Into The Heart Of Darkness

When I came over to England to follow the Reds, I had created in my mind different levels of what would make this entire venture a success. The optimum state of affairs would have see me going to every Liverpool match, with box seats for the European Cup final in Glasgow in May and a Lear Jet to fly me to all away games. Hell, if I was being really extravagant I would get more than ten square centimetres of carpet on which to stand in the Arkles immediately before each home match. Although that might be demanding too much.

Having squashed that little fantasy for the sake of my sanity, we swing right around and assess what would be the absolute minimum that would make the year a success. There’s no point in coming over here and living in circumstances that would amount to squalor back home if I wasn’t going to get to nearly every home match, with the noteworthy exception of the Blueslime and Man Ure games, and to maybe eleven or twelve away matches. Southampton is probably a bit far away for someone who has never been further south than Widnes, while Newcastle’s vertigo-inducing away fans allocation is another potential turn-off. And there are certain away games where lack of availability of tickets would make things very difficult for an away day semi-virgin (if it’s possible to be ‘semi’-virginal) like myself.

Naturally one of those games was the game at Goodison Park, more accurately referred to as ‘The Pit’. Surely it would be virtually impossible for a non-season ticket holder to get access to the few thousand tickets that the Blues give to us? I had already resigned myself to watching this one in the pub, forlornly looking in the direction of the Pit, grinding my teeth at the thought that the game is so close yet so far away.

What happened in the course of the last week has once again left me to ponder just how fanatical people are about football in Liverpool. Speaking to His Nibs (James) before the Boavista game on Tuesday night, I learned that there were still tickets available for the derby on Saturday. No doubt the Bluescum would explain this by claiming that all Reds are wools and that Blues go to all their games and that the average attendances at Goodison are at least ten times that of those at Anfield and that Toffees are higher up the evolutionary ladder than Reds and…but who cares what the Evertonians think. How do we explain this seeming reluctance to travel about a kilometre from Anfield across Stanley Park? One cynical explanation is the pure evil that wafted from the stands during last year’s derby when the natives turned in a performance of such barbarism that it would have disgraced a tribe of cannibals. Those Reds who can’t cope with being called a murderer or don’t possess a mop with which to remove the gallons of spittle that fly in their direction would probably opt out of this one. A less vindictive answer is the fact that the game was on telly. It’s certainly a novelty to see the Merseyside derby on the box, and a lot of people would have considered it less hassle and more cost-effective to watch the game in the comfort of a warm bar rather than the draughty tip that is the Pit.

Funny how matches between Liverpool and Everton are referred to as ‘the Merseyside derby’. Seeing as both teams are found within the boundary of the city of Liverpool, it should be called ‘the Liverpool derby’. It certainly sounds a lot better to me.

Whatever the reason for Liverpool season ticket holders ducking out of this particular battle, it gave me an opportunity to experience the unique atmosphere of what was once referred to – when it wasn’t being inadequately being called the Merseyside derby – as ‘the friendly derby’. Not that there was much chance of me experiencing the atmosphere from where I was sitting in the Lower Bullens – that’s the stand in which the television cameras are located, for those who have never had the pleasure (sic) of being to the Toffees home. The view was diabolical. It would have been easier had they staged the game in Calais and we could have watched from Dover. And while I don’t want to sound apocalyptic, especially in the aftermath of events in New York, the wooden slats upon which we stood conjured images of the fire at Valley Parade back in 1985. For the first time I understood why the Blues want to move to the Kings Dock. If Goodison Park were my home, I’d probably look on a move to portocabin in Rhyl with approval.

Taking pot-shots at the quality of the Pit is easy, but at least it’s more of a challenge than sneering at the eleven players in blue on the field. Liverpool looked very ill at ease to begin with, and it’s going to be a few more games yet before Jerzy Dudek is tuned into the same wavelength as Hyypia and Henchoz. This manifested itself in an extremely nervy opening for Liverpool, culminating in a well-taken goal by Kevin Campbell. Naturally I began to think, “here we go again.” The clueless displays against Aston Villa and Boavista were still fresh in the memory and the oft-stated axiom that form goes out the window in a derby reared its ugly head. It’s not a belief that I have ever agreed with; history is a big influence in derbies but it is rare that Everton have beaten us when we are flying high at the top of the league. Still, pre-match thoughts along the lines that we could do without playing them in the immediate aftermath of their midweek debacle against Crystal Palace made a bead of sweat roll down my brow.

But not having ever seen the Bluesum play before, how was I to know just what a talentless clump of alehouse cloggers they really are. Having taken that early blow, Liverpool came back at Everton with a ferocity that probably surprised even Gerard Houllier. John Arne Riise stated after the game that the Everton players had been trying to “kill” them with their tackles, and Liverpool had to match them in this department. Spurred on by the immortal Steven Gerrard, Liverpool pushed their Sunday league quality opponents back with aggression and power, and it was no surprise when hesitant Everton defending saw the ball fall at Stevie G’s feet and he trashed the ball past his namesake in the goal with a shot that was in the net before the goalie had even moved.

His celebration should probably be made into a poster, sticking his tongue out at the now silent Blue hordes while cupping his hand around his ear in mock salute at their sudden loss of speech. I didn’t notice any of this though, so busy was I in engaging in a war dance with two complete strangers at the very back of the Lower Bullens. After their goal I had been grateful that I couldn’t see or hear them because of the claustrophobic nature of the stand. Now I wanted to see their faces, previously twisted in a collective mask of hate but now frozen in a stony grimace in the face of Liverpool’s onslaught.

This was Charge of the Heavy Brigade stuff. Now that Liverpool were matching the Blues in terms of aggressiveness and passion, the inherent footballing superiority of the Reds trumped them in all areas of the park. The next two goals typified the gap in quality. First Unsworth clattered into Heskey in the penalty area, a victim of his own body, which needs the width of half the field to bring himself to a stop. The quicksilver Owen administered the maximum punishment. Then early in the second half it was a tale of Liverpool brilliance rather than Everton incompetence which yielded number three. Riise was put into the clear by Murphy and set off towards the Everton goal. Everyone’s initial instinct was to hope he put Owen in the clear, but it didn’t take much imagination to see that he had the ability to go all the way, which he duly did.

I’ve now seen the Reds score eighteen times in the eleven games that I’ve been to, but not even Jamie Redknapp’s last minute winner against Newcastle two years ago sparked wilder celebrations than this one. It was a privilege to witness such a virtuoso strike as Riise’s goal, and to so comprehensively defile the Bluescum in their inner sanctum was a source of joy beyond belief. More experienced stagers than me knew that this was game over, and settled down to enjoy the rest of the show. I continued to agonise every time the Blues got the ball. This didn’t stop me joining in the tweaking of their noses at every opportunity with such classics from the hit parade as “you’re Blue, and support Man U”, “3-1 down in your Cup final”, and “Bye bye, bye bye” when they got up to leave. Nothing particularly original, but even the mouldiest old jokes would have sent us all into hysterics, so high were we with the drug of triumph.

This was what I came to Liverpool to experience. I’d travel halfway around the world to be a part of that win. The odds are that I’ll never be in a position to go to the Pit for a derby again, and these things are only valuable until the next one comes along. Already the Gary Mac (from 44 yards) derby seems a distant memory. Although now that I think about it, not that distant. But every individual is the sum of his or her experiences, and Saturday’s win has now been filed away with every other magic Liverpool moment. It’ll be in the upper echelons of that memory bank for many years to come.