At midday, Anfield was resplendent: bathed in sunshine, with barely a breeze in the air. Supporters were already gathering, posing for pictures in all the familiar places, then standing, staring and snapping images of Liverpool‘s new Main Stand. Monumental, magnificent and imposing, yet still incomplete in areas; words that could easily be applied to the squad that would blow the champions of England apart beneath the grandeur of this awesome feat of engineering.
With Dejan Lovren sporting a black eye, Ragnar Klavan still struggling with injury and James Milner‘s continued reinvention as a left-back, Liverpool‘s back four remains a work in progress. Lucas Leiva, absent for so long, and narrowly avoiding a transfer to Turkey in the summer, was pressed into deputising at centre-back as Jurgen Klopp attempted his own reconstruction job on the Reds’ back line.
In the run up to the game such matters seemed secondary to the occasion. This felt like a cup final, a ceremony or a festival even. Liverpool Football Club had taken a giant leap into the modern era. The stadium and increased attendance puts the club right among the big boys and the resultant increase in revenue could and should allow us to be more competitive.
But it’s more than that. It’s a source of pride and hopefully a catalyst for the regeneration of an area of the city neglected for so long. Anfield and its people need this transformation every bit as much as the club, maybe more.
In the sporting sense it is the kick up the arse Liverpool FC needs. Quite simply, if you are playing in the shadow of 54,000 screaming Reds, in what amounts to a grand cathedral of football, then you have no choice but to give everything and sweat your all in the cause of victory. For the supporters the creation of this giant edifice, a route to commercial success, must now be matched with similar sporting ambition. Such a stadium simply begs to be competing at the very top of English and European Football.
Before the game I wandered around the ground, taking in Paisley Square and 96 Avenue with its street stalls and giant screen, to the relocated Hillsborough memorial. There I paused. It looks bigger somehow, but it looks also like it belongs there, as if it has always been there. There are benches in front of it now, shrubs have been planted and it feels tranquil. There are people gathered there, some taking photos, others with heads bowed in silent reflection.
Stewards and staff were on hand to direct, and ex-players mingled among the crowd. I see Terry McDermott and David Johnson patiently posing for selfies and contemplate joining in. I may be a grown man, with kids of my own now, but the sight of my childhood heroes has me awestruck. I get over myself and move on, leaving the stars of yesteryear to their peace, and walking down Anfield Road.
96 Avenue stretches off into Stanley Park, connecting the stadium and the surrounding area with the beauty and greenery within. I turn right and pass scores of vans and trucks representing the world media parked in a newly designated space and can see the remnants of construction still lie everywhere. It’s likely the finishing touches will continue to be added to the stadium for months to come yet.
A small crowd have gathered at the Shankly Gates, now guarding the Centenary Stand car park. Kickoff nears and you can feel the excitement beginning to build along with the volume of people. A car with blacked out windows draws slowly along Anfield Road and a buzz goes up. “Sakho!” someone shouts. The drivers window is down and I see it is him. A couple of kids run alongside the car and a woman pulls out her mobile phone and captures the evidence. “Late again lad!” shouts a voice from behind, there is laughter and then the car sweeps through the gates. It’s time to get inside.
I’d passed on my Kop ticket to a friend for this game, and had managed to score two seats in the new Main Stand—a big thanks to This Is Anfield for providing the tickets. This would be the biggest attendance in L4 since 1977, a 0-0 draw with West Ham that would see Liverpool crowned champions once again. My mate had been at that game and the chance to be part of another huge crowd, some 39 years later, was an opportunity too good to miss.
Back to 96 Avenue and we are climbing the stone steps and weaving our way through the throng and towards the turnstiles. We are in Main Stand Lower and I’m eager to see how the concourse inside will look and, above all, sample the view.
The concourse was packed, but the increased space meant you could still move around fairly freely. A giant silver Liverbird greets us as we enter and the low lighting, brick walls, and the constant nods to Liverpool‘s illustrious past adorning the walls, created a sense of history and nostalgia; as well as photo opportunities aplenty.
Either end of the concourse giant glass panes offer stunning views of the fan area on Paisley Square and Anfield Road. Banks of screens positioned on either side allow fans to keep up to date with the progress of rivals and there was even a musician there to entertain supporters. “Brown sugar, how come you taste so good?” he sang. This all felt great and I can only hope that one day Kopites can be treated to the same experience. Imagine thousands joining in with a guitarist on the concourse below The Kop, and singing ‘Ring of Fire’ on a European night in years to come, and then taking that atmosphere into their seats.
Our sets were great, comfortable and lots of leg room; a far cry from block 109 in the Kop. I gazed onto the famous old stand and it was hard not to feel a small sense of sadness, perhaps the only tinge of regret is the fact that the Main Stand now dwarfs its neighbour twice over.
Perhaps this will create a bit of rivalry though. I remember the old songs from the past. “Road End, Road End Give us a song” as Kopites chided their opposite numbers across the pitch. The Annie Road End would respond cruelly “Kopites are gobshites”. Maybe we’ll hear “Main Stand, Main Stand give us a song” in the months and years to come, although with the plethora of corporate seats the response is likely to be a bit more refined, you’d think.
Given the sense of occasion, it’s easy to forget that there’s actually a game on. An important one too. Liverpool‘s start hasn’t been disastrous, especially when you factor in two games in the capital and a tricky tie against a newly promoted team. On the whole, four points from nine was respectable, even if it didn’t set the pulses racing. However, the Reds had been Jekyll and Hyde against Arsenal and Tottenham and the bride of Frankenstein against Burnley. This was a chance for the real Liverpool to stand up; and they did.
Claudio Ranieri’s charges lived with Liverpool for the first 10 minutes or so, but they couldn’t cope with them at all after that. But for an inexplicable gift from Lucas, they’d have barely made an impression on the game at all. The Reds began the demolition on 13 minutes. James Milner broke on the left and delivered a delightful diagonal pass to Firmino. The Brazilian’s deft touch took him past Robert Huth and gave him the space and time to slide the ball past Kasper Schmeichel.
The ground exploded and the sound felt genuinely enormous. The Foxes supporters were indulging in cliches about atmospheres only seconds earlier, only to have them rammed right back down their throats. Liverpool looked comfortable and Georginio Wijnaldum was great in the linkup, while Joel Matip at the back was imperious. Then we’re almost 2-0 up as Schmeichel pulls off a world-class stop to deny Daniel Sturridge after sublime work by Adam Lallana on the byline.
This is Liverpool though, and you still always feel they need two or three to see off an opponent. The second duly arrived and pandemonium ensued in the stands as jubilant Reds erupted in delirium. Jordan Henderson sent Sturridge and Sadio Mane racing towards goal. It looked like Sturridge would score, but he unselfishly clipped the ball with his heel, allowing his partner to lift the ball over the hapless ‘keeper.
2-0, surely game over. Like I say – this is Liverpool, so there must be drama; and it came in the form of an absolute howler by our makeshift centre-back.
The Reds were attempting to play the ball out from the back, when Lucas found himself caught on the horns of a dilemma. He hesitated and instead of listening to Matip, who was imploring him to put it out, he decided to play the ball across his own six-yard box. The move was suicidal and Jamie Vardy probably couldn’t believe his luck as he stroked the ball home. Football has no rhyme or reason sometimes, and Leicester, having barely threatened, were now right back in it.
Frustration was all around. I turned to my son, and bemoaned yet another self-inflicted wound. Then something magical happened. Lucas looked disconsolate, devastated. If his head had gone down at this point, it could have proved disastrous. He was all we had, with the crocked Klavan there simply to make up the numbers. While all around Reds were losing their heads, the Kop took a more pragmatic approach, and immediately began singing the player’s name. It was a gesture as heartwarming as it was generous.
It’s in adversity that the players need the crowd most, and here Kopites did their duty magnificently. Whatever your thoughts on Lucas, the time to discuss them is in the pub afterwards, not in the heat of battle. In that moment it was clear that, though smaller in size, the Kop is still just as impressive in stature as it has ever been. Liverpool saw out the half to go in 2-1 up.
In the second half Leicester brought on Ahmed Musa, sparking fears that his pace would really trouble a nervous Reds back line. It didn’t really materialise though. But for Vardy being denied a gilt-edged opportunity by the flawless Simon Mignolet, the Foxes rarely threatened and Liverpool were in supreme control for the rest of the game.
In the 56th minute Lallana settles nerves with a blistering shot from the edge of the box into the top-left corner at the Kop end. Wijnaldum capped a great performance with the assist and the noise was back and even louder. Liverpool replace Wijnaldum and Sturridge, the latter receiving rapturous applause, with Stewart and Coutinho, and the Reds continued to press.
Mane almost added a fourth and his second, but for Schmeichel and Henderson squandered a golden opportunity in front of The Kop. However, they would not be denied. In the dying embers of the game Henderson sent a ball forward and Mane gave chase. His sheer pace and athleticism, after 90 minutes of running, got the better of the Leicester ‘keeper.
We rose from our seats expecting him to bury the chance, but he unselfishly squared it to Firmino. It looked like the chance had gone, but the Brazilian’s sublime skill took the defender out and he slotted the ball into an empty net. 4-1, game over.
All that was left was a well deserved standing ovation for Mane and for the referee to put Ranieri’s men out of their misery. This was a consummate display from the Reds and the players rightfully took the plaudits.
As we left the stadium, we were treated to a magnificent sunset over the Mersey. It a fitting end to a glorious day and, as we made our way home, or to the city’s pubs, each of us carried hope in our hearts that tomorrow would herald the dawn of a new era of glory, round the fields of Anfield Road.