ONE of my oldest and bestest friends is from Swansea.
I met my friend — let’s call him Ross — when we were both fresh faced 18 year olds dropped into mid-80s Liverpool as undergraduates at Liverpool University. I think Ross was originally studying Electrical Engineering and I was doing History.
Ross was from a place just outside of Swansea called Mumbles. I’ve always amused myself — and only myself — that if Ross had been a famous footballer, and his hometown had been a famous team that he actually played for, that underneath the picture of him in the Figurine Panini sticker book it would have stated, simply and starkly — Ross Williams Mumbles.
Ross wasn’t interested in “soccer” in any way shape or form. Ross called it “soccer”, for starters. Not ironically, and not in a posh way or an American way, but in a Welsh way. I’ve come across this from other Welsh people I’ve encountered down the years. There’s rugby and then there’s soccer. No football required.
Ross wasn’t at all interested in soccer but he liked a night out. Or, more specifically, he hated a night in. During our time co-habiting while we attended Liverpool University, I look back on our friendship then, and think among the variety of things we found in common, the most practically applicable was our mutual detestation of staying in.
Other friends we co-habited with would do what normal students tended to do then (and I suspect they still do now), which was to go out three to four nights a week. Ross and me were a touch too restless to be sated by these half measures. I’m not saying we were party animals, or were up late every night — far far from it, four pints down the pub between 8 and 10pm counted as a night out — but I think we both couldn’t ever just let the day peter out. It had to have one last hurrah, however token.
One midweek night in March 1986, Ross was so bored that he consented to going to a match at Anfield with me to watch “bloody soccer” rather than having to endure an evening in with just his soul for company.
The game was Watford at home in the FA Cup.
I didn’t know it then, and Ross wouldn’t have given a shit if he’d know it then, but Kenny’s mighty red army were en-route to double-winning destiny.
We started early. We got a bus to town from our hall of residence in Mossley Hill, south Liverpool with a view to later catching another bus from outside St George’s Hall to Anfield.
We broke the journey by going to the Legs of Man pub at the foot of London Road (don’t look for it kids, it ain’t there any more).
We had two pints, got our scarves and coats, had pisses, and walked back out into a cold black Liverpool night.
We had barely stepped foot back onto London Road when two lads were suddenly in our faces. They were older than us and bigger than us, and they weren’t students. They’d clearly seen more of life than us, and looked like they’d seen more action than us.
“You beat up my brother!” the taller one roared at me.
I was like, excuse me, what are you talking about, I haven’t beat up anyone’s brother. Or anyone’s anything for that matter. I’m not a beaty-up kinda guy. I didn’t say that last bit, but I thought that by my demeanour it would be self evident.
His mate chimed in. “Our little brother is just up there,” pointing up London Road. “Let him see ya, and if he says it wasn’t yoose then ok.”
The aggression in the delivery was at a level that being offered this compromise seemed only a good thing.
So, like fools in the night, 18-year-old me and 18-year-old Ross walked up a dark London Road, flanked by two highly agitated and threatening sentries. They marched us a good way before demanding that we turn right into what I think was Copperas Hill.
The streets were getting narrower and the light scarcer.
By the time we were urged to turn into what I reckon was probably the pre-refurbished — then semi derelict — Bullring tenement complex, I was getting the distinct feeling that this was not going to play out well.
I wanted to turn and leg it. Back to the Legs of Man. I needed Ross to be on board with this idea but he was being man marked by his guard and I couldn’t communicate with him. If I bolted, I might surprise them and get away, but Ross would have been left to his fate, and that didn’t feel right. I’m sure he was having the same thoughts about me.
So onwards into that dereliction and that darkness we were marched. Like a scene in The Wire, when you know it’s going to end terribly for the prisoners. Inevitably there came a moment when it became time for action. Our aggressors forced the issue. They grabbed Ross and me in a lightning quick, almost choreographed motion, which ended up with both Ross and I positioned, side by side, with these big nasty angry lads behind us, holding blades to our throats.
I felt perversely relieved. At least the waiting was over. The bad thing anticipated was now actually happening. This wasn’t the end, but it had to be the beginning of it. For better or for worse.
“Give us all the money you’ve got,” they demanded.
Another major relief. That was a request I could assist with, swiftly and efficiently. My lad let me get my wallet from my pocket, before snatching the whole thing from me. There was a tenner in it, and he seemed glad of that. At that precise moment I think we were very much on the same page. He wanted my tenner and I wanted him to have my tenner.
Ross from Swansea also had his wallet and accompanying tenner lifted, too. We were then asked — again quite rudely — to sit down and take our shoes off. This development was a bit troubling as I couldn’t work out what the purpose was here. Was this to be the precursor to some sort of kneeling based forced sex act? That would have been a disappointing denouement.
Our trainees were then picked up and the two textbook muggers backed away in preparation for flight. No sex acts.
“Don’t try and follow us and don’t think about telling the bizzies!” my one implored as they began to turn to leave.
I wanted to reassure that there was a) no chance — none — that we would be following them, and b) that I wouldn’t be so gauche as to grass them up to the bizzies, but the words wouldn’t come.
What I did hear myself say was, “Can we have the tickets for the match back, please, you don’t need them.”
In a moment that I reflect upon as being truly touching, we were shown mercy. Our Liverpool v Watford FA Cup Quarter Final 1986 tickets were returned to us. I say returned, more screwed up and chucked on to the dirt, but still.
Ross and I were alone. In a derelict building. Stars visible through a gaping roof. Shoeless. Walletless. Alive. Not dead.
With tickets for the Liverpool V Watford FA Cup quarter final of 1986.
I felt like we were 3-0 up already. Very much alive. Not dead.
Things were getting better and better. Ross spotted our trabs a few yards from where they’d parted company with us. 4-0. Not shoeless. Not dead. With match tickets.
Ross didn’t seem as elated as me. He was from Mumbles near Swansea and he felt he could have had them if they been prepared to battle like men, with fists not swords.
“Ok,” I says. “Let’s go the match!”
Ross looked at me, confused, angry, frustrated. “What?”
“Let’s go the match! We aren’t that late. We’ll miss kick-off, but still…”
He’d definitely heard me. He just didn’t understand me. As I didn’t understand him.
To Ross from Mumbles near Swansea, getting out, not staying in, that thing we did, it didn’t apply now. He’d just had a knife to his throat. His evening had been eventful enough. He needed some quality reflection time. He needed a sit down and a stiff drink. Maybe a not unreasonable cry.
I was alive, not dead. I had shoes, a match ticket, and Liverpool had an FA Cup quarter-final to win.
So it came to pass that I convinced the dazed and confused Ross that by going to the game, despite our set back, that we weren’t letting them win. We would be winners tonight. Us and the Reds.
We went to the game. Liverpool didn’t win. It was a very poor game and a 0-0 earned a replay against the Watford of Elton John, Graham Taylor and John Barnes. That’s what the record shows.
I confess I didn’t really enjoy or engage with any aspect of the game. Ross from Swansea and me sat side by side in The Paddock and didn’t speak a word for 90 minutes.
Football, for once, didn’t seem very important. I’d never known that feeling before. It was always so important to me. I didn’t like it not feeling important. I felt a sense of loss. I never wanted that to happen to me again.
It next happened to me next just three years later. In 1989. A day, that became a week, that became a month, in which football didn’t seem very important.
It happened again to me this week. The feeling still hasn’t quite passed. I’m sure it will.
I’m glad I’ve exorcised this even if it will disappoint anyone who hoped for even the suggestion of an insight into Liverpool’s forthcoming Premier League game against Swansea City. It’s helped me. Those were crazy times. Living in Liverpool in the 1980s. I met a core of people who came to be very important to me. I had some life-altering experiences. I watched so much good football.
I’m very glad I met Ross from Swansea. He’s quietly become a lifelong friend. He inadvertently tried to show me that football (“soccer”) can’t always be the most important thing in life. There are times when it needs to step aside.
Not always. Just sometimes.
The Liverpool team to play Swansea City: Ward; Randall, Skrtel, Ilori, Smith; Stewart, Brannagan; Ibe, Firmino, Ojo; Sturridge.