IN 1990, I went on my first ever holiday abroad, aged 17. It was a roller coaster ride. I went to Toronto with my sister and her husband, to meet for the first time the Canadian branch of our family. I saw The Simpsons for the first time. I ate Tim Horton’s donuts for the first time. I saw a live game of baseball for the first time. And I kissed Dana Archibald. She was the kind of girl who you knew was a league or two above what you really deserved from life, but I was Scottish, and I was new to them all, so somehow it just happened. She was indelibly stained on my brain. 23 years later, she’s still burned in my mind, like I looked into the shining sun a moment too long.
At that age, of course, things stay with you a lifetime. It’s an adventurous age, and a time when the world is yours to explore, and maybe start to battle, and to start to make your tentative claims on things. Dreams bubble up, and belief, or the lack of it, pops a few. But some continue to rise to the top of a glass half full.
During our stay, my cousin took us North to the Ottowa river, where we stayed in a log cabin, and each night he hauled us along behind his little boat on a rubber inner tractor tyre, bumping along on the wash, the outboard motor straining and thick with smoke, black flies everywhere as we skimmed the murky surface at breakneck speed, that ‘Wooaaaaaaaaaah’ feeling the whole time, each evening wondering if we’d meet our watery grave, loving every minute. Everything new and not yet certain. “What will we do tomorrow?”, I’d ask. “Well what what would you like to do?”, the response.
That holiday came back to me at half time yesterday. Nerves have an impact on us all, you see – little patterns that repeat throughout our lives. I remember at the time being unusually uptight. I was waiting for my exam results – my highers – the equivalent of your A-Levels I suppose. And when we were up in the North of Ontario, Canada, in the summer of 1990, one evening we called my mum, because the day had arrived when we knew the results had been sent out. But the results weren’t quite what I had hoped. And in a room full of new found family, I smiled as they congratulated me, but fought back tears borne of the bitter taste of dashed hope and expectation. But then time passed, and after a while, quite suddenly, a tightness in my gut I’d been unaware of until that point subsided, and I felt the overwhelming urge to ablute. So much so that I blocked the u-bend in the washroom of my cousin’s holiday home, and had to ask her if she owned a plunger. She’s never forgotten it.
That holiday came back to me at half time because of that self same feeling. A tension dissipating in my abdomen, and the realisation that, despite the brave faces and rhetoric, I had been just as uptight as I’d been all those years ago, an automaton gorging on my cousin’s bran muffins, thinking of other things than the taste. “We’re going to win. I think we’re going to win.” Then Suarez’s lunge, Sterling’s finish, Stevie’s header, Skrtel’s flourish, the groin gives way on Toure, Coutinho clatters into Nasri. And when Mignolet parried Fernandinho’s shot wide, and then the Brazilian was booked for clattering into Suarez (with Nasri having a sly dig at Coutinho on the referee’s blind side) I thought, “Their heads are gone, we’re going to win.” The whistle came, the wave of emotion hit, and that tension I’d been hitherto unaware of eased, its disappearance revealing an overwhelming tightness in the core of me all those preceding weeks, and man oh man, I had to run to the lavvy. Again. Liverpool’s title run is keeping me regular.
New ground, clear skies, and a world at our feet. Belief in our entitlement to whatever we might like to achieve. But boy oh boy, they have quality. And boy oh boy, they have ruthlessness. Milner for Navas was an inspired substitution. Milner was brilliant, relentless, Silva suddenly activated, one touch football in full flow, and the tightness and dread returned to my belly, and a dark emptiness crept in alongside it, the inner vision of Brian Kidd’s muted celebration threatening to monopolise the remainder of my year. Aguero shrugs off Skrtel, Silva’s studs seem to grow in length as he slides for the ball. Horrible. Compelling, but just horrible. Like slowly watching a spider catch and devour its prey.
But then Joe Allen entered the fray. And in that moment, the balance shifted. On the pitch, and in my belly. A team somehow cleaved in two by Milner’s introduction finding itself freshly reintegrated, checking City’s flow, and re-establishing a foothold for our death defying climb. Yes, Kompany scuffed his clearance, and yes, Coutinho somehow managed to shape his body to curve the ball around his mark and into the side netting, somehow. Somehow. But the momentum shifted when Joe Allen came back on. It felt like Man United at home – the togetherness – the defiance. Henderson’s lunge, Henderson’s red. Skrtel’s hand. All that amidst a growing certainty. And this time round I kissed another Archibald, my oldest friend Grant, full on the moosh, in that moment just as irresistible as his Canadian namesake had been all those years ago, in the shape of another forty year old wreck.
When Steven Gerrard heard the final whistle, we all shared a little of his emotion. A sportsman the like of which we’ll probably never see again. Someone who can evoke that kind of feeling in you, not once, but again and again. In life, you treasure these rare moments, yet somehow this young team has given us a season full of them. This young team is taking us with it on trips to far flung places the like of which it’s never been before. The destination is uncertain, but by God the memories will stay with us for the rest of our lives.