One off the Bucket List

Ah, Anfield. The Kop. The Boot Room. The Hillsborough Memorial. The Shankly Gates.

Fans of the round ball game, no matter their allegiance, no matter the depth of their interest, can’t fail to recognise these names and their symbolism of the might, the mystique and the enduring tragedy of the Liverpool Football Club.

Love them or loathe them, Liverpool evokes powerful, emotional responses among football fans, and its place as one of the world’s great sporting clubs is unquestioned.

So for this 40-year, long-distance fan of the Reds, an unexpected trip to the north of England meant a mandatory detour to Merseyside and a tour of the famous Anfield Stadium.

The ultimate “bucket list” experience – attendance at an actual match – didn’t seem feasible within my schedule, or rather, my budget. The only Premier League fixture on offer was the marquee game against arch-rivals Manchester United. For an out-of-towner, the only prospect of securing a ticket to such a game was via an exorbitantly priced accommodation and hospitality package – legalised scalping, in effect.

It was, therefore, with a tinge of regret but a substantial dose of financial realism that I settled for a £35 “Legends Tour” of the stadium, hosted by former star defender, Phil Neal. That was to be my Anfield experience. Or so I thought.

“You know that Liverpool’s playing Notts County in the League Cup on Tuesday night? You’d probably score a ticket. Give the club a call.”

The words came from one of the friends we were staying with. He’s a Gunners fan and takes a dim view of my choice of team. But he knows his football and his advice was spot-on. One phone call, a bit of careful diction to ensure clear translation of Oz into Scouse, and I’ve got a ticket.

Sure, it’s only League Cup against a lowly League One team, but out of the blue I’ve landed a spot in the Kop for just 15 quid!

What started as a brief distraction has now morphed into two trips to Liverpool in three days! From our base in Cumbria, our travel plans were largely to the north. Instead I’m finding myself belting a southerly groove down the M6, where England’s moorlands rapidly morph into the territory of the dark satanic mills (if they were still operating).

The city of Liverpool has done a good job in sprucing up the centre of town and its famous docks area to cover the harsh effects of changing global trade patterns. However, once you leave the tourist precinct, it doesn’t take long for the veneer to be peeled back.

As I arrive at Anfield for the stadium tour, I’m quickly directed to park in the security-monitored carpark rather than on the streets. “Car crime” is rife in the neighbourhood, I’m told.

Rows of drab, red-brick terraces, many boarded up¹, fill the deserted narrow streets around the stadium. A few pubs and food outlets that come to life on match-days lie eerily shut behind metal roll-a-doors.

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I spy the statue of the late Bill Shankly that stands outside the stadium, gazing out at the surrounding urban wasteland.

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In this spot, it’s easy to imagine that his famous quote about football being more important than life and death² was uttered in horrified contemplation of what he saw: “If this is life, give me football!”

It’s hard to believe that such an iconic stadium can stand, like a just-landed spaceship, in such barren surrounds, but as I take it all in, it starts making sense. The incredible resurgence of the Reds through the 1960s, 70s and 80s was in stark contrast with the grim decline and stagnation of a city losing its once proud reputation as one of the great trade and shipping centres of the British Empire. For a town beset by tough times, the near-constant success of LFC would have been the one beacon of hope in the darkness. How else to explain the crazy passion of those supporters surging the terraces, spending their last pennies on tickets and travel across Britain and Europe until that horrendous night in Belgium³ brought their heady party to a close.

I’m shaken from my reflections by the call to join the Stadium Tour. Phil Neal is not usually the first-mentioned name from the great Liverpool teams of the 70s and 80s, but as his pedigree is read out to the assembled fans, we murmur with appreciation. Talk about being in the right place at the right time! This guy, recruited from the obscurity of Northampton, played in more League title-winning teams than Keegan, Dalgliesh, Hughes, Rush or any of his other more celebrated team mates, plus a host of other cups and European triumphs(4).

Neal wears his legendary status easily. There’s no false modesty about him, which gives his storytelling sufficient razzle to have the group enthralled. But he’s blunt and down-to-earth – no FIGJAM here – an attitude very much in keeping with the renowned tall poppy-lopping culture of the Boot Room. Messrs Shankly, Paisley and Fagan would never have needed to resort to Leading Teams!

Phil Neal holds court

Phil Neal holds court

I’m the only Aussie in the group, a point I keep to myself when Neal launches into an absolute tirade against Harry Kewell and his ignominious performance in the 2005 European Champions League Final (5). Liverpool’s era of greatness was forged in the old-school furnace of blokey toughness. Neal makes no secret of the fact that showing pain was frowned upon but inflicting it on opponents was given a knowing nod of approval. It’s clear the likes of Kewell didn’t fit that mould.

After the close confines of the dressing room (far more basic than most of those other “toff” clubs, we’re proudly assured), we make the short walk under the famous “This is Anfield” sign. We dutifully touch it as though it were a religious icon.

Stainless sees Red

Stainless sees Red

Our arrival into the arena is like walking into a cathedral. On this quiet Sunday morning, there is a reverential hush as we gaze at the famous stands, the silence broken only by the distant hum of hand-held mowers carefully attending to the billiard-table surface.

For a long-term Reds fan, this is a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Yet I’m struck by the ordinariness of the stadium and the tiredness of its facilities. Is it really something to be proud of that some of the wooden seating in the Main Stand is original and over 100 years old?

Even the once-fearsome Kop, formerly a giant terraced bank that accommodated 30,000+ standing, singing, surging Scousers, has been emasculated by the requirements of all-seater stadiums. I quickly realise that my match-day experience will involve folding my long body into a basic plastic seat with way-too-little leg room. I only hope that the legendary atmosphere will compensate for my discomfort.

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Fast-forward to Tuesday. I’ve arrived back in Liverpool during the afternoon and have plenty of time to check into the hotel near Lime St Station and wander round the Docks and the Cavern Club precinct in the late summer sunshine. There are plenty of Notts County fans around town. They’re, enjoying their tour of Merseyside from 100 miles away as much as this Aussie is from 12,000. It’ll probably be their biggest game of the year.

I’m not risking the car (or my dodgy navigational skills) on this trip to Anfield, instead getting a taxi to take me to the point where match-day road closures and the sea of fans make further progress impossible. Perfect. I can see the stadium ahead and can immerse myself in the pre-game excitement.

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The dingy streets are a sea of red. Sunday’s sullen silence is now a babble of Scouse, its lyrical mix of flattened vowels and upward inflection beautifully capturing the Liverpool attitude – a perky blend of unpretentiousness, defiance and dry wit.

I left the stadium tour sensing I’d been part of a jovial but carefully constructed propaganda exercise that focussed on the glories of Liverpool’s past but studiously ignored the club’s more recent shortcomings. But I’m an unashamedly smiling, gawking tourist/fan now, snapping pictures and buying up match day programs and fanzines from whoever’s spruiking them. There’s a relaxed, easygoing buzz outside Anfield that probably doesn’t mirror the intense edginess that would accompany next weekend’s blockbuster against Man.Utd. But there’s still a genuine sense of anticipation about the contest ahead that instantly brings Shane Crawford’s famous Premiership dais line to mind.

I eagerly join the queue into the Kop and the clash of old and new hits me again. Tickets are scanned and named, in keeping with modern security demands, but you pass through turnstiles that look like they’ve been there for decades. Under the stand itself, primitive food and drink outlets bear an uncanny resemblance to those in the old Southern Stand of the MCG. All this at a club whose turnover dwarfs even the largest AFL outfit.

The League Cup is the least important of the various competitions that Premier League teams participate in. Matches like this one are not usually sold out, even with cheap tickets, and the top clubs often field second-string lineups. Not so tonight. The Reds haven’t qualified for any action in Europe this season so the FA and League Cups are more important than usual. It’s virtually a full house. To my delight, most of the top-liners are in the side tonight – Gerrard, Sturridge, Agger, Allen etc. Even better, I seem to be surrounded by genuine local fans rather than opportunist tourists like myself.

The beauty of Cup ties like this is that they represent huge opportunities for lower level clubs and their travelling fans revel in the chance to make their presence felt. The “away” section of the ground is packed and 3000-odd Notts County fans are making more of a racket than the home supporters who out-number them tenfold.

That is until YNWA (6) starts. The timing of life events is strange, I muse, as I join in the famous anthem. After 40 years of yearning to be part of this Liverpool tradition, I’ve now done it twice within a month, once among the 95,000 crowd at the MCG at the recent friendly match, and now at Anfield itself.

The game itself is a cracker in the best Cup tie tradition. The home side plays a sparkling first half, scoring two brilliant goals and looking as superior as one would expect against a side 50-odd places below them in UK rankings. The second half appears to be petering out into a tame finish with the Reds in control, until from nowhere, the visitors pounce on some sloppy defending and score, not once, but twice. To make matters worse, Liverpool has made its three substitutions when our new signing, veteran defender Kolo Toure, goes down injured. We face an unwelcome period of extra time with only 10 men.

The visiting fans are in ecstasies. It’s enough that they’ve performed creditably at such a tough venue, but now they’re a genuine chance to pinch a famous victory.

In contrast, the locals are disconsolate. “Discount prices, s’pose ya get discount football”, sniffs a hard-bitten looking Liver Bird behind me.

She soon has cause to smile, though. Shaken from their lethargy, the Reds demonstrate their class, Sturridge and Henderson scoring in each extra time period.

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The Kop celebrates Sturridge’s matchwinner

I’ve been richly entertained by a see-sawing, six goal game, that’s triggered the full range of emotions from the fans around me.

I completely lose my bearings outside the ground. There’s clearly no chance of scoring a taxi anywhere near the stadium, so I follow the throng in the direction I think is taking me closer to the city. By fluke, I find a taxi just dropping off another passenger. The driver, once he realises where I’m trying to go (as opposed to where I’m actually going), takes pity on me, allowing me to jump in when I should have either booked or waited at a taxi rank.

We exchange pleasantries about the current plight of the Reds. He agrees with my summation that the club is mired in the past, unwilling or unable to build the new stadium and generate the new income streams that will allow it to again join the big guns of the EPL.

I proffer that for all that I’m thrilled to have ticked off my aim to see a match at Anfield, I can’t help but feel underwhelmed and a little sorry for the regulars. In return for their devotion to the Reds, they’re gouged for huge membership and ticket prices, yet none of the proceeds seem to go towards improving the archaic stadium conditions. Rather, they’re squandered in a never-ending turnover of expensive but unremarkable players as Liverpool desperately tries to recapture the magic formula that served them so well during the glory days. The taxi driver doesn’t disagree although he looks highly sceptical when I describe the massive turnout at the MCG for Liverpool’s pre-season “match” against Melbourne Victory Seconds.

The economist in me doesn’t do “Bucket Lists”. The opportunity cost of pursuing a narrow list of ambitions can be heavy indeed, when they don’t live up to expectations. Not that tonight’s really been like that. On the contrary, I arrive back at my hotel in high spirits from a night that’s worked out nicely.

Yet I can’t help but hark back to the renditions I heard during the match of the “Fields of Anfield Road” (7) . It was great the first time, but by the tenth, it was chanted Rosary-like with the flat passionless devotion of those who’ve recited it so often they can no longer capture its significance. Like much of what I’ve seen at Anfield, it’s all about the glory days of Kenny Dalgleish and Steve Heighway. And I’m bemused at the unintended irony of the last line. Do they even notice the urban wasteland they’re singing about?

As I leave Liverpool , I’m thrilled that my unexpected Anfield experience has come to pass, even if I wonder whether the mighty LFC isn’t just a time-warped tourist attraction honouring a great era now long gone (8).

 

[1] My understanding is that the Club has bought up much of the surrounding property with the view to redeveloping the stadium in time.  However, in recent years as Liverpool has wrestled with changes of ownership and attendant financial constraints, the redevelopment plans have been put on hold and the neighbourhood has progressively decayed.

[2] Shankly’s remark is, as many famous quotes are, difficult to substantiate and almost certainly taken out of context.  For instance, there is a view that Shankly was referring to the extent to which football had dominated his life to the detriment of his family, something for which he later expressed regret.  There is also a view that his remark was part of a broader comment about the extreme passion of Liverpool and Everton fans, but noting that for all the seriousness they took their cross-twon rivalry, it never spilled over into violence.

[3] The European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus, played at Heysel Stadium in Belgium in 1985, was blighted by pre-game clashes between rival fans that resulted in a stadium wall collapsing and killing a number of Juventus supporters.  Liverpool, winners of four of the previous eight European Cups was subsequently banned from playing in Europe for a number of years.  Not surprisingly, this part of the Club’s tragic history is not referenced nearly as often as the Hillsborough disaster in which Liverpool fans were clearly the victims rather than the aggressors.

[4] From the LFC Website: Phil Neal is the most decorated player in Liverpool history. In fact, no Englishman can boast more medals. The full-back helped bring 22 pieces of silverware to the Anfield trophy room and was the only player to feature in the Reds’ first four European Cup triumphs. Never has the term ‘Mr Consistency’ been more apt than when discussing the merits of Neal in a Liverpool shirt. Plucked from Fourth Division obscurity for £66,000 in October 1974, the former NorthamptonTown man was Bob Paisley’s first managerial acquisition and undoubtedly one of his most inspired. A month after his low-key arrival, Neal was pitched into his senior debut at just a few hours’ notice, but made a good early impression by coping admirably with the intense pressure of a high-octane goalless Merseyside derby at Goodison Park. From there he became an almost permanent fixture in the legendary back four of the late Seventies, making a record 365 consecutive league appearances between December 1974 and September 1983.

[5] Kewell had a brief and disappointing stint at Liverpool, which was punctuated by injury.  Most notably, he suffered a groin injury in the Champions League Final, virtually substituting himself off after 20 minutes to the boos of the Liverpool fans, incensed at this display of weakness in such a big game.  As Neal caustically commented on our tour, “wasn’t it funny how quickly Kewell was able to race onto the ground to celebrate the win?”

[6] “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.  Scarcely needs an explanation, but the playing of the Gerry and the Pacemakers version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein number from “Carousel” is a Liverpool ritual that outdoes even “Yellow and Black” at Richmond games.  The crowd rendition at the MCG had to be heard to be believed.

[7] All round the Fields of Anfield Road
Where once we watched the King Kenny play (and he could play)
We had Heighway on the wing
We had dreams and songs to sing
Of the glory round the Fields of Anfield Road

[8] Despite this gloomy prognosis, at the time of posting, Liverpool is 3rd in the EPL and has made one of its best starts to the season in over a decade.  We beat the hated Mancs the weekend after I went to Anfield although they reversed the result a few weeks later, knocking us out of the League Cup.

About Sam Steele

Stainless (aka Sam Steele) started following Richmond in 1970 when he was 6. This occurred when his mother, under instructions to buy him a Melbourne jumper, found they were out of stock and purchased a Richmond one instead. Despite the decades of heartache and turmoil this fateful decision has brought on Stainless, he is grateful to his mum as he has at least seen his side win a couple of Premierships.

Comments

  1. Theo Efthymiou says:

    Absolutely fantastic account of a pilgrimage that is near the top of my bucket list. You have crystallised the spirit of the supporters and city impeccably. The game against Melbourne Victory has only whet my appetite for a trip to Anfield, to see the Reds continue their rapidly improving on field fortunes.

  2. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    Great and honest summary of your experience Stainless . As a South Aussie, I am considered weird in preceding the coloseum of Footy Park , to Adelaide Oval any day .
    While I support QPR and would love to go to Loftus Road . Anfield , Old Trafford
    Lords and The Oval are on my bucket list may be one day !
    Thanks Stainless for such a thorough report .

  3. Thanks Theo and Malcolm
    I guess I surprised myself with my rather lukewarm appraisal of my Anfield experience. Don’t get me wrong, I’m so glad I did it, but it does reinforce in my mind how lucky we are in Australia to have such a great and affordable competition played at such excellent venues.

  4. Wonderful piece Stainless. You really took me there. I loved the way you blended the personal, the historical and the analytical.
    I remember watching the 05 Champions League final live. A team has never looked as dead and buried at half time, since Carlton in 1970.
    Steve Gerrard willed them back from the dead with skill and sheer refusal to lie down.

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