According to RTÉ, it’ll be selling the current ground:
H/t Partizan on BTID.
Tuesday night’s match against Shelbourne represented the first real obstacle in my attempts to connect with Waterford United. When living in Liverpool, going to night time matches was a chore. You’d get home, have maybe an hour to wolf down your dinner and perform the multitude of daily tasks that have accrued to any 21st century home owning man – sometimes you’d even have to do the food prep yourself, Goddammit! – before engaging in a madcap charge up to the ground a good ninety minutes before kickoff so you could be sure of getting a decent parking space. Getting away was an exercise in torment as 44,000 people tried to squeeze through the bottlenecks around Anfield. It was always enjoyable when you were in the ground, but there were many times when but for having already laid down £35 for a ticket I’d have stayed at home and played Pro Evolution Soccer.
So forgive me Father for I have sinned – the relief that flooded through me when the match was called off was dangerously close to a mortal one. Admittedly parking and quick getaways are not a problem at the RSC but finishing work at half five, getting back to Tramore, eating without chewing then getting back to Waterford leaves about, ooh, half an hour for me time. How diehards not only do this but actually seem to revel in it . . . perhaps I’m getting old.
It makes you grateful for the more intense nature of the hurling championship, where even the nature of local rivalries means even a devalued-by-the-back-door Munster championship retains its charge. Bundling all the excitement into a few matches allows you to get a ferocious hit and time to enjoy the more tranquil pace of real life. League soccer is often called a marathon, not a sprint. At times it feels more like thirty-something marathons.
Then to put the tin hat on proceedings, I only noticed the Monaghan match was on last night five minutes before kick-off. Like the Blues, I must try harder.
Jerry Seinfeld once made the observation that when it comes to sport, we are ‘rooting for laundry‘. When Michael Owen was playing for Liverpool he was a hero to the Kop – his outside-the-outfit-y-fronts were slightly skid-marked for effectively displacing uberhero Robbie Fowler, but he was still an object of veneration. Yet three years ago he was roundly jeered and even booed by most of Anfield. His crime? Wearing a Newcastle United shirt. Wearing different laundry.
We’re meant to hate. Nick Hancock – yep, my vision of the world is informed by the bon mots of comedians – put it well when he denounced the habit of having a ‘soft spot’ for a team. Hancock denounced such talk, saying that “football is not like religion, football is religion, and you don’t hear the Pope saying he has a soft spot for Islamic fundamentalism”. His addition to this quotable quote, that he was disappointed every weekend of the season that the optimum set of results – Stoke City winning and everyone else losing – didn’t come to pass, struck a chord with me back in the mid 90’s.
Now though, I’m not so sure. Even Nick Hancock would admit that Port Vale are singled out for special doses of venom – he must be having a right old time at the moment as Stoke sit comfortably in the Premier League while Vale languish in the depths of League Two. And once you admit that all teams are equally hateworthy but some are more equal than others, then there’s got to be someone you hate least. It might be due to geographical distance, or lack of competition, or lying down like a whipped cur whenever they meet your team – take a bow, Newcastle United. And my recent affection for the England soccer team has shown me that is possible to change your tune as you grow old(er) and mellow(er). So with all those caveats in mind, I’d like to record the existence of two counties that I like to see win, even feeling some disappointment when they fail.
The first of those is Dublin. I can imagine the splutters of outrage that would greet such a sentiment expressed anywhere else online or in the real world. The Jackeens! How could you like the soccer hooligans masquerading as GAA fans? And it would be fair to say that in the real world there is a divide between them and culchies. Many’s the time in my time in college in Dublin where I encountered situations where they looked down on everyone and everything from the provinces, as if the only difference between their home town and New York was that only one of them was still a capital city.
But in GAA terms, that sense of difference is something to be celebrated, not scorned. Noel Purcell was once asked when he would be heading up to Croke Park to watch the Dubs. Why, he replied, would he be bothered with a team of culchies? At the time I thought he was making some Hot Press-style cut at bogball and stickball. Now a little older and a little wiser, I can see that he meant that ‘Dublin’ GAA teams were stuffed to the gills with people up from the country who only played for the Metropolitans because it was impossible to haul themselves back home of a weekend to play for their real county. It would be hard for the native Dubs to get excited about a team like that.
Which is what made Heffo’s Army so exciting. The weight attached to this team in GAA history far outweighs their achievements. Four All-Ireland’s in ten years was a decent return, but Offaly won three All-Ireland’s between 1970 and 1983 and their legend is almost entirely based on one kick by Seamus Darby. The Dubs were different because of that soccer-style sense of razzmatazz and the townie ways of Tony Hanahoe, Brian Mullins et al. But they were the same too because, well, they loved Gaelic games (or one form of it, and how many of us genuinely devote equal time to both football and hurling?)
The Dublin GAA fraternity are our allies, not our enemies. When the rugger buggers were swooning because 20,000+ attended the decisive match in the 1993 All-Ireland League between St Mary’s and Young Munster, such hubris was slapped down by Robbie Kelleher who scornfully noted that the Dubs could get attendances like that at League matches. Whether this is true or not – seems unlikely – it doesn’t change that fact that having the likes of Kelleher, a D4-type stockbroker, on our side against those who despise the GAA and everything it stands for, is something to be celebrated.
The charges laid against the Dubs are usually puddle-shallow. Supposedly they are all bandwagon jumpers because 70,000+ go to Championship matches while you’d be doing well (whatever Robbie Kelleher says) to get 7,000 at Parnell Park in the spring. This means they have an awful lot in common with the rest of us beyond the Pale. There were only 14,000 people at Waterford’s opening Championship match last year against Clare and a lot fewer than half of them were from Waterford (full disclosure: I wasn’t one of those present). Yet there must have been 50,000 people in Croke Park in September wearing white and blue. By that measure, it is the Déise ‘faithful’ who are the bandwagon jumpers, not the Dubs. These metrics – modest crowds far below the capacity of the venue in May / June, hysterical bleating that the diehards can’t get tickets in September – can be applied to every county in Ireland. Except Dublin.
Then there’s the whole soccer thing. It’s been a long time since liking soccer was considered an insult even among diehard GAA types. Almost everyone I know who is involved in the GAA, even those who are active in their clubs, has some interest in soccer, particularly (and ironically) English teams. Yet when the Dubs are involved their olé-oléing is instantly bracketed as some manner of crime against the memory of Michael Hogan. So what if the way the Hill supports its team is different to the rest of the country? Would people rather they were down in Dalymount Park?
So those are some defences against the Dubs. But there are reasons other than numbers and a shared sense of tribalism to like Dublin. In football, they are truly a bunch of the most lovable losers. Mayo are often cited (not least here) as a county whose inability to close the deal makes them attractive. Yet in 2006 Dublin managed to out-Mayo Mayo, throwing away a seven point lead against supposedly the most brittle county in the land. How could you hate someone who could implode in a manner that would make a British tennis player blush?
In hurling, sympathy for Dublin comes from another direction. Hurling is a sport constantly having to prove itself. With Laois completely gone out of the picture, Offaly and Wexford heading that way, and Clare, Galway, Limerick and Waterford continually flattering to deceive, the sport is desperately in need of some new blood. It’s not a question of someone challenging Kilkenny. At the moment, we need Kilkenny to dip their standards for that o happen. But once that happens – and it will; it must – Dublin, with a lot of success and minor and Under-21 level, could be waiting in the long grass.
All this might change were Dublin to become any good. A team striding through the world would get old pretty fast, and there might be some justification to concerns that Dublin’s population advantage would make it invincible were they ever to get their act together. The thing about sleeping giants though is that they invariably tend to go comatose rather than wake up. Look at Newcastle United. Why have a down on a team for something that might, but probably won’t, happen? When the facts change, I change my mind. If Dublin become successful, I’ll reassess my attitude to them in that light. Until then, it’s hard to hate.
As I wrote this, it dawned on me that a success for Dublin could have immediate dire consequences for Waterford. If Dublin win Leinster and we win Munster then one of our rewards would be put in the same half of the All-Ireland series as Kilkenny. But you know what? I’ll take that chance. Winning Munster is an end in itself, and the odds are that we’re going to have to meet Kilkenny at some point if we want to win the ultimate prize – avoiding them until the final didn’t do us any good in 2007. So bring on a Dublin win in Leinster, a fitting reward for the efforts of those faceless drones that have dragged Dublin hurling up from the mire over the last decade. And when the capital joins the rest of us in embracing the joys of Gaelic games, you will all be grateful for what they did.
One of the significant events of my recent holidays was a trip to the Venue of Bellends . . . sorry, Legends that is Wembley Stadium. I’ve been to a few sporting arenas in my time now – the Nou Camp, Stamford Bridge, Goodison Park, the Millennium Stadium (photos sadly lost to the mists of time and a dodgy hard drive), the Reebok Stadium (?), Pride Park (!), and obviously Anfield and Croke Park.
Going to Wembley has reinforced a long held opinion of mine about sports stadiums. There is nothing inherently special about any of them. It was a splendid occasion, going to Wembley, but this was almost entirely because of the delight felt by my wife at finally seeing England play where they had won the World Cup all those centuries ago. Ultimately it was a big box with seats in it, albeit a state-of-the-art one in the case of Wembley.
Yes, they’ve all got a special charge to the people who frequent them regularly, and I always get a thrill of anticipation when arriving on Walton Breck or Jones’ Road. But that comes from the heart, not from anything that is bound up in the bricks and mortar. When I pointed out to a tour guide at Anfield that with all the times the turf at the ground has been replaced the ashes of those who had been scattered there were long gone, he sagely observed that people who had been buried at sea hardly expected to go to the exact location to locate the remains (wonder whether he is so candid with the loved ones who ask the same question).
Some people seem to collect sports grounds like stamps or fine wines, which is fine in so far as any hobby has an element of obsessive compulsiveness to it (bit like writing a blog that no one reads). But they seem to miss the point of these venues. They are special to the fans because of the history. To the occasional / once-off visitor, it’s just some place to watch the match.
In a season replete with shocks, one stands out like a woolly mammoth sitting on a Van de Graaff generator. No, not Portsmouth meeting Cardiff in the ‘English’ FA Cup final. It’s the horrible truth that letting your hair grow to, well, woolly mammoth proportions has no material impact on Liverpool’s progress through the European Cup. As the follicles hit the floor in the days after losing to Chelsea, they came to resemble a pile of ashes, thus making a very appropriate metaphor for Liverpool’s season.
Not that we could have had high ambitions for the season.
While lying in my hospital bed back in early August, a fellow Liverpool fan who was given the ward booby prize of being stranded beside someone who hadn’t the energy to talk to anyone or do anything – although at least he didn’t have to worry about them being flatulent or stealing his Fig Rolls. Anyway, said Liverpool fan was convinced that a) Fernando Torres was going to be top scorer, and b) Liverpool were going to win the League.
The worst thing about looking back over those predictions is that his belief in b) flowed from his belief in a). Had someone assured him that a) was going to come true, or close enough that if Torres had been taken the penalties it would still be a live issue going into the final day of the season, then it would have been no great leap to assume that b) was going to come true, or close enough that it would be still be a live issue going into the final day of the season. And yet, b) is not the case, and rarely looked like it.
How could this be? We’ve been told for years that Liverpool were going nowhere until they secured the famed 20 goal a season striker. Along he comes, blowing us – and, more importantly, opposition defences – away with a string of spectacular goals. He even scored on the big occasions against Porto, Arsenal and Chelsea, thus negating any suggestions that he’s only any good at filling his boots against the likes of Derby. Factor in the now famous armband he wore for Athletico, an incident that spawned a chant so good that it had Anfield hopping for the visit of Reading – Reading! – and you surely have the recipe for success.
Yet here we are, one game to go and able to write a season review. For the first time under Rafa, we have nothing to play for going into the final game of the season. Defeat to Chelsea in the European Cup semi-final was not a source of bitterness. The players fought the good fight, battling back from a position of self-inflicted adversity and went down with all guns blazing, a stark contrast to Barcelona’s spineless capitulation to Man Utd the night before. To go toe-to-toe with a stronger team three times and come out ahead twice is a decent return, so there was no disgrace. What the result left was . . . nothing. A case of going from sixty to nought in the length of time it took for the referee to blow the final whistle at Stamford Bridge.
Economists can see trends of boom and bust in the post-Second World War developed world, and it is the Holy Grail of the dismal science to be able to discern a pattern from these cycles, the so-called Kondratieff cycle. Liverpool have had several booms and several busts under Rafael Benitez. The team can go eleven wins on the bounce, conceding one goal along the way, yet can go five league games without a win like they did at one point this season and looking nothing like a team going to win any more games outside of against nobodies in the FA Cup. A long term trend may be emerging, and it’s not a pretty one. Fifth, third, third, fourth. This season, depending on results at the weekend, we are 8-14 points ahead of fifth place but 7-13 points adrift of Arsenal.
Ah, Arsenal. Back in August when in my sick bed, about the only thing that could have stirred me from my torpor would have been the idea that Arsenal could finish ahead of us. Even if Torres only proved to be a ten goal a season striker, i.e. a failure, that would still represent an improvement on what we had before. There was no way Arsenal, having sunk all their cash into their stadium, were going to be able to compete with a team able to land the likes of Torres and Babel. If you stand still in football you end up going backwards, and Arsenal had lost Henry so there was no chance they could even stand still. Arsene Wenger’s season plan came apart at the end as injuries and tiredness took their toll – twenty minutes into their match against the Reds at Anfield in the European Cup as they tore us apart, I consoled myself with the thought that there was no way they could sustain that level of intensity for ninety minutes; for once, I was right – but they are a good 15-20 points up on their performance last season. When you look at the amounts they spent relative to the likes of Portsmouth, Man City, West Ham and even Everton, this was miraculous. It also put Liverpool’s efforts into context.
Looking back through that rant, it’s been a bleak season. It hasn’t been all bad though. We’ve had to some wonderful wins to set off against the dismal defeats. Winning the European Cup in 2005 means that a run through Europe doesn’t have the Sisyphean trauma that it did for, say, Valencia back at the start of the decade whose each step closer to the ultimate prize was marked by a sense of hysteria at the possibility of failure. For us, those wins over Besiktas, Porto, Marseilles and Inter could be enjoyed on their own merits because you could be confident at the time that they were going to be part of something special. The fact that it didn’t work out that way doesn’t invalidate the contemporaneous joy. Then there was Arsenal.
Ah, Arsenal. A Spurs fan who posts on another Internet forum went to the match at Anfield. This particular character may hate Arsenal, much as Evertonians hate Liverpool, but he has a peculiar hatred of Liverpool too, making a comment several years ago that Liverpool fans killed their own at Hillsborough, looted the bodies, urinated on policemen etc. When many irate people pointed out the error of his ways, he simply retreated behind the notion that the Taylor report was a cover-up, making it the first report in the history of the universe to take the side of the masses over the classes. This character then was not predisposed to say nice things about Liverpool, which gives his comments that the atmosphere that night at Anfield was “arguably the most fanatical I have ever experienced” the unmistakeable ring of truth. Watching it on the telly and reading about it afterwards, the best that could be said is that it made the top ten of Great European Nights at Anfield, at best. The atmosphere at the start wasn’t amazing, especially when Arsenal were running rings around the Reds. That would still make it the best atmosphere anywhere in football since, well, last season’s semi-final against Chelsea. Unusually, it was the team that ignited the crowd, Hyypia’s intervention completely against the run of play and Torres’ goal of preposterous precociousness leaving everyone gasping. And it was just one of those games that delight even the most hardened cynic about football, whether they be tired of the modern game or not like football in the first place. Being able to enjoy the last couple of minutes was a rare pleasure as well, one for which my heart was profoundly grateful.
The league wasn’t all bad either. The team finished the season superbly, putting together a great run of form just when everything looked like it was going completely to pot after the astonishing implosion against Barnsley, a game they not only lost but deserved to lose. We may have dropped a place in the league but that can be traded off against an 11/12/14 point improvement on last season, which suggest there might be something to build on next season (whether Rafa can do it or will even be allowed do it, we’ll get back to). They broke even against Chelsea and Arsenal, and might have done better but for the worst refereeing decision of the season – and yes, we got a few dodgy decisions ourselves, but all of them could be justified by the ref seeing it wrong in the heat of the moment; how Rob Styles saw that as a penalty at the time is anyone’s guess. While our performances against Man Utd continue to frustrate, these can be partly offset by wins home and away in the derbies, the former enjoyable for as wimpy a performance as the Toffees have managed in living memory and the latter for just about everything going our way and inducing collective apoplexy in the streets of Kirkby. Don’t you just love it? Finally on the credit side of the ledger, there is Torres. There are not enough bytes in cyberspace to emphasis how superlative he has been, so here is one I prepared earlier.
Looked at in isolation, it’s been a mixed season. Except no team is an island, and it’s impossible to look at Liverpool’s season without reference to the shenanigans at board level. Before the Anfield match against Everton, Mark O’Brien of WSAG wrote the ifithadinabinfor article that habitually accompanies these events – if that sounds a bit scornful, let us genuflect at the altar of the best metaphor of the year, where Mr O’Brien refers to “the Kopite capacity to deify a dog turd if its been trampled through the bootroom”. It’s funny because it’s true. He refers to the boardroom battles at Anfield and how they had reduced LFC to a pitiable laughing stock. At the time, I felt well able to snort derisively at such a comment. Sure, we had our problems, and the spectacle of Anfield engaging in the kind of Sack The Board stuff once the reserve of joke clubs was more than a little irritating. But it was rather rich for the fan of a club who once had Agent Johnson as their owner and now had Luvvie Kenwright bringing all the glamour of Blood Brothers at the Playhouse Theatre to the Pit to be scoffing at our boardroom foibles. Then Tom Hicks demanded that Rick Parry resign and any illusion that Liverpool’s troubles were akin to teething problems came apart like follicles under an electric clippers. The absurdity of the owner publicly demanding an employee resign was a humiliation too far. Who knows what indignities will be visited on our grand old club before the folly of the Gillett / Hicks junta is brought to an end. For end it must, something even they would acknowledge. But the form of the post-American club and the path to take to get there is a complete unknown. Any scenario can be entertained ranging from the al Maktoum’s buying Mutt and Jeff out and lavishing riches upon us beyond the dreams of avarice to Gillett and Hicks plundering the club and leaving a Wimbledon-like shell behind, and all points in between.
It is the uncertainty that hurts. Winning the European Cup would have given us something to hold on to, so when the curtain came down on the European run and with it the season, all we had left to look forward to was a club bobbing around on the tide of history like a piece of cork. We’ll wash up on some shore eventually. But where we’ll go in the meantime . . .