Breathing Liverpool – a personal account of the unique Anfield matchday

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Part 1: Liverpool FC vs. FC Gomel, a rallying call for the season ahead…
Part 2: Liverpool FC vs. FC Gomel, a fan account of a typical Anfield match day. Devoid of stats, facts or any form of sense. Written from the heart, from the centre of pure emotion. You’ll even be able to smell the hot dogs.

PART 1: Liverpool FC vs. FC Gomel

3 months. That’s how long it has been since Liverpool lasted graced the hallowed Anfield turf. 3 months. In footballing terms – that’s an eternity. Of course, a lot has happened in those 3 months. We sacked a legend, we brought in our 4th manager in as many years & we even went on our holidays to the good old US of A.

But finally, Liverpool are back! Back home! Back at Fortress Anfield! (yes, despite our home form last season).
I was filled with both excitement and trepidation for this game (and the season ahead in general)…on one hand we have an exciting young manager, that speaks with an assured reverence & preaches a philosophy that is easy to buy into…and yet on the other, we’ve sacked a manager who was the very definition of Liverpool Football Club & have been left with yet again, a questionable squad of players that arguably, don’t even compare to the great European team that Rafa Benitez assembled just a few seasons earlier. As the old saying goes…’If I hadn’t seen such riches. I could live with being poor.’ But there’s no point crying over spilt milk. We will never forget our glorious history but we are now heading into a new era…with a new manager, new owners & hopefully a new or refurbished stadium. It is time to once again become that famous 12th man, to support the team through thick and thin, and provide the knowledge, humour and adoration that only Liverpool fans can bring.

With this in mind I head off to Anfield for Brendan Rodgers’ first competitive game at Anfield. Hopefully in years to come, this will be one of those games where you can say ‘I was there’…’I was there when the great Brendan Rodgers, the man who brought glory to Liverpool, first took charge of the Anfield reigns…’ – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This isn’t a league game after all, nor is it the much cherished Champions League…this is Europe’s secondary competition, the Europa League. A few seasons ago I was distraught at the mere thought of my mighty LFC playing in the Europa League. We were European Champions in 2005, runners up in 2007 & never far away from further Champions League success…the Europa League seemed like somewhat of a damp squib. However, that feeling is gone (well, kind of), after a season with no European football at all, I am delighted to be back. Yes it’s the Europa League, yes it’s a qualifier and yes, it’s against a team I had previously never heard of…but it is European Football, and Anfield does a European night like no other…even in the Europa League.

Having said this, I fully expected the game to be somewhat of a muted affair. Players yet to leave, players yet to come in…the squad and playing style still probably nowhere near what Brendan Rodgers or Liverpool fans expect. Then there’s the fitness issues too. We are still in pre-season; players have either only just come back from their end of season break, whilst some are not even fully back yet. We’ve had little time to gel and little time to train. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that the Liverpool team would have spent more time travelling than anything else. Trips to the USA, Belarus; combined with these early competitive games will not have been an ideal start to the season for Brendan Rodgers, especially with him being new to the job.

But again, no point crying over spilt milk…as the famous sign says, ‘This is Anfield’ – it’s time to get into gear, time to get serious and most importantly, it’s time to win!

I was ready to go, no….I was raring to go! I couldn’t wait to ingest in my first competitive game of the brand new season. Bring on Anfield!

PART 2: Dreams and songs to sing… the match day.

Luckily for me, I live very close to Anfield. On an average day, I can be there within a 15 minute car journey. On a match day, it can take a little longer. I park freely on one of the many residential streets that surround the historic ground. For a new visitor to Anfield, the mix of residential housing surrounding the stadium can be a bit of a shock. Former Real Madrid superstar Raul, once commented “we were just going through a load of houses, then suddenly Anfield was there, just in the middle…hidden by the Liverpool people..” This physical combination of housing & the stadium, perhaps mirrors the metaphorical and emotional place that Liverpool Football club has in the lives of so many. It is central. It is important. It is never out of sight and never far from the mind of its fans. Some might mention the obvious social and economic disparity that exists between one of the world’s biggest football clubs & the people that surrounds it, whilst others will revel in the fact that Liverpool FC has always been a ‘working class’ football club. Those issues are for another day however.

So, I park on the street. It’s a ‘typical’ Liverpool street. Small terraced housing with a few small shops either end. I look carefully at the signs warning me when I can, and can’t park for free. You often see Traffic Wardens gleefully pondering their next victims on a match day. Probably Evertonians I tell myself. But they won’t be so lucky with me. I have it sussed. The usual rabble of kids come up to you…”mind your car for a quid mister” they ask…I always tell them the same thing…”if it’s there when I get back, we’ll see…”. It’s funny, 10 years ago the kids where all 5-6 years old, now I get asked the same thing by 15-16yrd olds. Perhaps they’re the same kids? It would make sense, I’ve parked in the same place for years. There’s a kind of satisfying & cherished feeling of familiarity in that.

Quid still in my pocket I start the walk to Anfield. It’s about a 15 minute walk that passes by Goodison Park (the smaller team on Merseyside) and through Stanley Park. Many Reds are doing the same. There’s a steady stream of Red now on the streets. Some pouring out of the local pubs, others just intent on reaching Anfield in time for kick off. There’s plenty of kids about for this game. Which is good. These early games are priced fairly and not in high demand. Fans who don’t usually attend games, or have never been to a game before can easily get a ticket for this one. It must be reassuring for them to see so many Reds out in force, there’s no doubt where they are heading. Just follow the sea of Red. You’ll never get lost on a match day.

After exiting the park, Anfield is only minutes away. You can see it now. You can hear it. The tannoy blasting out into the unusually warm Liverpool air. On a big European night you might also be able to hear the fans. Both home and away – singing their songs and cheering their heroes. There’s no place on earth that does a European night like Anfield. Even tonight, in a Europa League qualifying game, you can grasp that sense of occasion. After all, this is Liverpool’s 1st European game after a season without such games, and of course…this is an Anfield debut for the new manager, Brendan Rodgers.

I enter through the famous Shankly Gates, passing the Hillsborough Memorial. Fans are often there taking pictures or showing their respect. Tonight is no different. The smell of fish in chips is strong now, it actually smells nice. Salt and vinegar. I breath it in, knowing that once I get inside I will be subjected to the awful smell of Anfield’s (popular yet plastic looking and smelling) hot dogs.

I purchase a programme outside the ground. I miss the days when they were stamped with ‘Anfield Edition’ – it was almost like a special gift, reminding you that ‘you where there’, and you didn’t just buy the programme via mail order or in a local newsagents. But those days seem gone. Also gone is my paper ticket. I now have a ‘membership card’. I’ll need to use that to get in. I enter it in the machine, my Dad who I attend all the matches with passes his usual comments…”I think they’re making those turnstiles smaller” to which I provide my usual response…”no, you’re just getting fatter”…it’s almost a tradition. It means we have arrived, that we’re in!

My seat tonight is in the Paddock. Dead centre. I like the Paddock. For those that don’t know, that’s the first few rows of the Main Stand. To the left and to the right of the dugouts. I like the view it gives of the entire pitch as opposed to being at the end, (like in The Kop or Anfield Road), but most of all…I like that it makes me feel part of the action. You can literally reach out and touch the players at times. It also give a greater appreciation of the speed that modern football is played. You don’t get that feeling on TV, nor higher up in the stands. Yes, for me, this is where I like to be.

Shortly before the game, Jamie Carragher (who was starting on the substitutes bench) received an award for accumulating the mind blowing total of 700 games for Liverpool. It was over quickly. But it was nice to see such a legend being recognised, and it was also nice to see former manager Roy Evans handing him the reward. That’s the thing with Liverpool. We respect our legends, and once you’ve been a part of Liverpool Football Club, you never really leave. We’ll always look out for you, in one way or another.

The pre-match training regimes seemed standard. Sprints and shooting. Exactly as it was last season. No change. The players did look great in their new Warrior training gear though.

I won’t give you a play by play of the match, that’s not what this article is about. You’ll have seen it yourself, or read it elsewhere anyway. Instead, I’ll highlight a few things that perhaps you didn’t see.
Firstly, there was an overwhelming amount of support for two players Liverpool are allegedly looking to sell – Daniel Agger and Andy Carroll. Throughout the match, Daniel Agger’s name was sung loud and proud by the Kop. Cries of “he’s not going anywhere” were loud, clear and plentiful. I also took special note as to Agger’s brand new tattoo…a prominent YNWA (You’ll Never Walk Alone) across his knuckles. It would seem he doesn’t want to leave, and the Kop doesn’t want him to go either.

Secondly, and perhaps surprising to many outside the club, Andy Carroll received an absolutely huge ovation on multiple occasions. Before the game, and as he was warming up during, the Kop again made their feelings clear. He responded with an ear to ear Geordie smile. That was good to see. In fact, one of the loudest cheers of the night was when Brendan Rodgers was seemingly telling Carroll to get himself ready to come on, but alas…he was merely asking Andy to relay a message to Jordan Henderson that it was in fact him that had been selected to make a substitute performance.

Another area of note would be the man making his Anfield debut. No, not Fabio Borini (who of course, scored the opening goal). I’m talking about Brendan Rodgers. Dressed smartly and sharply in a grey suit, Rodgers was an ever present on the touchline. In stark contrast to Kenny Dalglish, Rodgers was constantly dishing out orders, micro managing each and every player. It was more reminiscent of Rafa Benitez’ style. This micro management was constant, which is to be expected as the players learn the new system. I’m sure he hopes that eventually, his instructions last night will be something his players do naturally, without prompting.

His main focus of the night seemed to be Stewart Downing. Downing seemed to be constantly drifting to the centre of the pitch when he did not have the ball – much to the frustration of Rodgers. Downing was told to stay wide and push up. For me, it worked. Downing was a threat. He could have used this extra help last season, when his form was unquestionably poor. Jose Enrique was another focus of attention – being told to use the space ahead of him and push out to pressure the opposition higher up the pitch. It was good to see, the manager obviously has his own style and philosophy and is not afraid to tell the players when they are doing it wrong.

Not once did Rodgers sit in the dugout. Instead, he preferred to stand, and take the occasional note in his notepad. When he needed advice from his staff in the dugout, Rodgers instead chose to sit on the advertising hoarding in front of the dugout and lean back to garner his required information. It was different, and it was interesting.

The Anfield crowd was as spectacular as ever. There were flags, banners, scarves and of course songs. This might have only been a Europa League qualifier, but we did this right. We did the club and the competition proud. You heard the usual dissenting voice; after just six minutes an extremely loud gentlemen shouted, in his generic southern accent “No, pass it forward…not back…forward…F**k”. I immediately thought, ‘what a whopper.’ For one, we had been playing six minutes, and secondly, this is a guy who has obviously never heard of Brendan Rodgers and his brand of tiki-taka football. You’ll always find fans like that. Loud. Impossible to please…and annoying as hell. Thankfully, they’re in the minority.

The match ends with a good performance and a 3-0 win to Liverpool. We’ve played well. There is plenty to be excited about for the season ahead. I take one final look at Anfield for the night, then decide to leave. On my way out I see Daniel Agger picking out a young girl from the crowd and handing her his match shirt. She was grinning like a Cheshire Cat, I thought I’d never see a smile so wide again…but then I saw what I assume was her father. Even more delighted than her, his face like a ‘kid in a candy store’…it was great to see. I also look back into the crowd and see Istanbul hero, Sami Hyypia, who had been sitting just a few rows behind me. I take a quick photo. He’s now manager of Bayern Leverkusen, and I can’t wait to see him lead out his team at Anfield just a few days from now in a pre-season friendly. It will be a great occasion.

It’s been a good night. I’m in no rush. Let the busy match day traffic take priority, I’ll just take my time. Though it is a bit later than usual thanks to the later kick off time. I once again follow the streams of Red. Through the darkened residential streets, through the pitch black park (avoiding the multiple flavours of dog turd with the utmost care), and finally back to my car. The kids aren’t there. I’ve saved a pound, my car is still there…but most importantly, Liverpool have won. That’s the overriding joy of the night. I’ll be home in about 20 minutes. Other fans will have much longer journeys. I don’t envy them. But that’s life. That’s what being a Liverpool supporter is all about. You’ll do anything to see them no matter what the cost, and in years to come; the dreams you had will be a reality that you will never forget.

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