Thursday, 28 April 2011

An Oxford Boy in Liverpool - The Anfield Experience

In recent weeks, the trend of football fans abusing journalists via Twitter for reporting facts or merely presenting their opinion has become more prominent. Having seen Guillem Balague and Rory Smith on the receiving end of fan fury, I’ve taken it as a compliment that I have been the recipient of similar treatment.

As this website continues to expand and attract new readers, it is worth reiterating that I am an Oxford United fan. Always seeking to be the minority, I’m the only Yellow in a family of Reds. I’ve grown up in Oxford and it was the natural thing to do. However, family connections assure an affinity with Liverpool and 9 of my first 10 football matches were Liverpool games.

Oxford fans are not overly keen on my tendency to ‘Tweet’ about events on Merseyside and would be tempted to disown me if I were to attend a game. Bearing in mind my appetite for aggravation, in January I purchased a ticket for the Stoke game.

My last visit to Anfield was in 2002 for the 5-0 victory over Ipswich Town. Considering the time that had elapsed since my last visit, it is impossible to deny that I was ridiculously excited about the trip. Writing for this website is an enjoyable experience but I always feel slightly guilty that I preach about events that I don’t witness first hand. It’s a little like road-testing a car by looking at a picture of it and I was glad to have the opportunity to address the issue. Train tickets and a bed in a city backpacker’s hostel were organised well in advance and on Wednesday lunch time, I left university for Cardiff Central, checking my pocket every ten yards for reassurance that I’d remembered my ticket.

The journey from Cardiff to Liverpool takes you through mile upon mile of deserted countryside before a change at Crewe. Much of the journey was spent moping about Oxford’s inability to defend the previous night and wasn’t helped by an inadvertent game of League Two bingo. After stops at Hereford, Shrewsbury and eventually Crewe, I’d completed a row and had moved on to newspapers to forget about the previous night’s events.

The newspaper in question had a large feature on Liverpool’s transfer activity and helpfully focussed the mind on the task in hand. I found some Liverpool fans at Crewe station and sought to discover their thoughts on the events of the previous week. As expected, there was a deep-lying disappointment at Fernando Torres’ decision to cut ties with the club but also a real sense of optimism at the purchase of Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll. We quickly established that Carroll was overpriced but as we agreed, when making an offer to a club who know you have £50 million to play with and only a day to do business, it’s very difficult to achieve value for money.

At Lime Street we parted ways and I located the hostel with surprising efficiency. I’m not sure exactly what I’d envisaged but I was pleasantly surprised to find a friendly establishment with good facilities. If any fans are searching for affordable accommodation in Liverpool after a game, you could do far worse than giving the International Inn a call.

From conversations with travelling Reds in the hostel, it is clear that the new era at Liverpool is being greeted with optimism. However, my favourite conversation of the day was with the taxi driver who described himself as a “lifelong Red married to a Blue…but not a bitter one”. Whilst topics covered Benitez, Hodgson, Dalglish, Torres and even Bruno Cheyrou, one theme was prevalent throughout. Across the city, football is a massive part of Liverpool life. Very rarely do you see a community in which the vibrancy can be affected so greatly by the fortunes of the football club. That is not to overlook the considerable Evertonian presence but this is a city that deserves a successful football club, if not two.

The first time I visited Anfield was in 1999 at the age of 9. Understandably at this age, having only been to Oxford United’s Manor Ground once before, I was blown away by the Anfield experience. The aura surrounding the stadium didn’t diminish by the time of my most recent visit at the age of 11 and that left me wondering whether I’d still feel the same way at the age of 19. Nothing had changed.

I arrived at the ground two hours before kick off and spent the first hour walking around the stadium taking in my surroundings. I was greeted by a large cheer as I walked past the club reception and before I could turn to thank the Scouse public for being so welcoming, the vertically blessed Andy Carroll dashed into the ground for the first time. After taking the necessary photos of Anfield’s exterior features, including a sobering moment at the Hillsborough memorial, I made my way onto the Kop.

With an hour to go before the match began, I had plenty of time to speak to a London based fan in the row behind me. It was his first visit to Anfield and he reiterated many of the thoughts that were going through my head. The old ground remains a very special place to watch football and if Liverpool Football Club ever move to a new home, it will be a sad day. The financial power of modern football demands that ticket revenue is maximised and eventually, this will prove to be crucial. However, it will be impossible to replicate the history and unique qualities that Anfield possesses.

When looking onto the pitch, especially from the Kop, it is impossible not to be taken in by the past. Generations of Liverpool fans have watched great players become heroes and history made on the turf below.

Returning to my own club, I saw one Oxford game at the Manor before moving to the three-sided Kassam Stadium. Granted, the new Anfield will be fully-constructed but the theory remains the same. I can’t relate to my club’s past and the formidable atmosphere that used to be generated at a small ground with a sloping pitch. When Liverpool leave Anfield, there will be future generations who will be unable to relate to everything that has gone before. I feel immense sympathy for these fans. The loss of Anfield would be a great loss for football.

One thing that Liverpool will never lose is the anthem that has tingled the spines of so many. Like Ian Holloway earlier in the season, without ever intending to, I found myself singing along to Gerry Marsden. Very few clubs possess an anthem of such heartfelt magnitude and a rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ will always be one of the greatest sounds in football.

The Kop itself has seen more raucous days but joining the heart of the Liverpool fan base was a privilege. I was surprised to discover that the crowd are seated during games and horrified to discover that the Kop is not the place to sit if you happen to have legs. Cramp, however, would not spoil the experience.

The first half became more exciting as the interval approached and only a brilliant save from Begovic allowed the visitors to reach half time on level terms. Raul Meireles’ goal early in the second was deserved and allowed Luis Suarez to enter the field with Liverpool in the ascendancy.

Before getting his first touch on the ball, Andy Wilkinson kicked the Uruguayan into the air. As a fan near me said, “Welcome to England”. If Suarez was desperate to impress, the crowd were equally desperate for a new hero. 16 minutes into his debut, Suarez provided. Although the finish won’t make it into any textbooks, the pace, movement and skill to break clear and round the goalkeeper suggest that the new signing has the qualities needed to succeed in the Premier League.

The game moved to a fairly uneventful conclusion and as the stadium emptied, I found myself thinking about how the Anfield experience compares to what I enjoy week in week out with Oxford.

Watching football with another set of fans was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Whilst you can only have a true love for one football club, I found myself taken in by every aspect of Liverpool Football Club. Whatever snide comments come in from fans of other clubs, I truly hope Liverpool fans realise how fortunate they are to have a club that emphasises tradition as a fundamental principle. Liverpool Football Club is a special institution and, as shown previously, the day that this is taken for granted is the day that substantial damage will be done.

I won’t be swapping away days in Lincoln and Torquay for Premier League football any time soon but having enjoyed interacting with knowledgeable and passionate Liverpool fans, you’d be more than welcome to try League Two football in Oxford at any time.

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