I’M sitting in row one of the paddock against Wigan. Row one. All I’m going to see are legs and the camber of the pitch. But I’m going to hear everything.
I’ve been in row one of the paddock once before. It was versus Bayer Leverkusen in 2002 – Liverpool won 1-0. I remember three things from the game: Heskey spending ninety minutes essentially chasing his own flick-ons, especially in the last twenty; how manly and beautiful Anders Frisk was, and, most of all, the noise. The relentless noise, cascading down the stands – anxious, urgent, passionate support. Watching that game from that vantage point I remember thinking “Jesus Christ, I couldn’t play football in this.” I’d want to play centre mid – get as far away from that noise as possible. My legs would be jelly and I’d be terrified of making mistakes.
That’s always stayed with me and I often think about mistakes made by Liverpool players in that noise. It’s a wonder there aren’t more of them. My favourite ever mistake is John Arne Riise’s against Chelsea. John Arne Riise’s mistake is a crown jewel of a mistake. It has everything.
Within five minutes of it going in, it was funny. I think of it now and it gets me through days. No matter how low the ebb, no matter how grinding the office job, you will never, in front of 40,000 people making that noise, in front of a worldwide television audience, you will never cock up in as glorious and as defining a manner.
Well we know how he scored that goal. It had been coming for what felt like years. Suddenly, everything made sense. Like a Stewart Lee stand up set that’s shaggy dogged all over the place but suddenly crystalises itself in one line, John Arne Riise clicked into place. Everything about it was perfect. It emphasised every on-pitch limitation and stupidity that John Arne Riise had been showcasing for years of respectable, undeniable, unstinting effort in Liverpool’s cause; limitations and stupidities that were becoming clearer as Liverpool got better. It came after naked photos in texts, coach fights with John Carew, golf clubbing with Craig Bellamy. It came after he went through that weird run of going down with seemingly non-existent elbow injuries in the first ten minutes. John Arne Riise was clearly a dope. A committed dope, to some a loveable one, but a dope nonetheless.
It even happened after he came on as substitute for an injured Fabio Aurelio and ran around lost for half an hour as though all football came as a shock to him, as though his legs were jelly and he was terrified of making mistakes. For years the Riise story had seemed to be going nowhere, it had marvelous cul-de-sacs, deserved highs and frustrating lows but it was petering out into nothing. His own goal was damnation and redemption simultaneously.
It was pure. It was football. It was, is and always will be funny. Lee Dixon’s was funny. Peter Enckleman’s was funny. There is a litany of splendid own goals. None of them, though, had John Arne Riise’s back story and his European Cup Semi-final stage.
The reason I know so much about John Arne Riise’s catalogue of errors, oddnesses and all round shortcomings is that I was part of the noise cascading down upon him for approximately two years leading up to that goal. He used to drive me to distraction. I was very much on his back and only his own goal got me off it. What more could be done or said? What was the point of kicking the man when he was down?
That’s why, in the game of criticizing the crowd – something we often indulge in when on The Anfield Wrap podcast – who can throw the first stone? Firstly, let’s be clear, certainly not people who aren’t there. They can never have a word to say about how the people handing fifty quid over the gate comport themselves. We’ve almost all, surely, sat quietly in the odd week, barely bothering with You’ll Never Walk Alone for a wide variety of reasons, mostly hangovers in my case. We’ve all had players who have done our heads in. We’ve all had John Arne Riises. We’ve all had our axes to grind and all had our own “YOU” shouts (“Do something, YOU” is the most damning shout at the game. There’s no coming back from “YOU” as Stewart Downing is currently learning the hard way, just as his predecessor in the coveted number 19 shirt, RyBabz learnt before him. SMH. SMH.) We’ve all panicked outrageously and needlessly.
All we can do, I think, all of us going, is try and see it all as a lot more fun. We seemed to be at that point this season against Manchester City. City felt like fun for the first time in a long time. The last day of the window nonsense, a poor performance against Arsenal and then an emotional defeat to United, undermined by poor refereeing, knocked that sideways, all understandably. The question marks over FSG haven’t helped, nor has the seemingly never ending nonsense around Suarez (most of which isn’t his fault). And this is just this season! We’ve gone through so much as a football support in just the time since John Arne Riise put through his own net.
Football should be taken seriously. But not nerve-shreddingly, keeping you up at night seriously as it has been too much of the time since John Arne Riise got his Sandy Brown on. Lots of that is most definitely not our fault. Look at Hicks and Gilett, Purslow and Ayre for that on one hand; our love for Dalglish and Benitez (and in some [basket] cases, our hate for the latter) on the other. The results this season haven’t helped either but we can choose to be over-wrought and we can choose not to be. We can choose to enjoy going the game and watching Liverpool or we can see it as a cross to bear. Right now our collective football conversation seems far too serious, far too knife-edge, too impacted upon by what’s gone before whether good or bad. Too many wounds remain wide open and we’re so vigilant for fresh wounds we react like the sleep deprived. Everything seems far too urgent and desperate and we transmit that to the players on the half day off, every other Saturday and to one another in the days between those games.
So I’m going to be on the front row of the paddock and going to be stunned as all players are going to move it mind-blowingly quickly from my view. They are all, on both sides, going to be good players and, simultaneously, they are all going to make mistakes. Lots of mistakes. I need to remember this. I’m going to hear everything that’s transmitted to them. I don’t want to walk out a bag of nerves. I’m determined to enjoy it – I put a lot of time, energy and money into matters relating to football. You all do too. It’s got to be, at least in part, a laugh. Because if it isn’t, then what’s the point?