LIVERPOOL - Spring has come late to Merseyside after a bitter winter which has severely tested the patience of the Anfield faithful shivering on the Kop.
The nadir for Liverpool Football Club came in January when they were knocked out of the FA Cup by Reading, a club who play in England's second-tier first division.
A club which boasts 18 league titles, seven FA Cups, seven League Cups, five European Cups and three UEFA Cups are out not only of the Champions League but also both domestic Cups.
The Kop, where the fans used to stand and where they now sit, was named by Ernest Edwards in honour of Spion Kop, the hill on which Liverpudlian soldiers were blown to pieces in the Boer war which straddled the 19th and 20th centuries.
It has been ominously silent in recent months and anger at the club's deeply unpopular American owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks surfaced at a recent Premier League match against Portsmouth.
The fans wielded signs reading "Yank Liars Out!" and "Tom and George You're Not Welcome Anymore".
A trio of the club's overseas' supporters, who had made the trip from Norway for the Portsmouth match, expressed their surprise to Reuters at the lack of noise during a tour of Anfield on the following day.
"It was very quiet," said one, recalling the noise and the singing which had made the Kop renowned throughout the world. "Why was that?" "There's not been much to shout about," replied another visitor.
The Portsmouth match, at least, signalled a revival in Liverpool's fortunes, which continued with a convincing victory in the following Europa League match against French club Lille.
But, in a sign of the times, tickets were still available for the Lille game the day before the match, a situation which would have been unthinkable in the glory days of the late 1970s and early 1980s when the port city ruled the soccer world.
Liverpool as a city in the 1960s was synonymous with the Beatles, who changed popular culture and who are still worshipped on Merseyside. Liverpool FC will be forever associated with Bill Shankly, the Scot who transformed their fortunes.
Shankly took a team mired in the second division and made them into the finest side in England. Before his sudden retirement in 1974, Liverpool won the league three times and the FA Cup twice with uncomplicated but effective football.
The record of his successor Bob Paisley is even more startling. The unassuming Paisley won six championships and three European Cups, a trophy which eluded Shankly.
But it is Shankly who remains the people's hero.
An inscription at the foot of his outside the stadium reads "He made the people happy". The legend above the Shankly gates says "You'll Never Walk Alone", the song from the musical Carousel which the Beatles' contemporaries Gerry and the Pacemakers revived and which became the anthem of the Kop.
Since the 1960s, Liverpool has endured harsh economic times and two football-related tragedies have left indelible mental scars.
Thirty-nine people died as a result of rioting before Liverpool's 1985 European Cup final against Juventus at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels. Four years later 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in Sheffield.
Liverpudlians, who divide their affection between the red of Liverpool and the blue of Everton, who were founding members of the Football League in 1888, retain a gritty resilience and an unabashed love of life.
It is given raucous expression on the annual St Patrick's Day celebrations fuelled by members of the large immigrant population from across the Irish sea.
They mingled with the Lille fans taking the obligatory pictures of themselves outside the reconstituted Cavern, the club from which the Beatles rocketed to world renown.
On Bold Street, a frontline in the St Patrick's celebrations, the diverse influences which have made Liverpool into a melting pot of cultures are underlined by the Italian Club, founded by the Crolla family who emigrated to Glasgow from Picinisco in the Appennines during Shankly's reign at Liverpool FC.
They then decided to set up a restaurant in Liverpool, drawing on their experiences in their adopted home of Scotland.comments