When Manchester United and Liverpool Launched Their Own Lagers, and Failed
While it may seem implausible now, some of the biggest clubs in England once attempted to brand their own tinnies. Accused of encouraging hooliganism and drunkenness, they were forced to back down.
There is virtually no product that a football club won't put its name to.
At the last count, Manchester United had 65 commercial partners. This includes Milly, the club's global mattress and pillow partner as well as YOU.C1000 which, as everyone surely knows, is United's isotonic drinks partner for Indonesia.
Last year, Chaokoh became the official coconut water partner of Liverpool FC and celebrated that landmark deal by flying over Robbie Fowler to pose with an assortment of Chaokoh dignitaries.
Coconut water has yet to take off in a big way along Breck Road. Instead, the beverage of choice on matchdays in and around Anfield continues to be lager.
So you may be surprised to learn that Manchester United and Liverpool's official club lagers turned out to be possibly the shortest-lived products ever to be endorsed and promoted by a professional sports team. In fact, you may be surprised to learn they ever existed.
It would certainly explain why, whenever pictures of Liverpool Super Reds, Manchester United Red Devil and Everton Premium Lager have appeared in books, on forums or on a Brazilian website that is devoted to nothing but football-related beer cans and kegs, nobody knows where they came from and if, indeed, they were genuine or just another knock-off product with a Premier League club crest on it.
The brains behind the beers was Essex entrepreneur and wheeler dealer Kenny Willmott. In 1987, he teamed up with David Gillian from Cornish Breweries and arranged deals with four of England's so-called 'Big Five' clubs – Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Everton. The only exception was Spurs who, at that time, had a sponsorship deal with Holsten.
In the wake of the Heysel disaster, which led to English clubs being banned from European competition, the Big Five were desperate to find new ways of replacing that loss in revenue.
According to Kenny's son, Paul, he thought he'd struck liquid gold and was also in talks with the NFL as well as Barcelona.
Paul recalls: "The product was being sold into cash and carries largely in the North West of England. Re-orders were happening pretty quickly and the business was growing at a rapid speed."
On 1 December 1987, Manchester United held a launch party for Red Devil Lager at Old Trafford. Members of a team famed for its drinking culture, including Kevin Moran, Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath, turned up alongside a collection of celebrities 'du jour'.
Indeed no party at that time and in that venue would have been complete without Coronation Street stars Michael Le Vell (aka Kevin Webster), Kevin Kennedy (Curly Watts) and Nigel Pivarro (Terry Duckworth). A number of senior club officials, including chairman Martin Edwards, were also in attendance along with a bevvy of models. What could possibly go wrong?
The morning after Kenny woke up to an almighty hangover in the form of a back page story in The Daily Mail (naturally).
'Canned for the fans – storm as top clubs label their own lager' screamed the headline. With the authorities linking alcohol to trouble on the terraces, the launch sparked an inevitable wave of moral outrage and The Mail's story proclaimed that the clubs were "accused of encouraging hooliganism."
Liverpool's chief executive Peter Robinson said: "I certainly don't think it will increase the amount of drinking at all. It won't be on sale on the ground on matchdays."
Edwards also countered criticism by saying that 18 professional clubs in England were sponsored by breweries, adding: "I don't think our supporters are going to go out and get drunk on Red Devil. If people drink alcohol it might as well be a Red Devil can and I think sales could be quite substantial."
But United had another grand, money-spinning idea, which turned out to be a spectacular own goal. By collecting Red Devil lager ring pulls, fans could either claim free gifts from or even get free entry to matches, making it easy to accuse United of actively encouraging fans to buy more beer.
According to The Mail, anyone that collected 640 Red Devil ring pulls would get into Old Trafford for free at a time when it cost £3.20 to stand in the Stretford End.
Dr Laura Pendleton, who ran a campaign based in the North West called 'Drink Wisely' said in no-uncertain terms: "This ring pull offer appals me."
Within less than 24 hours of launching Red Devil Lager, it had been effectively been canned. Suddenly the orders dried up, the clubs withdrew their interest and Willmott's phone stopped ringing.
Paul adds: "As an aside, we had cases and cases of the stuff – which wasn't exactly the greatest-tasting lager – but we managed to get through it eventually."
Though the original launch had been a disaster, Martin Edwards had faith in the product and returned nine years later with Red Tribe, another Manchester United-branded lager. It didn't cause quite the furore of its predecessor, and you'll still struggle to find many people who remember it existed even though it was said to have sold well outside of the UK.
Perhaps the only person in the world who owns a can of all three original club-branded lagers is Thiago Pulzatto, who runs that beer-themed website in Brazil. His home has become a shrine to cans and kegs endorsed by clubs and footballers, and the site offers us a potted history behind each item.
On Red Devil lager, Pulzatto writes (with the help of Google translate): "It is somewhat mysterious, since it does not mention the manufacturer brewery or even if it was made in England. Not even the most fanatical supporters have a lot of knowledge about this item, and the strange white space for advertising only helps to make the picture more uncertain. On the shelf, she looks beautiful, but I would not risk drinking this lager!" That's understandable, given the expiry date would have been sometime around 1989.
Hopefully Thiago can rest easy now, safe in the knowledge that the mystery of Red Devil, Super Reds and Everton Premium lager has finally be solved. We'll drink to that!