Few people believe that it was a kid from Manchester who put me on to supporting Liverpool football club, but it’s true.
How a kid from Manchester comes to support Liverpool is a story for another day, but it was early May 1986 at MacKilliop College in Werribee, when the new kid – Neil Cochrane – was sat next to me in my year 9 homeroom. Neil and his family had just moved to Werribee from Manchester for his father’s job. What atrocities Mr Cochrane had committed to end up in Werribee has never come to light; I like to convince myself that his posting was more to do with contributing perhaps specialised knowledge for the nearby CSIRO labs or some engineering expertise to the then Board of Works and it’s numerous (cough) ‘projects’ Werribee and southern Little River are most famously known for.
After the TSIP (traditional settling in period), the talk between the new kid with the funny accent and I turned to sport. Such was my naivety as a 14 year old, I found it preposterous that he’d never heard of the VFL, let alone picked a team to barrack for. He was equally aghast that I had no allegiance to an English football club. I said that I’d seen the FA Cup final on Channel 2 a few times, but that was about it. “You should support my team, Liverpool”, said Neil in his thick Mancunian accent. “We’ve just won the League this year and we play Everton in the F.A Cup this Saturday.” “And”, he smiled, adding the coup de grace of his pitch, “there’s an Australian named Craig Johnson plays for us. You should support us.” So, the home of the Beatles has an Australian playing for them? Count me in.
Every club has its stories and Liverpool’s are well known: 18 League titles, seven F.A Cups and five Champions League titles. Tales of Liverpool’s hatred for the red half of Manchester (and vice-versa) and the joy that defeating Liverpool brings any of the other teams in English Football. Champion players like Gordon Hodgson, Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalgleish, John Barnes, and Ian Rush and of how Bill Shankly taught not just a football team to be proud of who they were, and to believe that they matter, but an entire people.
And then there’s the ugly truth about how a government, a police force and select media outlets tried to blame 96 innocent Liverpool supporters for their utterly needless deaths at Hillsborough in 1989. That somehow, dead scousers at a football match was an ugly hooligan getting what they deserved – never mind that some of the body bags laid out on the pitch at Sheffield that horrible day contained children and counted the elderly among the dead.
While it existed long before Hillsborough the singing of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” has become an important ritual to any Liverpool supporter. From afar, I and many like me, have sat in awe and watched those lucky tens of thousands who pack Anfield to the rafters every home game sing Gerry Marsden’s version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein song as though their lives depended on it, which in some cases might not be too far from the truth, given your average supporters’ love of their club, be it, Red, white, blue, black and white… whatever.
I’ve been to plenty of Grand Finals at the MCG, and seen some pretty special cricket matches and other soccer games at the Temple Down The Road, but nothing – absolutely nothing compares to the chills up my spine that the singing of You’ll Never Walk Alone generated. I’ve never been to a Liverpool match at Anfield (and given the way the English Premier League is structured, and my work, it’s likely I may never) but last night, I and 95,000 other people at the MCG got to experience what it must be like to stand amongst the faithful in the Kop, as Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal or Everton stand, facing down the mighty men in red prior to kick off; Liverpool supporters uniting in spirit with the players saying ‘no matter what happens in the next 90 minutes, we’re with you and no matter how bad things may get, we have your back. We’re here’. It’s more powerful a message of unity than any contrived focus-group tested and approved tagline like ‘Whatever It Takes’, ‘They Know We’re Coming’ or ‘Side by Side’ can ever dream of evoking.
The game itself never really reached any great heights as a contest; it was never going to. Both teams are in pre-season mode and nothing was on the line. But for a few hours last night, myself and others from our neck of the woods got to make believe that we were at Anfield. That it was we who were standing in the Kop, that it was us telling the team that we have your back, that we’re here for you, and you’ll never walk alone. And it was our chance to lend our voice and our solidarity in spirit to Anfield faithful and Liverpool supporters the world over. That for a brief moment in time, Stevie G, Luis, Daniel Agger, Raheem Sterling, Lucas, Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique were playing for us. And they didn’t let us down.
Justice for the 96. You’ll never walk alone.