LOADS have done it — given up going the match. Temporarily or permanently, whether it’s the rise in ticket prices, the ‘match-day experience’ or just falling out of love with it all, the make up of the Anfield crowd has changed as long-term match goers turn their backs. So what happens when you walk away from a lifetime of Liverpool and try something else? RICHARD FELTON did just that — and he couldn’t be happier.
A ‘DESERTER’ and a ‘turncoat’. Just some of the comments levelled my way when I abandoned my Anfield season ticket following a quarter of a century supporting the Reds.
I made the ultimate protest against rip-off ticket pricing and the abomination that is modern football. And in desperation at the loss of the game I loved, I turned to a team several leagues and 167 places below.
Welcome to affordable, family friendly, fan-owned-football following Marine AFC in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier Division.
There are no Ferraris in the car park, or millionaires ducking training to buy the latest iPhone. Just hugely talented semi-professional players who know the fans’ names and chat over pie and peas in the bar after the match.
In this last post of frontline footy there is no segregation, opposition fans mingle with each other and drink real ale in a real glass. There’s not a Dunkin’ Donuts advert in sight.
There are no season ticket waiting lists, kids get in free, and if you are lucky you’ll become as hooked on this life as I am.
I once watched Liverpool FC at the Nou Camp and the Stadio Olimpico, but now I’d much rather go to Matlock, Kendal Town or Gainsborough Trinity — it’s the equivalent of watching football along B-Road Britain. ‘B’ standing for ‘Best’.
Clubs are largely run by volunteers; men and women who are there for the love of the game and nothing else.
People, wake up. Football is not the national game any more. Non-league football is.
I started going to Anfield aged 11. By 13 I was a season ticket holder. And from 1987 to 2012 I witnessed my team win the lot.
I still remember my first game v Stoke City on February 23, 1985. Sat in the Anfield Road, I gawped in awe at the players. These were not just heroes, they were mythical Gods: Grobbelaar, Hansen, Whelan, Rush, Dalglish.
The off-field surroundings were just as wondrous. All those faces, all those people, the noise, the famous Spion Kop.
The first year I was a season ticket holder was 1987-88 when the team were unstoppable: Barnes, Beardsley, Aldridge… It’s difficult to put into words those early feelings of going to Anfield.
Maybe I should leave it to my Spanish teacher who wrote on one piece of particularly shoddy homework: “It’s time you grew up to your responsibilities and stop considering Liverpool FC to be your entire life.”
Finals at home and abroad ensued, league titles, away trips everywhere from the Baseball Ground to Bucharest. Wins and losses in derbies, great goals, Rush goals, Fowler goals, ghost goals…
I lived and breathed Kop culture. “Hat, cap, scarf or a badge”, the clickety click of the turnstiles, wafts of hops from the vaults of The Albert, Operation Anfield Exercise, the celebratory hugs, the flag days and oh those European nights.
This. Was. My. Life.
But after Istanbul it all started falling apart. Hicks and Gillett, the Athens ticket fiasco, the chop of Rafa.
Then Kenny getting the elbow and the revelation from Liverpool top brass that even if we had won the FA Cup it would not have saved him because: “The cups don’t matter.”
I was losing interest in the top-flight game week by week. The main reason — ticket prices. My Kop season ticket in 1990 was £65. By 2012 it was £800-plus.
In 2009 I became a father and I had every desire to make my lad a Kopite. But the lack of child tickets in the ground is shocking. You have Kop kids paying adult prices. That’s not just wrong, it feels almost criminal. At least at Everton a kid ticket is a kid ticket — wherever it be in the ground.
At 14 months old I took my lad to his first taste of Anfield (a youth game v Manchester United). The Liverpool FC steward tried to confiscate the top from his milk bottle. Seriously.
This 30-year-relationship between man and club was falling apart.
The weekend I made the big decision to leave was in the Autumn of 2012. I was sat in a Crosby cafe reading The Mirror and noticed that my local non league team Marine had an away FA Cup tie at Trafford. I just dropped my paper and went.
And that’s the beauty of football at this level. You don’t have to build up your away credits or log on to some unfathomable website to get tickets (with booking fees). You just decide to go.
I jumped a bus into town, caught the train over to Manchester and within an hour I was inside a non-league ground for the first time in years.
Marine had 100-plus away fans there and the atmosphere generated was amazing. They went one down but came back to win 3-1. The Marine players celebrated with their fans at the end. It was a joyous day and a real eye-opener.
I worked out that with transport, ticket, programme, two pints and one pie, I’d spent the grand total of £26. And this for an away match.
The next day I was back at Anfield for a bore draw against Stoke City. The public address system announced various commercial activity before the game. And I just thought: “this is not my Anfield any more.”
It was also the game that Luis Suarez dived to try to win a penalty. Liverpool’s star striker cheating and me forking out £44-plus for the privilege of watching it.
And that was it. The end.
I’ve got more and more involved at Marine since I left Liverpool FC. I’m chairman of the supporters’ club and help encourage people to attend the matches home and away. We raise funds for Marine and increase the profile of our fantastic little football team.
Last season was one of the most remarkable campaigns ever. Marine were involved in a relegation fight all season. They changed the manager with 12 games to go and Sean Hessey (an ex-Liverpool FC reserve player) took over.
Despite being 12 points from safety Hessey and his assistant Phil Hackney began to work miracles.
I went to every single Marine game home and away from January as our season took on epic proportions. Marine had never been relegated in 121 years.
It all came down to Blyth Spartans away on the final day. We took more than 120 fans and sung through the entire game to support our lads.
The odds were stacked against us but we managed to win and other results went our way. Marine fans were in tears at the end. Tears of joy. I was overcome and ran on the pitch to sink to my knees. Players hugged fans in disbelief and delirium.
If this had happened in the Premier League I’d probably be facing a banning order. And the players would probably be fined for inciting a riot.
I know no-one reading this will believe me. But those last 12 games and that eventual survival win at Blyth was better than my evening in Istanbul in 2005. Seriously. It just seemed to mean so much more.
Over the last few seasons I’ve been writing a book about leaving Liverpool to follow Marine. Tentative title: “From Millionaires to Mariners: A non-league love story”.
There’s flashbacks to some of my days watching Liverpool but basically it’s an account of life on the road with Marine.
Now, my lifetime dream is to watch The Mariners progress in the FA Cup and get a big away game against a Premier League side.
Can you imagine if we got to play against Liverpool at Anfield? The two cultures would collide. Rich v Poor, David v Goliath — and me facing my lost love.
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Pics: Marine AFC, Richard Felton, David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo