By Michael Niday
There is a unique calm that can only be found in the early hours of the morning. The ambitious among us can be found setting up shops for the day or jogging in the morning cool. Rarely am I among them, though I’ve come to appreciate the morning atmosphere as I’ve gotten older. On this particular Sunday in April, my alarm clock goes off at 8:00 AM, and I realize that I won’t be afforded the slow pace. I’m in need of a cup of coffee due to a late Saturday night. More pressing, however, is to get in front of a TV before the match starts. My mind thoroughly fogged, I quickly dress to rush home from my girlfriend’s house before kickoff. Win this game, take full points from the remaining matches, and the best that City can hope for is second place. Wish I could see what they are doing for the Hillsborough tribute this morning…better wait until half time to grab that coffee.
Nine months out of the year, this is a weekly routine. We rise early to watch our team play from the couch or roam DC’s streets in search of bars that will open their doors early. A few weeks ago, we took a vacation to London with a short trip to Liverpool so we could tour Anfield. Unfortunately, we thought, tickets for the match against Spurs that weekend would likely be too expensive and too difficult to come by. However, when sitting in a pub in Chelsea on the Friday evening before the match we received an email offering two tickets, we seized upon the opportunity to wring one more experience out of an already unforgettable week.
We rented a house form a girl on a quiet street not far from Lark Lane in Liverpool. By fortunate happenstance, her boyfriend – a 20-year season ticket holder who first shared a pair of seats with his father, and now with his brother – wasn’t going to be attending this match. His absence was to be our gain as we would have the opportunity to experience a Liverpool match from the heart of the Kop.
The atmosphere around Anfield that day was really only understandable to those who have witnessed it. It’s one thing to rise and fall with the team from across the Atlantic, but it’s presumably another thing entirely to be a local supporter who remembers viscerally the best and worst of times of the past few decades. For this very reason, I can never help but feel slightly artificial as a Liverpool supporter. My urge to cry out about a ‘brilliant run of play’ or how I’m ‘made up’ over a victory will always sound forced in my American accent. And I feared that that accent, along with the overall nascence of my passion for the game, would instantly mark me as an outsider. But it didn’t matter. Although our coming to Liverpool was noted as a peculiarity to some, we were met with warmth by every person we encountered: A bartender studying philosophy at the local university. A group of friends out at a pub for the evening. A teacher who proudly spoke of Jon Flanagan as an alumnus of his school. A waitress interested in Washington, DC. A man willing to drive a couple of strangers across town so they didn’t get lost on the way to the stadium. Many of them wondered why we had come to Liverpool, and some of them accepted the draw of going to the game as a reasonable enough response. Although, admittedly, I’m not sure I would accept traveling abroad to see the Washington Nationals as a good reason to visit DC. It seems that, in all of this, what I’ve learned most of all is that our passions are deeply individual and personal, and it doesn’t have to make sense that I pore over the Internet to follow Liverpool blogs, or wake up early to watch matches, or travel across an ocean to see the team play. I realized that my love of the game should not be graded against that of a born-and-raised Red. They are different but collectively lend themselves to the sum of what the club and sport are across the world.
Not far from the Kop at the Sandon, you could feel the collective sense of expectation heading into the day. We had a pint and chatted with a few Irish guys who seemed thrilled for us to be attending out first match. They urged us to get to our seats early so we could take in all of the sights and sounds before kickoff. At our seats, we met a Norwegian man who had traveled to see yet another in a countless tally of Liverpool matches. As You’ll Never Walk Alone boomed around the grounds, my girlfriend timidly raised her scarf only to have her arms thrust higher still by our new Norwegian friend. The small gesture made me feel welcome. It didn’t matter where I was from, how long I’d followed the club, or what my reasons were for being there. I also took solace in the realization that there was nothing unique about my weekend routine. Men, women, and children around the world share the ritual – many more devoutly than I.
Back on the Sunday in April, I find myself walking to get that cup of coffee at half time. Liverpool are up 2-0 and just played a spectacular first half of football against Manchester City. I think of how the field looked from the Kop. I remember the people I met and wonder where they are watching this match – some friends in Ireland, a man on his couch in Norway, or a couple in a pub on Lark Lane. I remember the tunnel that the players walk through and the sight of the field when I first saw it on our tour. I get chills when I think of the tens of thousands of Liverpool supporters singing You’ll Never Walk Alone.
What I learned through this trip and this season is that Liverpool really is among the biggest of clubs. The success that they have had over this season so far is great for the city of Liverpool, but it stretches far beyond those borders. A trip that began as a pursuit to watch a sport turned into a deeply cultural and personal experience that not only justifies, but truly explains this sort of fandom that is shared by so many. Sports are about the community, but they are for each and every individual.
When I reflect on the year – whatever the ultimate outcome – I’ll remember how I felt being in first place on Christmas. I’ll remember what I saw when we went top of the table again in mid-March. And I’ll remember the nerves, excitement, and raw emotion expressed by all as Liverpool fought and clawed to a 3-2 victory over Manchester City. With four games to go, MY club is on top of the table and control their own destiny.