by MIKE NEVIN
AS the words “Every other Saturday is my half day off and it’s off to the match I go”, which cascade from the back of the Kop suggest, the practice of attending a football match is embedded with routine.
Even if “me old pal Joe” is alone in working the Saturday morning shift at the docks that gave the song its origin, the rest of us enjoy a series of familiar, comforting match-day customs repeated week upon week through most of our lives.
Supporters of our fabled 1977 European Cup opponents St Etienne would readily make sense of the French proverb ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’ which when translated, recognises that “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. This is truly reflective of the subtle changes that creep in over the years, amid the constancy of our match-day routines.
At the age of 12 the purity of my pre-match drill for a Liverpool home game might have been scripted by Bob Paisley’s LFC dictator, Ronnie Moran. I would be tucked up in bed by 10pm Friday night, still debating in my mind the merits of Gerald Sinstadt’s tea-time assessment of the north west football scene on Granada TV’s Kick Off. His tiresome Mancunian bias wouldn’t keep me from sleep for long, and I would wake on match day, fresh as a daisy, which is more than can be said for weekends these days.
I still pine for those carefree, late 1970s’ Saturdays when tea and toast would arrive in my bedroom most likely around the same time Ray Kennedy and Jimmy Case were receiving a morning knock from Uncle Joe Fagan in the corridors of Liverpool’s Holiday Inn.
I would probably be tuning into Football Focus at the same time as my idols, though here the similarity ends with the lunchtime sausage roll or pork pie at home, instead of the players’ fillet steak, fuelling a young Kopite through the rest of the afternoon. Before we move on, it has to be said that Footie Focus was brilliant in those days. For a start, even Jimmy Hill or Bob Wilson were preferable to a BBC couch adorned with Mark Lawrenson’s latest Matalan nightgown; and in the days before you could “tape” Liverpool games there might be a second chance to see last week’s Terry McDermott-inspired pulverisation of Man City at Maine Road.
Soon it would be time to jump in my dad’s car for the short drive to Anfield. We would park up somewhere near Fountains Road and head straight for the ground. For a big game, there would be at least half an hour in the queue for either the Paddock – in my very early days – or the Kop, once Keegan had been swapped for Dalglish.
Of course, most of us pre-teen stattos would have a biblical regard for the latest Anfield Review, purchased just inside the gates, with its unparalleled career appearance and goal summaries for each Liverpool first teamer. Something was needed to pass the hour or more it would take for the Kop to fill towards capacity; before the ritualistic vocal warm-up began with the chanting of “Celtic-Rangers”.
If we were in the ground early enough, we would file our way down from the top of the staircase summit of the vast terrace – accessed habitually from the Walton Breck Road turnstiles to just beneath half-way. Ideally, I would have the Main Stand and one of the two gigantic, red, roof-supporting stanchions to my left before I lay claim to a spot perched on one of the crowd safety barriers. This vantage point would remain a “seat” for as long as it took for the first crowd surge of the day to dislodge you – picture a boy standing unconvincingly in a rowing boat being nudged unceremoniously into the lake.
Perhaps the most consistent and widely shared routine of those heady days, once you had begun your two-hour swim in the Kop Sea, was watching Liverpool win. Consecutive generations idled away the best part of four decades celebrating atoledo.com two (or latterly, three) points with a post-match pint.
As a kid, I would normally be home in time for tea, waiting among a huddle of pensioners at the door of the local newsagent, for the first edition of the “Pink” (the now defunct and much missed Football Echo) and its blow-by-blow description of another Liverpool rampage. For Liverpool fans of a certain age, poring over the bold type used in Michael Charters’ match report – to herald the Anfield goals that sank Gordon Lee’s hapless Everton or the reviled Cloughie’s Nottingham Forest – would raise the hairs on the neck in the same way Chaucer might inspire a Cambridge undergraduate.
If the match report wasn’t enough, there was the Footie Echo letters page which, if the Reds were careless enough to drop the occasional away point, slaughtered as many sacrificial lambs as the modern day post-match blood-letting on Twitter. For Jordan Henderson, read Sammy Lee.
Of course, much has changed since Liverpool’s halcyon days. On the other hand, as I alluded to earlier, many things remain reassuringly constant. I still watch Football Focus; still get a lift off my dad, and still read the Pink Echo letters page (albeit now contained within the main Saturday Echo, and minus that day’s match report). Match days still start with tea and toast – though now with an Alka Seltzer or two paracetamol necessitated by the Friday night drinking that has replaced my childhood agonising over Elton Welsby’s unfair analysis of Bruce Grobbelaar.
In fact, the shadow of pre-match drinking crept up without me even noticing. I was certainly old enough to enjoy a pint during the hegemony of Dalglish’s stint as player-manager, but in those days I didn’t really bother with a bevy before the game. Perhaps it felt like sacrilege to blur with ale, the view of John Barnes striding majestically down the left wing from my new spec in the Kemlyn Road – actually it probably had more to do with another match-day tradition of going into town that night – but the relentless success of the eighties was largely enjoyed in sobriety.
It was Graeme Souness who changed my match-day status quo forever. By the time “Souey” succeeded The King, I’d already met some lads at the aways who liked a few Guinness in town (in Shenanigans) but still I would limit myself to just a few pints before jumping a taxi from Tithebarn Street to Anfield. However, it wasn’t long before I realised you had to be seriously bladdered to watch Paul Stewart, Mark Walters and Julian Dicks. Behind my drunken reasoning was the notion that if I could see two footballs, there was a chance that even Dean Saunders might put one of them in the net.
My pre-match session is a habit that persists to this day, so through the dramas of Evans, Houllier, Rafa and Kenny, I’ve always craved a piss more than a late equaliser. If it’s true that just before death your life flashes before you, my final moments are likely to conjure images of the barmaids or the decor in The King Harry, The Albert, The Cellar Bar, The Abbey and The “Solly”. F*** off Souness.
There was a time recently when our customary socialising before the game had to play second fiddle to ousting a couple of American carpetbaggers who threatened the very existence of the football club, never mind the match-day routines that go with it.
If the threat posed by Tom Hicks and George Gillett stole us of more than a few hours with our friends in the pub; the meetings, marches, and post-match protests that ultimately forced their retreat from Liverpool FC will go down in history. Not everyone joined in, and some did more than others, but for those who recognised the danger and fought to ensure the club was removed from evil financial hands, it was a huge relief to eventually return our everyday conversations from finance to football. It wasn’t all bad though. Along the way, we put faces to people we’d first encountered on the internet, found that Zeligs was good for something to eat in the new Liverpool One, and the old Olympia was great for a gig or an end of season “do” – as long as they turned the heating on.
Superstition often forms part of the match-day ritual. Thousands of husbands are clearly superstitious about the wife’s cooking if the queues for the chippies and pizza joints near the Sandon Wall are anything to go by. Even the great Rafa Benitez admitted that a key part of the methodical planning that thwarted the best efforts of Barcelona, Real Madrid and AC Milan was remembering to don his lucky red, Tasmanian devil underpants.
Other supporters might release a little pre-match tension by throwing money down a grid on Arkles Lane, a custom marginally more profitable than a first goalscorer bet on Rob Jones. Fans have always liked a flutter, though the arrival of bookies’ kiosks in the stands seems to have consigned the old Golden Goal ticket and the fortnightly mention of the mythical “Liverpool FC Development Office” to history.
The advent of Sky TV and the Premier League has played havoc with the fixture list but our match-day evolution has seen us become accustomed to suffering from “Derby belly” at six o’clock on a Saturday morning, or turning up for work with the “heebie-jeebies” after toasting all three points from a “Super Sunday” clash with United or Chelsea.
If we’ve got used to anti-social kick-off times, surely none of us can embrace the entrenched fleecing of fans that exists in steeply rising ticket prices. For those who can no longer justify the exorbitant cost of watching top-flight togger, or others whose current practice is to make a stand Against Modern Football, an entirely different match-day culture is emerging as all games are beamed into pubs via satellite dishes bigger and rounder than Steve Bruce’s fat head.
It’s easy to understand why watching free of charge from a warm pub full of your mates is preferable to paying 40 quid for the privilege of suffering the uninformed bile of an anti-fan in a jesters’ hat. That said, if finance allows and there’s still someone to go with, even the overhyped Premier League and its sanitised atmosphere beats the grim fate which has already claimed many a former Liverpool die-hard. I never thought I’d be writing the words “IKEA”, “B&Q” and “Channel 4 Racing” in an article about match-day routines. Shame on you, fellas!
If you’re still going to Anfield and enjoying your football, you’re probably still enjoying the “old routine”; from dodging the dog shit down Back Rockfield Road to listening to George Sephton introduce the latest group of lads to ignite the Merseybeat. Step forward the wonderful Tea Street Band.
Nonetheless, if there is one old Anfield habit that many of us took for granted it was watching great Liverpool teams roll over the opposition week in week out. I began with a song which remembers that “me and me old pal Joe” saw us win “the English League about a thousand times”. As another Anfield era begins to take shape, and our match-day habits change and stay the same, we can still dream of reclaiming one last match-day ritual; that some day soon, we climb the Kop steps one more time to clear our throats and sing, “Bring on the Champions”.
• This article was first published in issue two of The Anfield Wrap’s free magazine. Editions 1-3 are available to download for Apple iDevices here: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/anfield-wrap/id583362683
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TRIGGER WARNING: Elton Welsby!