THE last day of term, then. Always a strange feeling. The sense that something is ending, changing, and that life is going to be a bit different from here on in.
I’ll locate the season tickets – cleverly hidden at the back of a drawer no burglar would ever think to look in. Check there’s enough petrol in the car – imagine the stress of needing to fill up on the way to the actual game and risking lateness. Gather up my Rafa’s Liverpool FC bobble hat and scarf – I don’t wear colours but it is essential (to me) that he does. All the rituals. All the preparations for a journey.
The final game itself has changing contexts. Some years – most years – it is near meaningless, and in others – like this one – there is much riding on it. Yet, regardless, I’m always more overwhelmed by a sense of sadness and impending loss. It doesn’t come easy just putting the Reds into storage for a few months. See you, boys. So long, Anfield. Farewell to all those grounds and motorways and service stations, B roads and drive-through Maccies. Goodbye to living a life punctuated by the highs and lows of a football team’s fortunes.
It’s a weird construct, if you stop to think about it. Don’t stop to think about it.
This year, though, there is much to savour about the last weekend. Lots to anticipate. We don’t always – or even that often – arrive at the final day with something meaningful to play for. I’ll confess I’ve got mixed emotions about how much this Sunday’s game means.
If Liverpool fail to beat dreadful, dour, deservingly relegated Boro and, in turn, fail to make the top four, I’m going to be bereft. We’re all going to be bitterly disappointed. Yet, it’s hard to imagine that the converse – gaining the needed victory – will be a trigger for scenes of unbridled joy and the start of a week long party.
Maybe this is truly what much of what we seek and often glean from this sport is all about. Not so much the glory, but the avoidance of failure. Are we really just chasing relief? Release from our private – and very much contrived – hells. I think of those moments of ecstasy when a Liverpool shot and a Liverpool goal ripples the net, and I’m in the air, springing like a child, eyes creased, fists clenched, teeth baring, primally exhaling. The best of those – the ones that I feel as an instant lightening of my weight, as transfusion of my entire vascular system – that leave me perfectly spent, are the relief goals. The ones that break the tension. The ones that set you free.
Oh, that tension. Last week, the run up to the game at West Ham, was an agony and aged us all. The longest seven days. James Milner’s penalty miss at Anfield, Arsenal’s winning – first at Southampton and then at Stoke – served to ratchet up the anxiety to seriously testing levels. In the long march up that endless concourse that eventually/somehow leads into West Ham’s London Stadium, I didn’t meet a single fellow Red traveller who felt any cause for optimism.
We’re damaged goods. We’ve seen it all offered up to us and then cruelly snatched away just too many times. It’s been a while since we felt chosen. Felt like winners.
Those celebrations at West Ham, though. None of us saw 4-0 coming. None saw the return to that effortless, ruthless, free-flowing football we had gorged upon last year. The manner of this victory, the quality of those goals, the poetry in motion of key contributions from the likes of Phil Coutinho and Dan Sturridge. The relief. You could hug that relief. We hugged and kissed each other like we were living our last day on earth. Like nothing else mattered.
I didn’t see any flares, I heard few trad Liverpool FC triumphalist songs. The throng were almost too happy – too relieved – to sing. It was all smiles and jokes, and slapping of backs. Like the gang in Toy Story 3 after they’ve narrowly survived being dropped into that smelting pit. Like being reborn.
This is what we anticipate. This is what we are counting down to. Middlesbrough are but a cut-out of an opponent. They are the handsome prince who shows up at the end of Disney films. He’s faceless, unimportant, but he symbolises good news. He heralds the happy end.
Until he delivers, though. Until he shows up on that charger, or steed, or whatever heroic horses are best called, knowledge of his existence is entirely theoretical. This is you, Middlesbrough. Your shitness is our prince. Your ripeness for defeat our handsome prospect.
One last act then, in a season that has often felt like it had no limits to its potential to deliver triumph or disaster. I’m hoping Jürgen Klopp, like Snow White, has tucked his 11 dwarves – yeah, they’re all midgets compared to the mighty Jürgen – tight up in bed for best part of this week. No more late revelations of training ground strains or mishaps.
We want to see Coutinho, we want to see Bobby Firmino, we want to see Adam Lallana and Daniel, and Gini Wijnaldum and Emre Can. All the great boys. The handsome lads. One last jog round the block, Reds. Summon yourselves, find that way, free us from our madness, take us home. We’re tired of little England. We want to be Europeans once more. We want to be Liverpool once more.
The ‘last hurrah’ Liverpool 11: Mignolet; Clyne, Matip, Lovren, Milner; Can, Wijnaldum, Coutinho, Lallana; Sturridge, Origi.
Kick-Off: 3pm live on Sky Sports 1
Last Match: Middlesbrough 0 Liverpool 3
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Odds: Liverpool 1-6, Draw 17-2, Middlesbrough 30-1