks and Anfield, the club hopes it will be a cheap price to pay for a lasting legacy.