Monday, April 14, 2014

An epic day

I leave Sheffield at 9:57 in the morning. I like to arrive at Anfield early enough to soak up the build up. I knew I wouldn't make it in time for the flags and banners welcome to the coach, but it's early enough for me.

The sun is shining - a proper spring day - so I dust off the bright white summer jacket for its 2014 inaugural outing. As I drive into the peaks it feels like it will be a good day.

Atmosphere is gonna be epic.

Then as I descend towards Manchester the clouds roll in. Big and black. My ritual is well underway. The Anfield Wrap podcast has taken up the first half of the journey, so it's time for Five Live.

London Marathon commentary.

Now don't get me wrong, I have incredible respect for both the athletes and the general public who choose to put themselves through 26 miles of sheer pain and suffering. I know I wouldn't. It's just that as a sport, it really doesn't lend itself to radio commentary. And this is coming from a guy who has listened to golf, cricket and curling on the radio.

So no build up then.

The rain starts. I switch to soundtrack music. It lends itself nicely to the epic battle to come. I imagine the Match of the Day or Sky Sports montage to come. Win or lose it will play out to the music from The Dark Knight or Sunshine or something else that can adequately depict the scale of the gladiatorial battle to come.

I stick the same track on repeat. I do this a lot.

Car parked in the usual spot. The rain has stopped but it's a little brisk, so I put on my neck warmer along with my scarf. I'm conscious that I probably look pretty stupid now in my 80s Wham-esque summer jacket and winter woolies. It isn't even a jacket that George Michael would wear. It would be worn by the other one. You know the guy. The one no one remembers.

Screw it. When you move headlong into your 30s there is very little you can wear without looking a little daft.

My fashion faux-pas is forgotten as I hear the crowd. It's still more than 90 mins to kickoff.

Something very special is happening here.

For lunch I head to my usual cafe. I take the long route round to pay my respects at the Hillsborough memorial. 25 years. I was a kid watching on TV. My Dad had gone out to collect my Mum from her weekend shift. By the time he came back the sport had given way to tragedy.

25 years.

At the cafe it's pie, chips, peas and gravy. As always. I eat in. As always. The place is decked out in Liverpool paraphernalia that I love to stare at. It's a calm moment before the craziness to come.

I head into the ground. 'Get in early' everyone was saying. I always get in early. I don't like to be late. I love watching the stands fill up.

By the time the players come out to warm up it's almost full. Never seen that before. And when they finish, the roar for them is unlike anything I've heard in a football stadium. The epic nature of the event is already living up to it's billing.

The commemorations to Hillsborough are poignant and heartfelt. The Man City fans excellent. The noise at the end of the minutes silence loud enough to let everyone know that this is no ordinary match.

The start is frenetic. Sterling dances and scores. Skrtel rises and it's 2-0. Every time Man City have the ball the whistles pierce my eardrums like a screeching harpy. It's going to be a rout.

But this isn't Everton, Arsenal or Spurs. This Man City team have been title favourites all season not just because they have the most expensively assembled squad in league history. They have a will to win. The desire of league champions. They proved that two years ago.

2-0 is quickly 2-2 and in truth they should be ahead. We're on the ropes. Suarez and Sturridge have been poor and Rodgers changes things. Allen brings some stability. Suarez is still on the pitch but I have no idea how. He's had one of those sudden regressions to the petulant lad of 2012/13. This could go either way. This is the best team I've seen play against us all season. In many seasons. Of that there is no doubt.

Then the little Brazilian strokes in the winning goal. Coutinho-o-o! The kid that can't hit a barn door from a yard out. On the kop we bounce. I'm held up by a man twice my age. He's seen it all before and remained calm the whole match. But now he's almost in tears. Propping me up. In my white summer jacket. The sun now streaming down.

Knew I made the right choice!

The clock ticks down. We're hanging on. Henderson sees red. We'll miss him. He's been vital to our unexpected title challenge.

The whistle goes and players hug in front of us. The roar is louder still.

I've only been regularly going to games at Anfield for a few short years. I wasn't there for the Chelsea semi in 2005 or any of those other great European nights. I have no frame of reference for an atmosphere like this. Against Everton, Arsenal and Spurs the noise has been increasing with the belief.

Now it's unstoppable.

I drive home and already the debates have begun. We'll miss Henderson. Liverpool got lucky. Suarez should have been sent off. Sturridge out? I don't care. Luck comes and goes in football.

Football rarely lives up to it's overhyped billing. But Sunday really was special. We may still not win the title. I tell myself that Chelsea and Man City still have more on paper. In this unpredictable season I know only one thing for certain. When I drive to the Chelsea game in two weeks time I fully expect an even bigger atmosphere than the last.

I'm getting spoiled.

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