WHAT’S your perfect away trip? How do you plan for it? Do you have a routine; a picture in your head of how it will all work out? My thoughts on the matter are here in this extract from We’re Everywhere, Us — a book detailing Liverpool’s 2014-15 season through the stories of fans and foes released on August 1.
“SIX o’clock in the morning and I’m the last person in this plane still awake.” That’s from The The’s seminal 1980s over-produced-but-still-decent tune Sweet Bird Of Truth.
The The was actually just a lad called Matt Johnson and that track’s lyric was a first-person stream of consciousness thing about being in a US military plane about to crash somewhere in the Middle East. It now seems an ominously prescient little ditty. It’s been in my head all season.
I set myself a challenge in August that for the first time ever I’d watch every LFC league fixture. I’ve been close before. I’m 48 and I don’t miss home games (I’d quite like a version of that to be my epitaph, ‘Here lies Robert Gutmann. 1967–2071 – he didn’t miss home games’). I also get to most of the aways. I must have nearly done the 38 or the 42 before, but I can’t really remember now. Certain seasons gained such momentum that games were simply not going to be missed. The 1987-88 one — Barnes and Beardsley and all that jazz. The treble season of 2000-01. And last year, where we nearly won the title and were the most exciting Liverpool team in, like, forever.
Think I only missed three or four last season. I should check (I won’t check). After the giddy wondrousness of the last campaign I vowed to myself that I would not be not attending any Liverpool FC games in the near future. I’d say to people that it was about completing one season, for the first time, but really it’s about forever. It may be part of my mid-life crisis, which is going on for an interminably long time. What no one warns you — about the mid-life crisis — is that it isn’t a temporary state. I know what it is now, and I know it’ll only end when I die.
The main thing I’m getting is the crushing realisation that this is it. No more dress rehearsals. That notion you have when you’re younger — that you’ll improve at certain things, or eventually get round to doing postponed tasks, that you’ve got time to fulfil ambitions, to mend relationships, to be a better person, is entirely a delusion. None of those things will happen. Well, they could, but you need to start doing them today. FFS.
For a naturally impatient person this came as an extra burden. I didn’t think I could be any more impatient. I was very wrong about that. So I now look at every Liverpool game as maybe my last. When I was a kid, I couldn’t go to that many games, and there was mainly only access to live football via the radio. I used to tolerate the frustration and anxiety induced by having to rely only on the one sense for information knowing that soon would come the day when I’d actually be there. At a game. In the flesh. In a stadium. Taking everything in. Senses working overtime.
Later, there was more football on TV. It was miles better than listening to a game on the radio. Oldens will get misty eyed about listening to the vocally ripped and toned Peters, Jones and Brackley on Radio 2, but the reality is that radio was — and remains — a shit way to follow your team. I always felt the radio commentators were deliberately getting a thrill out of winding me up. They’d contrive a near certain goal every two minutes, with their quickening tempos and falsettoing registers. “Oh my word how did he miss that?!” You later found out exactly how he missed it when you watched it back on the telly. He missed it because he was 35 yards out or was shooting from a ridiculously acute angle with five bodies between him and the goal.
Video killed the radio star. Thank fuck. TV was much more like real football. For a while it may even — whisper it — have felt slightly better than actually going to a real game. Legend has it that the 1966 World Cup final didn’t sell out because it was a live football game on TV for the first time and people couldn’t resist the lure of the new.
After enduring the actual experience of attending aways throughout the 1980s the respite of the living room or the pub in the 90s was not to be underestimated. Standing for hours in the wind and rain was not enjoyable. Travelling the length and breadth of the country on trains that got stopped outside Nuneaton for a gratuitous hour and a half because there were leaves on a line, or because it was somebody’s birthday bash the night before meaning the signalman hadn’t turned in, wasn’t fun. Wasn’t a laugh. Worrying about turning the wrong corner and getting ambushed by recreational violence merchants wasn’t Boys Own stuff.
Inedible burgers topped with onions made out of leaves and snot, and washed down with bloody Bovril, isn’t something to get nostalgic about. Bovril was, is, and shall remain, a terrible drink. Bad gravy but without the meat or potato required to at least give it some purpose.
Live football got better, though, and the lure of the box waned. There were seats for starters. They were nice. Most had legroom too. There was transport that you could count on. Sustenance that could be enjoyed other than when totally paralytic. And there was no aggro. No more potential kickings to be had. There were still dreams and songs to sing. The atmosphere was still there. Or at least it was no more or less inconsistent than it had ever been. Don’t let anyone tell you Anfield was a cauldron of noise for every home game in the 1980s. It wasn’t. More often than not the Kop was bored shitless with all the endless winning and it took a lot to get the crowd really going.
The other thing that changed in the 90s and beyond was that people started really talking about tactics. I was always into a bit of a tactical chat. I put it down to an enduring relationship with Subbuteo. You couldn’t enjoy that perfect birds’-eye plan view of the game and not want to play chess with it. Not want to play God. The TV folks also loved a bit of tactics. They had trucks for it, and screens that they could touch and make circles and arrows come to life. They made the fan tactically literate, those Sky TV pioneers (and Alan Hansen).
Ironically for me, it made their medium seem increasingly inadequate. On TV you could see the action, but not the game. They were all about the handball incidents, the multiple angles for showing a goal, the offsides, the two-footed tackles. It was engaging but it wasn’t Subbuteo.
To get that thing I wanted — the whole game, the eagle’s view — you had to go to the game. OK, sometimes you were planted on the first row behind the goal, but you still got to see the width of the pitch (if not its depth). There was still a geometry on show that you never got from TV. Increasingly then I made it my mission to physically go to as many games as finances and fate would permit.
“Six o’clock in the morning and I’m the last person in this plane still awake.”
When we go on away trips these days, I’m always first out my crib. The excitement overwhelms me. We could be playing on Mars and need to make a 4am start to beat the inter-galactic traffic, but I’d still be awake before everyone else. I barely sleep the night before an away mission. I rarely do anything the day before that doesn’t involve preparation for the journey and for the day. I love the planning. Love the anticipation.
My comrades, in life and on football away trips, think the way I approach watching Liverpool away is typical of my horrific impatience and control-freaky personality. They mock it, and me, but they like it too. Because it, me, I, get the job done. I get the tickets, organise the ride, plan pit stops, select the food venue, locate the boozer. I get us to the church on time. Ungrateful motherfuckers.
So it’s 8am and I’ve been up for three hours. Paul, Neil and Andy will be at mine soon. I’m in the car with my Danny. He’s 16 now and has been a home and away stalwart since he was six. There’s little he hasn’t seen on a football pitch, or in the back of a car full of drunken grown boy-men who should know better. On some days — and this is one of them — the alcoholic revelry starts too soon. Neil piles into the back of my sweet ride, all smiles and says: “Don’t know ’bout yoose but I’m ready to get on it straight away.” I sigh the good sigh. The sigh that knows that he won’t be denied and that he’s already the enabler- in-chief for the rest of us. Today, my Danny won’t just be my son, footy aways partner-in-crime and best friend — he’ll also have to be my seeing-eye dog.
I’m a firm believer that planning gives you the freedom to be spontaneous and enjoy yourself properly. It creates a framework for fun. Others would say this take on football and life makes me an anal, OCD-ed up weirdo. I disagree. You don’t want to have what should be a perfectly enjoyable away day with the lads ruined because you missed the game by not doing the math(s) on how long it takes to get from A to B. You don’t need to be desperately looking for an away-friendly boozer that’s within walking distance of the ground but also sells some basic scran simply because you failed to give this day any thought until you woke up to it. Do you?
You think ahead. My BFF, brother-in-arms and oldest away trip cohort, Giulio, and I always talked about the quest for the textbook away trip. We first started going to aways together when we were 13 (in 1980). We evolved our tastes and our corporal-needs schedule — from our away experiences — together. Although Giulio wasn’t on this West Brom trip, I will credit him with the co-authorship of the ‘Englishman’s quintessential guide to the perfect LFC away day’. It’s still not been written but when it finally is, it will be a hefty tome. The gist of it follows…
I like to leave stupidly early for away trips. Some lads won’t do my missions anymore because they can’t take the early rise. For me the away day is exactly what it says it is — a day. Not an afternoon. Not an evening. A day. It begins from when you first open your eyes. I think it must be like this for the players, too. They don’t think, ‘Better get the shopping in, or do some DIY, or have a lie in ’til midday,’ before the game. They think only of the task in hand. Of the challenge it poses. Of the anxieties it presents. Of the glories it may bring.
They also don’t have to worry about which services on the M6 has a McDonald’s and will we get to it before they stop selling sausage and egg McMuffins at 10.30am. They also don’t have to worry about finding a boozer that is both near enough to the ground that it’s walkable but that can also be arrived at in time so that getting served food and ale isn’t a fucking nightmare.
Today is a sunny day. It’s crisp, but crisp is good. Who wants to be sweating this early? Paul is driving. He’s the jockey-in-chief these days. He has a firm hand and a steady eye. He’ll tell you a joke, or light up your smoke. He can’t follow a sat-nav for fuck though and I have to interpret for him for the entire journey.
“What’s it saying here Rob?”
“It’s saying turn off left here, Paul. You can tell that by the arrow pointing to the left.”
“Oh yeah. I’ll do a left then.”
I’m co-pilot. It’s my motor and I want the leg room. Gotta be a few privileges. Co-pilot’s got responsibilities. I tend to mind the pile of tinnies and small wines by my feet for starters. Naturally I’ve been to Tesco the day before to purchase our booze picnic for the journey. Also, I like to ‘smoke’ the odd one on an away trip.
Generally I’ve given up all terribly unhealthy habits, but the away seems a reasonable occasion for allowing lapses. ‘Smoking’ requires leg room. You need maximum lap space, and a hard surface to facilitate the full, stress-free skin-up.
“This is your captain calling with an urgent warning/We’re above the Gulf of Arabia, our altitude is falling/An’ I can’t hold her up, there’s no time for thinking/All hands on deck, this bird is sinking.”
For an early start getting a good breakfast in is essential. I always caution co-journeyers not to make the schoolboy error of having a bowl of Weetabix and slice of toast before we meet up. Eating before the meet just spoils the appetite for one of the day’s many main events — the first being that visit to a motorway McDonald’s for a ‘Maccies brekky’.
There’s usually one freak on a trip who will eschew the obvious and go instead for a fucking cake and a latte at the adjacent Costa. Those guys don’t get invited back readily.
The key component of the pre-game preparation and ritual is the main eating/drinking venue of choice. I’m not one who looks for away supporter pubs. I like to have the option of a sit down and a scran. I think being able to actually access the bar and, later on, the bog is desirable. I’ve paid my dues at the coalface of doing real men’s aways. Ones where you travel only by coach or ‘special’, and drink only at the gaffs within two minutes of the ground that will only serve you beer in plastic glasses. The ones where you stand outside the boozer, even in winter, visibly supping and singing. Showing them that you’re in town.
Me, I’m after a gastropub or a Nando’s, or an Indian or Chinese restaurant. At Man City I can always be found in that really smart-looking place called Vermillion that does an all-day pan-Asian buffet for about £13.95 a head. If you go to the Midlands, it’s curry pubs or Indian restaurants. In the North East it’s usually a Wetherspoons. Actually on any trip where the kick-off is midday-ish and you have to arrive before sane pub opening times, Weathies is the only bar in Britain that will serve you both beer and wine and a full 1,400 calorie belly-buster breakfast before 11am.
The road to The Hawthorns is a fairly smooth one with no great incidents expected, other than sitting haplessly in M6 traffic. Incident free is always a marker of a decent away. There are lads I know who have a list of away-day stories as long as your arm that to my mind are interchangeable with stag night tales. They’re usually about people being hurt, humiliated, arrested, lost or ending up naked somewhere. You’re going to be half-cut on an away. That’s a given. The imperative, as far as I’m concerned, is to therefore control your environment sufficiently so that you don’t come to any great harm. In my head I’m a Navy seal — get in, kill Bin Laden, get out. Or more — get to the ground, get fed, have a drink, watch the Reds win, get home safely.
West Brom is one of those rare aways where my tastes for the finer things and normal fans’ away merge. For this trip, all comers in the Liverpool-following fraternity make a beeline to a curry pub called The Vine. It’s a lovely place and it majors in kebabs. In a pub. Such a thing we could only ever have dreamed of when I was a child. Good kebabs, too, with proper naan bread.
We get there as they’re turning the key to open the place up for 11.30am. We’re virtually first in. We’ve got the pick of the tables. We’re sauntering to toilets and bars. No rushing around like panic-stricken fowl for us. My plan is working like clockwork.
We kitty up, 20 notes in each. Neil’s going to the bar. Andy’s going to the kebab counter. Danny and Paul are off for a piss. I’m minding the specs and sitting pretty. Faces start to stream in. First it’s Mike, Nev and Chris. Then Phil B. The Suttons are here. Nico too. John Mackin’s bedding in. Martin Fitz will be here soon. Backs are getting slapped, rounds are being got in. It’s all good. The Reds are gathering. We’re going to win here.
The football, I’ve barely mentioned it thus far. This isn’t because it’s in anyway secondary. It’s omnipresent. We’ve talked little else but formations, transfers, the manager and Mario Balotelli all the way down, between slurps from cans, tokes from smokes, and mouthfuls of McMuffins. I’m telling the throng that the internet rumour is of a rare start for Mario B. I’m excited. He’ll supposedly be paired with Raheem Sterling and Jordon Ibe. We’ll put on a show today.
There are some lads — good lads — who love their team with a passion, but the day overwhelms them. The crack, the bonhomie, becomes the biggest thing. I wish I was a bit more like that. I am until kick-off. Then it’s all business. Hazy drunken, bloated business, but business nonetheless. I want the win. The result. All else pales.
This is the reason why we’re here and the event that will make or break the status of this trip. A defeat really bursts the balloon and ruins the day — and the weekend. There’s no hiding from that reality. This is where all the planning in the world goes right out of the window. Please Jesus, let the Reds win today. Let the long, traffic-static ride home be filled with mirth and tears of joy. Let the breakdown on the hard shoulder with a flat before Stafford be rendered a mere hiccup in the wider scheme.
We don’t win. But we don’t lose either. It’s a confusing one. We played quite well — 72 per cent possession, we later learn, bears out our unreliable testimony. The result is a bad one though, and we know that Champions League qualification is almost certainly beyond us. The truth is we should be more gutted, but maybe, subconsciously, we already knew our fate and that this season was already being run down.
The occasion doesn’t pass without incident, though. Fondly remembered aways always have some bolt-on anecdote that can be seamlessly applied as an aide-memoire. A week ago at Wembley I fell off my seat. I don’t know how it happened. I just slipped off it and landed cramped semi-under it, on my arse, in minor pain and discomfort. How my mate John Riles laughed. And laughed. We can now refer to that game as ‘the Aston Villa semi, 2015, remember, the one where you fell on your arse’. Sort of like the way Friends episodes got labelled.
Today I manage to nearly get in a fight with a fellow fan. This does happen to me a tad too often for my liking. Maybe once a season. By day I’m quite a calm reflective sort of guy, but in a football ground I can be a bit accident prone.
Anyway, at West Brom there was this lad — he was berating Mario from first whistle to last. Relentlessly so. It was almost getting funny. Except it wasn’t really. It felt nasty and just an all round shit thing for a supporter to be doing towards one of his own. Obviously he felt no sympatico with Mario, but still, he had a duty to the cause to keep it shut.
I politely but firmly advised him that he really should cease with his endless misgivings and, unsurprisingly, he didn’t take my advice that well. It could have all got very out of hand but he must have thought I had menacingly stared him out as he actually backed down pretty quickly. How I’d achieved this staring contest win despite not being able to see straight is something to take away from the day. It may also have been that I had four lads with me and he was a lonesome Billy No Mates.
Coming out of the ground we manage to lose each other. Fuck knows where Paul and Neil went. We’ve been together all day and sat together for two hours, but now we manage to all get separated. Football crowds are always conducive to people losing sight of loved ones. We all practise that which we learned as children and stay close when we come out of grounds. We all but hold hands. Not today, though.
No panic. The car was parked up by The Vine and no one is forgetting where we left it. We reconvene soon enough, whinge about the 0-0 scoreline and the manager, and it being the end of days. We get in the car and head north, initially with little left to say to each other. No one’s in a party mood. Andy has a brainwave. “Tin, anyone? Small wine?” Yeah, why not. Good idea. Can’t do any harm to get back on it. So we do.
Fast forward 30 minutes and the party has restarted. No footy talk now, that’s consigned to the dustbin of ‘it’ll keep for another day’. Now we’re all about the tunes. Andy’s iPod gets plugged in and he’s bashing out the bangers. He even has the soundtrack to Frozen. We’re all word perfect to ‘Let It Go’.
Paul’s been doing all the driving — the hero — so he’s not touched a drop all day, but he still has a song in him. Especially when it comes to Disney anthems. I take Andy’s sounds off and put my playlist on, and take the whole thing to another level. By the time we’re getting to the end of the M62, two hours later, there are hands in the air to ‘Heads Will Roll’ by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The death of our Champions League qualification dream is a distant memory.
At 8pm-ish we arrive back at mine in south Liverpool. We’re parting company here like soldiers, like men, who’ve been through a tour of duty, an experience together. We embrace, drunkenly. Often we’ve overdone the physicality earlier in the act of celebrating goals — I’ve ended up rolling around a few stadium floors with Neil this season — but today we were scoreless, goalless and no one has got felt up.
It’s all good. Bye. See ya, lids. Gimme that £20 you owe me next week. No rush. You going to Chelsea? Might do, I’ll call yer. No worries man. Adios amigos. They slip off into the night — “And I’m the last person in this plane still awake.”
Pics: PA Images/David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo