LAST Sunday must have felt like familiar territory for Jürgen Klopp. A copycat 2-1 defeat with a headed winning goal for Crystal Palace at the Anfield Road End will have had the manager’s thoughts laden with déjà vu.
Swap last week’s bright spring sunshine for last November’s dank, depressing day and you have the exact same scenario. Another mass exodus, to remind Klopp of his “feeling alone” moment near the outset of his arrival in Liverpool, reinforces the battle he and his players face with Anfield’s version of the modern Premier League crowd.
Of course, many of Sunday’s premature departures are rooted in disappointment and frustration. I’ve known times when a late, result-confirming goal has seen me heading for the exits cursing all and sundry. However, by the full-time whistle only the die-hards – stood in resigned silence – remained and thousands had flooded out with the game still in the balance and as much as 10 minutes of the game left.
The sight of row upon row of empty seats was a backdrop unlikely to spur the Reds on to salvage a crucial point. An emptying stadium offers a subliminal message that the game is up and the Reds’ final efforts to escape with a draw reflected this. Surely, if you’re really into it, the desire to rescue something from the weekend should outweigh the desire to beat the traffic, get on the first bus or just be first to the bar.
What is more, leaving a football match with a chunk of time still to play is to fundamentally misunderstand the ebb and flow not just of the game, but also seasons potentially defined and shaped by vital late goals. Equally, the relish for a late equalizer seems to have gone out of fashion; with all three points the only satisfactory outcome. As soon as the prospect of victory looks out of reach, too many are content to vote with their feet and head for the hills.
Sunday fixtures are a menace at the best of times but apathy reigned from the start. Despite the club’s Champions League hopes riding on the final five matches, with the added incentive of putting one over on Sam Allardyce and a Palace side who had already won at Anfield two years running, a funereal atmosphere and an unfathomable, gathering sense of anger towards players who have performed consistently well at home this season, set the tone for a limp showing on the pitch.
It seems that despite Liverpool’s problems residing in dispatching lowly opposition, the crowd – and in turn, the team – remain sniffy at the prospect of the routine home wins against unfashionable outfits. As a club and a fan-base we need to be more humble; to recognise the worth, talent and no little intent of the opposition and their right to the points as much as ours.
Contrast Sunday’s attitude with the crackling noise accompanying the Saturday tea-time games against Spurs and Arsenal and you have a bipolar Anfield unsure of its true identity. The sight of traditional foes can still make the old ground remember itself every now and then, as though clinging for dear life to an age-old, worldwide reputation for support still matters.
However, the occasions when the home crowd recognises the need for the backing that makes a difference, and responds positively to adversity – especially against teams we’re expected to beat – are becoming few and far between.
For a newer breed, the tariff on the ticket carries with it an assumption of pre-ordained victory. And for the old brigade, ever more cynical with each passing year, the ghosts of distant triumphs and heroes taint the efforts of impressionable young players – still with it all to prove – who would long to hear the more resonant voices of their youth.
The curmudgeons and cynics would in days of yore retire to the havens of the old Main Stand and Kemlyn Road stands and while many still reside there, as many battle-weary relics who remember past glories now occupy The Kop seats; content to sit, prone to anxiety and liable to pollute what was once a youthful ambiance.
Yes, there are too many Premier League tourists inside the theme park Anfield has become, but the absence of young, infectious passion to dilute such neutrality or even inspire a more collective vibe is the critical missing link.
Alongside those who treat a pilgrimage to Liverpool like a trip to Disneyland are those who belong in home for the criminally ancient and narky. If the club were to ever entertain the idea of safe standing, or more accurately the railed seating section now being enjoyed by supporters of Glasgow Celtic, part of the challenge would be finding 3,000 supporters young and vibrant enough to stand and shout for 90 minutes.
Joking aside, the effect of a designated area for supporters whose prime motive is to add noise and personality to proceedings goes way beyond the section itself and transmits to the whole stadium. It’s fair to say many who lament and moan about Anfield’s lack of atmosphere will readily admit to being largely mute themselves.
Everyone needs something tangible to feed off and in today’s more reserved sporting society, we’re all afraid of being the embarrassing lone wolf. Responsibility for creating the noise once associated with Anfield shouldn’t rest solely with the smattering of proactive younger fans who still attend home games and the willing old stagers whose voices have seen less gravelly days.
Some of the joy of watching Liverpool in a bygone era was a sense and understanding that you were part of a movement; there to do a job. Bill Shankly’s concept of his “professional supporters” extended way beyond his own time, but too often these days it feels like swathes of the crowd see the match as a nice day out and woe betide if the afternoon gets ruined by misfortune on the pitch. When things go awry, hostility once reserved for the opposition is now recycled into abuse and impatience towards our own players and amid a pervading overall silence it makes for a poisonous mood.
In the short term, there are no obvious answers to an issue that has been around for years. But as Liverpool home in on a crucial spot in the Champions League and a status that is critical to the development of Klopp’s management, if we can at least extol the virtues of patience, positively channel some of our fears and frustrations and stick around until the final whistle, that would be a start.