TWENTY-SEVEN years. The cross we all continue to bear every day of our lives, writes GEORGE BEVAN.
At first this seems a rather excessive remark and a statement that can become somewhat tired, particularly when drawled out endlessly regardless of adequate context, yet at its heart there is a disconcerting truth.
It goes without saying that we all have lives outside of Liverpool Football Club, lives that sustain us through worthless early-season international breaks and take our minds off The Reds squandering three-goal leads, but on a matchday these lives are disregarded by all those that step foot into Anfield.
Having sat in the Main Stand next to my dad for all my match-going life (Lower Main since the stand’s redevelopment) it is perhaps only recently that I have come to reflect just how much both this passage of time and the latent emotions this stirs affect the atmosphere in this section of the ground.
Let me first be clear on the position I believe almost all of those reading this will share, supporting Liverpool Football Club is something you do out of love. It’s something that binds you to a group of like-minded people that share not only the passion of collecting shiny things in May but more than this, a desire for fairness, socialist values and justice.
These values are undoubtedly a huge part of why Jürgen Klopp jumped at the chance of becoming Liverpool manager, yet it has been clear at times during his tenure that he has been bemused at the way in which the stand behind his dugout goes about expressing those shared values on a matchday. There is something wrong with the atmosphere at Anfield, something that’s holding The Reds back.
While the unbearable 27-year wait for a league title goes on I feel it is worth considering how this manifests itself on a regular basis in the Lower Main Stand. For all my early years sitting in my seat in the old Main Stand next to my dad there were rituals to be observed.
First, go to the Waverley Pub on Breckfield Road North and meet all the lads that he had always gone with, with me usually off in the back playing pool against anyone I could get hold of.
Second, go into the ground and see the old fella sat on the end of our row for debrief of the game and to talk cricket.
But finally, and most importantly for this piece, was to listen to the old fellas behind us moan persistently throughout the game, usually directing their gripes towards the “bloody useless Gerrard”.
During my teenage years, I often had a few choice words directed to the row behind but nothing ever changed: moan, moan, moan. Looking back it did keep us entertained during routine 3-0 Rafa Benitez wins, especially when Stevie was slamming them in from everywhere, but reflecting on it now I think it really demonstrates a Main Stand problem.
Crowds at professional games all over the country are ageing, save for a few positive initiatives football in England is in danger of losing its passionate, youthful soul; there is no getting away from it.
But, to draw back to my earlier point, at Anfield and specifically in the Main Stand this ageing demographic has merged with a 27-year wait for a league title. Not only this, but a wait that abruptly emerged from the litany of Europe-conquering football that supporters had been used to from the preceding two decades.
It seems to me that much of the current Lower Main Stand problem stems from the collective memory of greatness (embellished or otherwise) many older matchgoers have, and the ever-building tension that a relative lack of success brings.
From a personal experience, the changing landscape of the Main Stand crowd is clear to see; I have never experienced as many people out of their seats around me both five minutes before and after half time as was the case against Southampton a fortnight ago.
While this change has largely come about as part of one of modern football’s many ills it still represents an important transformation. The knock-on effect of moans and cynical comments from seasoned matchgoers on these fans who are perhaps not as experienced attendees seems to me to absolutely kill any hope we have of those fans expressing themselves and positively influencing the team in the way that we all hope to when attending games.
Maybe they don’t know all the verses to “Liverbird Upon My Chest”, but can they contribute to helping The Reds win football matches and learn “the Liverpool way” in the process? Yes they can.
Extending this point, it’s every type of fan, and I absolutely include myself in this category, that can at times feel restricted by this atmosphere and almost frowned upon to join any song begun by The Kop or even the Upper Main. This may seem slightly soft but it is difficult for individual personalities to overcome a collective feeling of negativity and dread.
Of course, social media and the advent of sensationalist broadcasting wherever you seem to look (Robbie Savage, Chris Sutton et al.) doesn’t help and only validates opinions that can often be based far beyond the realms of reality. These opinions are voiced on a matchday and the feeling of pessimism and discord spreads.
The tension in the Main Stand is of course correlated to The Reds’ on-field performance and after ending up three rows down in the manic celebrations following Luis Garcia’s (the ball crossed the line, no doubt) goal against Chelsea in 2005 I have no doubt that we as a fan base have the capacity to get it right.
The problems come when we lose our heads. We are all guilty of it and of course it is borne out of the sheer desire for our club to be successful but when it boils over it doesn’t half make Anfield a difficult place to play for our own lads. The longer the wait goes on of course, the more cumulative heartache there is and the harder it seems to break the cycle.
The desperation around me during the dreaded chasing-the-league Chelsea 2014 game right from kick off was like nothing I have ever experienced and illuminated that emblematic cross we are all bearing with us.
Klopp often talks of the figurative weight Liverpool players must carry in their “backpacks”; that day those in the Main Stand seemed to have convinced themselves they were Atlas. While that day was incredibly painful for all involved it is these acute emotions that keep us addicted to following The Reds.
The Main Stand somehow must be convinced to tear off the backpacks and enjoy football again, so that as eloquently discussed in a fantastic piece penned by Paul Tomkins, football does not become “fucking exhausting, and futile” and something that “messes with your brain” as I fear it perhaps has at Anfield in recent years.
But there is a way forward. While issues of promoting access for young and local lads to go to the game are beginning to be taken up by the club, it is clear to see the effect reasonable pricing can have on atmosphere.
Without looking further afield to the oft-cited Bundesliga model, very close to home the Upper Main Stand has roused itself during games both this season and last showing us that if you can make tickets accessible the atmosphere will improve.
Last weekend’s game against Chelsea (maybe I have developed some form of complex for that lot) showed signs of the Anfield that it can be given a late kick off, some floodlights and a bit of needle. Sitting next to me for the first time this season in the absence of my dad was a young, scouse lad so I took this game as a little bit of a case study to see what would happen.
Driving home what struck me was how much of a laugh I’d had at the game. The lad that had sat next to me didn’t care for the years of Main Stand moaning and scowling and had just gone to support his team. Alongside laughing at his desperation for Joel Matip to score from a corner to bring in his 30-1 bet, we urged The Reds on and howled at the ref; his presence incited me to be more comfortable supporting the way it should be done.
It’s a small sample and maybe it’s confirmation bias but honestly it got more out of me. I subconsciously didn’t feel quite so confined to the idea of what a Main Stand crowd is and I’m hopeful that trying to make other people think the same way can only positively affect what the Main Stand can be.
We know from our own recent history that steps forward can be made, the creation of the 1892 area of The Kop in 2007 allowed like-minded fans who wanted to sing to group together and perhaps another similar scheme could be looked at for those who want to do the same in the Main Stand. While these may be wild ideas right now supporters’ unions such as Spirit of Shankly have shown that they can make a difference if fans put enough pressure on the club.
Finally, I must end with a note to say that this piece is not to dismiss those who have gone to the game for many years and now sit in the Main Stand, far from it. I still attend the game with lads that went home and away all over Europe in the ‘70s and ‘80s and revel in the stories of chasings away from West Ham and climbing over railway lines to see Kenny Dalglish bag the winner at Stamford Bridge in ’86.
All these collective memories make supporting Liverpool such a special experience and they have absolutely every right to continue to sit in the Main Stand, watch The Reds and air their opinions.
Then again, maybe the Main Stand “problem” as I have referred to it frequently here has always been the way. Speaking to those who were on The Kop 20 or 30 years ago the idea of singing songs towards the Main Stand leaving early and laughing about the miserable old fellas in it might not be as modern a creation as I am making out.
Regardless, I just hope that we can all try to provide an atmosphere which makes the creation of new joyous memories more likely in the near future. The Main Stand, like The Kop, the Annie Road and the Centenary needs to get behind The Reds and roar them to that first league title; is that not literally why we go?
The power of Anfield can be a force of nature, we’ve seen it time and time again, so let’s make it that way more often, let’s get rid of that fucking cross and get back on the march.
Come on Redmen.