Just after clocking off time at the edge of Liverpool’s business district on Wednesday afternoon, a small but striking man with a tattoo stretching across his neck joined a crowd of 200 or so protestors outside the city’s most significant civic building.
Chris Sky is an optimistic-sounding name. His aviator glasses, gleaming white teeth and peroxide hair gave him the appearance of a Las Vegas timeshare salesman; instead, he was flogging a story to other famous men like Rickie Lambert, the former Liverpool and England forward, who had advertised this rally in advance without mentioning its special guest.
On the opposite side of the road was another group, making a stand against fascism. For a good half-hour, two men holding megaphones used the busy thoroughfare as a barrier between ideologies as cars went past and bemused commuters tried to get home.
While the anti-fascists screamed about Nazis and the real problems Liverpool’s residents should campaign against, the “freedom” movement stood behind yellow placards that advised readers to “question everything” and to “lose the denial”. There was also another warning: “15-minute neighbourhoods will be your prison.”
The 15-minute city protest in Liverpool (Simon Hughes)
That, ultimately, was what Lambert was here for: to raise awareness of the supposed threat of Liverpool becoming a “15-minute city”, where the local government stands accused of planning to essentially segregate districts in the name of climate change.
Sky emerged as an online agitator at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic by railing against restrictions at a series of “freedom rallies”. To his followers, he is a precious purveyor of truth in a world of sinister forces trying to exercise control; to many more, he is a dangerous conspiracy theorist.
There was, however, no denying he was the star attraction on Wednesday. After another “freedom” spokesman with the megaphone denied the event’s links to the far right — “This has nothing to do with racism,” he claimed — Sky and his followers ambled towards the space in front of the crown court. Then, after the rally’s organiser described those mainly middle-class-looking older women and students handing out socialist newsletters on the other side of the street as “satanic” communists trying to “steal our souls”, Sky was invited to talk.
“Hello Liverpool,” he shouted into the mic, only for his voice to disappear in a violent gust blowing in from the Irish Sea.
Sky announced that he was on a tour to change the world courtesy of speeches like this one, which included unsubstantiated claims about the return of Covid-19, the weaponising of climate change by governments in an attempt to control freedoms, and a hidden LGBT agenda that the audience needed to be aware of because according to the Bible, “pride” was one of the seven deadly sins.
Lambert, who did not speak despite his role in promoting the event, stood by, taking it all in. Most people did, but for one Liverpudlian in a vest, who piped up from the back of the crowd: “Why the f*** are we listening to some American talk about our city?”
It was at that point that someone informed him that Sky, whose surname is really Saccoccia, was in fact from Canada.
In his book, Red Pill Blue Pill, David Newert describes a conspiracy theory as “a hypothetical explanation of historical or ongoing new events comprised of secret plots, usually of a nefarious nature, whose existence may or may not be factual”.
In recent years, Newert adds that it has also become a “kind of dismissive epithet”. The majority of people, he explains, do not have the time for conspiracist beliefs and, therefore, it is easier to banish those who do as “cartoonish scam peddlers”.
A psychologist based in Merseyside, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of his working contracts, makes comparisons between conspiracy theorists and his experiences in the drug services when survivors discover salvation, prompting them to want to impart their knowledge to others by working in recovery.
“When conspiracy theorists discover something, they never keep it to themselves,” he concludes. “They have to pass it on to someone else. Now they know their place in the world, they see themselves as crusaders.”
Conspiracy theories can take root in every sector of society and yet there are compelling reasons why sportspeople — including footballers — could be particularly susceptible.
Lambert has used his social media platforms to perpetrate a variety of outlandish theories, including calling for doctors and nurses who vaccinated children against Covid-19 to be arrested, sharing posts that erroneously claim vaccine shots contain ‘cancer virus’, and saying that anyone who is “in on the globalist plan, the new world order, needs to be brought down”.
Yet he is by no means the only high-profile example. Matt Le Tissier, one of his predecessors in a Southampton and England shirt, has used social media to augment arguments among conspiracy theorists that include the denial of the war in Ukraine and actors being used to fake what is happening in front of Western cameras.
Le Tissier has sparked controversy with his views (Robin Jones/Getty Images)
Le Tissier claims he has been pushed to the fringes by mainstream media companies because of his views. Support has come from Lambert but also from other ex-footballers, such as David Cotterill, the former Swansea City and Wales midfielder, who has used his Instagram account to make wild accusations over the existence of a network of celebrity paedophiles, climate change, Covid restrictions and that a Texas school shooting was a ‘false flag’ event.
Another former Liverpool player, Dejan Lovren, appeared to endorse the conspiracy theory that the Covid-19 pandemic was devised as a ploy to force vaccinations on the world’s population. In 2020, he responded to a social media post thanking health workers by Bill Gates, the billionaire who helped fund vaccine research, by saying: “Game over Bill. People are not blind.” He has repeatedly promoted links to talks by David Icke, the former Coventry goalkeeper, who has long held a belief that the British Royal Family are a group of shape-shifting lizards.
On a similar theme, the former Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas revealed in 2018 that he did not believe the Moon landings were real.
The key word in any cognitive reaction to conspiracy theories, according to the psychologist, is ‘threat’. They explain the brain like this: the threat part of the brain is the most potent, telling the drive system to do something about it. But the drive system is also the part of the brain that deals with reward, which makes people feel like they are eliminating a threat. This, therefore, makes people feel like they are achieving something. When that happens, it releases chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, making them feel better.
“It gives people a purpose,” he says. “The problem is, it becomes cyclical. The threat system says, ‘You’ve done something about it this time — what about next time? You feel good now but there’s another threat around the corner.’ This means the brain jumps back into drive.
“This isn’t a million miles away from the life of a Premier League football player, who has to push themselves to avoid being dropped or heckled by 60,000 spectators who revel in telling you that you’re crap at your job. In a sporting life, that’s the threat. You’ve done well in one game, but there’s always another to follow.”
Sportspeople are susceptible to this world because of how carefully they need to manage their bodies in order to perform.
“Clean eating became a fad 10 years ago or so,” the psychologist says when asked to explain what can happen when sportspeople embrace alternative thinking. “That quickly becomes, ‘Don’t trust the professionals — take charge of what you put into your body.’ This then becomes, ‘Don’t trust the professionals — they are in the pockets of ‘big pharma’’. You throw in a pandemic in the middle of all this, along with various high-profile political scandals, and suddenly it manifests into not trusting anyone, claims about who controls the planet, and extreme views such as antisemitism.”
These are big jumps, but look at the leap Le Tissier has made in a relatively short space of time, from small city champion and legendary Southampton No 7 to a war-denier in Ukraine, who in July, without providing evidence, suggested on Twitter a “communist takeover is slyly being implemented”.
The psychologist suggests retired footballers can find life difficult without the routine of training and matches. This can lead to them seeking a lost dressing room culture that can be found initially in a chat room or a forum.
“Given golf courses were closed during the pandemic and there was nothing else to do, there was a sanctuary of sorts on the internet, where people seeking explanations for questions that had no answers seemed to find them. Such groups offer the illusion of certainty and safeness.”
Golf courses closed during the Covid-19 pandemic (Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)
The problem, as Newert points out, is that real conspiracies do exist and have done through most of civilised history.
In Liverpool, particularly, you only need to remind people of the 1980s, when “managed decline” was suspected as a strategy of the United Kingdom’s Conservative government, before official papers were released under the 30-year rule in 2011 revealing that Chancellor Geoffrey Howe had, at the very least, proposed the policy to then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
Many people who lived in the city through this period would agree that there is enough evidence to believe the policy was, in fact, carried out. The decade finished with Hillsborough, the worst football disaster in British history, when the authorities aligned to blame fans. It would take more than a quarter of a century for a cover-up to be exposed in a courtroom and only in the past few years have some police forces started paying out damages to victims.
In some parts of Liverpool, it is still believed that the heroin epidemic of the same era was another strategy, aimed at doping the city up as the rot set in — preventing people in the haze from standing their ground.
Only a few hundred at most turned up outside Liverpool’s town hall on Wednesday, but the psychologist believes the city is fertile ground for conspiracists because of its history and a wariness towards authority.
Though it has not manifested into demonstrations, the current Conservative government’s decision to send in commissioners to run an area that hasn’t had a Tory councillor since 1997 has heightened suspicion amongst those with long memories.
This month, Icke hosted a talk in Liverpool’s Greenbank Conference Centre and he wouldn’t have organised that if he didn’t think at least some people from the surrounding area would turn up.
Super conspiracies, the psychologist thinks, are intoxicating because they have no answers, which helps maintain an interest over a long period of time.
“The awakening always feels just around the corner; that Scooby Doo moment, where the villain’s sack is removed from his head,” he says. “First, there was 5G to consider. Then there were lockdowns and masks. Now there are 15-minute cities. It’s a never-ending threat and that’s why it’s so difficult to escape from.”
Lambert, whose football career ended in 2017 following 241 goals in 701 games for nine clubs across all levels of professional football in England, perhaps stands as testament to that.
On September 11, the 41-year-old used his Twitter page to start promoting the rally with a poster that could easily have been an advert for a ghost tour, where the town hall faded into the background of a ghoulish blue light.
“People of Liverpool, start researching 15 minute city’s (sic),” Lambert wrote, “because they are coming our way very shortly if we allow it.”
Then, in capital letters, he added: “WE DO NOT CONSENT!!”
A video from a garden followed three days later, was aimed at “you Scousers”.
According to Lambert, Liverpool’s council was planning on “dividing” the city into 13 zones in an attempt to create greener and safer spaces for “us, the people”.
“It is not, it is not,” Lambert insisted. “It is a controlled tactic being implemented across this country as we speak. These are initial movements for 15-minute cities, all under the guise of climate change.”
Liverpool would be under the surveillance of cameras and, eventually, permanent barriers, according to Lambert. “This is unacceptable,” he said. “Us, the people, will not stand for this control tactic.”
Lambert making his way to the 15-minute city protest in Liverpool (Simon Hughes)
While Lambert did not provide evidence for these claims, the city council is adamant that such plans have never been discussed at any committee meeting and it does not form a part of its planning or policy.
The 15-minute city, an urban design concept which could be perceived as a fairly mundane strategy that has been moderately successful in other parts of the world for more than a decade, aims to provide everything that a resident supposedly needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride.
Since the start of 2023, however, it has been targeted by conspiracy theorists, who believe it to be a part of a malign international plot to control people’s movement in the name of climate change. According to the protestors standing beside Sky, new cameras in bus lanes were evidence that this process had started in Liverpool.
Not every person’s life can be viewed through their social media output, but Lambert’s might be revealing in terms of what it does not include over the first three years.
His Instagram page has been active since 2017 and until 2020, nearly all of his posts related to his family and football. If he was interested in politics, medicine, or social freedoms, he did not show it.
The nature of those posts began to change six months into the Covid-19 pandemic, specifically when Rishi Sunak told musicians they should retrain and find new jobs.
Lambert, like a lot of people, pushed back at this radical suggestion by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has since become the British prime minister.
By March 2021, he was posting about lockdowns, writing: “No new variant or blaming the unvaccinated!! NO MORE!!!”
Lambert only joined Twitter in June 2023, attracting 10,000 followers since. His bio suggests he is “fighting for my children’s future”, as an ex-footballer-turned-coach, though he does not mention he is employed by Wigan Athletic. It includes the hashtag #greatawakening.
In his first video post, he described himself as a “critical thinker” before having a stab at explaining what he thought this phenomenon was.
“No one has ever told us what the great awakening is,” Lambert admitted.
A month later, he released another, more succinct video, where he “withdrew his consent to be governed by any corrupt, compromised, belligerent parliament of government”.
“I will not comply,” he added.
I had asked Lambert for an interview in July, to speak about his views, challenge them, and to see where they were rooted. Initially, he agreed, but the night before we were due to meet, he cancelled without any initial indication he wanted to reschedule. After being pressed on another date and promising to come back with a suggestion, he did not.
It became apparent on his Instagram page that two days before our original interview, he had attended a gathering with at least four other people, including Andrew Bridgen, the Member of Parliament who, earlier this year, was expelled from the Conservative Party for comparing Covid-19 vaccines to the Holocaust. He had also been found to have breached lobbying rules.
Bridgen has been an outspoken critic of lockdown policy (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
At the start of September, Hope Not Hate, the largest anti-fascist organisation in the United Kingdom, distributed a picture of Bridgen in Copenhagen with Tommy Robinson, arguably the most notorious far-right activist in the United Kingdom.
The organisers of the rally Lambert promoted and attended in Liverpool were the British Lions, a group which was spawned out of the Covid conspiracy “freedom” movement.
Despite using ancient law and sovereign language, Hope Not Hate says the organisation is not explicitly far-right, but says that some of its members have been seen at other far-right events.
A leaflet handed out by the British Lions on Wednesday outlined, rather chaotically, all of the things they are challenging the government on. Some were rooted in reality, such as the attempt to criminalise rights to protest; others were unsubstantiated claims apparently designed to offer the impression of a super conspiracy.
So many of the origin stories for these groups and beliefs can be traced back to the pandemic, which Joe Mulhall, from Hope Not Hate, describes as an “unprecedented opportunity for engagement with the conspiracy world”.
Mulhall says conspiracists will ignore any differences when they meet believers of their secretive world. “The nuances seem tiny when they feel like they are conquering an external force. The enormity of the perceived threat means they will put aside political distinctions that traditionally might be a problem.”
Nine summers ago, I watched Lambert cry tears of joy as he completed his dream move. He was at Melwood, Liverpool’s old training ground, having just signed for the club.
When I spoke to him briefly in July, he described it as the best moment of his life. I remember being delighted for him, as so many Liverpool supporters were. His story until this point had been one of crushing rejection and extraordinary revival, heaving himself from the floor of his release from the club he loved as a teenager to working his way back a couple of decades later. “I can’t believe this has happened,” he told me.
Lambert fulfilled a boyhood dream by playing for Liverpool (Michael Regan/Getty Images)
On much colder reflection, his path might offer clues as to why he thinks the way he does now. Lambert was born in Kirkby, an overspill town seven miles inland from Liverpool’s city centre, living in a maisonette opposite the old Kirkby Stadium, which for junior teams in the area was the equivalent of Wembley. With a notoriously hard shot, he was spotted by Liverpool scouts aged 10 and he spent five years in the junior ranks, rejecting opportunities to join Everton and Manchester United.
It was not a shock to him when he was told by Steve Heighway, Liverpool’s academy director, that he was being released because of his lack of pace. Over the next few years, he had to adapt his game and this led to him playing in a variety of positions. He joined Blackpool as a right-back, but by the last year of his apprenticeship, he was a central midfielder. Two of those years had been under Nigel Worthington, but when Steve McMahon, the former Liverpool midfielder, took over, his fortunes changed. McMahon had been his father’s hero, but within six months of his appointment as manager, Lambert was allowed to leave the club — unable to even get a game for the reserves. McMahon had seen ability but did not think Lambert’s body would allow him to regularly play for 90 minutes.
On trial at Macclesfield Town, he was not being paid and this led to him getting a job at a beetroot factory. Aged 19, he was contemplating a career in the semi-professional ranks because he did not have a car and could not even afford the cost of the travel expenses to make it to training. Yet six months later, he was sold to Stockport County for what remains a club record fee of £300,000.
Lambert believes he was entitled to earn 10 per cent of that fee, but when he tried to buy a house, he learned that the money had disappeared into an agent’s account. By the age of 19, it would be understandable if he had trust issues given he might feel let down by the club he loved, his father’s hero, and the person supposedly representing him in this cruel, unforgiving sport.
At Stockport, Lambert found it hard to adapt to a deep-lying midfield role. The team was struggling and the fans turned on the players. As the most expensive signing, he bore the brunt and this led to him dropping a division to join League Two Rochdale, where he rediscovered a sense of purpose while playing as a centre-forward. He maintained his scoring habit after moving to Bristol Rovers and when Southampton were relegated into League One, new owners, with new money, enticed him to the south coast. There, the manager Alan Pardew asked him to lift his top up. Looking at his belly, he told him he was a “disgrace”.
Despite scoring the goals that helped Southampton accelerate back up the leagues and making friends with Le Tissier along the way, Lambert says the club wanted to sell him every summer.
He was desperate to prove them wrong and when he finally made it into the Premier League, aged 30, he had played almost 400 games across each of the divisions in the English football league. Yet in the opening game of that season, at champions Manchester City, he was left on the bench. The decision by manager Nigel Adkins suggested he didn’t truly believe in him.
Lambert always felt the need to prove himself (Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)
Listening to Lambert, you begin to realise how lonely football can be. He could only ever really trust himself: his talent and resilience. Regularly, those making decisions about the direction of his career did not. Even after proving himself in the Premier League, he felt as though international recognition with England only came out of respect for his record rather than his ability.
On his debut against Scotland, he was in “dreamland” after scoring the winner. He made it into England’s squad for the 2014 World Cup squad but felt like a “mascot” after just three minutes of playing time. The lack of action meant he felt he needed less of a summer holiday as he began his Liverpool career. Despite being given five weeks off, he returned to Melwood after a fortnight, vowing to become the fittest he had ever been.
It proved to be a mistake because he needed the break. Aged 32, Lambert had never played a full season extending into a summer tournament before. Back on Merseyside, he felt heavy — like he didn’t have any energy. On the club’s pre-season tour of the United States, he struggled with the routine of training, playing and travelling.
Liverpool’s manager, Brendan Rodgers, had told Lambert that he was bringing in Alexis Sanchez to replace the outgoing Luis Suarez. Sanchez, however, never arrived. In the 2014-15 season, Liverpool missed Suarez terribly. In Sanchez’s place, Rodgers bought Mario Balotelli despite vowing not to, and Balotelli’s signing was a failure.
Lambert was under more pressure to deliver. His first Liverpool goal at Crystal Palace coincided with what turned into a bad team performance and a defeat. After just five months at the club, Rodgers wanted to move him on, but Lambert rejected the opportunity to join Palace before he almost went to Aston Villa. He never fulfilled that boyhood dream of scoring for Liverpool at Anfield.
Out of the starting XI, his fitness got worse. He was less likely to affect a game if his chance did come. Spells at West Bromwich Albion and Cardiff City followed, but within six weeks, Lambert was told by Neil Warnock that he wanted him off the wage bill. One of the offers came from Scunthorpe United, but he couldn’t face lowering himself to a level of football which he had tried so hard to get away from.
Listening to him on the Straight From The Off podcast in 2021, it seemed as though he was still searching for answers as to why his career unravelled the way it did. Certainly, had he listened to any supposed “expert” at crucial points in his career, then he may have not even made it to Blackpool.
Across the Liverpool fanbase, he has become a figure of fun, but not because his time at the club ended in the way it did. In another podcast this year, he spoke enthusiastically about scientists conducting an experiment where they spent time speaking positively to a glass of water, which allegedly responded by dazzling them with the clarity of their crystals.
When a friend saw that clip, he messaged me straight away, asking: “What next, Rickie Lambert taking mortgage advice from a can of Fanta?”
(Top photo: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)