Football is the most important of the least important things

Warning to non-football fans: I’ve tried to minimise the football content in this post about football. My wife says I have failed dismally. She is right. I am not sorry.

I consider myself a rational being. My wife thinks that I’m too rational. Naturally, if you were perfectly rational, you would know that she could never be right about that. To labour a point, as one often needs to do, rationally speaking, it’s impossible to be too rational. 

Not that I’m perfectly rational, of course. Not by a long way. My list of irrationalities is lengthy. Here are just a few:

  • Despite not being a practising Jew, I refused to eat pork, ham and chorizo for decades (not faintly rational and sadly, I lost decades of eating bliss that I’ll never recover).
  • I once made an error of logic in the early 2000s (yes, uncharacteristic, but an error is an error).
  • I support the Springboks at rugby despite their often dire style of rugby merely because I was born in the country they represent (although I’ve yet to hear them, I suspect there are some good arguments in favour of nationalism. Yes, we get to celebrate winning the World Cup every 12 years, but does that really warrant watching and supporting endless box-kicking, incohesive once-off runners and Faf de Klerk in his underwear?)
  • I despise self-help books unless they involve some sort of sport or game (why should I think a book can help you polish your skiing technique, your declarer play at bridge, your backgammon game or your golf swing, but not help you be a habitually highly effective person, get rich, win friends or steal cheese?)

Still, as egregious as all of the above examples are of my failures in rationality, none comes close to my four decades of support and love for Liverpool Football Club.

I have supported Liverpool for as long as I can remember and I can’t tell you why. What plausible, rational reason could there be for a South African, with no known links to Liverpool, faithfully and slavishly devoting his time and emotional energy over a period of decades to a team he’s never seen play in the flesh and from a city he’s never visited? Sure, I have my theories – I look good in red and always have (but then again, I look deceptively good in cartoon shirts and luminous orange tights too). Or perhaps I am somehow related to Bill Shankly – I love the phrase “bastion of invincibility” almost as if I had invented it myself (look it up, football ignoramuses). And if you don’t know who Bill Shankly is, maybe it’s best that you stop reading now…

My most plausible theory is that Liverpool was the first club I had heard of when I started playing football in the late 70s as a mini-sized Lionel Messi with a wand of a left foot, a deft change of pace and no shortage of cunning and trickery. Liverpool had just won the European Cup for the first time and it is not inconceivable nor entirely irrational to suppose that I just wanted to support what many people would have considered the best team in Europe and possibly the world. Call me a glory hunter if you will, but remember I was about five years old, I had no idea what glory was and already at that age knew that hunting involved killing and I didn’t like that. 

Supporting Liverpool in the early years was not easy – not because they didn’t win – they did, but simply because there was virtually no coverage. There were no live TV games, there was no internet analysis and only the occasional one-liner in the newspaper, usually just a score (frequently with a nil next to the name of Liverpool’s opposition). I’m certainly not an old-fashioned football purist and I love the unlimited coverage and vast reams of information that accompany what many old-timers disdainfully call “modern football”, but in  retrospect I value the joy of following a football team without the swathes of nonsense and stating of the obvious that masquerades as football writing and punditry these days. However, it coincided with never seeing my team play.

My earliest memories of following Liverpool involve sitting in the back of my father’s bakkie, ear pressed against the glass that separated the back from the front cabin, listening to the summary of the First Division results on a Saturday evening. The droning voice from “The English Service” or “Radio South Africa”, whichever was the chosen incarnation at the time, would start to read the football results. Exotic names (especially when read with a plummy English accent – try it now), but which no longer seem exotic, like West Bromwich Albion, Ipswich, Nottingham Forest, Tottenham Hotspur, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Brighton and Hove Albion fizzled from the speakers. But then, at the sound of “Liverpool,” I’d sit in quiet anticipation, awaiting the score, trying to quell the slight nerves that arose from the mere mention of the sacred name. In those days, there would almost always be a positive result, with a draw being a slight disappointment, and a loss, a rare tragedy. In most cases, it meant that I could go to school on Monday and claim with righteous authority that MY team had won on the weekend.

In the late 70s and early 80s, the only live football we saw was the FA Cup Final.  With Liverpool failing to participate in one of these televised games until the mid 80s, I gained my early Liverpool kicks from the Stepford voice on the radio, Shoot! magazine and the swapping of baseless opinions with anyone who was willing to talk about football. I dreamt up narratives from the names that I saw on the first piece of Liverpool kit that I owned – a tiny red and yellow tog bag with the signatures of the Liverpool European Cup winning side of 1977 emblazoned all over it. Sure, they were Liverpool players in the 70s, so, if you lacked imagination and bought into the stereotypes, all you needed to do was picture guys in tight shorts sporting moustaches and hair perms. But I preferred to conjure up my own images of the mythical men I’d learned about – the hard man Tommy Smith of whom Bill Shankly said, “he was not born, he was quarried”; the quicksilver winger, Steve Heighway, a favourite of the Kop, with a name made for football and Kevin Keegan, whose nickname “Mighty Mouse” made me envisage a tiny yet ferocious beast running manically around the football field kicking everything and everyone. 

In the 80s, we finally managed to remove Riaan Cruywagen from our screens for a while and we saw the introduction of regular English football to our living rooms for the first time. Whilst not the viewing fest we now enjoy every weekend, on most Saturdays there’d be a game, and quite often the team they would show was Liverpool. I relished watching the team I supported with some degree of regularity and delighted in seeing the running gaits and sedate celebrations of the names I’d known for so long. Liverpool were so good, so dominant, that there were rumours that during Liverpool games commentators used to say as a matter of course: “Liverpool are the team in red; and for those watching in black and white, Liverpool are the team with the ball”.

Whilst I never saw much of the great players of the late 70s and early 80s, I did catch glimpses of Kenny Dalglish towards the end of his career. Many consider him the greatest Liverpool player they’ve ever seen, but I never really saw enough of him to hold a firm view. Instead I grew up watching players like Ian Rush, the arch goal-scorer whose rat-like features led to my mother calling him “the ugliest man she’d ever seen” and adding that she’d never leave her slippers under his bed. I never really knew what she meant by this – why would she leave her slippers under any bed but her own? – and even today I tell myself I don’t really know what she meant. I’ve never been one for having heroes, sporting or otherwise, but of all the players I grew up loving in the 80s, and possibly even since, none compares to John Barnes. Skill, balance, pace and a wondrous left foot – he is the closest I’ve come to trying to imitate in any sport – admittedly with a substantially less wondrous left foot but only marginally less pace.

I spent the 90s studying (successfully), trying to charm women (being about as successful as Liverpool were in the 90s) and starting work (and stopping it to travel), so my devotion to the Liverpool cause waned for a while. Of course, this might have been somewhat related to their performance on the field and the sad rise of their rivals, Manchester United. My memories of this era are thin – of course I remember the players, including Steve McManaman, the outrageously gifted dribbler with floppy hair whose less than potent shooting led to a friend of mine calling him Spongefoot; and club legends like Robbie Fowler, the impishly brilliant Scouser that many non-Liverpool fans only remember for sniffing the touchline as a goal celebration. Sadly, one of my most vivid recollections is watching the 1996 FA Cup Final with my Manchester United-supporting friend, Irish. Sad, not because of Irish – he is one of the few level-headed Manchester United fans that I know – but sad because I had to endure the galling and dispiriting experience of witnessing United’s high-collared French pseudo-philosopher hammering home a winner late in the second half.

The 2000s brought greater happiness for me as a Liverpool fan, starting in 2001 when Gerard Houllier used his hang-dog expression and French guile to lead Liverpool to a treble of cups.  I watched the 2001 FA Cup Final with my Arsenal-supporting friend, Paul, whose seemingly perpetual disappointment with his team reached some of its greatest heights in this game as a dominant Arsenal were beaten against the run of play by a brace of Michael Owen goals late in the game. This was the start of a minor rebirth for Liverpool, as they once again started to accumulate trophies, even if the sought-after Premier League continued to elude them. 

Rafa Benitez arrived in 2004 and will always be memorialised for overseeing one of Liverpool’s greatest moments (although I’ve always felt that he should be best remembered for having the good fortune of closely resembling me in looks).  Arsenal-loving Paul also featured as a bit part player in this particular Liverpool triumph, as oddly, I found myself watching the 2005 Champions League Final at his house. I say oddly for two reasons. Firstly, because Paul refuses to pay for DSTV, I can only assume it was on eTV at that point. And secondly, because Paul’s satellite TV frugality extended to his actual television, it meant that I voluntarily watched one of the greatest moments in Liverpool history on a tiny TV set, an under-sized cathode ray tube that was better suited to the 1970s than the new millennium (I’m pretty convinced it was a black-and-white TV too, but I know that can’t be right).

Those of you that have not watched football with me before, probably assume that as Liverpool overturned a 3-0 deficit to win what was the greatest European Cup Final of all time, that I was out of control with sheer elation. That I was shrieking like a thrill-seeking teenager on a bungy cord, whooping like a demented pre-politically correct Indian brave, roaring to the heavens like Mufasa in Dolby Digital EXtm, beating my hairy chest Tarzan-like and karate-kicking the air like a mix between Ralph Macchio and Eric Cantona. But of course that is not how I watch football. I am a rational man after all. My focus is intense and unwavering when I watch Liverpool. I watch closely and hate missing a moment, let alone a match. I like to notice the detail, the movement, the positioning, the off-the-ball runs, the touch of each player and how opponents are trying to play. And I do not like to be disturbed, least of all by a curious, friendly and well-meaning bystander making small-talk like: “Is yours the team in red?” I don’t kick the cat when the opposition score a goal (I don’t have a cat) and my celebrations when Liverpool score are muted. It’s just how I am. Some may call me phlegmatic; others unemotional; yet others, downright weird. But don’t worry, when Liverpool do well, even though I may not look it, I’m elated and I’m cheering on the inside – and I was in 2005, when Steven Gerrard lifted Liverpool’s 5th European Cup.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve softened a bit – you’ll get the occasional squeal out of me now when Liverpool score, the odd grumbling at the referee or moan about theatrics or time-wasting by opponents. A mild leap and a fist pump is no longer out of the question. Even a throaty “Yeeeesss!” has been known to occur. Perhaps it’s the raw emotion that Jürgen Klopp has brought to the club that has loosened me up. In fact, when Liverpool beat Barcelona 4-0 on the way to winning their 6th European Cup a few months ago, I streaked in celebration. Admittedly, it was more of a semi-streak than a full-throttled bare-it-all-and-let-the-world-admire type of streak. Some might even say it was just an undignified shuffling around my TV screen with my pants around my ankles, with only two other people present, one of whom was my wife. But still, a streak is a streak. 

At the start of this decade I remember driving around the Norwegian fjords or maybe it was in Umbria on honeymoon, listening to an episode of The Anfield Wrap (a Liverpool podcast). Standard honeymoon fare, really. In the podcast they eviscerated Roy Hodgson and the state of Liverpool Football Club (I assured San-Marié that they were not being overly harsh on “The Hodge” – whilst his resemblance to a puzzled owl blinking at midday was not his fault, his actions and statements were). The outlook for Liverpool looked bleak. The club was on the verge of bankruptcy, they had lost a great and good-looking manager (Rafa) and were unable to keep their best players. But prudent management by the owners, some good decisions and a bit of luck launched Liverpool into a new era. This includes two glorious, if ultimately unsuccessful title charges and 3 European finals, culminating in a sixth European Cup win in Madrid.

Despite fewer successes than in the 80s, being a Liverpool fan over the last six or so years has possibly been the most pleasurable of all my years as a supporter, with wonderful football, dramatic games and brilliant players. First, under the leadership of the slightly greasy but unfairly maligned Brendan Rodgers and then under the emotive and brilliant management of Jürgen Klopp. The availability of quality writing, analysis and statistics has added an extra dimension to the game, provided one avoids the risible fare on offer from TV commentators and pundits, as well as most paid journalists. 

During this time, I’ve barely missed a minute of a game, most of them live, or at worst, watched delayed without knowing the result. My (saintly) wife has grown used to this obsession of mine – perhaps after a dinner out or a friend’s ill-timed birthday celebration, I try and block off all communication with the outside world, turning my phone off and averting my eyes from any potentially revealing headlines or images on TV sets until I’ve seen the game. I often start watching well after midnight when we return home. Few things give me as much joy as watching a Liverpool game and virtually nothing takes it away as quickly as finding out the result before I’ve watched it. I’ve made midnight visits to bars in dodgy areas of Tokyo and taken dawn subway rides to beer-soaked pubs in Lower Manhattan to catch a game live. I’ve mixed with sweaty tourists in Portuguese eateries and watched in silence in semi-deserted restaurants in the French Alps.  I’ve hunted down wifi reception in the depths of Iceland and endured smudgy live streams, all for the sole purpose of watching the game.

Now, to the outside observer (and I suspect, even the inside one), this may sound obsessed.  And if not obsessed, certainly irrational. And I would have to agree. I had to do something about it. I could try and reduce the mania slowly and miss the odd game. Or maybe go cold turkey and ignore football for a month. Perhaps I should be less derisive of self-proclaimed football “fans” who in my mind were impostors, mere casual observers, but when viewed with the right perspective might simply be more balanced human beings than me. Maybe I could stop humming “You’ll Never Walk Alone” for most of Saturday. Or stop myself when I break out spontaneously into the Mo Salah song. But I had another idea. An idea that I knew would put all of this strange behaviour into perspective. Make it rational, even. And I’d thought about it for a long time.

It was time to go to Liverpool. It was time to visit Anfield.

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6 Responses

  1. John says:

    IT’S ALIVE!!

    And yes, it’s time.

  2. Mike says:

    Just a reminder that you were somehow influenced to marry SM because her father has the Liverpool emblem on his bowls or ……

  3. Gramps says:

    Excellent, entertaining writing … first class. Thanks!

  4. Sodthecubicle says:

    Welcome back as a writer, Einstein, or have you had your annual haircut in Croatia? Great writing and you have now earned 1x bottle of wine for your 1st piece. From this other “level-headed Man United fan”.

  5. Brett says:

    Brilliant writing! Thanks Saul.

  1. November 10, 2019

    […] years, my wife has said that when I went to Anfield, she wanted to be with me (for background, see here). She has long maintained that the tiny fragments of my soul that are imbued with romanticism were […]

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