If you know me a bit, you must be aware that I am a huge fan of Liverpool FC. There is no simple explanation for this, but basically since I watch football, I was always a Liverpool supporter. People like to say: “It is not you who choose Liverpool, but it is Liverpool that chooses you”, and I prefer to believe this. Everything started around the summer of 1998 (I was 13 back then), when I saw the 18 year old Michael Owen play for England, and I heard that he was a Liverpool player, so I kind of just decided that I will support this team. It was a ‘thing’ among the guys in my class to support a team from the big leagues, so of course I had to pick one too, but I did not want to go for, e.g., Juventus or Real Madrid, like almost everyone else. Back then I had no idea about Liverpool, about any of the other players, or its amazingly rich history. I did not know anything about the glory days the team had seen before, or the tragedies it had to overcome, both in England and in Europe. Anyway, I had a look at the results sometimes, and whenever I would play with the actual FIFA video game, I would play as Liverpool FC.
The first game that I actually recall watching, is the final of the UEFA Cup from 2001. It was a goal-feast that ended with Liverpool claiming a 5-4 win thanks to an own-goal just when already everyone was expecting the clash to go into penalties. Then of course there was the Champions League final in 2005, the miracle of Istanbul; Liverpool winning from three goals behind against A.C. Milan thanks to an amazing comeback in the second half (and a penalty shootout after 3-3 and two halves of extra time). I will never forgive myself that at half time I stopped watching because I had an exam in theoretical physics at the university the next morning, and I lost all hope anyway that Liverpool could still have anything to play for after the first 45 minutes. Then the next morning I saw a photograph of Steven Gerrard on the front page of the newspaper, holding the cup and celebrating with the reds… I am never going to forget that moment, and since then I never stopped watching a Liverpool game, no matter how bad they were doing.
During the coming years they still did quite well in the Champions League, and with a team built around the chemistry between Gerrard and Fernando Torres they almost became champions in 2009, but after that, things fell apart. There were problems with the ownership, the management, and the results stopped to come. While the best players left, Gerrard stayed and proved that even in modern football, loyalty for your team and your supporters can still be a real thing. Then the owners of the Boston Red Sox bought the team – saving it from bankruptcy -, and brought along a good philosophy and a viable business plan. By the 2013/14 season I was already watching basically every game online. This was our (and sadly Steven Gerrard’s) last glorious season, demolishing the defences of the Premier League with the SAS (Suarez and Sturridge) week after week. There were some amazing games; Suarez scoring 4 goals agains Norwich (and goals that made it to the top 5 goals of the Premier League that season), or trashing Everton (4-0), Arsenal (5-1), Manchester United (3-0), and Tottenham (5-0 and 4-0) with shocking margins. We also conceded way too many goals, but as long as the SAS was scoring more than the opponents did, things were OK (so there were memorably nerve-wrecking games ending 3-2 and 6-3 too). In total Liverpool scored 101 goals, and they played such an exhilarating football, that suddenly everyone was talking about us. It was the first time in many years that I did not have to explain to anyone why I am a Liverpool supporter. At the end, Liverpool did not win the league (they finished with 84 points, two behind Manchester City), and the way we lost it was very painful. No matter how tearful the defeat (or slip) against Chelsea was, it was such an amazing season, that I personally – but maybe secretly every Liverpool supporter – was happy with a second place finish.
We were hoping for the same the next year, but things did not work out well; Suarez left and without him the team collapsed. We had a few good players, but the ship was drifting without a captain, as Gerrard seemed tired and disappointed, and Brendan Rodgers could not reinvent his tactics anymore. Then last year finally Jurgen Klopp took over the wheel and became the new manager, and things started to work better almost immediately. We even made it to the final of the Europe League (know as the UEFA Cup earlier), which we did not win, but this European campaign produced another unforgettable game during the return leg of the semi-final against Dortmund (Jurgen’s previous team), where Liverpool came back from two goals behind to make it 4-3 just a few minutes from the final whistle. Things are looking good so far this season, as we play very good against the big teams, but sometimes we have trouble against the small ones, and you can not win the league like that. But if Leicester City can became champions, then any team can do it…
Of course I always wanted to go and watch a Liverpool game, and while travelling across Europe is not a challenge for me anymore, getting tickets to Anfield is never going to be an easy task. The stadium is basically always sold out. Most seats are occupied by season-ticket holders, while the few remaining spots are sold with such conditions (e.g., you can only buy a ticket if you have been to 8 home games in the past two seasons), that are practically impossible to fulfil when you don’t live on the Merseyside (which is of course understandable). Then there are a bunch of crazy expensive hospitality tickets (basically VIP tickets) too, but as I just said it, those are crazy expensive (I am talking about prices in the four digit range). I always knew that Thomas Cook had some cheaper (and much less VIP) hospitality packages too (a match-day ticket combined with at least one night stay in the city), but if you add that to the cost of actually getting to Liverpool, then things start to be on the too expensive side again.
This is why things got interesting when I got invited to a conference a few months ago which was going to be held in the Lake District, just north of Liverpool. This invitation meant that I had to go to the region for work anyway, so I could save the travel costs if there was a game on the weekend before or after the conference. The schedule for the 2016/17 Premier League season was released on the 15th of June, and a few minutes after the dates became public, I was already on the site of Thomas Cook Sport with my VISA card ready. I could literally see as they started uploading the games one-by-one to their booking system. It was quite an impulse purchase, without much thinking, but it is good that I did not wait long, because all the tickets were gone within one day. At the end I added an extra night to the booking for practical reasons, which made it 420 GBP in total (so the ticket + two nights in a hotel). The plan was to travel to Liverpool on the 9th of September, watch the game on the 10th, then continue to the conference on the 11th to arrive in time for the welcome drinks on the afternoon. Perfect timing! And it also appeared to be the perfect game; Liverpool would play against Leicester City, the unlikely champions of the last season, and it would also be their first game in front of the extended Main Stand (a stand that was fully refurbished and extended with 8500 seats during the past 18 months). In addition to this, it would be also my first football game ever (I like to start big). No need to say that I was getting pretty excited in the days leading up to my departure.
At the end I decided to take the train all the way from home instead of first flying to Manchester, so I took the Eurostar to London, then a Virgin train to Liverpool. When I arrived the weather was pretty British. The temperature was in the (very) low twenties, but due to the strong wind and the grey, overcast sky, things felt surprisingly chilly. My first route took me to the official Liverpool FC Club Store, where I got a home jersey and a matching scarf (for a total of 60 GBP, but I did not want to go to the game without these, and anyway, seeing Liverpool FC at Anfield is priceless, and for everything else, there is
MasterCard VISA). As my hotel was quite far outside the city centre, I wanted to walk around a bit before going there, but just when I reached the docks at the Mersey, it started raining. Therefore I decided to cut the sightseeing short (postponing it to the following day), and after an early dinner (around five) in an Italian restaurant, I took the bus to the hotel. I spent the evening watching Netflix, and thinking about the schedule of the next day.
After a good night of sleep, I got up relatively early on Saturday, and as soon as I went down for breakfast, It became clear to me that I was not the only Liverpool supporter staying in the hotel; the dining area was basically red. I took the bus to Anfield around 9:30, because even though kick-off was only at 17:30, I still had to collect my ticket from the ticket office, and I was advised to do that between 10 and 12:30 (because later on things might get busy). When I received my ticket, I could finally fully relax. (I know, I had no reason to be nervous, but I still did not feel 100% OK before having a ticket in my hands.) I walked around the stadium, but the new areas around the Main Stand were still closed off for the workers who were busy with the final touches. In any case I checked out the two famous iron gates, and the view from Stanley Park. Then I hopped back on the bus and went to the centre to act like a proper tourist for a while. I wondered around the Albert Dock, visited the Museum of Liverpool, and walked along the Mersey to have a nice view at the historical buildings on the waterfront (among which the Royal Liver Building carries the two original Liverbird statues on its towers).
In the meantime the Sun came out and the weather got pretty nice. The city was full of people wearing the team colours. The capacity of the stadium is now 54000 (up from 45000 thanks to the extension), which means that more than 10% of the population was going to be on the game on the evening, but the ratio on the streets in the centrum seemed clearly higher than that. I also saw a few Leicester supporters, but this is England, so they had nothing to worry about being surrounded by the red sea. (It is so strange that the supporters of the PL clubs never show any violence, but the English fans at UEFA and FIFA events usually wreak havoc…) After having a simple sandwich-lunch in the sunshine on the stairs of the Liverpool One shopping centre (because a significant part of the centrum is basically a huge shopping mall), I took the bus back to Anfield around 14:30. It was still early enough to avoid the crowds, and have a bit of time to enjoy the atmosphere around the stadium before moving inside.
When I arrived I walked around the new areas, and payed my respects at the Hillsborough memorial. It was very emotional, as there were a few people there who clearly knew someone from the 96 who died in 1989 in one of the worst disasters of football. On the bright side, there was live music, beautiful blue sky, and an unmistakeable positive buzz in the air, with everyone looking forward to the first game in the renewed and extended stadium. With less than two hours to go, I decided that it was time to move inside. As a hospitality ticket holder, I had to enter through the Main Stand Reception, then go up one floor to The Anfield Beat Lounge. This is a smaller lounge exclusively for Thomas Cook Sport customers (as basically they handle all tickets in this hospitality section). Here we got the Matchday programme for free (along with some tee or coffee upon entrance), and we could buy drinks and some food before the game, or simply just hang out and enjoy the live music or watch TV (updating live from all the other PL games). Maybe getting a pint of cola was not the most clever idea, but the other size looked so tiny… Anyway, one hour before kick-off I went outside to find my seat.
I sat in the lower tier of the Main Stand (Block L15, Row 38, Seat 209), below the start of the new extension, but thanks to the full overhaul of this side of the stadium, the seats and surfaces were brand new. It was a good spot, not too far from the field, and basically in line with the end of the penalty box in front of the Kop, so for the first half I saw the defending better, while in the second half the team was attacking in front of me. There was an Australian couple sitting on my left (and some Germans on my right), who were nice enough to take a few pictures of me while chatting about our love for the team. A good 45 minutes before kick-off the teams came out to warm up. I was feeling like a child at Christmas. I could name all the Liverpool players on the field without seeing the numbers (which were not yet visible at that point anyway), and I could barely wait till the start of the game.
Then less than 10 minutes before the start I still had to run back to the toilet because the pint of cola from earlier was putting a lot of pressure on me, but (since nobody was at the toilets by then) I made it back in time to see the team come back out for the handshakes. The Kop (one of the stands in the stadium) was the musical director: their flags were flying high and proud, they sang various club-songs, then moments before kick-off, as the first notes of You Will Never Walk Alone left the loudspeaker system, the whole stadium stood up, we held our scarves up, and 50000 people sang along. I tried to imagine many times how it might feel to be there and sing YNWA with so many others, but I never thought that it would be so emotional. I could barely sing in the first minute, because I was literally fighting with my tears. It was beautiful. Then as soon as the song ended, we sat down and the game started.
Football games in the UK are more like a theater, people clap every time there is something nice on the field, and sing here and there to support their team. Applauding did not need coordination, but for the singing part, most often the Kop started something and the other stands joined in. So there was plenty of “We are Liverpool, tra-la-la-la-la…”, and “Poetry in motion” from time to time. There was not a single song about Leicester, or anything hurtful against anyone. Maybe we shouted “ref” once or twice when the referee clearly made a mistake, but that was it. The atmosphere was really great! The first few minutes Leicester dominated, but the tide turned very soon. From our first goal, it became a gala evening celebrating the new stand, and a fresh-looking, promisingly motivated team with four goals. I would have been happy to experience just a goalless draw at Anfield too, but seeing four goals against last year’s champions was just unbelievable. And with each goal we jumped up, celebrating and cheering, I was high-fiving with random people around me, and singing along with the Kop, delirious with joy.
Firmino opened up the scoring after a clever run in the 13th minute, rolling the ball past Schmeichel, then Mane doubled the lead with a chip shot after a beautiful backheel pass from Sturridge in the 31st minute. Soon afterwards we had a few difficult moments after a mistake from Lucas (and the referee not knowing a rarely cited rule) brought Leicester back in the game, but the team managed to survive the remaining time from the first half, and calm down during half time. Speaking of the break, the water lines in the new stands will still need a bit of work, because the taps and toilets were pretty much dry by then, but that was really the only flaw I noticed. Liverpool dominated the 2nd half too, and after Lallana scored a real screamer into the top left corner in the 56th minute, there was no question about who would win the game. It was totally unbelievable to see that goal happen right in front of me with my own eyes. The icing on the cake was delivered in the 89th minute by Firmino who passed the ball into an empty net after a well executed counter attack. At the end we sang YNWA again, the players and the manager thanked our support before leaving the pitch, and just like that, it was over. I wish it could have lasted a bit longer.
After the game the surrounding streets were flooded with happy supporters walking towards their buses/taxis/cars under a golden sky, and even though I was among the lucky few who had to get on a bus heading out of the city (and not towards the centrum), it still took us a good twenty minutes to make it through the critical streets. I got off early to grab something for dinner in a fast food restaurant, then walked the remaining part to the hotel (as the next bus was due in 40 minutes). It was an unforgettable day, I hope I can return to Anfield for another game soon.
I spent the next days in the Lake District at a conference (STARS 2016: Understanding the Roles of Rotation, Pulsation and Chemical Peculiarities in the Upper Main Sequence – Celebrating the life’s work of Don Kurtz).
I was an invited speaker, so I gave a 25 minute talk entitled “Rotation and mixing in SPB stars – Where are we now?” It was a nice week; the location was great, the hotel was quite fancy, the food was delicious, and most of the talks were very interesting.
On our excursion to a local garden we even got to see a Gibbs Heliochronometer – a special sundial that is precise to a minute thanks to a built in correction plate that takes care of the equation of time. I would like to go back and do some hiking and/or biking in this area at one point, maybe as part of a UK roadtrip, but hopefully in a dry period.