I remember the first time I sat down and read ‘Here We Go Gathering Cups In May’. Two and a half hours passed by as I rigorously turned the page in anticipation of the next words and sentences that make up a book I personally categorise as THE best book I’ve ever read.
It is a book filled mostly with the memories of fans that saw the truly golden years of Liverpool Football Club. It is tales of journeys across the lands of Europe, to corners and pockets of the continent were you wouldn’t expect them to have a football, let alone a stadium to play in or a TV to watch it on. As I read this book, I’d delve deep into my imagination and try to picture the days of the 70’s and 80’s, the mass exodus of fans to Rome in 77, the ‘football specials’ leaving Liverpool Lime Street from platform 9 eventually ending up in some far foreign land, forlorn, dusty and sweaty but full of real stories.
“What I’d give to be there,” I’d say, scouring through more pages for the next laugh, the next heartbreak, the next game. I sat as an 18-year-old, a naive-quiff haired, university student, a lazy imbecile, and thought of the stories I would tell in 25 years’ time.
There was an archaic inevitability about Liverpool on a personal level for me growing up in the 90’s. Liverpool were almost always expected to win. Not so much an arrogance but of an expectation, a pre-planned monologue, to see the greatest trophies and medals make their way back to Anfield.
We all know how teams of the 90’s compared to the God-like squads of the 70’s and 80’s; it is like comparing the Eiffel Tower to a street lamppost in terms of quality, success and how they are now revered as former greats. Don’t get me wrong, I worshipped your Robbie Fowler’s and your Steve McManaman’s but it always felt as if something was missing.
“Michael Owen – England’s New Hero,” the papers shrieked. Hyypia and Henchoz were the best defensive pairing since Lawrenson and Hansen. Gerrard was the driving force in Liverpool’s quest for trophies, and the French Manager who’d assisted in France’s World Cup win in 1998 was the next big thing in Europe. Of course, some of those came true, trophies came our way and Europe was conquered. I’d turned 11 a couple of months before that UEFA Cup win in Dortmund over Deportivo Alavés thinking I was supporting a team who were set to take over the world.
Time moved forward, players and managers left and a new Spanish regime came in under the tactical nous of Rafael Benitez. I turned 15 in 2005 and was stuck in the midst of GSCE exam stress, addicted to MySpace and too much hair gel, Liverpool had all of a sudden changed dramatically. Those foreign names I had just learned became even longer foreign names, more Spanish, better looking. The length with which they were staying at the club felt as short as my teenage chest hair … barely recognisable and definitely wouldn’t be turning any heads. The season brought disappointment initially, as my football hero Steven Gerrard, jumped high then slumped oh so low, along with the other heartbroken fans at Cardiff.
The unfair backlash on Gerrard was my first experience of fans getting on the backs of their own. It was also my first memory of heartbreak in a cup final, my first lesson in ‘you can’t win them all son’.That disappointment was soon moved aside when this team of oddballs and new players, who had barely shown any resilience in what was another inconsistent and frustrating season, decided to pull off miracle after miracle in the Champions League. The Olympiakos fight back, the Juventus stunner, and the goal that always was and always will be against Chelsea created quite a sensational run in a competition Liverpool weren’t even given a mention in at the start of it all.
And then it came. Istanbul. Beautiful, epic, grandiose, mythological, enchanting, awe-inspiring, beyond what any 15-year-old’s head can make of it and a game that I can watch online regularly should I need perking up.There was no magical story for me personally during that run to greatness by Liverpool that season. It often involved nights in with the parents and pre-exam revision right up to kick off. The final was the same; an English Literature exam was devouring my mind with incessant noises as kick-off approached in Turkey. Lenny from ‘Of Mice and Men’ was in my ear ‘PASS, PASS, PASS the exam you idiot!’ There was no poignant journey across the dustbowl of Southern Europe towards the Ataturk Stadium. No being lifted through the turnstiles of the Kop for the Chelsea and Juventus games and launched up to the front as the bellowing noise began from the deep cavities of the Spion Kop. Just a young lad’s hopes and dreams of witnessing a 5th European cup, the first in my lifetime.
Forty-five minutes later those hopes were dashed, by a long-haired Argentinian and the small matter of Kaka, who played the best half of football I had ever witnessed. My tear-ridden grey shirt became a red one at half time for luck, sold to me and my Nan for a quick fiver. The runaway men they called them. And my word did that Liverpool team runaway with that trophy as soon as Shevchenko took that inexcusable last penalty. And that was it, a brief hug with my mum and dad and bedtime. I passed the exam by the way, a middle class run of the mill, solid B. If I had ever questioned the stature of Liverpool then I was to hang my head in shame after witnessing an inconceivable amount of people outside St. George’s Hall in Liverpool to welcome back the heroes of Istanbul. The look on their faces told me nobody was prepared for the amount of fans that showed up and followed the bus through the streets and suburbs that made up the city.
Some got a glimpse of a cup that had temporarily gone missing others, like me, absorbed the privilege of seeing ole big ears back in the grateful arms of a team who had surpassed their wildest expectations and brought a story to the world of football that ranks up there with the very best. It took me about a year to understand what exactly had gone on in that final. Liverpool had always been the dramatic sort of club who took everything down to the wire, all very last minute stuff. So whose bright idea was it then, to decide to create another 3-3 draw with another penalty win right at the end? I am of course talking about the 2006 FA Cup Final again West Ham, or the ‘Gerrard Final’. I remember sitting there, 16-years-old by this time, being glad I was young and healthy because even my heart felt as though I was about to explode out of my pounding chest.
Yet again, Steven Gerrard dragged us from the pit of sorrowful defeat, dragging his lactic acid-ridden legs up from the Cardiff turf and smashing the ball past a fatigued West Ham defence who looked utterly desolate by what had just happened. The camera rocked, the fans seemed to jump higher than they ever had before and while extra time became a blur, the penalties most definitely were not. Another trophy, further progress in the league and new signings on the way, there was no stopping Liverpool now, right?
At 16, Liverpool had become the forefront of my daily conversations as I began to get worryingly addicted to everything about it. Unfortunately, most of the time I was only talking about the game I had watched on television rather than being at the ground and soaking it all up. Occasionally a ticket would come my way but a run of games going to the ground hasn’t been a possibility for me until recently, given factors such as difficulty at obtaining a ticket, cost and being away at university meant limited visits to Anfield. A new season began and with it came further progress in the league and emotions towards the polar opposite of Istanbul. Another European final brought utter gut wrenching disappointment and one I haven’t thought about much since.
Fans I know who travelled to Athens said the whole journey coupled with three fans sitting in one seat in the stadium made the whole thing an astronomical farce and one they seemed to want to move on from as soon as the shores of Britain could be seen again.
The Chelsea semi-final game of that 2006/07 Champions League season stood out for me. Naively, myself and three friends all ventured towards the ground with £100 in our wallets, looking for the most trustworthy tout (if that existed) and asked how much the tickets were for that night’s game. Our busy wallets and fresh faced anticipation were soon dashed when a delightful fellow told us to ‘do one lad!’ as we countered his £250 offer with our meagre “£100 mate and that’s it”. A few other words were exchanged as he moved on to his next potential buyer and after realising that kick off approached we found a local pub around the ground, ordered a few jugs of beer and felt the vibrations of the Kop rattle through this rundown establishment as we danced with the locals and others alike.
The closest we’d came to a genuine European night, separated by some bricks and mortar, and yet I’d never felt like I had missed out more. Liverpool’s dominance in Europe was becoming clear, the players on the pitch looked connected as a team, Benitez was in his stride and the fans had fallen in love with his managerial ways and general great guy persona. Although a second European Cup under the Rafalution had been narrowly missed Liverpool were about to embark on a new season which would see us finish so close to the holy grail of the Premier League.
THE ‘almost’ winning season
Tactically astute and defensively organised, Liverpool ripped teams apart but more often than not would come unstuck during frustrating draws to teams a week later they would hammer into the ground. The consistent Liverpool team I’d watched throughout most of the season were not the team I was watching against a Stoke, a Birmingham or a Fulham.
They were a team not made up of incredible individual talent, but a workforce that was meticulously chopped and changed by a manager criticised so often by the media but with ideas and methodologies I’d never seen before, or have not witnessed since in fact.
Liverpool were brilliant that season, at times unplayable but with the American owners and constant media attention after the so called ‘Rafa Rant’, something never felt right towards the back end of it.It all seemed so ruthless and unfair how Benitez was shifted out. What was happening behind the closed curtain had affected everyone, and from early on fans were very sceptical of Tom Hicks and George Gillett. They betrayed Benitez by interviewing Jurgen Klinsman for his job whilst still in the job, an incredible lack of loyalty for a man who had everyone on his side. Although he left with questions still buzzing around, Benitez brought Liverpool back into the big time, and just fell short of eclipsing Ferguson’s 24 year sunlit United empire, and fans will never forget that.
I’d prefer not to talk too much about George Gillett and Tom Hicks, the two American businessmen who showed up for profit but got swiftly strapped to the Mersey Ferry and sent back across the pond. Neither have I any care for the now infamous Roy Hodgson era and the calamitous signings he made as well as the strange things he often said to the press which essentially spelt the end for him before he’d even started a relationship with the fans.
October of 2010 was a period of time I won’t forget quickly, a time when Liverpool Football Club literally almost stopped being, with Gillett and Hicks being the main culprits of what was a quite dramatic few weeks.
The ins and outs of this Sky Sports sponsored period of time are too complicated to reel out in this piece but it was a significantly stressful time for myself and fans alike .Before current owner John Henry walked out of the building in London to confirm his ownership of Liverpool, I sat transfixed in my humble Sheffield abode just off the famous Ecclesall Road, missing that days lecture to see if the shirt I had on my back would be meaningful in 24 hours’ time.
Thankfully it was, and after the business of saving the club had been reorganised and all had settled down, the new American owners swiftly relieved Hodgson of his failed duties and brought in a man whose status as ‘The King’ gives him iconic meaning for fans of Liverpool.
Kenny Dalglish was a player I had only once watched live, at a charity game at Anfield. He came on with around 20 minutes left and looked absolutely shattered after his first 5 minutes. His belly was a little bigger in comparison to his lean frame from his glory days of the late 70’s and 80’s but that didn’t stop me being in awe of a man I’ve heard countless stories about since I was a kid.
His success as a manager had seen his worth as a legend increase astronomically, so when it was announced that he would take temporary charge of the club till the end of the 2010/11 season, I couldn’t have been happier.
I relished what his persona and charisma would do for players whose heads just hadn’t look with it for the first part of the season and his impact rewarded him with a new contract.By this time I’d arrived back on Merseyside after University, and when the 2011/12 season began I had more opportunities to attend games thanks to friends and friends of friends who could supply me with a ticket (at the right price, I should say!). It was a strange time really under Dalglish. There were inconsistencies on the pitch, players bought from the Roy Hodgson regime who shouldn’t have been there, unbelievable amounts of money spent on British players, politics off the field that Dalglish just wasn’t prepared for, and then two pretty incredible cup runs which ended in one trophy at least.
It was great to see him back in that capacity, but the more I think about it the more I am glad he was only there for the transitional period of Liverpool. He brought calm and an assurance to the players and the fans that everything was going to be alright, whilst at the same time trying to knock a mediocre squad into the best shape possible.
As seasons have passed so have Hillsborough anniversaries. Chilly springs showed up amid the heartache of a city each year, and each year I grew more and more aware of what went on back in 1989. As kids in school our connection to our peers was often determined by the conversation about Hillsborough. “My dad was there one would say”, “My Uncle lost 2 of his friends” another would beam, as though not quite sure what it was we were talking about and the travesty that besieged it.
I’ve attended memorials, touched the tribute attached to Anfield when I could, even lay flowers at the Leppings Lane End one month before I finished my studies in Sheffield, the city that broke so many hearts and ended 96 lives. My connection feels deeper, having lived in Sheffield. I talked a fair few out of buying The Sun newspaper and told the story of what happened to whoever did or didn’t want to listen. I feel connected to something that I wasn’t even around to witness unravel on the day, and I put that down to what Liverpool Football Club represents. I find a selfish appreciation for life when it comes to Hillsborough. A reason to fight for whatever cause needs fighting for. A reason to strive to be a better person and a successful person in my own life, a reason to never take anything for granted.
As a young lad I was taken to both Liverpool and Everton games and I remember both grounds so well. Andre Kanchelskis scored against Leeds in December 1995 in a 2-0 for Everton at Goodison. I vividly remember almost freezing to death in what my young mind perceived to be essentially a shed with a cardboard roof. The wind was howling so much that the girls throwing the sweets into the crowd at half time would often find that those sweets had made their way back into their baskets (strangely they walked around in ‘Bo-Peep’ costumes).
My relationship with the Merseyside Derby over the years has often been synchronised, and therefore overshadowed by the Liverpool and Manchester United duel. Early 90’s success brought United to the forefront of British, and eventually world football and they have stayed there ever since. Hatred between the two has always existed but that hatred has now quadrupled, as games and trophies and domination means so much more to everyone associated with each club.
My first derby however, came in 2012, a 3-0 demolition against a weakened Everton side. Steven Gerrard’s hatrick and a seat in the Kop gave me an emotional memory as well as relief at finally seeing this famous old derby.
But the real winner came when I got the call to tell me I had a ticket to the Semi Final of the F.A Cup in April 2012. I’d forked out £80 to buy a train ticket to London before I’d even had news of a ticket, I naively thought of it as some sort of destiny that would bestow me, like Bill Shankly himself would come hailing down from the fluffy clouds of this earth’s ceiling, like a Scottish version of Willy Wonka with his golden ticket, except the entrance to the chocolate factory was in fact entrance to the wondrous back drop of the new Wembley. Cheers, Bill.
My friends and I, both Everton and Liverpool fans often chat about our sense of injustice. It isn’t necessarily a massive thing to us as football fans but it has, at times, been the focal point of many conversations. A sense of being left out if often the forefront of social conversation as we reminisce about Everton and Liverpool teams of past times. Of British hero’s gracing the field as the hoards of fans packed into a stadium so full it was bursting, of players putting their bodies on the line for a cause. These players still exist of course, but more sporadic than of days gone by.
We’ve always felt like the culture back then, although still the same in certain ways, was much better than what it is now. The world is such a smaller place. Liverpool and Everton fans are all over the world. Tourists flock to take pictures of the Shankly statue, the Kop end, the Gwladys Street end, the green pitches that create such a beautiful image each side of Stanley Park. The merchandise flows, the tickets sell out as fast as you can click the ‘buy’ button online. The atmosphere, on most days, is disappointing. It’s changed a lot. I’d seep through internet pages when I was younger, and even now I still sometimes find myself on these poisonous, cretin like sites to see if maybe, just maybe there isn’t an astronomical ticket for sale to football games.
I used to wonder who paid for these tickets at such a high price, particularly the away games. Then the identity trail of that buyer would be complete, when two Chinese or Middle Eastern lads walk into the smoke filed toilet with their £1,000 Nikon cameras, designer puffer jackets, and Armani glasses without the faintest idea to what scene they have walked into. It seems Stoke or Wigan on a cold January night is attractive to the least stereotypical fan you’d often relate to such an event.
Me, Myself and The Spion Kop
My story and connection with The Kop is a sporadic one to say the least. It hasn’t, until recently, been a weekly affair with the same people who’d go to the same pub and have the same rituals before entering the ground. It’s been a few games a season, games where the atmosphere isn’t great or there isn’t much to play for. When reading ‘Gathering Cups in May’ it almost felt like a diary, a weekly update of which city or country next, or of the thrashings the great sides of Liverpool would heap on the sorrowful visiting team at Anfield. If you said to a group of lads these days ‘ay lads, jump over the wall you’ll be sound’, they’d probably run home to their mums and file a claim against you at the mere suggestion of such a suggestion.
The old rituals of picking up the young kids and passing them to the front of the Kop has long gone, the sneaking past the barriers or paying on the door is a thing of the past. It is fancards and memberships, no bottle tops on drinks, no standing up in your seat or in the stairway, it’s all seated and all rules. In a way it had to change, but I’d give anything to experience it, as there’s only so far I can romanticise my story with that beautiful stand.
I recently sat with two Norwegians to the left of me, two Londoners of Asian origin to the right, and an Irish couple with their young son behind us. All that as a Uruguayan footballer man handled, and then bit a Serbian in the middle of suburban Liverpool! At certain points in the match my friend and I felt like the minority.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that Liverpool have attracted fans from distant lands, its mind blowing in fact, some treat it is an almost religious Mecca. At the Tottenham game towards the end of the 2012/13 season, an Eastern European man, kitted out in full red with his nervous looking girlfriend, turned around at the end of the match in the middle of the exiting hoards of fans and bowed towards the Kop, kissed his hand and sent it up the air, like he had just scored the winning penalty and not Steven Gerrard.
The Kop though is still a wonderful spectacle. Even on its quietest days it still commands an aura of appreciation, a message of ‘look and respect me’ to any fan visiting, home or away.Football is often connected with the fickle, with the 3pm shouters, who turn up and just give a torrent of abuse to whoever loses the ball. Its general manner within society is often looked down on and mocked, particularly in this, the age of Twitter and Facebook. Its songs are seemingly dismissed as mere stanzas of gibberish, unwelcoming poisonous chalices of whine and moan. I’ve always tried to look past that prejudice, particularly as some of the Liverpool songs go far past gibberish. They carry deeper meaning, with religious connections and songs thought up in the very streets that surround Anfield. Each rendition, however quiet it may seem on TV, means so much to those who bust their lungs to be heard. It’s celebrating a football club, a city, a life essentially. And that to me is worth so much.
My reasoning behind the article is not for sympathy, I don’t want anybody to feel sorry for me. There are fans my age who go home and away and have travelled the length and breadth of Britain and Europe and can tell their stories with a larger sense of credibility than I can. What I’m trying to get across is that there isn’t near enough of these fans as there once was, local, die-hard, willing and passionate supporters for a club deep in the suburbs of Liverpool, with an insatiable hunger to sing and support till the very end.
This is a bigger issue, an on-going one in fact, but one that needs close attention. I may have missed out because of my own circumstances, but a hell of a lot more are missing out now than there were 20 years ago. There are probably 50 of me every few miles in Merseyside and the surrounding areas that feel the same level of passion coupled with the same desperation to not miss out anymore, and still create a wonderful support for this great club. As the new season reaches its halfway point, the thoughts of optimism coupled with caution still swirl around the many heads of fans.
Liverpool, under Rodgers are now seemingly a steadied ship, but a ship that now must set its sails northwards up the table instead of simply floating to mediocrity once again. I followed with delight at how Liverpool’s summer tour has so successfully reminded everybody that this great city has still a club with history not many can match or will ever for that matter.
I am also well aware that without new history, the tales and legends of old will begin to sink away as other clubs and institutions take over the dominance game the Premier League thrives on.
As a fan though, it is just a new season, and we move on and look forward. Move on in the sense that Brendan Rodgers is the right man for this job and a man who can reign long in the Anfield dugout. And to look forward, to appreciate the magnitude of such a great club, to recognise that the club is bigger than any player, or any fan for that matter, and to continue to support the badge till it is no longer possible. Long-winded I know, but true.
My expectations are of scepticism in truth. I truly want to believe that Champions League football will rightly go hand in hand with Anfield next season, but I also think with my head a lot more now, as I wise up to the realisation that we are still a way off certain clubs who may just have that edge when it comes to the final printout of the league come May. It’s the image of the Kop on a cool April night in the Champions League that draws an air of distorted sentimentality and tells me we’ll be able to soon watch the European big wigs have their socks blown off by the sound of 45,000 Liverpool fans, full of Istanbul mark two dreams.
And personally for me…
Well I just take it game by game and hope, as my 9th year on the season ticket waiting list begins, that one day I won’t have to take it game by game and live vicariously through someone else’s fancard. I hope to have my own name attached to a seat in the Kop, hell I’d sit on the roof if I could. At 23, and particularly with Liverpool, I feel like I’ve seen enough drama on and off the field to last a lifetime, but at 23 I also have a future of lifetime stories to pass on, worth so much more than any Sky Sports montage, or YouTube video or Twitter picture.It’s drawn me in, this disease, this glorious, healthy, life appreciating disease of Liverpool Football Club. If there is an antidote out there, they can keep it.