IF you still love your football, the first weekend of a new season holds a special charm.
One of my favourite books, Hunter Davies’ The Glory Game (written about Tottenham Hotspur during 1971-2) brilliantly evokes the pre season sense of renewal; the excited chatter and bustle of the gnarly old pros and coltish apprentices alike. He revels in the clatter of studs on concrete, the sweet smell of freshly cut grass and, in those older times, the whiff of newly-painted sheds on the training ground.
Though football’s brief flirtation with summer always seems a little incongruous – before the lengthy slog and dark of winter sets in – sunshine, brightness and a uniquely pristine green field of play are hopeful metaphors for the unfettered dreams of a new campaign.
It will probably piss down at Watford on Saturday but you get the gist.
The blank league table is always worth at least one glance, with The Reds alphabetically hovering around eighth place. The last time Liverpool finished outside the top eight in the top flight, in 1953-4, they were relegated. So, for the modern Liverpool it is always onwards – and especially upwards – from here. This is the time of year for Kopites to fixate on 100 per cent records, and hope those virginal draws and defeats columns, for as long as possible, cling to their chastity.
Immediate thoughts of the opening day take me back to the blinding Anfield glare of West Brom at home in 1982, my first year as a season-ticket holder.
The sweeping hood of the old Kop roof and the shadow cast over its expectant number inside made everything out in front of us seem brighter – at 15 years old not least the future; but also the gleaming pitch, the monstrous tin of Crown Paints (most probably gloss) in the centre circle and in particular, the shiny red shirts of those pin-striped city gents – Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Alan Hansen. Two-nil to the Reds and, as early as game one, a hopeful toast to “another championship season”.
This weekend, of course, we’re on our travels and more memories flood back.
Scuffles on The Clock End at Highbury in when John Barnes said “hello” and Steve Nicol nodded home from 20 odd yards.
Escaping a Barnes Travel coach furnace en route to Middlesbrough, only to see Roy Evans’ cavaliers denied by The White Feather – a Fabrizio Ravanelli hat trick.
The appropriate leaden skies and drizzle over Titi Camara’s Hillsborough.
Back in the warmth and the light, three times to Villa Park and tops off for John Arne Riise, Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge.
For all my nostalgia though, and most probably because of it, Liverpool FC is now the country’s leading club for tradition over trophies. It has begun to market itself thus. It is hardly the elephant in the room because we talk about it non stop but we haven’t been champions for 27 years.
The club trumpets its international renditions of You’ll Never Walk Alone – this summer from Hong Kong, Germany and Dublin – and lauds its ever-growing fan base. This vain quest for Liverpool’s Holy Grail only serves to endlessly fascinate and enlist new red recruits to the global powerhouse that is the Premier League.
It’s fair to say that the formerly romantic, newly-cynical among us are asking “when are we going to harness the ackers from this distant, somewhat tenuous, but lucrative support and win the fucking league?” Jürgen Klopp asked himself again this week, after the assembling of Irish Red throng in Dublin, “God, how big is this club?”
Only Manchester United – newly enhanced by Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic – share the same numbers abroad combined with insanely high TV revenues. Unlike at Anfield though, there’s no requirement for justification from Old Trafford or Jose Mourinho of the difficulty getting the big transfer deals done. The apologists speak of Liverpool now shopping in a higher quality, more complex market but elsewhere I see our rivals’ targets available and already on the roster.
This summer has been a microcosm of Liverpool FC’s erratic behaviour in recent years. After the frugality of three consecutive transfer windows under Klopp, a bold promise – leaked to the usual sources – of a £200m spend just hasn’t materialised.
We all know the ins and outs of the Virgil van Dijk saga – and he’ll probably still end up at Anfield – but the need to apologise to Southampton was rooted in over eagerness to announce a deal not yet done. We were all too keen to publicly herald a costly transfer and buck the narrative of those hitherto thrifty trends.
When the club, faced with fans’ frustration, used social media to announce the transfer of Mohamed Salah from AS Roma, it was a very modern and admittedly slick piece of PR, but it also smacked of an unnecessary riposte to our own supporters. We might be a pain in the arse sometimes with our raised expectations and lust for success and/or new players – though I would remind of the clandestine reveal on £200m war chests – but we’re the fans, not the enemy.
Aside from the prudent addition of Scotland’s Andrew Robertson from Hull City, and the very promising Dominic Solanke from Chelsea, that is that, so far. Except to note and lament the column inches wasted during the vain pursuit of the unavailable Naby Keita and the Merseyside press pack’s painting of RB Leipzig’s Ralf Rangnick as some sort of German Dick Dastardly, shouting “nicht zu verkaufen” at the top of his voice.
No wonder old Kloppo, realising seaside trysts on the Fylde coast are more suited to a Rita Fairclough dalliance in Corrie than for meeting Dutch centre halves, resorted to strapping a brolly to his bonce and drinking espressos upside down on his sunlounger.
Charmingly insane already, the boss hasn’t quite started wearing his underpants on his head and sticking pencils up his nose, but we need to keep an eye on him. Surely it’s just a ruse to suggest James Milner is as good as a new midfielder and Alberto Moreno is “100 per cent back”. I just hope he means Albie has returned from his lobotomy reversal.
In the absence of van Dijk, Klopp shouldn’t need to backtrack and insist that Joe Gomez and Ragnar Klavan are adequate cover at centre half. Football might well be a lie but lesser men have been caned for such talk.
Finally, in the face of Catalonian overtures now we’ve got Tom, John and the sundry invisible Michaels serenading our lovely Phil Coutinho – he of the dropped shoulders, body swerves and feints – with Johnny Logan’s 1980 plaintive Eurovision smash, “Just Another Year”.
For those of us who have been around far too long in this game, that is all it is – just another year.
Happily, we’re not completely immune to the sunshine a new season brings; regardless of the opening day weather. The eyes aren’t quite as sharp as they once were but I can still smell and intoxicate myself on the grass. Just another year, without question, but never rule out “our year”; a notion that invites our rivals’ mockery but sustains all of us save for those who are stone cold inside.
Another jolly nine months of enjoying the smiles and drinking with the same old faces in the same old places. As the late Glen Campbell once crooned, we’ve “been walking these streets so long, singing the same old songs”. Perhaps we should replace You’ll Never Walk Alone with Rhinestone Cowboy just to shake the place up a bit.
For all that irks about football morphing into business and the modern way the club presents itself; in spite of ourselves, we are still Liverpool, the shirts are still red, the majestic liver bird still adorns.
I’ll just ignore “the world’s greatest football family” and remind myself I’m one of Shanks’ Red Army. I can still get off at Fulham Broadway for Chelsea or scale the steps of The Kop in a new pair of trabs and a boss winter coat. Much of the old fun still resides, even if many friends have fallen by the wayside.
Last season, while in reflective mode, I realised when Liverpool score on the road, you still feel the same joy for yourself but also for your kids watching it on Sky, or for your old dad who might need cheering up at home. The same goes for the thousands and thousands who live so near, can reach out so far but seldom touch what is rightfully theirs.
Nay matter; leave the young lads to their ket wigs, wheelies, waterproof kecks and 110s – and watching in the alehouse with Uncle Pete and Frank from Fazak.
Hope springs eternal.
Despite not (yet) securing van Dijk, not looking at alternatives to Keita, and spending commensurate with Europa League piggy banks over title-winning war chests, The Reds can sting anyone on their day. Salah is lightning quick; like shit off a shovel. Sadio Mane could be anything this season. Captain Jordan Hendo (as clean cut a 2017 superhero as you can get) is fit again. Solanke could be a total wildcard while Sturridge has done nothing but bathe in Radox and feast on apricots and brandy since May.
In Ben Woodburn, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Ryan Kent, Klopp is fortunate to have three gems to fulfil the whole notion of development.
There’s this old Mancunian bookmaker, Fred Done – or BetFred as he’s known to the online community. Every year, moneybags Fred sees the Scousers coming with his tempting odds on Liverpool to win the league. I swear each August he takes his wife out to a Berni Inn on the strength of my bet, the cocky little sweat. This Wednesday night would have been no different as I swallowed whole on his “price boost” of 16/1 to end what will be a 28-year wait.
Well, one year Frederick, you’re gonna get your bony little Manc arse stung.
Just another year? Maybe. Maybe not.
Come on you mighty Reds.