Tales From Anfield Road

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 2 May 2010.

I awoke – ahead of the alarm, never a good sign – at 5.30am and after pouring myself a coffee for the journey, I set off for Liverpool bang on 7am. This had the historic feel of the momentous trip up to Bolton in April 2005.

A day of destiny.

On that never-to-be-forgotten day, I drove up with Glenn and Frank, but this was going to be a solo trip north. Unfortunately, the first signs were not good. The weather which accompanied me for the first hour or so was sombre and grey with rain showers. I had an Elvis Costello CD on the go – a mixture of old classics, plus a few new songs which my mate Pete ( a United fan, no less ) had compiled especially for me. I had never realised how far Costello looked towards America in his musical leanings. As I headed past Bristol on the M5, my car was reverberating to the sounds of blues and country. The trees lining the motorway were now full of leaves and for a few moments, with Costello’s guitar providing twangs usually associated with America, I could easily have been headed north of Atlanta, heading up through Georgia towards The Smokies. These trees – in Gloucestershire – though, were not suffocated by kudzu, that bizarre plant of the south-eastern states which envelops and masks anything that gets in its way.

My mind was being easily distracted from thoughts of the game and I was very happy about this. On the rare occasions it entered my mind, I quickly moved onto something else…I didn’t need the worry, the anxiety, the possibility of failure. I thought about allsorts as I raced north. It was a shame that Parky would not be accompanying me on this one, but I knew that a few other mates were heading north too. Alan and Gary on the coaches, Daryl and Rob in a car, Beth with Gill and Graeme.

The last of the Costello songs ended as Tewkesbury Abbey came in to view. I then kept the American vibe going by putting on some John Lee Hooker.

“Boom Boom Boom Boom.”

Better some blues, I thought, rather than the red of Costello, a Liverpudlian in terms of place of birth and football team alike.

Thankfully, the rain stopped at Worcester and, soon after, a streak of blue was spotted in the sky. Although the sun soon broke through, this was a false dawn as it stayed pretty cloudy for the rest of the day. I spotted the first “Liverpool car” at Droitwich, then my first “Chelsea car” on the M6 around Wolverhampton. I stopped at Keele services for a coffee refill and noted the place was filling up with Adidas shirts of both the red of Liverpool and the royal blue of Chelsea.

My mind was still doing a grand job in blotting out any thoughts of the game. I thought back to a funny tale from my early childhood. My grandfather once went on a coach trip for a week – to North Wales I believe – in around 1971 and was told by my father to “bring Chris back something to do with football.” I would have only been six, but it was obvious that my love of the game was clear for all to see. To my horror ( and to my parents too, no doubt ), my grandfather brought me back a red Liverpool duffle bag, with white liver bird crest. I am sure I rolled my eyes heavenwards and my parents gave my poor grandfather ( who wasn’t a football fan at all, unlike his late wife ) the third degree on why ( oh why! ) didn’t he bring back a Chelsea bag. I think his response was along the lines of –

“Oh, I’m sorry – I just thought it was OK to bring back anything to do with football.”

Even at the age of six, football equalled Chelsea in my eyes.

So – for the next few years, whenever we went swimming at the old baths in Frome, my swimming trunks and towel were taken in using this red Liverpool bag and I was forever having to defend the actions of my poor grandfather. The friends, who obviously recognised my status as a keen Chelsea fan, couldn’t understand it either. I seem to remember that I stuck a couple of Yogi Bear badges on the bag and unconvincingly claimed that it was Yogi’s team, not mine.

So – Liverpool and Chelsea…it goes back a long way!

This was my fifteenth trip to Anfield and I had only seen us win a league game on one occasion before, that momentous game in 1992 which resulted in Chelsea’s first victory at Liverpool’s stadium since 1937. Since 1992, there had been a further three victories, but I had not been present.

Of course, the build up to the game in the media was dominated by Liverpool’s relationship with Manchester United…and their pivotal role in the destination of this year’s title. It could be a case of most Liverpool fans wanting Liverpool to lose and all United fans wanting Liverpool to win.

A funny game, football.

I reverted to type and whacked the old stalwarts New Order on the CD as I drove the last hour into Merseyside. I know I have mentioned it before, but that view as I headed over the Manchester Ship Canal is the classic North-West away game moment for me…let me recreate it again. Manchester, full of worried and paranoid United fans, just 15 miles to my east and Liverpool, full of depressed and confused Liverpool fans, just 15 milers to my west. And ahead – Winter Hill and The Reebok, scene of that game at Bolton in 2005.

I headed west on the M62, the road linking the old adversaries of Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds ( whatever happened to them? Ho ho ho ) and was soon hurtling along Queens Drive, the road which provides the final few miles of my trips to Anfield and Goodison. I’m always superstitious and, in lieu of last season’s CL triumph at Anfield, I parked in the same road as on that momentous night when Ivanovic became an instant Chelsea legend.

I was parked up at 10.45am. Job done. But now, with the stands of Anfield clearly visible at the top of Utting Avenue, the nerves began again. Their was a chill in the air.

After popping into The Arkles, already full of Chelsea, I then headed down to meet Chopper from New York in The Flat Iron. It gave me a moment to mull over the immediate environment around Liverpool’s home ground. The area to the north is dominated by Stanley Park – the intended site of their new stadium ( start date 2075 ), but on all other sides there are stereotypical terraced streets, with houses of various colours, some red brick, some painted, some clad in various materials. It’s a solid working class area. The area around Goodison is the same. Maybe I imagined it, but the streets looked bleaker than normal. I found Chopper at the bar in The Flat Iron, nursing a pint of Strongbow. He was glad to see me. He was wearing a variety of neutral colours ( purple sweatshirt, green baseball cap ) and was just a bit paranoid about being “outed” as an away fan. The pub was OK, though, half and half home and away fans. Only the Liverpool fans were wearing colours though. We spoke about Liverpool – its role as one of the World’s great ports, but now a UK Detroit, on the decline forever.

We then moved further away from Anfield, down to The Cabbage Hall, where an entertaining time – as always – was spent with Cath and Dog. At 12.45pm, we wanted to move on. I fancied stopping just outside The Kop, just to gauge the mood of the restless natives, but everyone was so quiet. We moved all of the way around the stadium – what a lot of gloomy faces. As we moved past the south-west corner, I mentioned to Chopper that at the 1992 game, I remembered seeing a “half-time” turnstile ( for people locked out at the start of any games, this would open up if anyone were taken ill during the first-half, or if the stadium authorities believed The Kop to be safe to squeeze any more into its packed interior ). In all my travels, I had never seen such a feature at any other ground.

At the Hillsborough Memorial, we took our caps off and stood silent for a few seconds.

A chat with a few faces outside the away turnstiles and then inside. The place was buzzing.

Alan, Gal and myself had prime seats, row 8, just to the left of the goal. After all these trips to Anfield since 2005, what a familiar place it is. That scoreboard – and clock – in the corner of The Kop seemed to hover menacingly. How often have I begged for that clock to stand still at so many games. Beth was in, but way over by the Scousers in the main stand. Graeme and Gill were spotted a few rows below. Cathy and Dog a couple of rows behind. I took some snaps of the boys “kicking in” out on the green carpet of the pitch.

Before the game, our Chelsea away flag was held overhead as a reaction to the home fan’s ritual singing of “that song.” I’ve never heard it sang so quietly.

The teams re-entered the pitch and I took many shots of the Chelsea players hugging, high-fiveing each other, shaking each others hands and offering encouragement against the backdrop of those brightly coloured Liverpool flags and banners at the base of The Kop.

Just a great scene-setter.

The game began and I quickly glanced over our formation.

We began poorly and gifted too much early possession to Liverpool. However, the Chelsea choir were in great voice. The home fans were eerily silent. The pace of the game was slow and – bit by bit – the significance of the game became oh-so apparent.

Lose – and we’d be out of it.

A couple of early Liverpool corners and two identical Drogba headed clearances. That’s the spirit. On 13 minutes, Aquilani hit a rasping drive right towards me which just clipped the bar. Liverpool continued to pass the ball around at will and our midfield were second-best. The defensive line – JT and Alex especially – were being tested again and again, but were repelling every attack.

Cathy did a Zigger Zagger and we all joined in.

“Oi oi oi.”

We urged Malouda to get involved but he seemed to be playing a deeper role. He needed to find his form of late. We had a few sporadic attacks, but nothing to give us much cause for comfort. Half an hour had passed and we were anxious. Our singing continued and we called on The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” to inspire the team. Our end was rocking. Elsewhere, it remained deathly still. What was going through the minds of the Scousers? We tried to rattle Gerrard with a song about his recent alleged misdemeanours.

“She’s only sixteen, she’s only sixteen – Steven Gerrard, she’s only sixteen.”

I can’t claim he even heard this, but soon after, he had more worrying things on his mind. A bizarre backpass ( we knew not from whom until half-time ) and Drogba pounced. He went wide of Reyna and stroked the ball into the empty net with The Kop looking on, aghast.

I lost it. I probably celebrated like at no other time since Frank’s goal in Moscow. I’m sure it looked great on the TV. Loads of screaming faces, loads of arms pumping.

Who needs drugs when football can do this to the brain?

Chelsea came on a bit stronger after the goal and peppered The Kop goal. Of course, we couldn’t see the fine detail involved in the tangle of legs which resulted in Kalou ending up on the floor inside the box, but texts from TV Land suggested he fell over his feet.

Typical Kalou.

At half-time, I couldn’t stand still and so went on a bit of a wander down to the front. A chat with Lovejoy, a few words with a couple of others. Then a tap on the shoulder and Kent Blues Graeme appeared alongside me. We shared a few words and returned to our seats.

Soon into the second-half, Kalou went on a beautiful run deep into the Liverpool box, right in front of me, but his ball across the goalmouth travelled the length of the six yard box without a touch. Oh boy.

Quite a few rows behind me, a gaggle of Chelsea fans sang “Three Little Birds” but it wasn’t a very loud or sustained effort. I was just about to comment to Gary that Frank was having a quiet game, when the ball was played out to Nico and we realised that the angle was perfect for the ball to be played into the “corridor of uncertainty” in front of the ‘keeper. In it came and we all held our breath. Frank arrived, stuck out a leg and in the ball went.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSS.”

We lost it again. I immediately knew that it was so similar to the “cross – anticipation – shot” goal from Drogba in the CL game last season. My adrenal glands went into overdrive and we again cheered manically. I managed to scramble onto my seat, above the flailing arms, to take a few snaps of an exultant Lampard. I had to fight to keep my hand steady…snap, snap, snap. Frank’s face was a picture. Shades of Bolton 2005.

OK – Party Time, Liverpool 2010. Let’s this baby started.

“We all hate Leeds and Leeds and Leeds.”

We were on fire – the players, the fans, the entire away end bouncing as one. I lost count of the number of timers that we raided down the left wing. Kalou was on fire and Malouda’s second-half performance was much better. Down below me, I chuckled at a young boy wearing a 1981 original home shirt. It seemed a long way away, but 1981, eh? Clive Walker, Ian Britton, Micky Fillery and Colin Pates.

“Come along, come along, come along and sing this song – we’re the boys in blue from Division Two, but we won’t be there for long.”

Then – a new song for the Liverpool fans, so obsessed with their past.

“We saved your history.”

We had a few chances, Liverpool wilted. Never have 40,000 fans made less noise.

Before I knew it, the whistle went and the players came over to celebrate with us. A few more snaps – I looked for Frank and JT, our two leaders, as always. I was beaming and really didn’t want to leave. But I had a long drive ahead and I needed to be away. I bounced down Utting Avenue and took a short-cut back to my car. While I answered the first of many incoming texts from friends far and near, I found myself walking down a terraced street, but it was lined with tree after tree full of white blossom. It was a beautiful, idyllic, almost surreal scene.

I thought to myself – “Heaven must be a bit like this.”

Please excuse the sentimentality – I was in Liverpool after all.

Even my getaway was perfect as a lot of the Scousers were still inside Anfield, applauding their team for a magnificent season of mediocrity. I was soon on the M62 at 4pm and headed south. I was so pleased and contented, that I didn’t want Manchester United to spoil it. I avoided their match and listened to more music…Cocteau Twins, Keane…but then gave in to the last five minutes of the United game. Sigh.

I raced home, getting home in just over three hours. I popped into Frome where I knew that a few old schoolfriends ( Leeds United, Manchester United, Liverpool, Bristol City and Portsmouth ) were meeting up after the usual five-a-side at Frome Sport Centre. I made sure I was the first to arrive. I wasn’t finishing second at anything.

We had a great time, talking about football as always – it was the first time all six of us had been together since about twenty years ago, as the one Leeds fan has moved to the Far East.

The laughs and smiles continued for a while, but I then realised – with United winning – “oh hell, we have to go through this all over again next week.”

So – it boils down to this…

One Game – One Win – One Champion.

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