Among people who only get to Anfield now and again, there is a kind of hierarchy of success. When one target is achieved, it is immediately replaced by another goal. It goes something like this:
1. See the Reds.
2. See them win.
3. See them at Anfield.
4. See them win at Anfield.
5. See them trash someone.
6. See them beat someone worthwhile i.e. Everton or Man Ure.
743. See them trash Man Ure in the European Cup final.
After Saturday, I can gleefully report that I’m up to number five. But let’s start at the beginning. Because, my friends – and enemies – it so very nearly didn’t happen for us last weekend. On Thursday night I raced home from work to see if the tickets which we had purchased had been delivered. No prizes for guessing that they were nowhere to be seen. After a few hours of swearing jihad on the travel agents, the postal service, the weather and my horoscopes, they turned up. The postman/woman/idiot had delivered them next door! Had my housemate not reminded me of this possibility we would have being sitting at home on Saturday hoping West Ham would win (possibly.)
But we made it, so there was no need for such treasonous thoughts. Arriving in Liverpool around midday on Saturday, we had an hour or two to kill. So someone had the bright idea of having a look at The Pit. We clambered into a taxi and I nervously asked the driver to bring us to Anfield via Goodison, afraid that he would be a Blue who would think we wanted to go there to urinate on the ground – the thought had crossed our minds. The driver was a diehard Red though, and he was moderately disgusted that we would want to contaminate ourselves with that place.
It was well worth a visit though. What a dump! I’ve seen Subboteo stadia that the dog has decided to turn into this bed which have looked more impressive. Add to that the fact that the Free Presbyterian Church (Moderator for Life: Dr. Ian Paisley) has a lodge across the road and you have a recipe for the many hoots and jeers of derision that emanated from our taxi.
Having had enough of that swill, it was onward to Anfield. I remember the first time I saw it, and the reverential feelings I had, although it wasn’t quite awe-inspiring – football grounds are too small to ever be gobsmacking. Five visits later, it feels like slipping on a pair of comfortable shoes. I didn’t feel the need to gaze lovingly at every facet of the ground or to have my photo taken in front of a burger stall. I was more interested in meeting a few people, so we headed over to The Park where Bob K was waiting.
I didn’t know the man at all, but we’ve all seen his Trojan work over the Hillsborough slur perpetrated by Universal, the makers of the Gladiator DVD, so I considered it an honour to meet him. Bill, who had made the arrangements to be in The Park, suddenly got an attack of cowardice though. He knew what Bob K looked like, but he was afraid to speak to the only man in the pub who fit the description in case it looked or sounded gay. Imagine a stranger came up to you in a pub and said, “Hi, are you Bob?” Violence would be a distinct possibility. I couldn’t have cared less though. So what if I had my jaw broken? The worst thing that could have happened to me that day was Liverpool losing the match, so a shattered mandible was small potatoes.
He was Bob K however. He invited us to sit down, so we had a drink, chatted about the progress of his Hillsborough campaign and general football topics, then shook hands and went our separate ways. It made me think. Why are people who know each other from the Internet so reluctant to meet in the flesh? Bill and I made it fairly obvious that we wanted to meet people, but only Bob K and James took us up on the offer. Perhaps we have to spell it out. We would LOVE to meet anyone who contributes to the Message Board, no matter who they are.
Although Bill extended an invitation to davekelly, which was probably pushing it a bit too far.
We met up with James anyway, and we chewed the fat over this, that and the other for around ten minutes before heading into the ground forty minutes early like the good out-of-towners that we are. And I must admit I was surprised by what awaited us. We were shown into a rather natty suite. There was a bar! Rugby on the telly! Heat in the air! Toilets with sufficient paper and cleanliness to have a dump! Naturally we got out into the open air as quickly as possible.
After all that plushness, the seat were an initial letdown (note ‘initial’; more on that later.) Being situated in the fourth row may sound like heaven, but it’s a little difficult to appreciate good passes when you’re not at an angle above the play, so to speak. And the seat was drenched with rainwater. At least, I hope that’s what it was. A mouldy old sock – one I had in my backpack, smartarse – solved that crisis, and I settled down to wait for the match.
No memory of a trip to Anfield is complete without reference to the singing of You’ll Never Walk Alone. It always gets to me. When you see other clubs trying to manufacture a cult around songs like ‘Glory Glory ********** *******’, you appreciate how lucky we are to have an anthem that manages to be both poignant and stirring at the same time. If I had my way, they would only play the first few bars over the loudspeaker, leaving the rest to the Kop Choir. Maybe they’re afraid that people might break down in tears at the emotion of it all. I know I probably would.
My brother is a greater fatalist than a man hanging onto a cliff face by a blade of grass. He sees disaster around every corner. I’m surprised he is willing to get out of bed in the morning for fear of being struck by a meteorite. Then again, he’s probably afraid a volcano will erupt underneath his bed if he stays in it. With this in mind, he was convinced that the Reds would screw up against West Ham. Prior to the game, he insisted that if we were to play them one hundred times, we would lose thirty times! Can you imagine sitting beside that Cassandra, muttering infuriating predictions of doom at every turn?
And the start of the game didn’t help much. When the names were read out, we cheered for everyone, but an audible ‘Huh?’ echoed out across the ground when the last name, Gregory Vignal, was read out. I’d heard of him, but I didn’t expect him to start the game. And with West Ham starting reasonably brightly, the amateur prophet beside me was working his magic. I even said early on that Smicer wasn’t going to do much today, so all-pervasive was the pessimism. So when he got the ball after eighteen minutes, I only had eyes for a run from Fowler. I just saw Smicer out of the corner of my eye as he cocked the hammer, took aim and pulled the trigger.
Now this was an entirely new experience. I mentioned earlier that the seats were not the best, but Bill and I had idly chatted before kick-off and noted that if we scored, we would almost be able to touch the players, providing they ran towards our side of the ground. And you could almost see the whites of his eyes as Smicer trotted over to our corner, a smile beaming from the face of a man who had just scored his first league goal at Anfield.
Bet you never thought of that.
We milked the celebrations like an Ethiopian villages only cow, then settled back for the trouncing of the Hammers that we deserved. And incredibly, we got it. Liverpool had begun to step on the gas prior to Smicer’s howitzer, but now they showed West Ham such a clean pair of heels you would swear they had used Windolene. Everyone was playing their part as passes zipped around the ground and players raced into every gap. The Hammers were struggling to plug all the holes in the dyke, and they certainly were not getting any help from their normally effervescent fans, most of whom probably couldn’t remember winning at Anfield. They were probably feeling that the only chance of it happening in their lifetime will be if Everton become our tenants again.
It’s probably churlish to single out one player from such a storming performance, but the game highlighted an issue that must be addressed: how does Steven Gerrard walk the earth without cracking the crust under his feet? Last week we had Michael Carrick, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole being elevated to international status. But after crushing the pretensions of the West Ham youngsters like he damaged the reputations of Roy Keane and Patrick Viera, it might be simpler for Sven-Goran Eriksson to pick Gerrard in the midfield on his own.
We hadn’t actually secured the deserved second goal at this stage, and by half time Cassandra’s comments were proving impossible to block out. We didn’t need a second goal, but it would have being nice. So when Robbie Fowler strode past Joe Cole’s lame tackle, there was only one thing on his CPU. I get an image of Fowler when he is in this kind of form. He is a Terminator who sees the goal, zeroes in on a football-sized spot in the net with his precision optical units, then strikes the ball towards that place which has been specially selected to minimise the danger of the keeper getting to the ball. In this case, it probably was out by about 0.3mm, but not much more than that. We got to go crazy again as he strolled in our direction, but his reaction was very different to Smicer’s, the reaction of someone who believes he has a divine right to score at Anfield. And who are we to argue with this man who when he was born received a visit from Three Wise Men?
That was that really. The first half had been about technique, and the Reds had earned a 5.9. The second half was always going to be about artistic merit. I would have been annoyed had we conceded a goal or failed to add another one. The team didn’t let me down, scoring a beautifully crafted goal which was much better than it looked from where I was sitting, and keeping a sheet so clean it wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Daz commercial.
There were some really sweet moments to add to my previously meagre collection of Anfield memories. The disallowed goal permitted me an all-too-temporary screaming eyeball-to-eyeball session with a young fellow in front of me, which was fun. There was also the moment when Rigobert Song entered the fray. Respect for returning players is one of Anfield’s most creditable idiosyncrasies, and it was a real pleasure to be part of the generous round of applause given to him (and it was nice of him to respond by having an absolute stinker.) The football remained fluent and disciplined right to the end, and they really could have had more goals had they been willing to lose a leg for it – West Ham responded to a ref who let them away with murder with some really crunching tackles.
The final whistle blew, and the feeling was one of immense satisfaction. Throughout the ninety minutes, I had probably been nervous for five minutes, calm for another five, and invigorated and exhilarated for the remaining eighty. This was wish-fulfilment on a truly epic scale, the kind of thing you long for all your life but which bitter experience makes you think you’ll never see. It may sound over the top for a win over West Ham, but to be fortunate enough to see such champagne football is normally a privilege denied to day trippers like myself. If I see them play in as swashbuckling a manner again, I’ll be doing well.
Even the brother was impressed. And you can’t say fairer than that.