“IN football, the hero and legend status is given out far too easily for me.” – Steven Gerrard
IN 2008 I was invited to the Merseyside Supporters Group Christmas dinner at Anfield. I, along with a couple of mates, went along expecting a nice meal and a few cold drinks to summon in the festive period.
The organiser, Les, met us at the front door and told us we were ‘in that room on the end’. We looked at our fellow guests heading in the opposite direction and going up the stairs, but he continued pointing at the door. Bit odd, we thought, but fell in with his wishes. We went into the room to find two dozen or so people in suits sat around tables or congregating at a small bar in the corner. It was clearly a private area — and Les had been good enough to give us entry to some sort of exclusive club.
Exclusive indeed. To our left sat Steven Gerrard, being uncharacteristically loud and rambunctious with his mates. He was engaged in a conversation with Alan Hansen, who was stood at the bar along with Jimmy Case. Alan Kennedy was on a different table talking to some of his mates while, elsewhere, David Fairclough chatted to Gary Gillespie. It looked like you needed to win a European Cup just to get into the room.
A few months earlier, we’d got to know George Sephton when we organised a charity night at Anfield that George hosted. It turns out that we went to the same school, albeit decades apart, so we fell into an easy, nostalgic revelry. He had been good enough to record my voicemail message which I still have to this day (‘Not answering this phone is number five — Karl Coppack’). Anyway, George was sat with his wife and noticed the three of us standing in the doorway, feigning nonchalance in this most palatial of surroundings. He invited us over and we gratefully accepted. If not we would have had to make do with sitting on the edge of Fernando Torres’ table It was that sort of room.
We had a chat with George, though it must have been difficult for him as our eyes were darting around the room while we muttered, ‘Jesus, look over there! It’s…’ every couple of minutes. Gary Gillespie came over at one point to talk to George and said hello to us. I think we gibbered in reply. Meanwhile, Pepe Reina walked past in jeans and what looked like an old gardening jumper. We were suited and booted. Dressed to the nines. He looked like he’d been clearing out the shed, but still looked a million times better than anyone else.
Eventually we were summoned upstairs for the meal along with everyone else. Ten minutes later, the glitterati were introduced to thunderous applause. Pepe, Fernando and Stevie stayed for about an hour as they had training in the morning, but the rest of the ex-players hung about signing autographs. I got to speak to Jimmy Case about Ray Kennedy and managed not to bore him too much (I think). We had a fairly surreal chat with Jay Spearing and Stephen Darby and even managed a whole conversation with Alan Kennedy.
But there was one man I just couldn’t approach.
I’ve been lucky enough to meet a few ex-players — some I really like, some I can’t stand — but I’m at the stage of my life where I see them as people rather than demi-gods. As you get older your heroes become mortal and the childlike adoration wanes into something else, where a chance encounter is caught between awe and ‘oh, this should be interesting’. They’re just ordinary human beings after all.
But there was that one man. He was about 12 feet from me. Salt and pepper hair, grey suit, lopsided tie. Him, not me. I hadn’t noticed him in the other bar, which was odd as I’d wondered if he might be there. I wanted to go over and at least thank him for what he’d done for the club, but I didn’t have it in me. I simply lacked the courage to say hello to Ian Callaghan.
I mean, what do you say? ‘Tell me everything about your entire Liverpool career in the 20 seconds we’ve got together, please, Ian, while signing everything I’ve ever owned. Thanks. It’s Karl with a ‘K’, not a ‘C’’? Yet, there he was. 857 appearances Ian Calllaghan. The man who was at Liverpool just four months after Bill Shankly took over. What’s more he was being approached by well-wishers and didn’t seem to be the least bit put out by the general public. Oh, I was happy and honoured to talk to the likes of Hansen and Gillespie but Cally was on a different plinth in my mind. I just couldn’t do it. I’ve both regretted and been relieved at my reticence.
Heroes are great when you’re a kid. If they’ve worn the shirt that you yourself would kill to wear, they’re already worthy of being gawped at in the street. If they’ve achieved success at the club, then even more so. Growing up in the 70s and 80s meant that practically everyone at the club was a legend. The club administrators were as important as Phil Neal as they got to talk to Kevin Keegan whenever they wanted. The groundsman got to tell Phil Thompson to stay off the grass once it had been re-seeded. Just talk to him like he was normal. I was jealous of that sort of world and would have done everything to be a part of it.
Imagine working in the club canteen and being privy to the information that Larry Lloyd doesn’t like cabbage, that sort of thing. I once saw Craig Johnston bollock a driver for backing out of the Main Stand car park without checking his mirrors and subsequently nearly running over some kids. Craig roared at him. I thought that that driver was the luckiest man alive. He could go home and tell his wife and children that today Craig Johnston had called him a ‘f***ing idiot’. The jammy bastard.
There’s a bit of debasement where this is concerned. They’re only footballers. Not quite ‘hyperion to a satyr’ so maybe dropping to your knees and announcing that you’re not worthy at the mere sight of them is a bit much, but it’s something you could just fall into. In his latest autobiography, Stephen Fry tells the tale of standing in line next to the magician Penn Jillette, from the duo Penn and Teller, during a Royal Command performance or some such while waiting for Prince Charles to appear.
Jillette told Fry that he wouldn’t genuflect to any royal as, being American, he found the concept of the monarchy to be distasteful. He wasn’t going to bow or curtsey or whatever. What’s more he wasn’t going to festoon him with archaic titles and greetings. Just a hello, nothing more. Fry assured him that he wasn’t required to do anything at all if he didn’t want to. A simple handshake would suffice. Of course, when the royal approached Jillette practically threw himself to the ground, calling him ‘Your majestic highness’ and ‘Your Royal sir’ as the urge to bow and scrape seized his body. He was later to be found with his head in his hands, wondering what the hell had just happened.
Prince Charles didn’t even play in Rome in 1977. What chance did I stand with Ian Callaghan?
Cynicism about such things builds with age. It’s hard to believe that today’s eight year olds are looking at the current squad and feeling the same way I did in 1976, but they are. For Emlyn Hughes and Ian Callaghan read Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho — men who, as yet, haven’t won a thing with this club. Last season I took my niece to her first Liverpool game. On the drive up I asked her which Liverpool players she wanted to see the most. ‘Daniel Sturridge, Mario Balotelli and Danny Welbeck.’ Still work to be done there.
Now that Steven Gerrard has gone the hero game is harder to play. It seems like the end of an era. Players no longer stay at their clubs for decades and build themselves into the fabric of the club as they once did. Furthermore, the days of the Scouser in the first team are also on the wane it seems, so who do the local fans get behind? Who represents them on the pitch?
If the Sterling pantomime has taught us anything it’s that players don’t feel the sense of belonging as they once did or, more to the point, as we do. That’s not them being disloyal as such, merely an example of players making a progressive career rather than being tied to one ideal. Signing-on fees, agents and the whole host of image rights etc. mean that it’s always an attractive option to move about. Younger fans can’t build a hero on such quicksand.
For the older fan, it isn’t made any easier when the player becomes a pundit. I’m still a little bit heartbroken at Mark Lawrenson’s switch from elegant defender to a shit Jack Dee, while the once peerless Graeme Souness became fallible in 1992. Equally, I feel a little bit down by Didi Hamann for revealing that he too is human and subject to opinions with which I disagree. You don’t want your heroes to be anything other than the perfect representation you’ve built in your mind and for that they have to be hidden from view so they don’t have the chance to dull the shine of their glory.
Then there’s the media training that accompanies the game. The Roy Evans interviews on The Anfield Wrap were particularly interesting in this regard as he stated the importance of character and likeability in the great sides of the 70s. Emlyn Hughes wouldn’t be singing ‘Liverpool are magic, Everton are tragic’ today without a disrepute charge following close by. I loved him for that. Absolutely loved him. For a brief moment he wasn’t a Liverpool captain. He was one of us having a go at one of them. We were all pulling in the same remorseless Red direction and loving it.
The other day I watched Sky interview a Bournemouth player about the disallowed goal and the offside that cost his team a dream result. The lad played a straight bat to every question, despite the right of indignation.
How safe, how boring, how briefed.
If that were me I’d be grabbing the camera with both hands and spraying spittle on to the screen. I’m sure the lad felt like doing the same but, again, it goes against a charter somewhere. If he had gone to town no doubt his fans would have carried him around the streets on their shoulders for telling it like it is. You want that. A bit of heart. You want a bit of badinage with your rivals, a bit of needle. We love them for it.
Not being an eight year old it’s hard to say who the heroes are today. Are they even needed? Do we have someone to look up to now that Gerrard has gone? James Milner has won titles but he’s not ours — not yet.
Sturridge is a likeable lad and a great striker but we haven’t seen enough of him recently, so who do we call our new Gods? I’d like to think that they exist in someone’s mind somewhere. I hope that kids are looking forward to the day when they can bore Jordan Henderson at a dinner but can’t bring themselves to do it due to sheer nerves. I hope so. Meeting people who can do things that you can’t is a great thing. I hope this tradition continues. It’s one of the best things about the game.
No more heroes? What a shame that would be.
Pics: PA Images & David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo