On Saturday, May 26, while Phoenix Comic Fest will grab attention as the main spectacle in town, something spectacular will be filling the ears and eyes of passersby just two blocks away.
Unbridled fervor. The kind scarcely seen at public events here.
Grown men and women will weep, hug, and jump for joy. Some will meet for the first time and become friends for life. They will sing for hours, share stories, and revel in their shared devotion to something rare.
The Rose and Crown Pub will be overflowing with such people Saturday. They will be there to watch the biggest game in world club soccer, the European Champions League Final, played in Kiev, Ukraine. It features two of the most storied teams in the world: Spain’s Real Madrid and England’s Liverpool.
Just for the occasion, the pub will offer special commemorative pint glasses, and hang huge new banners and posters, adding to the banners and flags dominating the porch every weekend.
The manager will add outdoor bars with 60-inch televisions to handle the expected crowds. They will be there for Liverpool, awash in blood red. Liverpool’s color.
Patrons will sell custom T-shirts to raise money for a Liverpool fan left in coma by a claw-hammer attack outside Liverpool’s stadium last month. Nobody at the pub has ever met the man.
As one chant conceived in the pub goes: “The Rose and Crown is red.”
Things weren’t always that way.
This fervor began with three ragtag bands of fans on different ends of the Valley.
Many are British or Irish expats. Some have Scouse roots, being from Liverpool. Others played soccer as kids or some stumbled into it and got curious about all the fuss.
Some were lifelong fans, others newlyweds to the club. They banded together to watch a foreign sport that for years was hard to find on U.S. television, and to follow a team that plays 5,000 miles away.
Bobby Trujillo, a 34-year-old Phoenix native, grew up playing soccer but drifted from it. The 2010 World Cup matchup between the USA and England reignited his love of the game, and he decided to follow a team in England’s top division.
He knew nothing about Liverpool. But he read how 96 fans were crushed to death, and how their families persevered for 25 years to clear the names of the dead, and hold accountable the authorities who blundered that day. He heard The Kop, the world-famous throng of fans, singing their anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and like many, the hairs on his neck stood up.
The long, but fading, history of domestic and European championships didn’t seem to matter. Something else did. As a former firefighter and Marine, the glue of camaraderie bound him. Trujillo was hooked.
“I knew I’d found my club. The motto rings true,” he said, impressed with how working-class Scousers banded together to help each other in dark times. That togetherness would reveal itself again and again at the Official Liverpool Supporters Club Arizona he founded in 2013.
This was something to cherish, to share. But where?
At that time, The Rose and Crown was a quaint, quiet affair in an old Victorian house in Heritage Park Square.
Anglophiles and beer-lovers would drift in. The tourists would admire the portrait of Queen Elizabeth or some of the memorabilia, sip a Boddington’s or Old Speckled Hen, sample the fish and chips or bangers and mash, and drift away. Locals would check it out, shrug, and head off to where more was going on. The downtown Phoenix scene hadn’t really taken off.
The real attraction on the must-see list in the guidebooks was Pizzeria Bianco, directly opposite the Rose. Even today, Lonely Planet starts its “Phoenix Highlights” page with, “Phoenix doesn’t have the best reputation. Known for heat, retirement communities sprawl, and golf, sometimes it feels like the best compliment this town gets is, ‘Well, it’s sunny.’”
But the guide goes on to paint a fuller portrait, adding, “But give Phoenix some time, and you’ll find a place that’s surprisingly easy to fall for.”
The reviewer could just have easily been writing about The Rose and Crown, the Phoenix Liverpool Supporters’ Club, or the football club that holds its affections in thrall.
You’d be hard pressed to find two cities more unalike. Phoenix: new, conservative, emerging, hot, dry, about 350 miles from the coast. Liverpool: old, wet, for decades in decline, once the largest port in the world, a hotbed of left-wing politics. One city is still trying to define itself. The other knows who it is. Both try to shake off the way others define them.
So a live venue to watch English football was not an obvious fit for Phoenix, especially when the time difference means most games kick off at 7 or 8 a.m., or sometimes before dawn’s early light.
Trujillo heard about The 16th Street Bar and Grille, run by a Scouse lad. He was more than happy to open doors early to like-minded Reds.
About five or six would watch games on a projected screen. But the bar fell on hard times, and one Saturday a sign on the door asked if anybody knew any investors to keep the place open.
“It was heartbreak for us,” Trujillo recalled. “I was back to square one, getting up early, making a pot of coffee, and trying not to wake my family up screaming at the television.”
He started social media accounts, and wore the red around town, and everywhere he went he’d bump into other fans. He cast about for a new home.
The small band of red brothers landed on Steve’s Greenhouse Grille on Adams Street downtown. It was more a restaurant than a bar, and doors didn’t normally open early enough, but the staff took to the fans and let them in.
It seemed a good fit, and things looked up for supporters and their team. In May 2014, Liverpool almost won the English championship after a 24-year drought. They were driven on by their legendary captain, a Liverpool native and boyhood fan, Steven Gerrard. There was a poetic symmetry, like a trademark flowing attack and goal, to drinking in a bar that shared the captain’s name. The fans still call the restaurant Stevie G’s, Gerrard’s nickname.
“We are Liverpool, tra-la-la-la ... Poetry in motion, tra-la-la-la,” the fans sang.
Then things soured. The next season the team fizzled. And football fanaticism isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The heavy early drinking, the bawdy, often offensive chants, the expletives hurled at the television, didn’t sit well with families with kids trying to enjoy breakfast.
The nadir came in May 2015. It was Gerrard’s last game, the end of an epic career. All the fans showed up wearing his jersey or his number 8. Liverpool lost 6-1 to a very mediocre team, the worst hiding in half a century.
The restaurant asked the fans to pull up stakes again.
Somebody mentioned The Rose and Crown. That summer, Trujillo met with the general manager, Donny Phillippi.
“When the Liverpool guys approached me, I was super-excited. When I first opened (in late 2007), there wasn’t crap downtown,” the affable Phillippi recalled.
Phillippi wanted to become the cradle of live English football viewing in the Valley. It was ambitious. Most people associated that with the midtown George & Dragon.
He knew the G&D only opened early during World Cups. He saw an opportunity. He knew American appetite for English “footie” was about to skyrocket. He thought if the GnD could pack the place every four summers, why couldn’t the Rose pack the house every weekend?
At the time, The Rose and Crown hosted a handful of local Everton fans. Everton is Liverpool’s fierce local rival. The two stadia are little more than half a mile apart, separated by Stanley Park.
The Evertonians had the Blue Room to the left of the bar. Phillippi was worried about alienating his Blue customers. They were miffed. The Reds said they didn’t care if there was a Blue Room. That stuck with the publican.
“One side was so much more accommodating,” he recalled. He started watching matches in the Red Room and decided the group was more dynamic, louder, more fun.
The Everton fans, never more than a handful, decided to leave. There was a poetry to that, too.
In 1892, Liverpool splintered from the older Everton Football Club, which moved across the park. Liverpool stayed at Anfield stadium and has been there ever since.
Fans used to jokingly refer to the bar separating the Blue and Red rooms as Stanley Park. When the two played, the sets of fans would chant at each other through the bar.
But mostly it was Liverpool fans mocking their blue brothers. Liverpool has dominated the rivalry in recent years.
“Tell yer ma, yer ma, to wipe away all your tears. No trophies in 20 years,” the Reds would sing.
It’s all in good fun. The Merseyside rivalry is like no other. Families are half-red, half-blue. There is as much amity as enmity, and ribbing the rival is a tradition in the city.
At The Rose and Crown, Trujillo and his friends had found a home. Their scarves and photos adorned the walls. The Red Room featured a library of Liverpool history books and one small red hardback: the Anfield Song Book. It looks and is revered like a church’s hymn book, and features hundreds of chants.
Older fans teach young ones the songs. Before every match, fans belt out Liverpool’s anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from the musical Carousel.
Early on weekends, as many as 50 fans pack into the Red Room and adjoining lounges. For big matches against bitter rivals, or in the latter stages of knockout tournaments, the headcount reaches 100.
Phillippi never imagined that. He had aimed for an upscale traditional British feel.
“When you open a place you have a business plan, but it has a life of its own. It’s like its own being. It evolved into what it was,” he said.
The Rose and Crown evolved into something much bigger. It became a spiritual home.
Denis Mahon had grown up a Liverpool fan in Dublin, Ireland. When he came to Phoenix in 2011, he looked for a place to watch matches, and followed the small band of fans around town in the early days.
When the fan club relocated from Stevie G’s to The Rose and Crown, the 46-year-old construction worker was not impressed at first. Too small, he thought. But it, and the new people, grew on him. It reminded him of watching matches in Dublin.
“I got me spot at the end of the bar and thought, this will be fine for me,” Mahon said. “I get a lot of stick, I give a lot of stick, and I love it.”
Riffing off a famous quote by Liverpool’s legendary coach in the 1960s and '70s, Bill Shankly, Mahon added, “That place was made for us and we were made for it.”
With the club, business improved at the Rose, but Phillippi nearly lost everything twice. In 2015, some supporters were enticed by a bid from another pub in a different part of town to air live games and offer trips to Liverpool.
One of the core members, a man from Liverpool known only as Scouse Greg, got on the phone and called everyone in the group. The leaders told Phillippi, “That’s our home and we’re not going anywhere,” he said. “At that point I was like a headlong dive into the crowd.”
Then, in late 2016, the Rose and Crown encountered financial difficulties, made some paperwork mistakes, and let its liquor license lapse. The city ordered the pub to immediately cease and desist selling beer, wine or liquor.
The fans stood by Phillippi again.
He had to let staff go and do the cooking himself, but the Rose opened for matches, served food, and offered ice water and soft drinks. Water and cola for a hardcore group that rely on copious pints of beer to soothe the nerves that jangle for 90 minutes and to lubricate the vocal cords that strain for longer than that.
“It’s gigantic. Nobody’s going to do that. Nobody,” Phillippi said.
Fans would come in during the week and dine, just to help out.
“The only thing that kept us able to pay the rent and insurance was Liverpool,” Phillippi said. He calculated that in 2015, the Reds brought in an extra $70,000 or so. It’s more now, but impossible to estimate, he said.
May 2018 has been a dizzying time at the Rose and Crown.
Liverpool are in their eighth European Cup final, vying to win their sixth trophy. They are up against Real Madrid, the second-richest club in the world. Madrid are confident they can win their third European Cup in a row and extend their all-time record to 13. They have Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s best player and the tournament’s top scorer.
It’s not David and Goliath. In the 1970s and '80s, Liverpool was the dominant team in the world, and are still one of the biggest.
Liverpool last won in 2005, in what is widely regarded as the greatest final ever played, and one of the greatest comebacks in sports history. The Reds were down 3-0 at halftime to the best team in the world, AC Milan. They were being routed, ripped apart. But Istanbul’s Ataturk Olympic Stadium was almost three-quarters filled with Liverpool fans, who sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” through the interval, as others openly wept in their seats. It roused the team. Led by their captain, Gerrard, the team scored three goals in six minutes, ultimately winning in a penalty shootout. It’s called The Miracle of Istanbul.
This year, Liverpool’s run has been no less miraculous. Bookies gave Liverpool 40-1 odds of lifting the trophy when they qualified in July. Along the way, they shattered the competition’s all-time goal-scoring record, banging in 46 goals.
They massacred England’s runaway domestic champion in the quarter-finals. They beat 5-0 a team that hadn’t lost at home in a year. In the semifinals, Liverpool scored twice against a team that hadn’t let in a goal at home all year in that competition. They defied all expectations and did it with blistering, poetic play.
They call that The Liverpool Way.
On May 17, nine days before the final match, The Rose and Crown had a visitor.
Ray Clemence, now 69, is widely regarded as Liverpool’s greatest goalkeeper, certainly in the modern game and, for many, in the football club’s 125-year history. He helped the team win its first European Cup in 1977 and two more afterwards.
He was on a tour of U.S. supporters’ clubs — Phoenix, with 300 members, is one of 40. Often at such events, clubs will front lesser-known players, and younger fans will ask: Who’s he? Not this time. Everybody knows who Ray Clemence is.
It was the first time Liverpool had sent a former player to Phoenix. Organizers likely saw the halftime photo broadcast on May 6 on NBC, of a huge crowd roaring on its team through billows of red smoke, taken on the porch of The Rose and Crown during the second Roma game earlier that week.
Captivating them with funny stories and strong opinions, Clemence told the Red Room it was a thrill to visit clubs like Phoenix's. He reminded them they were part of a worldwide family, something bigger than any one of them, even himself.
As Saturday approaches, everybody is giddy, nervous, excited, anxious, eager.
They talk about being unable to sleep, constantly scouring the internet for reruns of old matches, highlights, interviews, memes, social media posts, articles, news updates, anything they can get their hands on. They report loved ones being concerned for their mental health.
“Me wife’s just looking at me, shaking her head,” Denis Mahon said.
“I’m like a kid at Christmas, and it’s still four days away,” Phillippi said, taking a break from hanging televisions. “It gives you the goosebumps.”
He’s expecting 250 to 300 visitors Saturday. The pub holds 101.
One will be a man who just got out of hospital. Another will be Sarah Day, her last game at The Rose and Crown. The other members cheered her on as she earned her master's degree at Arizona State University. She leaves for law school in Boston in the summer.
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For the Phoenix Supporters’ Club and The Rose and Crown, Clemence’s visit, and the showdown finale on Saturday, are part of a bigger story.
“It’s kind of a vindication for me,” Phillippi said.
Said Day, “Yes, you are coming and cheering a football team, but you are investing your time in people and in relationships with people who care about you. You’re part of something more than just football.”
Reporter Sean Holstege grew up in England and is a lifelong Liverpool fan, a member of the supporters' club in Phoenix, and a frequent patron of The Rose and Crown on game days. He has watched every European Cup/Champions League final the team has played in and attended one in person in 1978.