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Kevin Cullen

For soccer fans, it’s a match

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / October 7, 2010

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Miranda McGill grew up in Liverpool, and besides leaving her family, the hardest thing about moving to Boston 11 years ago was leaving behind the only team that mattered: Liverpool Football Club.

Like a lot of people from Merseyside, McGill lived for the soccer played by Liverpool FC. But she settled in at MIT to study architecture, and while she continued to watch Liverpool matches on satellite TV in the pubs of Boston and Cambridge, she found herself inexorably attracted to a different team and a different sport. She became an inveterate Boston Red Sox fan.

“The passion of the fans, the atmosphere at Fenway Park, reminded me so much of Anfield,’’ she said, referring to Liverpool FC’s storied stadium.

But there was an inverse relationship between her lifelong love and her adopted love: As the Red Sox broke an 86-year drought to win the World Series twice in four seasons, and in the process became one of the most profitable franchises in baseball, Liverpool, one of the most successful soccer teams in the world, fell on hard times.

So when she woke up yesterday and learned that the owners of the Red Sox were about to buy Liverpool FC, Miranda McGill looked skyward and thanked her lucky stars.

“It makes sense,’’ she said. “It just makes sense.’’

Red Sox fans and Liverpool supporters are kindred spirits. Red Sox fans hate the Yankees, the most famous and richest baseball team in the world. Liverpool fans hate Manchester United, the most famous and richest soccer team in the world.

The rivalries, and the emotions they produce, are remarkably similar.

Bostonians and Liverpudlians are kindred spirits, too. The single most significant event in shaping immigration to both cities in the 19th century was Ireland’s potato blight. In both cities, all sorts of people are Irish by osmosis.

Bostonians and Liverpudlians have healthy inferiority complexes — we look south to New York, they look east to Manchester — and share the common, unshakable belief that no actors can do our accents justice in movies.

The Yankees and Manchester United entered a joint marketing deal nine years ago. Principal Red Sox owner John Henry is no dummy. He and his people know that Liverpool is one of the most internationally recognized soccer brands in the world. This is as much about selling hats and jerseys as it is about putting people in seats at Anfield.

It might also be about TV. It was only last year that ESPN began showing Premier League soccer games live from England. There’s gold, and licensing deals, in them thar hills.

Speaking of Anfield, it is the Fenway Park of English football. Its 45,000-seat capacity is the smallest among the big clubs. And while the previous owners had vowed to build a much bigger stadium, many Liverpool fans are hopelessly devoted to the relative intimacy and tradition of the old one and would rather see it renovated and expanded than knocked down.

“I’m an architect, and I can tell you that regenerating Anfield is a far better solution,’’ McGill said. “We’ve seen what Henry did at Fenway Park, and I think there’s similar potential to expand and improve Anfield while keeping its character intact.’’

Liverpool fans can be forgiven for being wary about exchanging one group of American owners for another. In just three years, current owners Tom Hicks, who used to own the Texas Rangers, and George Gillett, who used to own the Montreal Canadiens, have run the team into the ground, burying it in debt.

Liverpool has suffered through its worst start in a half-century, losing to lowly clubs, most recently Blackpool and Northampton — the latter loss being akin to the Red Sox losing to the Bad News Bears.

Tim Treacy, chairman of the Liverpool FC Supporters Club of Boston, who gather at the Phoenix Landing pub in Cambridge’s Central Square to watch games in rowdy, rapt attention, said the only reservation he and many other Liverpool fans have is financing.

“It can’t be another situation of borrowing a lot of money and running up a lot of debt,’’ said Treacy, a native of Ireland who moved here four years ago to get his doctorate in music therapy at Boston University. “But I’m encouraged, because I’ve seen what they’ve been able to do with the Red Sox. Henry knows how to make money, and he’s not afraid to spend it on players.’’

Treacy also likes the Red Sox’ philosophy of mixing highly paid superstars acquired by free agency with more modestly paid, home-grown talent raised in the farm system. The wealthiest owners of teams in England’s Premier League have gone the route of the former at the expense of the latter, creating huge payrolls but not necessarily good teams.

When McGill married her American husband six years ago, she walked down the aisle of Cambridge Christ Church to the strains of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,’’ Liverpool’s anthem, which is shouted from the terraces of Anfield with a passion considerably more intense than “Sweet Caroline’’ at Fenway.

“As my mum says, if I can’t be in Liverpool, the next-best place is Boston,’’ she said.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com

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