LIVERPOOL FC and Anfield made sense to me on Wednesday night.
Of course, there is something extraordinary about Europe, the Champions League, or that bulbous silver trophy what remains in my eyes, the European Cup. But it is not just unfamiliar foes in all-white strips, the strains of Handel’s Zadoc The Priest or the sheen of the jerseys under floodlights that makes it the marketeer’s wet dream. Instead, it is the sheer enthusiasm of the crowd. Some will argue that European football begets a more passionate Anfield throng, but there’s far more to it than that.
Reams and reams have been written, ad nauseam about the fabled atmosphere. But what sets the midweek crowd apart from the weekend swarm is the cackle; a hubbub, the buzz of people talking to each other. Tellingly, a constant rumpus creates a backdrop encouraging supporters to shout and scream, to cast off their inhibitions.
Whether it’s a blast at the referee, a roar of encouragement, or one Kopite — on his way down the stairs prior to half-time — reminding his lager-requesting mate, “There’s no ale, you soft cunt”, there’s no shame in filling the raucous air with invective, support or a joke. You can remain anonymous amid the din and avoid the disapproving craning of necks twisting backwards to put a face to the voice of the crank. It might be worth reminding that the Kop’s reputation was forged on the shouts of oddballs; the terrace a former haven for the non-conformist or brave eccentric.
At the risk of repetition it is the chatter; the rattle of the crowd that is missing from Liverpool’s league games. That is because it is a different crowd. Sure, lots of us attend all the games but when it comes to the cups — and Europe offers the only current prestige in knock-out football — there is a considerable influx of younger, fresher faces. Many of them — like it or not — are vibrant, cocky locals revelling in their very occasional chance to watch the Reds.
These are the lads and lasses who idolise footballers like any cohort but from afar; au fait with every strand of hair on Emre Can’s oil slick of a head via the medium of TV. It is these supporters who talk to each other in groups outside, who take the piss and rib each other inside, who make a huddle at the bar instead of forming orderly line queues. All around me on Wednesday I was surrounded by a boisterous alien crew, as though the ghosts of a lost generation had descended on Anfield. I was invigorated. Like a father kicking a ball round with his son or daughter, my youth was suddenly recaptured.
For the first time in a while, I felt part of something that smacked of community; the sneers of suspicion and unfamiliarity swept away by innocent smiles. I felt sad and happy at the same time.
The players must feel the vibe too. Sadio Mane doesn’t wave his arms like a loon and rouse the Main Stand, indeed the whole ground, like that on a silent Sunday. He’d have looked a tit. I suspect Roberto Firmino wouldn’t think of dropping his kecks amid the quiet, polite acclaim of a winner against Stoke.
Firmino fascinated me the other night. When you’ve seen hundreds of games live you’re always looking for something different. I watched our unique Brazilian alone for 15 first-half minutes. Even the languid way he slopes around the pitch, the soles of his feet barely leaving the floor, to afford himself the disguise of an occasional breather is compelling. In the blink of an eye he switches from someone in slippers lazily patrolling the living room into a gun-toting cowboy alive to every ricochet in town. In the time I scrutinised him, he played two absolute killer passes beyond the ken of mere mortals.
Here's Liverpool's superb 3rd goal for your pleasure: pic.twitter.com/naHoboeCHs
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) August 23, 2017
After scoring, an adoring Kop belted out his name. “Bobby Firmino, Bobby Firmino”. I like to keep my Latins Latin but even I was obliged to join in with the “adopted Scouser” chant. Part of me was delighted that Roberto stopped short of a salute for the fans in front of the Kop. “Fuck off, you plebs — sing it louder”, he might have chuckled to himself as he traipsed back to half-way.
Only later, when the night’s work was done, would he hang about to show some affection and bow to his audience. He’s a cad is my Roberto; a joker is your Bobby. He loves to play to the crowd.
Emre also seemed inspired while Anfield had a massive gab. Liverpool pierced the conversation with moments of magic. Can’s second is right up there with the great Anfield goals.
Some might argue it’s the best seen on the hallowed turf.
There was something stately about Can on Wednesday, a hitherto unseen German majesty that belongs on a grander stage; a theatre where the actors synergise with a lively gallery. The whole team are performers decorating a stage and in midweek the stage is well and truly set.
So, what is the conclusion to all this? Nothing is going to change overnight. This is not me having a pop at “the wools”, though it would help if everyone attending matches could open their mouths. Rather, it is about what we do to foster community, one in which we talk to each other at the match and pull each others’ leg. Liverpool, Liverpool, Take the piss.
My thoughts are thus. I can’t see us winning the League in front of that crowd. I can see us winning the European Cup with this crowd; the same demographic that drained the blood from the veins of Juve and Chelsea before annexing Istanbul.
For me, it really is this stark.
Does the club see this? Yes, it does; the ticket office floods letterboxes with cup tickets addressed to “L” postcodes. Whether that message filters up to the boardroom is another thing altogether. I’m not sure they get it; when the first step towards a solution understands and wants to tackle the problem.
You can stick your tactics up your arse. Football is all about symbiosis between players and crowds. Even Jurgen Klopp knows this. We’ve got the players but the gang that inspires and motivates not just our footballers — but all of us old bastards still hanging in there — is on the outside looking in. Wednesday was just a flavour of what we’re all missing out on.