My older sister took me to my very first football match in January 1993. She was (is) a massive Arsenal fan, so I watched Arsenal vs Sheffield United at Highbury. It was quite a dull match, ending 1-1 with David Hillier scoring the opener for the Gunners late in the first half, before conceding a goal late in the game. I think that was that day I got hooked, fell in love with football but, not necessarily the football being played more so the match day experience. I was never an Arsenal fan, no matter how hard my sister tried. My favourite footballer of all time is John Barnes, which makes me a Liverpool fan, but I was taken by the atmosphere at Highbury, the songs, the banter, the engulfing aroma of warming beer, fags and expectation. Even when there were lulls in the game the crowd would entertain themselves;
‘We’re the NOOOORTH BANK, we’re the NOOOORTH BANK, we’re the North Bank, Highbury’
‘We’re the CLOOOOCK END, we’re the CLOOOOCK END, we’re the Clock End, Highbury!’
There were so many things to get immersed in. If it wasn’t my initial amazement at how small the Highbury pitch actually was and how human and ordinary the players looked, then it was the songs being sung. It seemed as though they had a song or chant for every single player. I remember chuckling with my sister as the regulars took the mickey out of the opposition players. My favourite insult, or at least the one that has the cleanest language, was when a substitute came on for the opposition, after his name had been called out over the tannoy by the stadium announcer all the Arsenals fans would collective ask ‘Who?’ (You had to be there, it was hilarious!!).
I think those experiences of Highbury, queuing up to purchase tickets a week or two before a game outside the box office, or trying to watch the game via a tiny crack in the gates they opened to allow all the fans to leave, gave me my love for going to football matches. I loved every minute of the match day experience.
The day I fell in love with football itself, for the theatre that is it and for the passions which it can arouse, was on 26th May 1989 when Michael Thomas scored that goal that won the league for Arsenal at Anfield. Before then I was a casual fan, content in the knowledge that Liverpool will, more than likely, win their game at the weekend. John Barnes would have been instrumental in their success and I would feed off his praise while watching Saint and Greavsie on a Saturday morning before triumphantly striding into school on Monday morning with that smug feeling that only your team winning on the weekend can give you. But, on that faithful day, my whole world rocked. What I thought would be a routine result giving us a routine win and another trophy to parade around our stadium didn’t materialise. We were dealt a sucker punch (well actually two but, who’s counting). The first goal was from an indirect free kick and it didn’t look as though Alan Smith got a touch to it but it went into the net and a goal was awarded. The second, the cruelest of blows, was scored by Michael Thomas. Michael fricking Thomas and that awful, awful goal celebration! He was hardly a David Platt or, a Paul Gascoigne, or any type of player of that ilk. I was mortified. Crushed. This wasn’t in the script.
The whole league system immediately made perfect sense to me and since that day I dedicated everything within me to willing Liverpool on to win, armed with the necessary appreciation and proper understanding of what it means and takes for a team to achieve such a feat. Of course we won the league the following year with John Barnes winning the Football Writers footballer of the year award.
I was there for the glory days, just maybe too drunk on the success to fully take in the moment and right about now, there is a serious drought. I miss that feeling, the honeymoon period where your team does no wrong but now reality has set in. Whether it’s due to poor managerial decisions or the money now circulating around football which has priced your team away from the top table, you long for the return of your first love. Trying to recapture the feeling of looking forward to the weekend safe in the knowledge that your team has the capacity to not only put on a show but, most importantly, obtain the win!
I’d say football fans nowadays have an expectancy of their team rather than a love. With the prices of players and the estimation of their salaries now as much a headline as a result itself I would argue that the love is missing. What happened to turning up on a match day and just supporting your club from first whistle to last? Why must a team be 3-0 up and cruising before the fans actually start supporting their team? To me the modern football fan, especially the fans of the wealthier clubs, are very spoilt, very expecting and in the words of David O’Leary, kind of fickle.
My love affair started in earnest with heartbreak. You know what they say about heartbreak? Nope? Me neither, but from that moment I was a man totally infatuated with the drama that football provided. Unscripted, intriguing, passionate; football in its purest form.
We Liverpool fans are constantly taunted about living in the past and being team ‘history’ but it’s the past glories that spur you on, that give you that hope that, one day, the sun will shine on your team again and allow you and your fellow supporters the bragging rights that your team is the best in the land.
You support them so you too can share in their triumph.
Is it love? Yes, yes it is.
Written by Saffa Kallon
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