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Finding Home

November 24, 2013

Finding Home

There are many significant dates in the history of Liverpool Football club: September 1st 1892 when they played their first game at Anfield, May 1st 1965 when Liverpool finally broke their FA Cup duck and May 25th 2005 when they came from three goals down to beat AC Milan and secure a fifth European Cup are just three of many I could mention. Tuesday the Twenty Seventh of March 1979 doesn’t appear in any of the lists of Liverpool’s great nights, but it meant everything to me. I was nine years old and obsessed with football. As soon as I could read I’d race down the stairs each Sunday morning to snatch up a newspaper that was bigger than me so I could suck up all of the previous days results which I’d then regurgitate to my weary dad when he got up. It didn’t matter whether the game was Manchester United against Leeds in front of fifty five thousand supporters or Marine versus Stalybridge Celtic in the Northern Premier League, I hoovered up names, scores and league tables. I’d watched the 1974 FA Cup Final on the telly with the aim of trying to see my dad who had hitched to Wembley and took his place in the sea of Scousers behind the goal. Liverpool’s 3-0 victory against Newcastle should have made me smile, but I just remember the disappointment I felt in being unable to pick out a solitary face in a crowd of One Hundred thousand people.

As I grew older I was able to enjoy success a little bit more and it was a great time to be a Liverpool supporter. They won League titles in 1976 and 1977, The UEFA Cup in 1976 and the European Cup in 1977 and 1978. In hindsight I was spoiled by this glut of trophies, but, like a toddler let loose on Easter Eggs, I gorged with no hint of restraint. My one concern, as the Seventies turned red, was the fact that I’d never seen my heroes in the flesh. It wasn’t through lack of trying. I’d chipped away at my dad throughout the decade, my pleas like pecks from a persistently bad tempered chicken. He always gave the same reply, “When you’re a bit older”. What did he mean? I was old enough. I knew all the songs, could identify each player simply by his number and was sure that my tactical advice would be gratefully accepted by Bob Paisley if we got a seat close enough to the dugout. I’d even written to “Jim’ll Fix It” asking if I could play for The Reds. I was a sensible boy – that’s what they said at school – so I said it would be alright if I came on a sub in the second half and I knew that it might have to be at the end of the season against someone like Norwich or Birmingham City. I played out the game in my mind over and over again. With my first touch I’d split the opposition defence and Kenny Dalglish would smash the ball into the back of the net and then, as the clock ran down, I’d shimmy and slalom my way through a series of potentially fatal challenges to score the winner in front of the Kop. They would roar my name and my new team mates would stand in awe and applaud me off the pitch. I waited for my letter from the BBC and eventually, around my fourteenth birthday, I had to accept that it would never arrive.

There was some good news. I may have had no success in joining the likes of Souness and Clemence on the pitch, but a change of heart from my dad meant I would at least get to see them from the sidelines. He picked the fixture carefully. It was a testimonial game for Emlyn Hughes who had led the club to many of its trophies during the nineteen seventies and was to leave Anfield for Wolves in the summer of 1979. When the tickets arrived I held them with the same reverence usually reserved for religious artefacts, but mum quickly swiped them and put them somewhere safe. She knew that I’d be likely to either lose them, tear them or cover them in peanut butter fingerprints within a few short minutes. Liverpool’s opponents for the game were Borussia Moenchengladbach the German side they had beaten in the final of the European Cup in 1977 and the semi final in 1978. I was pretty confident that Liverpool would win and that there would be loads of goals. When Tommy Smith had his testimonial game against a Bobby Charlton XI two years earlier it had ended 9-9 before Liverpool won a penalty shoot out. I confidently awaited the goal bounty.

The day of the game arrived. I made a helpful suggestion to mum that I should stay off school so that it gave her more time to make sure I was ready for the evening’s trip. She turned down my offer in a way that I felt failed to take into account my selfless motive. It’s fair to say that school didn’t get all of my attention. While my fellow pupils struggled with long division I wondered if I should take my football kit with me just in case somebody was injured during the warm up. I’d scored three goals in three games in the school house championships and I was sure that Bob Paisley was aware of this and would be delighted to have me at his disposal.

Eventually the school day ended and I raced home having made sure that all of my friends knew where I was going and that I would give them all of the important details in the playground the next day. Dad said we’d have to leave for Anfield at Six O Clock so we had an early tea and I changed into my going to the match clothes. As I’d never been to the match I didn’t really know what such an outfit looked like. It may be difficult to believe, but nobody had replica tops in the nineteen seventies so I went to the match in a pair of jeans, a jumper and my coat, which my mum made me do up.
I don’t remember much about the half hour car journey to Liverpool, but I remember I said a lot and my dad didn’t say much at all. This wasn’t an unusual scene. When I was four my Uncle David was left with me while my auntie cooked some tea. Within a short few minutes his cries of “help me” could be heard around the house. The rescue party found me asking questions We parked up near the ground and dad gave some money to two lads who didn’t look much older than me. He told me they were going to look after our car. I beamed with pride. It was nice to know that the people of Liverpool were so kind. On the run up to Anfield the crowds thickened so Dad took hold of my hand giving a little tug when I stopped to take in the sights and sounds around me. He stopped at the side of the road next to a stall which was covered in red. Badges, scarves, hats and flags. “You can have one thing” he said. I chose a red and white flag with LFC on it and we headed into the ground with my waving it wildly until dad told me to put it down “before I had someone’s eye out.”

Dad helped me push my way through the heavy metal turnstile and we were in. He led me up the concrete steps past two men who smiled at me and asked if it was my first game. I nodded shyly and then we were out into the Main stand itself. The first thing I noticed was the noise. The scattered hubbub of voices that ricocheted around me mingled with the announcements from “George” on the tannoy as he passed on information about ticket availability and supporters birthdays between records. My nose caught the smell of cigarettes, cigars and the sort of pipe tobacco that had reminded me of my granddad, but would now remind me of football. This sensory menu was completed by what I saw. The odd thing is that my memory is not of the packed Kop or the real football goals with nets, it was the green. A very particular green which comes when a manicured pitch is floodlit at night. It seemed almost luminous to me and I must have seemed overwhelmed by it all as my dad led me to our seats. There was no jabbering from me anymore. Dad was the one doing all the talking telling me who the players were as they came out to warm up and pointing out where he usually stood when he was on The Kop. The game passed me by a little bit. Liverpool had an FA Cup Semi Final against Manchester United just three days later so they didn’t push themselves and actually lost 1-0. The Kop entertained themselves for much of the game. At one stage a ball appeared and it was batted around the terrace for a few minutes before being launched onto the pitch. A portly policeman picked it up and then spent the next few minutes being berated until he gave the Kop their ball back. My dad laughed and cheered explaining that this was the sort of thing the Kop was famous for. In later years I would stand and then sit amongst those fans taking my place like some sort of family inheritance. We stayed until just before the end when he said we had to go so we could avoid getting stuck in traffic. I clutched my flag tightly and trudged to the exit.

Years later I was going through old boxes at home when I found the programme that my dad must have bought for me at that game. On the front was a photograph of Emlyn Hughes in the sunshine at Anfield with a Liverpool hat on his head and a scarf around his neck and that trademark smile which seemed as wide as the Mersey itself. Flicking through the pages it seemed almost home made in comparison to the glossy offerings seen at Premier League grounds these days. My son spends three pounds on a programme when he goes to the match. My programme cost just twenty pence. The adverts inside were blunt and to the point with little art work to speak of. Black and White pictures illustrated Emlyn Hughes’ career and, as well as a collection of tributes from fellow players, there was a questionnaire with the player himself in which we learned that Portugal was his favourite holiday destination and that he enjoyed horse racing when he wasn’t playing football.

Friends who don’t like football are often surprised that I can feel nostalgic for a time when I paid to stand in the freezing cold and was often submerged in a tide of supporters. It certainly lacked the comfort that we take for granted at our sports grounds now, but it meant that you felt that you were part of a community in an actual physical sense. I can remember games where the force of a goal celebration from the thousands around me would catapult me across the Kop, where strangers with beer on their breath would put arms around my shoulders and hug me like a long lost son. I’m not a tactile man and I would shrink from over familiarity in normal circumstances, but at the match it just felt normal. Liquid metaphors are often used when talking about crowds and there’s a very good reason for it. Being in the Kop was like being afloat in the sea and being part of the sea at the same time. When Liverpool were attacking the Kop end the crowd would surge towards the goal like a vanguard of waves battering into a sea wall. As a fan you were helpless in that moment, but the reason you were there was to be part of a collective and to know that your small act of support would be multiplied and reinforced by those around you. This wasn’t football as individual consumerism which reduces the sport to an act of shopping. It was football as collectivism where strength is gained by the pooling of your endeavours and where support means that you have a responsibility to encourage when things are going badly for the team, but to acknowledge the excellence of the opposition.

I didn’t learn all this from my first visit to Anfield as a wide eyed nine year old, but it was the first part of my education. Even then I treated the place as somewhere special like a cathedral or an ancient university. People scoff at the idea of grown men treating football seriously, but I would say that it’s got to be taken seriously. Not to the point of violence, but so that we can understand about the important things in life like loyalty, community and the best way to respond to adversity. 27th March 1979 was when I started to learn.

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