In the early 1900s, Budapest was enjoying a renaissance. It was the height of the Austro-Hungarian empire and at the apex of the new cultural movement in Europe. The city shined and shimmered in its full glory. The Danube sparkled, separating the two sides of the city in Buda and Pest, and the newly built Szecsenyi Bridge and the Andrassy Avenue Metro line were alluring modern attractions way ahead of their time. Add in fine architecture and the city was the place to be.
The cultural hotspot of the city, the New York Café, stood on the grand boulevard at the centre of Budapest. It was a marvel to look at. An elegantly designed façade decorated by intricate statues and ornaments in abundance. Inside the sight was spectacular, too. Chandeliers shimmered and dangled down from every ceiling and marble pillars bolted up from the ground designed in delicate patters.
It was here, in the heart of Budapest and the urban developing city, that the most influential artists from all over Europe would flock to find their muse and conjure up their masterpieces. They dined, listened to the marvellous bands which occupied the hall, and scribbled down words to craft them into works of art.
Young Ferenc Molnár was the same. He’d sit in the café, order himself a bowl of fishermen soup, perhaps with dumplings on the side and then, puffing on a thick cigar, he’d grasp his pen and write. When he composed Liliom in 1909, he had no idea that his play would prove to influence the biggest football anthems of all time.
Back then, Liverpool Football Club had only existed for a few years. It’s doubtful whether Molnár would have been aware of the club or had intended to influence Liverpool in any way but his play Liliom, a story about a Hungarian thief who dies in a botched robbery, would prove to be the catalyst for You’ll Never Walk Alone.
However, Molnár’s play almost never came to be. Liliom commenced with a rocky start. The thriving 1909 Budapest community didn’t take a liking to Molnár’s gritty play about a working-class thief who tries to steal in order to provide for his newborn daughter. Having never experienced hardship themselves, they couldn’t identify with the dreary world which Molnár depicted. Indeed, Liliom’s first showing was a disaster: Molnár was completely dismissed and condemned by the critics.
For many that would have signalled the end – but Molnár staunchly believed in his work and pressed forward to showcase it to many audiences around Europe. Without his determination to make Liliom succeed, You’ll Never Walk Alone would have never been born. Molnár would travel across Europe presenting the play to audiences in Warsaw, Prague, Vienna and Berlin. Slowly, Liliom was beginning to be a cult favourite.
Alas, after World War One, even the audiences of Budapest, with the hardships which the Trianon Treaty and the five years of fighting had brought, were finally starting to relate to Molnár’s play. The dreary world of Liliom was slowly coming to resemble the city of the post-war world of Budapest. Even in the West, the war had caused suffering. Liliom was staged in London for the first time in 1939 with great success.
By the end of World War Two, the artists were no longer flocking to Budapest. They had moved across the pond to America and much safer waters. Molnár was among them, fleeing the country from the Nazi regime and the throes of Hitler’s reign of terror.
By the time Molnár moved to the States in 1940, he was a weary old man at the age of 62. He settled in New York, more specifically the New York Plaza Hotel in midtown Manhattan. He would keep the hotel as his permanent residency for the remaining 12 years of his life. The story goes that Molnar hardly left the premises and preferred to spend time alone in his room living his life as a misanthrope.
After hearing the fate of his fellow Jewish friends in the horrid concentration camps, Molnár was depressed. He made money from selling the rights to translate his work into English. This is how Carousel came to be; the Broadway musical is an adaptation of Liliom.
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were looking for a new play to adapt into a musical when they stumbled upon Liliom. Its melancholy story of struggle appealed to the pair and they bought the rights for Liliom from Molnár.
Rodgers and Hammerstein changed the name of the play to Carousel. Rodgers composed an instrumental piece for the play, while Hammerstein wrote the lyrics. The pair together created the song that would be known as You’ll Never Walk Alone for the musical.
You’ll Never Walk Alone is sung to the protagonist Billy Bigelow’s daughter after her dad has passed away during a botched robbery in the musical. The lyrics and the tone intend to offer words of conciliation to inspire her to keep going. The song is also played at the end to achieve the same effect when Bigelow floats up to heaven after his daughter’s graduation, having inspired her to fight against her depression.
You’ll Never Walk Alone’s universal theme of suffering and staying strong in spite of it inspired many and was adapted by some of the biggest musical stars of the era, including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra. But the song really took off in Liverpool in the 1960s.
It was the height of Beatlemania and Cilla Black had just emerged on her way to become a superstar. The city was at its cultural apex. Liverpool was filled with music – it was everywhere, in the water the Liverpudlians drank and the air they breathed. Yet it was neither Black or the Beatles who brought the song to its fame. That honours fell to a much smaller band coming from the industrial town of Bootle: Gerry and the Pacemakers.
Gerry and the Pacemakers were not as big as the Beatles or Cilla Black but at one point they were under the same label as the two local stars. Their cover of You’ll Never Walk Aloe, topped the charts in the UK for weeks. Their success was recognised in America too, and they were invited on a tour of the States. It was whilst the band appeared on the Ed Sullivan show that Liverpool Football Club officially took possession of the anthem.
By then the song had been sung on the Kop, but it was in America that You’ll Never Walk Alone’s allegiance to Liverpool was forged. The club, under the leadership of Bill Shankly, happened to be touring the States at the time and they too happened to feature on the Ed Sullivan show. The band and the club ended up on the same coach, where Marsden, the lead singer of Gerry and the Pacemakers, debuted the song to Shankly.
The band sat down in their seats. Shankly crossed his arms and hardened his face. He wasn’t the type to listen or care about rubbish music in the charts. He lived and breathed football; he’d rather the band speculated about the club’s chances of silverware for the upcoming season or whether or not he should get a new right-back. Nonetheless, Shankly sighed, sat back and entertained Marsden’s gleeful face.
As Marsden and his band played the song, the lines on the Scotsman’s face smoothed, his often-steely expression lit up and turned to a glint; there was a faint hint of a smile. When the last line of the chorus played, blaring out emphatically ‘and you’ll never walk alone’, Shankly was ecstatic. He looked at Marsden and exclaimed: “Gerry, my son, I have given you a football team and you have given us a song.”
The Kop had already been a boisterous crowd. In the 1950s and 60s, under the stewardship of Shankly, the stands resembled an elaborate orchestra belting out one tune after another. Thousands of locals packed themselves into the ground, squeezed together shoulder to shoulder to sing their latest chants and sometimes current Beatles hits in order to inspire their beloved team.
A BBC Panorama reporter described the Liverpool fans as like nothing he had ever seen, with unheard of “ferocity and passion”. They frightened the opposition and inspired their players to go the extra mile on the pitch.
Just like Shankly, the Kop took to You’ll Never Walk Alone instantly. The melancholy tone and the sadness of the lyrics, with its uplifting ending, was something the locals could relate to. It stemmed from the origins of the song in Carousel where the world is one of poverty and misfortune.
In the early 1960s, despite the city’s cultural success, unemployment was at an all-time high. The state of Liverpool was dire. The industrial jobs which kept the economy alive were slowly coming to a halt, and the jobs available were mostly hard labour, including coal mining or cleaning.
Carousel depicts a similar world: America struggling in the depression era and an unemployed man forced to break the law in order to feed his family. The anthem is sung to his estranged daughter and wife in order to inspire them to carry on despite the struggle they face. This struggle was one a Liverpudlian could relate to.
Amidst the poverty, the city fell derelict; social services were neglected, no longer was the harbour being put to use. Most of the trade had moved to the south and the city felt abandoned against the prosperity of London and the Home Counties.
In 1981, the growing discontent would lead to the Toxteth riots, where 450 police officers were injured and 500 people were arrested. The riots began as a protest by the black community against their mistreatment by the police. However, as the days went on, the riots escalated into a frantic protest where locals attacked the police and those in power to express their feelings of neglect and mistreatment by the Thatcher government, which had shut down many industries and factories in the area.
The riots ended without a resolution. The Scarman Report recognised it had come as a result of poverty and sentiments of discontent, but very little was done to quell these feelings. In this social climate, football offered a place of worship where one could escape and forget about the troubles of everyday life. You’ll Never Walk Alone proved to be the perfect anthem.
Through the club’s history, the lyrics have proved to be prophetic. There are seemignyl countless iconic games where the song was sung and the players’ spirits were lifted in order to perform feats of miracles, particularly in the European Cup.
The club lifted the trophy four times between 1977 and 1984, defeating giant opponents like Real Madrid in 1981 and Roma in 1984. More recently, Liverpool are remembered for their magical comebacks in the Champions League, not least in Istanbul.
On 25 May 2005, as the Liverpool players trotted off the pitch with their heads buried in their hands, trailing AC Milan 3-0 at half time in the Champions League final, nobody gave them even a slither of a chance. The game was dead and buried.
Butin the stands of the Atatürk, the fans hoisted out their Liverpool scarves and flags. Sweaty from the heat in Istanbul, they belted out their famous anthem. You’ll Never Walk Alone echoed around the ground and sent chills down the players, who could hear it from the tunnel. Jamie Carragher would later describe the moment in his autobiography: “There was a slow, sad sound to it, almost as if it was being sung as a hymn. The fans were certainly praying on our behalf.”
The anthem demonstrated the tremendous support in the ground – and it would spur the players on to a victory that is etched in football legend.
In recent times, the Kop has sparked similar miracles. In 2015 the team came back from 3-1 down against Borussia Dortmund to win 4-3 in the 91st minute. Meanwhile, in 2019, with seemingly impossible odds and trailing 3-0 from the first leg, the Kop’s roar spurred a spectacular comeback against Barcelona to take them to the Champions League final for the second year in a row.
But the anthem hasn’t just inspired Liverpool through its greatest glories and most memorable matches; it was also there for the club during its darkest times, notably the Hillsborough disaster. It was a tragedy which shook Liverpool to the core, the club and the city.
It was a tremendous show of togetherness in tragedy and hardship across the city, the lyrics of You’ll Never Walk Alone proved to be more than just mere words.
Liverpool would play the FA Cup final against their city rivals Everton a month later, Hillsborough still raw and fresh in peoples’ minds. The city was in mourning, yet thousands of locals flocked to London to watch the game. Just before kick-off, in a packed Wembley filled with Everton and Liverpool supporters, the two sides united to give a powerful rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone. The song resonated around the stands as Gerry Marsden sung the lyrics on the pitch. The two sets of supporters sung side by side, embracing each other with tears streaming down their face to commemorate the victims.
After Hillsborough, the anthem took on a whole new meaning. When You’ll Never Walk Alone is sung in the stands today, not only is it for the players, it also serves as an ode to the fans who lost their lives. A reminder that the tragedy and the horrible misfortune which suffered has not been forgotten and never will be.
The song has become a symbol in the fight for justice for the victims of the disaster in order to change the narrative behind their deaths.
You’ll Never Walk Alone is more than just an anthem to Liverpool. The melancholy tone and uplifting lyrics have, over time, come to embody the ethos of the club and the people who belong to it. Its lyrics are a way of living, a moral compass that one strives to emulate. In bad times it offers inspiration and hope. In good times it serves as a celebration of the struggle and hardship of glory.
The anthem unites the people of Liverpool and inspires the stars on the pitch to perform feats of miracles. With its universal theme, it’s hardly a surprise it has become an inseparable part of the club and it’ll continue to do so for many generations yet.
By Bence Bocsák @BenBocsak
This story is taken from Bence’s book, The Story of You’ll Never Walk Alone: The History of Liverpool Football Club and its Anthem, which you can order online.