|Liverpool vs West Ham|
As is hopefully evident from the pictures, last night I went to Anfield, spiritual home of football and Mecca to me and the 45,000 other people who attended. This was the first time since our return to the UK that I had been to a match, as tickets are like gold dust and obtaining a ticket was sheer luck.
Sometime last week, I spotted that tickets had been released for general sale, by the club, and immediately bought two. I called my younger brother and told him he was off to "the match". Football is so universally watched, analyzed, loved and passionately followed in England, and especially in great footballing towns like Manchester and Liverpool, that practically no-one either city will ask "What match?".
I arrive in Liverpool and head for the ticket office to pick up my pre-ordered tickets. Since I last visited a football ground in England, football has changed. It has become a worldwide corporate, 'brand' led mega-business. Outside Anfield, coaches are delivering parties of Chinese, Korean, Indian and German fans, and even at 4.00pm the street round the ground are full. Another, welcome, change to footballing culture, is that the atmosphere on the streets is pleasant, anticipatory, happy, in contrast to the unhappy period in the early Eighties when intense local and national rivalries in England and Europe, (especially for young men fuelled by drink and often inflamed by extremist political groups of the right and left) meant that going "the match" was physically hazardous on a weekly basis.
I head to my parent's house for dinner, a potentially awkward affair, as my parents do'nt really approve of my lifestyle choice, even though we both "came out" to our parents when we were about eight years old. My parents, you see, are lifelong Evertonians, Everton being the older of the city's two clubs. Everton are the club that my family, my whole family including cousins, uncles, aunties, dogs and cats, traditionally support. I emphasize traditionally, because it really does run that deep; supporting a football club is a part of English tradition, often dictating where you lived in a city, who you might marry and sometimes what job a person did. Some families have split up over football. My parents are not fanatical, but the tradition does provide valuable continuity, so last weekend my parents took their grandchildren to Goodison (Everton's ground) to watch their club. Three generations of family watched 22 men kick a pig-skin round a park, the only abscences being the two younger sons. It is clear from my father's pithy remarks about the preferences of my younger brother and I, that he is determined that his grandchildren will not go off the rails the way Richard and I did.
After dinner, Richard and I embark on our walk to the ground, and our own tradition is quickly remembered as we debate which pub to go to before the game. This is where it might get confusing, so a brief explanation follows for people who do'nt have an encyclopedic knowledge of the city of Liverpool. Liverpool, the city has two football clubs,Everton FC and Liverpool FC. The home ground of each club is virtually visible from the other as they face eachother across Stanley Park. Everton's ground is located in the suburb of Everton, while Liverpool's ground is located in Anfield. Unfortunately, we approach the ground via the suburb of Everton, and most of the pubs are hostile to us, (although not in any physical sense), and wearing our colours we would possibly be asked to leave, so make our way straight to the stadium and take our seats.
The match itself is an event. Unlike hockey there are no tunes played over the PA, all the atmosphere is created by the crowd of 45,000, of which 43,000 are Liverpool fans. Humour among football crowds in the UK is one tradition that has'nt changed and when one opposition player who is noticeably burly runs for the ball, the crowd in my section, about 8,000 people, start singing "Nellie the Elephant", substituting the player's name for "Nellie". This seems spontaneous as one guy sitting behind me, who attends every week, remarks "That's a new one". Similar exchanges continue throughout the game, and for one ten minute period a mass comedy festival breaks out as a block of Liverpool fans and the adjacent opposition supporters engage in a "sing-off", trading good humoured topical insults.
After the match we do get a pint in a local pub, and I'm very happy that the atmosphere continues to be excellent, fans from both teams mix freely, chat about the game and wish eachother safe journey's home. It is a far cry from the image of English football that still pervades in North America, where the spector of crowd violence still persists as a characteristic image of the sport.
As for the match itself, I can report that the 4-0 victory by the magnificent Red Men of Anfield was in no way a flattering scoreline, it could have been six or seven zero, but dubious decisions by the referee and his assistants allowed the cowardly, cheating tactics of the Southern team to go unpunished, while our valiant Red heroes, each and all embodying the spirit and passion of the beautiful game, played the weazeling opposition off the park in a breathtakingly brilliant display that saw our team, nay Gods!, teach the dark forces of East London a footballing lesson. In my unbiased opinion.