'I like it," said Rana, a 32-year-old Canadian, on her first trip to Liverpool. "I think it's the best city in Europe," Frank, 42, interjected. "London is great but personally I don't like it." He is festooned in shiny football kit. "I had a hunch early in the season, so I bought two tickets for Chelsea, one for Newcastle, two for Sunday."

"That's some hunch," said the photographer.

You probably wouldn't meet a more committed lifelong Liverpool fan than Frank, who, just after the Hillsborough disaster, embroidered the names of the dead on a banner himself.

"I was shocked, to be honest. I was born in Lebanon and emigrated to Canada when I was a child. We always looked up to the British justice system, the organisation, the punctuality, the justice. But here … the facts have been so clear, and it has taken so long."

Having said that, you won't meet many fans less committed than Frank, either. As you may or may not be aware, Liverpool are poised to take the Premier League title. It's in their hands … it's within their grasp … Everybody, as they say it, clenches their hand around an imaginary cup; it may even be involuntary. I found myself doing it.

Greg Stewart, 26, is sitting on the docks of the Mersey, where the ferry plays Ferry Cross the Mersey all day. He's an accountant and a Liverpool fan.

"You want to come here on a match day. It's electric, the atmosphere in all the bars is electric. It's like you're actually in the ground. I want it for Steven Gerrard really. He's sacrificed his whole career for his city and his club. I just want to see him lift a trophy."

Mandy Mohan is in the city with her nine-year-old daughter, again bedecked in Liverpool paraphernalia, and her older daughter, 19-year-old Joanne, who isn't a football fan, but is a huge fan of the city itself. "She's been over from Ireland eight times. She wants to live here, but I'm not waiting for her to emigrate just yet."

Dave Kirby is a playwright and unofficial Liverpool ambassador. "It's lovely to see the renaissance that's going through the city. It's a wonderful place to be at the moment. People have got to remember, in the 1960s, Liverpool was the epicentre of everything. Music, everything.

"The guy who directs my plays was a guitarist at that time, he says they had to put Liverpool accents on in the Midlands. Such was the kudos that the scousers had at that time. Fast forward 20 years, we were being battered economically and socially and all of a sudden we were pariahs."

Naturally, Hillsborough was emblematic of that, and it's impossible to disentangle that from the mood this weekend. "It seems to be kind of fated that [the Hillsborough inquiry] is going hand in hand with the football, as if some outside force were looking down on it," Kirby says. "If we win the next three games we get to 89 points and it was 1989. So it feels written in the stars."

Perhaps the surprise element is Liverpool as a tourist destination now, as gorgeous as Deauville, packed with museums, washed in sun (yes, really!). Hannah, 21, a student in Preston, who grew up nearby, counters the mood gently. "Well, when it's grey … it's really depressing when it's grey."

Nevertheless, she wants to work in broadcasting and will be returning here when she graduates, rather than going to London.

It's soon to become a cruise liner stop for Americans, which, as John – helping on a Liverpool kit stall in the market – ascribes to the architecture. "The only place with more listed buildings than Liverpool is London. But here the people are friendly. Even the pigeons say excuse me."

For now, though, the football is a bigger draw than the birdlife. A spokesman for the club says: "Indicators don't really do it justice. We sold out every match when we were eighth, and we sold out every week when we finished top. It's just that kind of club."

But when even the Evertonians are happy – which they insist that they are – it's bigger even than the club.