The Seven Dwarfs and Pollen in the Air
For many 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 devoted solely to Liverpool, a dogmatic position I find a bit harsh just because I don’t like Hallmark cards and refuse to buy roses on Valentine’s Day. I suspect she just likes to see those rare occasions when my ice-cool and unflappable facade is breached and wanted to bear witness to what would be an emotional visit for me. So I knew she would be disappointed when I informed her that she would have to share the moment with three other football fans – Pops, Gramps and The Farmer.
Now Zloty (that’s me – it’s a long story), Gramps, Pops and The Farmer may sound more like an Eastern European version of the Seven Dwarfs than a hardcore group of football fans, but we are all long-term supporters of football clubs. Except for The Farmer, of course, who is something of a neophyte, a bit of a Johnny-come-lately, who has supported Liverpool from the periphery with only a limited degree of fanaticism for a mere twenty years or so. But I’m a tolerant man and I welcomed the tepid nature of his Liverpool support – after all, I accepted Pops into the fold, a deluded life-long Manchester United fan, with an odd habit of referring to Alex Ferguson as Sir Alex, promoting the bizarre and oft refuted notion that a UK knighthood is some marker of superiority. Misguided loyalties aside, Pops also holds a number of unusual football views – until recently, this included being a staunch defender of José Mourinho, until even he could no longer put up with the portable misery-making machine that is José. Gramps is a quieter supporter, a Tottenham fan who grows misty-eyed at any mention of Hoddle, Waddle, Archibald or Ardiles and becomes uncontrollably nostalgic if the name of Bill Nicholson pops up (despite Gramps’ obvious age, even I doubt if he was around for those glory years). Still, he’s probably the most level-headed fan of the four of us, his relative objectivity clouded only by his eerie obsession with Mousa Dembélé.
My travelling companions, whether it be for age, technical inability or rural residence reasons, were unable to deal with the complexity of organising the trip. The Farmer claimed he had to manage his annual Boran Cattle Auction which sounded like a likely story to me. What next? He couldn’t assist because the wheat wasn’t yet dry? So I booked tickets for five games, the timing of which had the advantage of allowing San-Marié to steer well clear of our laddish behaviour for most of the trip and only join us for one Liverpool game at the end.
I’ve made getting seats sound easy, but it really wasn’t. Football tickets are surprisingly difficult to get hold of if you’re not a season ticket holder and you want to purchase them legally. I suspect they’re cheaper but riskier if you want to buy them from a big bald guy in a black coat called Vladimir fanning tickets just outside the stadium on matchday. Early on, we decided to take no chances (even though I felt confident that I could get the measure of Big Vlad), pay up and only make bookings directly from the clubs involved or from Official Suppliers. So we decided to place ourselves in the safe hands of the Official Manchester United sponsor, Thomas Cook, and sent our hard-earned cash to their coffers in return for tickets and accommodation …
A few weeks later, Thomas Cook folded.
Fortunately, it was only our tickets to Old Trafford that were affected. I took this as some sort of sign from all the gods in all the worlds, so I was quite happy to skip that game entirely. After all, I wasn’t really expecting to see quality football there.
But I felt for Pops. Not only had his recent years supporting his club been filled with misery and doubt and diabolical football, but his lifelong dream of visiting Old Trafford was withering away. So, we caved in and repurchased tickets for Old Trafford. We had to jump through numerous hoops though. This included a phone call to a hotel that contained distinct Fawlty Towers overtones. I tried in vain to explain, with escalating levels of annoyance, to what I assume was a Polish immigrant, that Thomas Cook was a company that had taken our money and not some posh bloke that had booked our hotel rooms. No doubt Brexit supporters would have cackled gleefully had they obtained a recording – as San-Marié did listening to my side of the conversation.
One of the other companies we bought tickets from was a small company in the Netherlands whose main selling points were that they were Official Resellers and that they had Gramps’s endorsement. Gramps’s endorsement, something usually given only grudgingly, was based purely on their nationality. Notwithstanding his general level-headedness, Gramps has picked up a fondness and trust for anything Dutch. So much so, that he considers the butcher-masquerading-as-a-football-player, Mark van Bommel, to be one of the greatest players of all time. Moreover, he believes that any financial dealings with the Dutch can be assumed to be sound. I’m thinking of selling him a few Dutch tulips one day when the price is right. Fortunately, Gramps’s certainty proved well-founded and we collected the remainder of our tickets without further problems.
Our first game was Spurs versus Southampton at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, not exactly a name that rolls off the tongue. We met Pops’s nephew, Stephen and my old university friend, Bully at the Bluecoats Pub before the game. I was glad to meet up with Bully, a Spurs fan, because I hadn’t seen him for some time. He was a useful addition because no lads’ trip is complete without having a Bully (or a Blackie or a Dicky) in their midsts, even if it added a tinge too much British Imperialism to the Eastern European flavour of our group for my liking.
The Spurs Stadium is spectacular. Recently built, it’s a splendour of modern design, with great, spacious facilities, wonderful stands and the latest in technology. Although I’m not a beer drinker, I was mesmerised as I watched beer glasses placed on lengthy bars being filled from the bottom up, an action that is somehow simultaneously both unnecessarily flashy and appropriate. The highlight of the game itself was a slick one-touch move that ended with a Harry Kane goal. This set the trend for the whole trip, as we were fortunate to see a barrage of goals during our visit, the vast majority at the ends where we sat.
I was a bit worried about Gramps – he seemed a tad emotional the whole day (he’d later claim that it was the unseasonal pollen in the air) – and after an awful error by Hugo Lloris and a second yellow card for Serge Aurier, I feared for him. Such fluctuating emotions coursing through the veins of an old guy, let alone one from the Eastern Free State, where repressed emotions and stoicism are a way of life, can’t be healthy. But Spurs hung on for the win and we joined the Spurs fans after the game in victory song and celebration, with Gramps leading the way. It was impossible to resist the addictive thrumming of the Ndombele/Sissoko song and it stayed with us for days. Even The Farmer couldn’t help himself – perhaps already yearning for the wide-open spaces of his farm or maybe thinking that Sissoko was Swiss, he broke into a tuneful yodel/ululation which, against expectations, added to the harmony.
Old Trafford was both glorious and miserable. Glorious because we were at one of the biggest clubs in the world; miserable because the weather conditions were abysmal and the refreshment facilities in our part of the ground were limited. Alcohol has the ability to cheer up even the most downbeat of fans; tired steak-and-kidney pies and stale packets of crisps don’t. Perhaps in tribute to the weather, both Arsenal and Manchester United delivered error-strewn performances with the highlight of the game (which was drawn) being a slick finish from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
It is interesting to watch Manchester United, England’s second greatest club, as they come to terms with no longer being the dominant force in the country. The fan psyche has changed, perhaps embodied best by our own Pops, where cocky confidence has been replaced by a lugubrious outlook and a wistful condemnation of the Old Trafford hierarchy – a transformation that I find a bit disconcerting and makes me nostalgic for his former bolshiness. But as England’s wealthiest club by far, I suspect it is only a matter of time before they are competing again and Pops is back to his belligerent best.
I’ve never been a believer in the “what goes on tour, stays on tour” ethos, which rowdy men like to quote when they go away together, because it’s usually just grandiose talk to cover up that nothing of interest happened anyway. But I’m also reluctant to talk out of turn – unless it involves Pops. Whilst sharing a room with Pops on our first night, after a brief chat about the evening’s festivities at the stadium, Pops said, “Good night”, turned over in his bed and within a minute was fast asleep. I knew he was asleep, not because he didn’t respond to a question I asked, but because of the sound that was coming from his corner of the room. It wasn’t the calm deep breathing one associates with sleep nor the slightly nasal rattle of a gentle snorer. Rather, it was the full-throated roar of a rhythmic combine harvester, a weird combination of regularity and unfettered noise. As surprised as I was by the scale of the commotion, I still took a moment to contemplate and marvel at the remarkable and immediate transformation from a quiet “good night” to sonic pandemonium. But hardened traveller that I am, I hunkered down and proceeded to have my usual fitful night of sleep despite the obvious distraction and thought nothing more about it.
Until two days later, when I encountered Gramps at the breakfast table. Gramps was looking a bit bleary-eyed and said that the previous night’s sleep had been a trifle tricky. Gramps is a veteran of a number of high mountain ascents and is used to sleeping in uncomfortable places, sometimes with howling gales swirling around his threadbare tent. But the previous evening it had been his turn to share with Pops, and in his usual understated way, Gramps said the noise had been “problematic”. Ever resourceful though, Gramps explained how wetting some toilet paper, rolling it into a little ball and putting it in your ears can work wonders. Gramps said matters had progressed far better after he had done just that, and again I thought little more of it, despite the lethargic stride Gramps appeared to have developed.
Until another two days later. This time a much revived Gramps and I encountered a rather fatigued and downtrodden Farmer at the breakfast table – it had been his turn to be Pops’s roomie. We asked him what the matter was and he just shook his head, as much a tired act of despair as a ploy to summon up the strength to tell his story. He related his tale of woe. By now aware of Pops’s reputation, he had planned on falling asleep first, but had been caught off guard by the unique and speedy transformation of Pops from quiet evening chatterer to generator of absolute mayhem. He tried to read a bit but found concentration difficult. In matters of practicality, however, The Farmer is a quick learner and having taken note of Gramps’s wet toilet paper-in-the-ear trick, tried it out. More used to the gentle mewling of lambs and the soft snorting of cattle, this was of no help whatsoever. So he took drastic measures, picked up his mattress and squeezed it into the small corridor between the bedroom and the entrance. This allowed him to place a barrier between him and the relentless cacophony (there was a second door), even though it meant that he had to contort his rugby-scarred body into a tiny space. He said this was only marginally better and fearful that Pops would stomp on him on the way to the bathroom, he found sleep hard to come by.
Now Pops is a sensitive fellow and was perturbed to find his roommate missing when he awoke from a restful night’s slumber. From that moment on, he vowed to make life more pleasant for his roommates and for the remainder of the trip tried to segregate himself during sleeping hours as best as possible. This culminated in him camping down in front of a fire exit at our last B&B. I was sharing with him this time, but we were fortunate to be a couple of floors up and in a corner next to a passage with a fire exit. Although we suspected that Andy, the punctilious fellow that ran the place, would toss us all out if he discovered what we were up to, Pops chose to spend the night in the passage, dismantling his bed in the process, confident that nobody would find him there in the middle of the night. Although the Victorian walls of my room were no match for Pops’ assault from just outside of it, I managed a passable night’s sleep. At breakfast the next morning, The Farmer was collared by Andy: “One of your boys sounded like a pneumatic drill last night,” he raged, “I was in the basement and I could hear him from 3 storeys up!” The Farmer smiled.
We agreed to meet Pops at a local pub called Mary D’s just before the Manchester City game. Not because we had excommunicated him (the vote was tight), but being better rested, and as a result, more energetic than the rest of us, he had gone on an Old Trafford Stadium Tour. He said it was superb and certainly better than the game the night before. He bought a few pieces of Manchester United memorabilia, a harmless enough act of fan loyalty, until he discovered that the pub where we were meeting was a “Man City Only” pub. But Pops can be a man of ingenuity, so he stuffed his Red Devils goodies into his jacket and disguised himself as a Manchester City fan dressed like the Michelin Man. He waltzed into the pub. Pops is a social creature and using the vast reserves of charm that he saves for people that aren’t his friends, he secured a table and managed to hold some empty seats for us despite such actions being frowned upon in Manchester. To do so, he had to make small talk with a couple of old geezers, one of whom, Martin, was barely capable of speaking, either because of the booze, his age or the decades-long trauma of supporting Manchester City. I had the misfortune of sitting next to Martin when I arrived and I suspected that he hadn’t showered for a few weeks. To thank Pops for this kindness, I “accidentally” spilled his beer all over his lap (Pops, not Martin), hoping that his beer-sodden clothing would force him to reveal the Manchester United paraphernalia he’d hidden beneath it.
The Manchester City game was an odd one. The Etihad lacked the charm of the other stadiums that we visited. Perhaps it was because the stadium was not filled, which I found surprising given the club’s recent success and the quality of football that they play. This curiosity is emphasized by the support still received at Old Trafford a few kilometres away despite the quality of the football currently served up there. It might also have been the singing and chanting, of which there was very little. It was the poorest of any of the home teams, a state highlighted by the loud and unremitting support that the away fans of Dinamo Zagreb delivered. Feisty and aggressive, bordering on militant, they did not stop for 95 minutes. True, “DI-NA-MO ZA-GREB, OLÉ, OLÉ, OLÉ” is a pretty limited repertoire, but sung with non-stop conviction, unrelenting repetition, drum accompaniment and violent fist-pumping, it is compelling.
City won the game and I enjoyed watching one of Pep Guardiola’s teams play. I have always loved his style of football and I was not disappointed with the smooth passing game and non-stop movement that City showed. In particular, I delighted in watching David Silva, one of my favourite EPL players of all time – even at the end of his career, his movement and touch remains sublime.
And so on to Anfield. First, to watch Liverpool in the Champions League versus Salzburg and then in the Premier League versus Leicester. I’m sure some of you have wondered why it has taken me so long to visit Anfield. I went overseas for the first time when I was about 22, I’ve visited every continent (except Antarctica), walked on glaciers, hiked up volcanoes, frozen in the Patagonian mountains and sweated in the Amazon forests. I’ve even braved the staid civility of the UK a number of times and yet had never been to Anfield. I’m not sure I know the answer to that. It’s possible that I feared it would not live up to expectations – how could it, after all the years, all the dreams, memories and images built up in my mind? People say you should never meet your heroes, and to me, there was an element of that, even if my hero in this story was a football match. So I was undeniably nervous before my first visit. As it turned out, there was no need for nerves.
We took a train to the game from our spot in Southport – I liked the fact that we were doing it the way that many locals do. Pops was somewhat bemused. He’s lived within an area of about 5 square kilometres his whole life, including a stint in the army, and he thinks public transport means Uber. Gramps was nonchalant – his eyes remained dazed though, either through lack of sleep or the non-stop chants of “Ndombele, Ndombele” that were passing through his mind, whilst The Farmer, true to his salt-of-the-earth nature, reveled in it. Walking towards the stadium, it all felt familiar to me. Despite never having been there before, I’d seen so many photos and videos that the small houses and pubs near the stadium felt as recognisable to me as the Rondebosch suburbs. The Farmer was taken by it all – despite lacking the deep historical roots that I had, he made up for it with sheer enthusiasm and delight – his boisterousness a good counterpoint to my more reflective appreciation.
I loved the stadium – neither as large as Old Trafford nor as grandiose as the Spurs Stadium, it felt just right to me. I soaked up all the landmarks – the statue of Shankly, the Paisley Gates and spent a moment of quiet reflection at the Hillsborough memorial. To enter the stadium, we squeezed through tiny turnstiles fashioned in the pre-Nando’s era (I was relieved to make it) and joined a boisterous crowd. Anfield lay before me and around me, and to my mind at least, felt intimate despite its 54,000 capacity. It was strange though, at the sight of the flags on the Kop and as the opening verses of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” started, I finally became aware of the pollen in the English air that Gramps had been talking about. Of course I joined in the singing, belting out the anthem in my toneless, off-key style with significant volume and gusto. Despite some unnecessary comments about my musicality, The Farmer was so impressed that he vowed to learn the words before the next match.
The first half of the Salzburg match was the best half of football we watched. Liverpool were electrifying, playing at a pace and with a zip that we had not seen. Liverpool raced into a 3-0 lead. I sang all the Liverpool songs that I knew so well, about Van Dijk and Salah and Bobby Firmino and conquering all of Europe. In most civilised societies, I would be banned from singing in public (listen to the above) and likely executed if it were still the Middle Ages, but I was fortunate that my Cacofonix-like tones were drowned out by 50,000 or so others. There is no doubt that the Liverpool home support and atmosphere was the best we experienced, even if Pops was somewhat taken aback by some of the blunt comments coming from the broad Scouse accent behind him. A brave and impressive rally by Salzburg in the second half pulled it back to 3-3 before Mo Salah scored the much-deserved winner. My first match at Anfield was over. It could not have been better.
A few days later, we were back at Anfield and it was more of the same. I say more of the same, but I felt as engaged, as happy and as privileged as I had the first time. Of course, San-Marié was with us for this game and if it was possible, she showed even more enthusiasm than The Farmer, bouncing around the stadium with unbounded excitement. As the traditional “You’ll Never Walk Alone” started, I gazed across at The Farmer, expecting him to be leading the charge having recently learned the words, only to see him scrambling for his phone so he could read the lyrics. To be fair, his musical contribution was better than mine and any slight disappointment I may have felt was put to rest when I looked across at my wife. She too was singing (scarf aloft and without memory aids), seemingly in tune, with both a broad smile on her face and with tears streaming down her cheeks.
It was a great game. Leicester were enterprising and the atmosphere was once again outstanding, enhanced this time by San-Marié’s vocal support. Her contribution was narrow – in fact it was limited to shrieking “Leave him alone! Leave him alone!” every time her hero, Mo Salah, touched the ball and someone dared to try and tackle him. Liverpool dominated the game, but it still needed a James Milner penalty in injury time to secure the win. This led to a rare expressive celebration from me.
5 games. 17 goals. 2 Liverpool victories. A winning penalty in injury time. I was fortunate to watch Liverpool when I did and to see the games that I did. I witnessed one of the best teams in the club’s history, at a time when the club and fanbase is united and when optimism abounds. Supporting Liverpool Football Club may not be rational. But it’s what I choose to do.
To view our Liverpool Gallery, click here.
A special thanks to Pops, Gramps and The Farmer for sharing this trip with me, even though they knew my pen was unlikely to be kind to them. And of course, to my wife, for enduring it all.
All video provided courtesy of The Farmer