By Mike Nevin
We stand on the brink of our first visit to the National Stadium for 16 years, a gap that straddles almost a generation. And yet, I sense a slight lack of enthusiasm from young and old alike at the prospect of a trip to Wembley.
“I wish it was Cardiff”, “London stinks of Rats’ P*ss”, “The Carling Cup is Mickey Mouse”, “Tickets will be a rip-off”, “Our End will be full of whoppers” – these are just some of the complaints I’ve heard at the prospect of Liverpool reaching a domestic Cup Final for the first time in 6 years. Tangible disinterest, or at best just luke-warm enthusiasm for the chance to record our 41st major trophy success, at a venue which has been the scene of some of the club’s most famous triumphs.
There was a time when getting to Wembley was something of a Holy Grail to Liverpool FC. Evertonians are only too keen to remind us, they were the first Merseyside club to play at both incarnations of the National Stadium, having won the FA Cup in 1933 and falling at the final hurdle against Chelsea in 2009. Our forbearers had to wait 27 seasons before Liverpool appeared under the Twin Towers of the originally- named Empire Stadium in the 1950 FA Cup Final defeat to Arsenal – when Bob Paisley was reputed to have stormed away when he was left out of the line up.
Another 15 seasons had passed before our first Wembley triumph in 1965; the extra-time victory over Leeds for Shankly’s first great team, ending what was viewed as a “hoodoo” by the post-war generation.
At this point of this article, I have to make a confession. I’m the worst of all types of Liverpool supporter – worse than a daytripper in a jesters’ hat, worse than a parrott-headed beaut in massive K-Swiss trabs. I’m a glory-hunter, or at least I was in May 1974 at the age of six, when my Evertonian-supporting great uncle conjured 2 tickets for me and my dad for the FA Cup Final against Newcastle.
It was my first game. My guilt at probably denying a die-hard Red the chance to flounce into Wembley in outrageously-flared Flemings’ jeans and equally-mad Liverpool rosette persists to this day. At the time I had no guilt. Wembley to a 6-year old Liverpool nut-job was overwhelmingly fantastic. From a £4 seat in the North Stand I had a sea of swaying Red to my right, and a cacophony of fanatical Geordie bonhomie to my left – these were days before the Geordies became an embarrassing parody of themselves some time during the Keegan “I’d just love it….” era
It rained most of the day but it didn’t matter. Shankly conducted Liverpool’s orchestra to a facile, stylish 3-0 win. Loudmouth cockney striker Malcolm McDonald – the self-proclaimed Supermac – had a ‘mare when his pre-match boasts were made to look stupid; shackled all game by a scrawny lad from Kirkby looking badly in need of a steak – a certain Phil Thompson. In truth I don’t remember much more about it, except the noise, colour, sheer unrestrained exuberance of the both teams’ supporters and the misfortune of one Liverpudlian behind us whose pre-match bevy sesh saw all three Liverpool goals coincide with his frequent trips to the bog.
So a Wembley love-affair was underway before I’d even been to Anfield. To right the moral wrong of my undeserved Wembley debut, while I racked up regular appearances at home games in the standing Paddock throughout the late 70’s, I didn’t get a sniff of a return trip to London for the 1977 Cup Final against United. Instead, I cried buckets in front of the telly as dreams of The Treble went down the pan and refused to eat my tea at my Nan’s – mind you, it was Kippers. I ask you, what sort of Nan makes Kippers for tea when you’ve just lost the Cup to United?
I missed out again in 1978 as the Reds visited “Anfield South” twice – for a first League Cup Final against Cloughie’s Red b******s (Forest), and the successful defence of the European Cup against Brugges when the 100,000 crowd was made up of 99,000 Scousers, the ref and linesmen, and a few Belgians with very bad breath.
I was finally back at Wembley in 1981 for the League Cup Final v West Ham, notable for the sight of Happy Hammers in braces and bovver boots parading through their own city on open top buses prior to the game – a seemingly cockney tradition as demonstrated on other occasions by Spurs’ skins and Arsenal’s wacky “Gooners”.
For my second visit, the old stadium still held the same magic, despite a dire view from the shallow Lower terraces opposite the tunnel End. At a time when lush pitches were the exception rather than the norm, the sight of the immaculate, neat lines of the green Wembley turf was a sight to behold. The walk up Wembley Way was still most exhilarating journey you would make all season, unless you were in Gay Paree or at the Stadio Olimpico. Spoilt? Us? Never.
The West Ham game in 1981 was the first of 4 consecutive League Cup Finals, including memorable comebacks against Spurs and Man Utd, which saw the steep, concrete terraces of the Upper Standing Enclosure shake like a jelly as our supporters bounced like loons as we claimed victory from the jaws of defeat. There were a few tasty scenes outside as a few failed ambushes failed to put a downer on some great successes.
By the mid-80’s, the novelty was beginning to wear off. God knows how many Charity Shields and almost complete annexation of League Cup Finals meant that the 1984 all-Merseyside Final was a bigger occasion for the success-starved Evertonians. They duly outsang us and had a jolly nice time before succumbing to inevitable referee-stained defeat after a replay.
Wembley itself was badly in need of renovation. The old wooden benches along the touchlines offered a terrible view as the fences went up, and the rivers of piss that flowed from the bogs turned a many a Samba stripe a disconcerting strain of yellow. On the plus side the turnstiles were so decrepit that it became an easy bunk – thankfully putting Cockney spivs in dodgy macks out of business.
I’ve written more extensively elsewhere about the magical Wembley day in 1986 when we beat Everton to the Double, but as far as the Twin Towers are concerned, for me that was the day when the candle burned brightest before the flame died. Further visits followed; the most notable being the post-Hillsborough occasion in 1989, when with the benefit of hindsight, none of us should have been near a football match so soon after the tragedy in Sheffield.
In the wake of his shamed dalliance with The S*n, a gaunt Graeme Souness left his hospital bed to watch us beat Sunderland in the 1992 FA Cup Final, and Roy “Evo” had his moment of glory as boss, beating Bolton to the 1995 League Cup as the 90’s saw us enter decline. The nadir was reached in 1996 when the sight of the talented team labelled the “Spice Boys” in their infamous white suits had the effect of pressing a mute button on Liverpool’s support as we listened dutifully to United take the piss on the terraces and watched Cantona spawn a late winner. And that was that – the last time we were at Wembley before the bulldozers moved in 2000.
Of course 2001 was Treble Year and Cardiff was great; the City centre boozers and the proximity to the ground meant we literally staggered to some very happy occasions at the Millenium Stadium. We looked down pitch-side as Cups were raised and we sang along to Go West, “Hou let the Reds Out” (Gerard Houllier) and La Bamba (for Rafa) and out as the stadium PA assaulted our ear drums with the Kop’s latest dubious tunes. But there were no 39 steps for the victorious skipper to climb, and as comfy as Cardiff felt, it wasn’t Wembley.
Since the new Wembley opened in 2007, with the aesthetically-pleasing Arch replacing the iconic Twin Towers, we’ve never even looked like getting there. We’ve watched in dismay as a series of under-strength teams contrived to lower Liverpool’s colours to some footballing nonentities. Wembley dreams have died at the hands of the rabid Tykes of Barnsley, the Home Counties Kings of SoccerAM-dom – Reading, even Northampton’s “Cobblers” on a rain-soaked Anfield night that did the impossible – flattening Roy Hodgson’s iron hair.
Since the new place opened and after experiencing countless train journeys into London, when the massive Wembley Arch looms into view as the rattler nears “The Smoke”, we still haven’t made it after 6 seasons.
At first I wasn’t really arsed. Under Rafa, we had fatter fish to fry – Istanbul, Tokyo and Athens, not to mention the San Siro, the Bernabau and the Camp Nou.
The new Wembley was synonymous with meaningless England friendlies and annual fixtures between United and Chelsea, and watching on the telly it seemed everyone f*cked off for most of the game to eat prawn baguettes downstairs. There were more empty seats than at your average Goodison derby after we’ve just scored the winner. On the plus side, the sh*t views of the old ground are a thing of the past. Apparently the sightlines are tremendous – the best in any ground in Europe – so much so that you can obviously see the pitch from the bar and hospitality lounges.
Now though, as we enter 2012 it’s getting ridiculous. Everyone’s been to the new Wembley, except us. Everton of, course (didn’t you know?); Barnsley, West Brom, Stoke, even Portsmouth have played there – 4 f*cking times!
So now, I’m as desperate for us to beat Man City and make our first appearance at the “new” Wembley as I was when we were getting to European Cup Finals under Rafa Benitez. In a football sense with the impatient modern fan breathing down his neck, Kenny Dalglish and Liverpool FC need to win something; some cherished silverware to end a barren streak stretching back to the “Gerrard Final” in Wales in 2006. We need to throw this trophy-monkey off our backs.
More than that though, we need a day out, an occasion to bond as a fan base. A journey south in the car getting bladdered singing Beatles songs all the way there and all the way back. A chance to get the banners out and heal the divisions that still fester from the civil war – when Hicks and Gillett politicised our true supporters, making what happened on the pitch almost an irrelevance. We need a weekend away, a chance to swagger again, and after an almighty London swallee, we need the sight of the Redmen and a beaming, triumphant Dalglish parading a Cup on a joyous lap of honour.
So, all we need is to beat City. And Ian Ayre not to balls up the Wembley ticket allocation!
ROAR THEM ON THIS WEDNSDAY. THEY NEED US.