APRIL 12, 1986. It was 30 years ago today.
There were many things wrong with this day and they were all my fault. Every single one. No one else’s. I could point to many things – maybe my feng shui was all over the place or my chakras weren’t balanced or something, but ultimately the blame lay at my own door. This wasn’t the time to try something new, something different. This was a big game, for God’s sake. We had to beat Coventry to keep our league challenge going and here was me playing silly buggers with the stars.
I’ve still no idea what I was playing at.
In April 1986, I was 17. Not quite a man but nothing like a child. It was probably my favourite year of my life. I was doing A Levels which meant I got to talk loudly in mobile college classrooms about Philip Larkin and could stay out all night if I wanted and, also, for the first time ever, I had a bit of cash. Not much, obviously, given the times, but I had a student grant that far exceeded the stipend I received from the paper round a couple of years earlier. What a time to be alive. Unlimited football, access to records, booze and freedom. Now I just had to worry about looking old enough to be served in pubs while at the same time trying to get the bus with a kid’s fare. I failed at both.
1985-6 was one of my favourite seasons as it was around that time that I started going properly. Pre ‘85 I’d go every now and then as the lack of money got in the way of being a regular, but now I could do consecutive games and build up a habit – the same one that’s almost bankrupted me several times since. It was a mad season. We were great and awful from one game to the next till Christmas, but we were somehow still in with a shout, fighting a much better side in Everton and, strangely, West Ham.
Then came that run. That one.
A plug here for Mike Nevin and Gary Shaw’s book, On The March With Kenny’s Army, which tells the story of this season in forensic detail. If you haven’t read it, it’s an encyclopaedic look at what happened on and off the pitch that year and it’s brilliant. I leaf through it occasionally to see if I can remember anything specific about any particular games, but I don’t need it for this one. I remember everything about Liverpool 5 Coventry 0.
The context, then. We ‘re top of the league on goal difference from Everton and have just made it to the FA Cup final thanks to two extra time goals against Southampton a week earlier. We know we’ll play Everton as they’ve just seen off Sheffield Wednesday at Villa Park. West Ham are in on this league battle too and will batter Newcastle 8-1 before the month is out.
On this day, when Coventry arrive at Anfield, Everton travel to Arsenal – never an easy task, given they beat us 2-0 at Highbury in December. The footballing Gods are surely going to make them struggle too. West Ham are at home to Oxford United and everyone can beat them. Ahem.
So, it’s a big game this. Coventry are hovering above the bottom of the league but will win the Cup next year. Despite the League position, their squad is gradually settling into something. Dave Bennet, Trevor Peake, Killer Kilcline (think Darren Peacock with a police record) all start and an ageing Alan Brazil takes his place up front – a grateful public blissfully unaware for his future assault on the nation’s airwaves. Yes, a very big day indeed and one where I’ve chosen to stamp repeatedly on the toes of the Fates and asked what it plans to do about it.
It’s packed too, as you’d expect it to be. Not just because of the League, but because there are rumours of the club releasing the Cup Priority Vouchers today and that means something. Voucher day. If you’re new to all this, then let me explain.
When the Kop was a standing terrace the club had no idea who was in the ground so had no way of determining who qualified for a Cup final ticket and who didn’t. So, a few weeks before the final they would hand out vouchers on the turnstiles as you entered. On the tickets would appear a serial number. Days later they would announce that if your number ended in, say, a 1 or a 6 you qualified to buy a Cup final ticket for the sum of £6. Yes, seriously. Six whole pounds. Still twice the admission price of a standing Kop ticket, but not enough for you to moan about it. Anyway, I think those were the lucky numbers on this occasion but couldn’t swear to it. I’m not Rain Man, for God’s sake.
So, yes, you could go to almost every game as a standing supporter, miss one single game and be effectively kiboshed. Tough luck. Equally, you could walk into the ground for the first time ever, get your slip and exit without even making it to the terrace and still have a ticket that was more golden and shiny than Charlie Bucket’s from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Fair and equitable, I’m sure you’d agree.
So, to recap. I was looking for a win, ideally with substantial goal difference, a Cup voucher AND a winning serial number all on the same day. Not asking much, was I? Results were mixed. I didn’t succeed with the latter and it’s hardly surprising given my heinous crime that day.
I decided to break with tradition and choose a new place to stand on the Kop and a new gate to go through. Not my usual speck, not my usual point of entry.
Doesn’t sound much, does it? What difference can that make? Nevertheless I guarantee that there are people of a certain age and disposition out there who have just gasped at that intelligence. For months I was a strict ‘left of the goal in line with the penalty box’ and ‘entry through the Kop turnstile behind The Albert’ sort of man. Stoical, if you know what I mean. The sort of lad who gets the job done. Nothing showy. We’d done well because of this sensible approach too, as we hadn’t lost in the League since the Derby in February and I couldn’t get a ticket for that so can’t be blamed, yet here I was openly and flagrantly getting in at the flagpole end of the ground and standing near the Kop/Kemlyn corner flag. It’s a wonder we won anything that season. Send all rotten fruit this way.
We were late too. Oh, we made kick off easily, but we hadn’t heard George announce the teams. I liked to be in by 1.30pm and standing in a perfect spec in front of a crash/crush barrier, just in time to be shoved out of the way 90 minutes later by more heavyset men. On this day I would have been in a couple of minutes before kick-off.
Karma is coming though.
We had a corner ten yards from my new area and I looked up in time to see one of our lads place the ball in the quadrant. I can’t see his head but the large number 7 on a blood red shirt tells me who it is.
I get all cocky.
“GO ‘ED, WALSHY!”, I roar.
I’m on my own and the people near me have fallen silent.
The laughter starts in front of me. There’s no room but people are finding enough to turn around and look at me. I’d describe their expressions as ‘confused joy’. I frown. I’m only supporting the club and the player. What’s wrong with that?
The player straightens up. The mane of blonde hair which usually cascades down the nape of his neck and onto to his narrow shoulders has disappeared. Has Paul Walsh cut his hair? He has not. He is still blonde but his hair is shorter. He has become a little smaller and a little older. He has become Kenny Dalglish. There were rumours that Walsh would be back for this one and we could put him in to save the old man’s legs. I took a chance, okay?
I’m fair game for the rest of the match. One lad asks me which team are Coventry and which are Liverpool. Another explains that Grobbelaar is wearing a different shirt colour as he’s the goalkeeper and can handle the ball. Yet another tries to put my mate Chee in a headlock to negotiate a separation between he and his Priority Voucher. He stank and all. If you could solidify lager into a stock cube, he smelt of it. In any case, I answer all with a grumpy two-word salvo.
As it turns out, the Sky Blues with the picture of an elephant on their badge (never quite understood that) are no match for the Reds and it’s all over after half an hour. By then Ronnie Whelan had bagged two and were knocking it around, waiting for the points. Jan Molby added to them before Rush got his usual goal and Whelan completed his hatrick late in the game. By then the crowd had grown a little weary of the contest and of reminding me that, you’ll never guess, Kenny Dalglish was also our manager and not just a player.
All thoughts and radios turned to Highbury to see how the other lot were doing. They won 1-0. Adrian Heath. West Ham had won 3-1. No ground had been gained but that goal difference might help.
The Ev had a Tuesday game at Watford too. We were to play Luton Town on their bouncy castle of a pitch 24 hours later. West Ham? Chelsea at home. Everton were going top, weren’t they?
Yes, they were.
We went home with vouchers and points in tact though my dignity and Chee’s neck had taken a bit of a beating. That was alright though. This was just something you learn as you get older. This is just a rite of passage.
I suspect Ronnie Whelan had a better day of it than I did though.
Picture: Tony Holland