MY granddad on my mum’s side had only a passing interest in football. He would never go to a game with me but he would drive me and my brother down to Anfield on weekdays to hang round the old Main Stand car park waiting for the Liverpool team coach to bring the players back from their morning’s training at Melwood. This is around 1980. I’d have been around 12 or 13 years old.
My granddad lived in a village in Cheshire called Cuddington so the drive to Anfield took under an hour. I was born and brought up in North London but became a Liverpool supporter in 1977 aged 10. My mum was from Cuddington and when I became a Liverpool fan its proximity to Anfield, home of the Mighty Reds, was not lost on me. Let’s just say I got a whole lot fonder of my grandparent’s on my mum’s side from 1977 onwards.
Every half term, Easter and Christmas holiday I’d make the train journey up north. My beaming nan and granddad waiting to greet me and my brother at Hartford station. They were so very pleased to see us. They were the best grandparents a kid could ever have. In more ways than they’ll ever have known.
So Arthur would take me and my brother Andy down to Anfield and we’d stand, usually in the rain, in that now-gone car park, loomed over by the old Main Stand, waiting patiently for the lads. We’d usually fill some of the time by visiting the old club shop. If you don’t remember it, I’d best compare it to an old village sub-post office. But if you don’t remember it you probably don’t know what an old village sub-post office looks like either. They both looked a bit shit.
The walls of the old club shop were clad in those old crappy pine tongue and groove boards. There was a Formica counter and a back counter on which the wares of the shop were displayed. There weren’t many wares in the old club shop. All you could get were key rings, the current edition of the official Liverpool FC yearbook (a fine, underrated and essential tome) and an array of A4-sized glossy portrait photos of each of the first-team squad. To the best of my hazy recall, there were no replica shirts. I’d celebrate a new signing by going to that shop and buying a glossy A4 portrait of the new player in his Liverpool kit. I think I still have my glossy Frank McGarvey photo somewhere at the bottom of a drawer.
The Liverpool FC yearbook was particularly important as the document that me and Andy would politely ask the Liverpool players to sign as they climbed from their coach in the old Main Stand car park. I still have Ian Rush’s autograph. I got it from him when none of the other kids were interested in him. He’d not played a single game for Liverpool since signing from Chester City. I don’t think most of the other fans knew who he was. I did though. I made that kind of thing my business. I still do, and I’ve taught my two boys to do the same. My Danny has been diving on Reds youth teamers quietly enjoying a Nando’s in Liverpool One, demanding autographs, since he could walk.
I started writing this today because I was reminded of something my granddad Arthur always used to say about football. As I said, he wasn’t overly concerned with the game other than to show camaraderie with his grandsons, but he’d watch Match Of The Day and keep himself broadly informed. Arthur wasn’t a chatty guy. Stoic, old world, not a big talker. When he did pipe up though he was firm in his convictions. I only remember him ever saying two things about football. I was always keen to know what adults thought about football. My own dad just had no interest in it, so I think I always craved a football mentor. The kind of arl arse father figure scouse kids take for granted. In my experience, Liverpool kids all but emerge into the world with a comprehensive range of football opinions and vocabulary. They’re hearing it in the womb.
Arthur, my granddad, had only two opinions ever on the greatest game the world will ever see, on the most important thing that isn’t important, on the opiate of the people. Opinion number one — that Nottingham Forest’s ‘70s-’80s captain John McGovern had an extraordinary talent for being able to run backwards. And he wasn’t joking or being cynical in making that observation. He was genuinely impressed by McGovern’s backwards running. Opinion number two — and this one rocked me right back, took the breath out of me — was that football “is a bit of a lucky game”. He didn’t mean it was blessed. He meant that the element of chance in the sport was all pervading.
I was broken. Could this really be true? What if it was true? He seemed so sure, and he wasn’t sure about that much. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t rest, his words going around and around. It’s all just luck. Luck is everything in football. Face it, it’s a lucky game.
So was it all a dream then? Were the European Cups and the leagues, and the heroes, and the moments, and the goals, and ecstasy and the pain just part of a big mad game of snakes and ladders? Or like playing a fruit machine at best?
Time passed. I cogitated and ruminated and I eventually made sense of his bold claim. I settled on my own truth that being the best in the sport was a deserved and earned thing but it was undeniable that chance came into play at certain key moments. In maturity, I now think that the game is won by the team that reacts best, and has the talent to react best, to a series of random events. Darts is the first sport I can think of which has as near as dammit zero element of chance within its enterprise. Now let’s change the rules so that 22 players gather around the board simultaneously and are asked to throw their three darts as quickly as possible from a referee’s whistle. Oh, and the door to the hall is open and there’s a hurricane blowing outside. And the floor the players are standing on is wet. And then they’ve also let in thousands of people to sings songs about them as they throw their darts. Some complimentary, others not so. All that. That’s the undertaking that is trying to win a football match. It all feels very chancey.
Liverpool were taking Manchester City to task on their own ground two weeks ago when Sadio Mane decided to raise his foot a few inches higher than he might have done on a hundred other occasions. When City ‘keeper Ederson Moraes decided to dip his head a few inches lower than he might have done ordinarily. When referee Jon Moss took it upon himself to send the Liverpool man off for an offence a hundred other referees would have deemed only worthy of the yellow card rebuke.
Four days later Roberto Firmino steps up to take a penalty, with the odds of him scoring over 80 per cent, with a kick to put Liverpool 3-1 up and on their way to near certain victory over Sevilla, but misses.
One week ago, Anfield, Liverpool versus Burnley. With five minutes to play a referee and linesman miss a foul in the penalty area on Mohamed Salah that 20 other officials would have seen.
Tuesday night — Liverpool away at Leicester in the League Cup. Alexander Mark David Oxlade-Chamberlain closes in on a certain opening Liverpool goal. His strike collides with a defender’s leg and spins harmlessly over the crossbar. About 45 minutes later, Leicester’s Shinji Okazaki finds himself in a very similar situation, but sees his effort deflect off a Liverpool defender’s leg and into the Liverpool goal. 1-0. Not to Liverpool. 1-0 to Leicester, and a game is changed inexorably.
From last week into this week I’ve been watching the wires and observing the pattern of chatter. There’s a growing restlessness in Liverpool FC land. Kicking off is the order of the day. Players are getting slaughtered, the manager’s role is being questioned, and few seem to be looking forward to the next game.
I think of my granddad Arthur’s maxim, and I think of the past fortnight we’ve experienced. Some of me thinks — there are definitely times in the life of a football fan that it seems inescapable that fate has been disproportionately cruel. The other part of me just got to thinking about my granddad and how badly I still miss him. I also miss who I was and how I felt in that rain-sodden car park in the shadow of the old Main Stand. Nothing could dampen my spirits then. Nothing would make me stop counting the minutes to when I next got to see Liverpool play. I didn’t really have many adult voices around me then telling me how it all actually was. About how I should feel.
In times like this, I should be so lucky to ever be in that place again.
Predicted 11: Mignolet; Alexander-Arnold, Matip, Gomez, Moreno; Henderson, Can, Wijnaldum; Coutinho, Salah, Firmino.
Kick off: 5.30pm on BT Sport 1
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Odds: Leicester 3-1, Draw 14-5, Liverpool 20-21