By Karl Coppack
Not another cheap overly romanticised article about how great football was when people drank mild and every away game came with a free sprint to the station to avoid bovver boots and Stanley knives. Well, nostalgia may well be the last refuge of the scoundrel and I am going to look back a bit but indulge me a little.
There’s a saccharin gooey sentimentality attached to talk of days gone by. ‘Aye lad,’ one might begin with a wistful glance to the heavens. ‘I remember the day John Wark took one in the spuds and the Kop started singing in a comic high voice. See, the Kop was a laugh back then. Loud too. Not like now.’ We all fall into this sort of guff eventually whether we like it or not and someday a rosy hued mist will descend over younger eyes when recalling the majesty of Julian Dicks and the 1995 League Cup final. Everything becomes nostalgia after a while.
There is a point in that opening reminiscence. Going to the match used to be a laugh, used to be entertaining. I’m not going to don a flat cap and tell you that everything about modern football is rubbish but there’s no denying that the fun has gone out of Anfield, out of the match, out of the club. The famous Anfield wit, although never quite plummeting to Soccer A.M. levels of whatever that tries to be, hasn’t hit the heights of yesteryear. Nor has the atmosphere for that matter. The singing section hasn’t really taken off and the other stands, the Main Stand famously, has never really got things going when it’s most needed. In fact, things have been so quiet that, during last season’s West Brom game, you could even hear the players talking over a free kick. Not shouting, just talking.
That said, it wasn’t always like St Etienne back then. There was a League Cup game in the 80’s that was empty enough for me and my mate to spend some of the match sitting on the old standing Kop. We could see everything perfectly. There were still times when the Kop needed to be roused from its slumber before we’d entertain the team with songs and atmosphere but that was more of a rarity.
So, what’s changed? Well, everything including ourselves. Sky, the game, the ‘everyone’s an expert’ culture and, of course, fan demographics.
It’s too easier an argument to suggest that the different type of match goer has changed everything but it’s got to be a part of it. The 60’s model fan knocking off work at noon, having a pint and then heading into the ground has been immortalised in one of our songs but has long since passed into distant memory. You can’t stand with a load of mates now and enjoy it collectively. You also can’t just go to a game on a whim anymore. A match now requires planning, tickets, credits and an itinerary rather than a casual stroll into L4 if you have a couple of hours to spare.
The clientele has changed too. Now, I’m not going to blame or deride out of town fans or post Istanbul supporters. It’s a tedious argument and speaks of an inclusionism that goes against the very mantra of the club. Stalwarts or, God help us, ‘top reds’ can be dickheads just as much as any non Scouse oo-are-ya sea clapping yahoo. I can remember being at West Ham away a few years ago and giving air to a good ninety second torrent of abuse to one of our players when a lad next to me screwed up his face and was about to give me some back. But he didn’t. He simply paused, looked at my footwear, Sambas, and nodded a sage assent. I’d gone from ‘who’s this prick’ to being alright based purely on accent and Adidas. I could speak shit if my bona fides were in place. Had I started up a new Dirk Kuyt song that I’d made up in the car and urged everyone to join in he would have still been shouting at me at the final whistle.
No, what I mean is the corporate and cushioned arse aspect of our support. I say this as a few years ago I was left absolutely astonished by an incident with a fellow fan. It was the afternoon of the 2-0 Chelsea game when Torres scored twice in what ultimately became his job interview. For the first time in my life I was offered a corporate ticket. My mate, a Pre Romanite Chelsea fan, had got a couple of tickets and persuaded me to join him in the Upper Centenary. The day before I’d broken a bone in my foot so I was glad of a sit down.
We had a meal in one of the suites and were joined at our table by two lads who seemed used to this sort of experience. I’m more of a fish cake and chips while sitting on the Sandon wall sort of man so eating from a plate on matchday with David Fairclough hovering around was a new and heady sensation.
We got talking and my mate and I smiled weakly when they told us who they worked for etc, as you do. Then one asked if I’d been here in the Upper Centenary when we played Napoli. I said that I hadn’t.
‘It was terrible. There was a load of Napoli fans in the back row here.’
I explained that that’s where the club put the away fans when the Annie Rd was sold out and that Standard Liege had been there the year before. It helped the atmosphere up there at times.
He looked at me blankly and completed his compelling argument.
‘Yes, but I was with clients.’
My mate, not of our stable but cognisant of my unspoken views, smiled politely and looked into his lap, no doubt giggling silently at my building fury. I considered a lengthy rant about how the game was more important than the embarrassed winces of businessmen who were only there because a) it was free and b) because it would do both them and their company some good in terms of ‘customer care’ and ‘good PR’ but I was too shocked to argue. Suddenly I missed my mates, standing freezing on a concourse somewhere without, unlike me, access to profiteroles.
Jasper Carrot tells of an occasions when he, as a Director of Birmingham City, celebrated like a loon when Keith Bertschin scored a hat trick while his opposite number looked totally perplexed. The business fan meets the football fan.
Course, I’m not suggesting that Anfield is completely awash with Gordon Geckos but that incident couldn’t have happened years ago. Yes, it promotes revenue and all that but it’s lessened the normality, or at least my generation’s sense of normality, at the same time. There were plenty of corporates years ago too obviously but I doubt if they would have shushed a raucous Kop so they could get on with the main order of the day – schmoozing a client. Nowadays the game must be made palatable for all. Football was a working man’s game but it’s shifted and eddied into the atmosphere of a cinema going audience. What’s more, it’s being sold back to us. Look at the Sandon – home of the home fan for decades and etched into Liverpool history. So what do they do? Turn the upstairs into a hospitality suite, push the fans out and sell it to the corporates as a ‘match day experience’. Well, it would be if the fans were still there.
Some say that it isn’t enough and that we need more boxes and suites and commercial rates etc. They may be right, Personally I find it a bit vulgar, but, as Andy has pointed out more than once on the podcast, the club seem happy to use the celebrated passion of the fans to sell the club and extend the ‘brand’ without giving us, it’s ‘product’, anything in return. Anyway, I digress.
A voyeuristic crowd tends to be a silent one. Football, even spectating, is an interactive process. You don’t go to a game to watch then go home again. You go to see your mates, to have a few and, most importantly, to work. Yes, work. Every stand should be embarrassed at its silence. If the players need a lift then it’s up to us to provide it. True, you shouldn’t need to as they’re handsomely paid to wear the greatest badge in the world and it’s them that should be entertaining us but it isn’t like that. Silence means defeat or at least acceptance of it. So, for that matter does singing YNWA when we’re losing in injury time. That really sticks in my craw. Yes, it’s a noble nod to ‘we’re losing but we’re still Liverpool and we’ll stick together’ but the game’s not over and there’s always a way back. It’s giving up. It’s clocking off early. The crowd has to work, to sing itself hoarse if need be, to drag us over the line. A brief lull in the Chelsea 05 game would have been cataclysmic. It would have looked like doubt.
There is a time when Anfield does come alive in games other than derby and United games and that’s when we’re behind in a tie. Had we come back from St Petersburg with a 1-1 Anfield would have been alright, a bit tense maybe but mostly alright. Coming back as we did needing a 3-0 win meant game on. Rather than be depressed about the probable exit we seemed to galvanise in an attitude of ‘fuck it, let’s get into these’ that’s seldom there when it’s 0-0 in a League game. Ironically, the reverse is the case for the team. Put us a goal up and we’re excellent and play with a swagger. Concede early and we look like a gang of moping, lovelorn teenagers. We, as fans love a bit of a challenge and tend to shut up when we’re ahead. The players, often as not, do the opposite.
Aways have been brilliant this season. Even the dourest of games have been entertaining and it’s down to having younger lads gathering together and singing with the odd bit of pyro thrown in. It’s gone a bit, well, Koplike, or at least how the Kop used to be. Loud, raucous, exuberant and a laugh. Singing for the hell of it rather than microscopically studying the game. Of course, the reason this isn’t replicated at Anfield is that the ground will always be bigger than any away allocation and these lads can cram in together to get an atmosphere going rather than spread dissolutely around the ground as they’d be at a home game. I wish it could be otherwise. I want the match to be a laugh again. A mate of mine once said that the best bits of match day were the pre and post meet ups with our mates in the pub and that ‘the match gets in the way’ at times. I knew what he meant and it shouldn’t be like that. We all worry about LFC and we let it get to us as that’s the price we pay for allowing it to get under our skin but it should be fun too. I’d like to bring that back. I’m not sure how but I’d like to.
Just keep the noise down for those corporate lads, eh?