WHENEVER you hear stories of a person’s first game. they usually follow a similar pattern.
Dad/uncle/older brother took you along after you’d been nagging at them to do so for ages; you got a programme as a souvenir; a half-time pie that reached temperatures you didn’t know existed; and it probably would have been an otherwise forgettable game had it not been your first.
My story sort of follows that pattern, but then sort of doesn’t.
I’d only really been bitten by the football bug about 18 months earlier, the start of the 93/94 season. I vaguely remember having a moan at Dad during the 92 FA Cup final because the Reds winning was getting in the way of me watching ninja turtles leaping about. That might have been what set the wheels in motion a year later when he took me and my brother along to our local side, Crawley Town, then of the Beazer Homes League.
It worked to be fair. They played as badly as you’d expect and lost 2-0 to Chelmsford, but live footy was great. It was the business, I’d decided.
Dad got us season tickets for the 94/95 season. Something like £20, for over 20 Saturdays of footy watching. I’d gone from throwing a wobbly at being denied cartoons by the cup final, to desperately looking forward to going down to Town Mead (Crawley’s old ground) and watching David Speedie putting off retirement up against the likes of Gresley Rovers and Atherstone United in front of 400 people.
Dad thought it was important that we followed our local side, but also that we share his love for all things Liverpool. He was born and raised in Tuebrook, then married a girl from Old Swan who would later go on to be my mum, and then as every good Scouser does, moved down south so he could tell them all how great Liverpool is.
Then I was born, raised by Scouse parents among southerners. By the time I got into footy properly I was surrounded by mates who mainly supported Arsenal, Chelsea (yes, even then), Manchester United and, for a season at least, Blackburn.
Dad had to act quickly. My brother had shown an early admiration for Arsenal, while I was glancing over at Chelsea. It wasn’t for any particular reason other than they were sponsored by Amiga, which I thought was pretty funny. He did his fatherly duty and nipped that in the bud right away, and before we knew it we were cheering on Graeme Souness and his below average Reds, albeit mostly via the radio.
By the time the Souness reign was over and Roy Evans had come in, we were well established in our footy preferences. Liverpool was our be all and end all, while Crawley was our regular supply of live games.
That we lived 250 miles from Anfield and that tickets (according to Dad) were so hard to come by meant seeing the Reds in person would have to remain a distant dream for now, but listening to Alan Green describe Robbie Fowler’s latest screamer on Sports Report on the way home from Town Mead was just as good.
One day he came in from work with an ‘I know something you don’t know’ grin on his face. He explained that a friend of his was able to get tickets for Chelsea v Liverpool at Stamford Bridge, but couldn’t use them, so gave them to Dad. We were going to a Liverpool game. Nearby eardrums were attacked by my screams of delight.
There were two things about these tickets though, he explained. The game was scheduled for December 30, a time when we’d actually be in Liverpool visiting family, so we’d have to get a coach down on the Saturday morning, and then a coach back straight after the game.
The other thing was the tickets themselves. They weren’t in the away end, or even the home end. They were in the directors’ area.
We arrived well in time for kick-off, and all of a sudden Town Mead seemed a bit small and, well, shit. The smell of onions from the burger vans filled the nostrils. Dad didn’t buy us one though, as we were going to get a meal before the game in the ground.
We went through the posh doors and were shown up a posh staircase. As we made our way up, I bumped into a man in a massive coat making his way down. Dad would later reveal that it was none other than John Motson who I’d nearly headbutted in the groin.
We were taken into a dining area and sat at a big table. There were loads of big tables. Being new to the football world, and having failed to recognise Motty, it was no surprise that I also failed to recognise the two gentlemen sat on the table next to ours. Another of dad’s friends from work was there, and they’d been chatting and looking over at these two other guys for a few minutes. Dad lent over to my brother and said: “See there? That’s Ken Bates and Matthew Harding.” My brother looked impressed. I looked confused. “Who?”
Once we’d eaten, we were taken through to our seats and although it wasn’t the ‘ascending the stairs to see the pitch for the first time’ moment people usually experience, it was still something to behold. A real-life footy stadium, and the Reds were in it.
As we took our seats, Dad warned us that we were sat among some very high-up people at Chelsea, so to be on our best behaviour. It wasn’t too hard to stay quiet as John Spencer gave them the lead in the ninth minute.
It was a strange Chelsea team, in that transition between having random players you only knew from Panini sticker albums, and filling their team with reputable foreign types. Ruud Gullit and Dan Petrescu were joined by Dimitri Kharine, David Lee, Andy Dow and Paul Furlong.
Liverpool was filled with stars. Steve McManaman, John Barnes, Stan Collymore and Fowler, with Mark Kennedy and Stephen Pears on the bench (okay, maybe not ‘filled’).
Just after the half-hour mark, McManaman whacks in the equaliser. I don’t remember what my reaction was, but I do remember a suitably embarrassed looking dad and a number of angry Blues in suits looking round at me.
Those same faces turned around with their own glee when Spencer made it 2-1 just before half-time. I was only nine, and here were grown men in suits giving it the “You’re shit – aaah!” at me. Any fondness I’d once felt towards Chelsea had well and truly evaporated.
It was ultimately worth it though, as McManaman spanked in an even better goal in the second half to equalise again, and even dad struggled to contain himself. The three of us jumped and cheered alone in that directors’ area as if it were our own little Kop.
It finished 2-2, and Macca was my hero.
We travelled back up on the coach, brother and Dad chatting about the game all the way, me fast asleep dreaming of being Steve McManaman.
We’d recorded Match of the Day and dad spent the following morning in front of my nan’s telly trying to spot us in the crowd. “There we are!” Just three random blurry dots, but we let him have his moment.
It wasn’t Anfield, but I’d had my first taste of Liverpool live. They’d played well, scored a couple of great goals, though the win had eluded them.
Two days later, Dad said: “Right lads, get your coats. We’re off to Anfield”, before producing tickets to Liverpool v Nottingham Forest. Once again, sore eardrums for all around.
No coach journey, no fancy seats (back of the Annie Road End), no pre-match meal, no rubbing shoulders with chairmen, directors, commentators, and 2-0 down after 18 minutes.
I’d had the moment though. Before the game, ascending the stairs to see the Anfield pitch for the first time. It was that professional grass that Bill Shankly had promised. Suddenly, Stamford Bridge didn’t seem all that impressive.
Steve Stone and Ian Woan (who I’m hoping went on to open their own detective agency after they retired from the game) had given Forest an early two-goal advantage. Then Fowler, Fowler, Collymore and a Colin Cooper OG gave the Reds a 4-2 win.
What a day, what a three days. From no top level live footy to 180 minutes of it in three days. Well and truly hooked.
Living so far away and the nightmare of phoning the club for tickets (more than one broken redial button) meant only getting to games on special occasions, but Dad did what he could. We usually got to Anfield at least a couple of times a season, though usually in the back row restricted views of the Annie Road End. We even managed to wangle the same posh tickets again for Chelsea away the following season, but a sole Roberto Di Matteo goal ruined that day.
Dad passed away four years ago, and since then my brother and I have been to hundreds of games to see Liverpool, Crawley, Tranmere, England, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, AC Milan and numerous others, but to this day I can’t take in that scent of burger van onions or hear Motty’s commentary without thinking of Dad and the day he cemented our love of footy and the Reds.
I also can’t see a Chelsea home defeat without wishing I was back in that director’s area, doing my best “You’re shit – aaah!”