IT’S the mid 1980s and Arsenal are playing Liverpool at home at Highbury.
It’s a night game, midweek, and I think it’s finished as a draw. I think. We’ve been penned in at their Clock End. No cover from the rain. That ground adequately covered every stand except the one preserved for away supporters. Their vaunted Clock End. So called because it had a big Clock at the back of the terrace. It’s an unimaginative name but it’s just about the only “named” end for away fans that I can recall.
There’s the whistle. Its all over. We turn as one, trudge a few paces, then halt. Progress further down the line is being barred. This is normal. You get kept back. For your safety. Tonight though the pause is brief, and we’re on the move again. Alright. Not being made to wait is alright. Up the terraced mound, down the stepped hill, through slid-back iron doors and out, into the black and the light. Momentarily blinded by street floods, then blinking to reveal back-lit streaking rain in the foreground. In the background just noise at first. You move your arm shielding your eyes from the blinding floods and then you see the them. Fucking loads of them. Arsenal. The Arsenal.
A snarling baying mass of clenched limbs, red, teeth, white, wide-eyed, excited young men. Arsenal all. Arsenal men, Arsenal boys. Just 20 yards ahead. In rows. Rows and rows of them. It’s a good, old-fashioned reception committee.
I’m somehow at the front of our exiting mass. It/we pull up to a sharp halt. We are now a line too. Parallel to theirs, facing theirs. How have I ended up at the front of this. Arms either side of me link into mine. What’s this? We’ve had no introductions, we’ve not even met eyes, but here we are “linking” like teenage girls.
“STAND LADS,” comes a big voice near to me. We’re being led. We are military. “STAND!” commands come again, overlapping, adamant.
Fuck sake. I don’t really have a choice here but to stand. My legs have gone. I now get the purpose of being linked. These braves either side of me are all that is keeping me upright. STAND. I didn’t sign up for STAND. I’m about 15 or 16 and I’ve been watching Liverpool all over the country since I was 10. But I’m a North London boy out of his depth. A bit middle class. I’m out of time and out of place here. These are Liverpool men. Even the small ones younger than me are men.
Please lads, no, please lads, will none of you think of the children? I was back home earlier playing with my Subbuteo. Playing with toys. I’m not a man. Put me down. Unlink me. Let me fall back. I’m no use to you.
Oh shit. We really are actually standing in the face of death here, aren’t we? Like the fucking Light Brigade. It all seems so dreadfully unnecessary. What would David Bowie do in this situation? Or Gary Numan? David Byrne even? Debbie Harry would probably be OK. Then King Kenny comes into my head. What would Kenny do? Go away Kenny, this is where you and I part company.
The two parallel lines STAND gritted grids at each other, staring, snarling, frothing and invoking. COME ON THEN. It seems to last forever. Arms aren’t linked now. Everyone’s adopted a stance, a pose. Like action figures. One fisted arm forward, one back. Some limbs above head. We’re all trying to be the biggest monkey. Which one am I? I just don’t have the references for this. I want to emit liquids. Sweat, a tear, a teaspoon’s worth of piss?
And then it passes. Calm. Like turbulence passing. At no apparent signal the Arsenal shrink back into the shadows. The danger has passed. What?! What was that all about? An unspoken dialogue between these two warring lines had passed, and surfed well over my head. They threaten, we stand, they go. That works for me.
I’m outside a pub in Stoke in winter 2017 having a smoke. My smoking buddy is a fellow Red who is also exactly my age. Let’s call him Mike. Mike and I have been friends a few years now. Been to plenty of games together in recent seasons. We lend each other lights and reminisce. About the good times, about the better times. Mike’s a sentimental bastard. Even more so than me. He makes a point that leads me to the point of all this. Mike grew up in North Liverpool, I grew up in North London. We didn’t know each other until we were past 40.
We were worlds apart in our youth, but Mike imagined, what? Mike imagined that he and I, the boys from different worlds, were together, unwittingly on terraces and in stands, as much younger men. That sounded nice, romantic even. Maybe yards apart, maybe unknowingly side by side. Not knowing that decades later that we would meet and bond. Maybe we gave each other askance looks. I like to think that in my darkest, most cowardly hour that night at Highbury that the boy/man to my left side, the first lad to link me, my Gabriel, was Michael. That we stumbled and rose together in that Red front. And that maybe in some way he kept me safe.
Stand Reds. Stand tall. The bells are ringing out for us. Happy Christmas, Mike. Happy Christmas, all.
Predicted 11: Mignolet; Gomez, Klavan, Lovren, Robertson; Henderson, Wijnaldum, Coutinho; Salah, Firmino, Chamberlain.
Kick off: Friday 7.45pm
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Odds: Arsenal 151-100, Draw 14-5, Liverpool 48-25