Diary Of A Female Fan: What Liverpool Means To Me
The last time Liverpool FC won the domestic title, I was too young to remember. I bob-sleighed into the world in the back of an ambulance on one of the hottest, stickiest days of the summer of ‘89, so I was nine months old. I forget where I put my keys and phone on a daily basis, so forgive me for having no recollection whatsoever of the 2-1 win against QPR which sealed Liverpool’s 18th title, with two games to spare.
But I grew up with football and I grew up with Liverpool FC. I don’t come from a football-mad family, but for some reason, I have always been football-mad. There are photographs of me as a toddler, grabbing at a size five ball which comes up to my chubby knees. My granddad was a Manchester City supporter and my uncle favoured Blackburn, but neither were particularly partisan. For Christmas as a kid, I received a goal, probably from Argos, which we set up at the bottom of my grandparents’ garden. The garden was L-shaped, so I became very good at bending the ball around a shed. I divided my time between dragging my granddad from his chair after lunch to play, and knocking on the next door neighbours’ to get my ball back. The net soon had a gaping hole and the grass churned into Somme trenches. At home, our house was at the bottom of a dead-end road which meets a park. I’d spend hours hitting a fly-away ball against the railings, judging the angles of the bars so that the ball would bounce back to me and not onto the bonnet of cars with a deep thud and the wail of an alarm.
At seven, I joined a girls’ team which was then styled Liverpool Feds, but in later years was sponsored by Liverpool FC to become the official Liverpool girls’ team. I still recall my first training session; I came off the field buzzing, the seat belt cutting into my chin on the way home as I gabbled excitedly. Over the years, I got used to weaving around plastic cones; the graze of salty astroturf; the sweaty harvest of loose skin in shin pads. My mum got used to washing team kits and awkwardly avoiding the question about Robbie Fowler’s byline snorting celebration.
I traded Merlin football stickers, had a room plastered with Steve McManaman posters. When the other girls in school were making up Gina G dance routines at break, I was playing football with the boys, kicking the stuffing out of a soggy sponge ball. Sometimes I would lie about the Everton player Joe Parkinson being my uncle. I spent holidays at football camps, receiving gold plastic trophies from Alan Kennedy, and scoring a hat-trick against Ian Rush.
Football was with me all of the time.
I was born a few months after Hillsborough happened, but few in Liverpool are untouched by Hillsborough. Sometimes people ask me whether people really steer clear of the Sun newspaper in Liverpool, and I tell them yes, mostly they do. Liverpool FC has coloured my own personal tragedies too. The last time I saw my dad before he died, when I was nine, was the same day I went to Anfield to watch the final game of the ‘99 season, a 3-0 win against Wimbledon. Going to Anfield was expensive, so I used to watch Tranmere Rovers more frequently, but on this occasion a neighbour with a season ticket had taken me along. My dad lived next to Stanley Park and on a weekend I’d be able to hear the roars from the stadium. When my mum answered the phone to the news that my beloved grandad had died, I was in the living room watching the Sunday morning repeat of Match of the Day, which I did every weekend without fail, legs tucked beneath me and a bowl of Coco Pops in hand. Both of these events are tied in my memory to watching Liverpool play.
Michael Owen, in particular, was my hero. I loved his one-hand goal salute – which naturally, I copied - I loved his square haircut and the way his shirt drowned him, like mine did. Parkinson is a long name and I didn’t like the way the felt letters arched almost to my lower back, so when I bought shirts, I usually asked for his name instead. He was lightning quick, fearless, and assured as he ran at defenders. I was a right winger, and thought of myself as all of these things. I queued for a signed copy of his autobiography at a Waterstones on Bold Street. I had all of his Michael Owen Soccer Skills books and VHS tapes, in which he skipped past nine-year-olds with ease in an empty Anfield stadium, a little smugly perhaps. I bought the Best Goals of World Cup ‘98 video and watched his wonder strike against Argentina until the tape wore out.
But it was very rare during my childhood for Liverpool to threaten to win the league. More often than not we sat somewhere in the top ten; fourth, sixth, seventh, eighth. Most young Manchester United fans, for instance, will have grown up not knowing their team as anything other than well-paid magpies always alighting on shiny things, big-name behemoths with millions of fans as far away as China, and an autocrat grinding his jaw into dust chewing gum, possibly sponsored by Wrigley’s. Of course, I hated Manchester United. I still hate Manchester United, but now I have friends who support Manchester United, because with age you realise everyone has flaws. I had to be content with Liverpool winning FA Cups and charity shields. One of the best memories was winning that historic treble of the League Cup, UEFA Cup and FA Cup in 2001, climbing lampposts as the parade bus went past St. George’s Hall. Michael Owen’s last minute tight-angled winner against Arsenal in the FA Cup final, celebrated with a forward flip.
We finished third that season but we were 11 points behind the winners, United. It was them and Arsenal who dominated throughout the 90s and early noughties. Thierry Henry was probably my favourite non-Liverpool player, especially in their Invincibles season of 2003-2004. Then, at the end of 2004, Michael Owen followed McManaman to Real Madrid (who had taken his step-overs and scurrying pace to Spain in 1998). It’s possible that I still haven’t forgiven Owen for this. And by possible, I mean I definitely still haven’t forgiven him for this, and he only hacked away at heartstrings further when he signed to sit on the bench for United in 2009.
By 2005, I had stopped playing regularly and for a team. I was 15, and the last time I had played for Liverpool girls was for the Under-14s. In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell describes how the best ice hockey players are born in the first three months of the year, giving them an advantage as the strongest and oldest in their age group. If this is true, the reverse was true for me. Born in that hot, late August, I was one of the youngest in my year at school, and was sometimes almost two years younger than girls I was playing against. I was skinny and I’d get rammed off the ball with ease. I’d grown disillusioned with aggressive fathers, their hands jammed in fleece pockets yelling obscenities at 13-year-olds on football pitches with orange nets. I got lazy. I hadn’t wanted to get up at 8am on Saturdays to play at 9.30am, and I hated the purple my hands turned at training on Wednesday night, even with gloves on. I was captain of the school team, and threw myself into tennis, netball, and rounders, but I had stopped playing outside of school. I still spent hours playing Pro Evo and FIFA on Playstation 2, but by the spring of 2005, you might say I was growing out of football.
One game changed all of that. I watched the 2005 Champions League Final, the so-called Miracle of Istanbul, at my friend Sarah’s house, a bunch of us taking a break during our GCSE exams with plastic cups of £5 wine. By half time, 3-0 down, most of us had switched off slightly, talk turning to photosynthesis and what Wilfred Owen had really meant. What happened in the second half reignited my passion for Liverpool. Steven Gerrard’s power header, his arms whipping the crowd up, Vladimir Smicer’s strike ricocheting in off the post, Xabi Alonso’s rebounded penalty strike. Afterwards, we all went streaming up to Allerton Road, the streets a carnival of red, pubs staying open all night, horns blaring and lungs singing. I still get goosebumps watching highlights of that game, more than any other. I started following the team more devoutly again. Our good form in Europe was in stark contrast to our domestic endeavours. We lost a rematch of that final in 2007, and a semi-final to Chelsea a year later, but were consistently mid-table in the league.
This changed briefly, in 2008-2009. Which for me, is the most memorable and closest shot at the title I have experienced. We finished second, to United of course, and I was at the time living in Russia. This was incredibly frustrating, given that I was accessing the internet on a 2G dongle, and trying to stream title deciding games was near impossible. I’d fire up the laptop and just stare at a red pixelated mess (it was the same when I tried to follow the Obama election). Instead, I’d read the Guardian’s minute-by-minutes and BBC match reports. My boyfriend at the time was a guy called Sasha, who was in the Russian army. When he went to Moscow for training, he came back with a two-metre-by-two-metre LFC flag. The flag has hung in every place I’ve lived since, currently it’s in my kitchen and I’m scared it will fall onto the hob while I’m cooking. We were still crap in the league, but watching Fernando Torres terrify defenders and the sublime performances of Gerrard were reward. When Torres left for Chelsea in early 2011, he joined Owen on my s***-list. A year later, when I lived in a flat in Oxford, neighbours from upstairs, good friends, came rushing to my front door in response to screams, thinking I’d been hurt: I was watching Liverpool’s penalty shoot-out against Cardiff in the League Cup final.
Those few years were odd, and difficult, and annoying. Hodgson’s abject failure, Dalglish’s purchase of Andy Carroll (although he did bring us Luis Suarez). This was a time when the club was hitting the headlines for non-footballing reasons. The poisonous tenure of Tom Hicks and George Gillett, hugely unpopular from the start, two pantomime villains, finally ended in October 2010. Then came the racism charges against Luis Suarez; that ridiculous decision by Dalglish to wear supportive shirts and an ugly side-show which dragged on for months which the club handled badly, to put it mildly. Then, an important and long fought moment for the club: the Actual Truth about Hillsborough, nearly a quarter of a century after it happened, in September 2012. One of the biggest police conspiracies in the history of our country uncovered, and, finally, an acknowledgement that fans had not caused the crush that day. Apologies and promises from politicians to bring those to book who had been wrong, some sort of closure for the Hillsborough Family Support Group who had toiled so hard to have their voices heard and the true facts dispersed.
In the meantime, Manchester City had joined Chelsea in the fat-wallet gang and were netting their way to a first title since 1968. Watching that exhilarating final game in which City took the title with a stoppage time Aguero winner, in a crowded Oxford pub, made me wish we could have a similar resurgence, even without the bags of cash.
And now? Now, we have Rodgers, who despite referring to our position in the title race as “being in the conversation” (what?) and saying okay a few too many times, I like a lot. He is not afraid to mix and match our team, change tactics, bring players in and leave players out. We have seen that with Raheem Sterling and Martin Skrtel. He chooses players on merit, not because they cost x amount of money or because they are fan favourites. He has stuck with Jordan Henderson, who is delivering the goods for us after a disappointing start when he looked like he might turn out to be factory seconds. Gerrard – screw it, Stevie G – has flourished in a deeper position. Coutinho is rampant, and Rodgers has also coaxed the best from Daniel Sturridge who, if his move to Liverpool was the last chance saloon, has drunk thirstily from the bar ever since.
The one thing that has been missing in the Liverpool teams I have supported my whole life is consistency. Now, we have won eight games on the trot, and won all but two of our games at Anfield this season. Between them, Suarez and Sturridge have scored 49 times. It seems to me, for the first time in a long time, that the ship is steady and everybody is rowing in sync. It’s exciting. After nearly bursting a blood vessel every time SurAlex made some snooty remark about “knocking us off our perch” or Gerrard not being a “top, top player”, we are thriving, and Manchester United have the consistency of ash. They are nowhere near the top, top of the league.
I would have written this piece a while ago, but I was cautious. Now: I believe. I think we can do it. We will need to beat Manchester City and Chelsea at home, but that leaves the title in our hands. To use a hackneyed, managerial phrase, you can see the hunger. Gerrard’s appetite to win the one major honour missing from his club career is tangible. Suarez has stopped biting people and seems to have begun to behave himself, and now is one of the most entertaining footballers I have ever watched. The whole team play like they’re up in lights on a theatre stage. It’s a shame that Jamie Carragher, another one of my childhood heroes, retired at the end of last season. Gylfi Sigurdsson, who could have signed for Liverpool but chose Spurs, must be kicking himself too.
Last year, at 24, I started working at the Guardian, and have sat on the sport desk since November. I’ve watched our season take shape, heard the analysis tapped out on keyboards either side of me. I’ve tweeted hopefully, and spilt vodka down my front in Camden pubs cheering game after game, racking up goal after goal, often two or three up by half time. Every time we win, and win comprehensively, the vice of belief is turned a little tighter and I remember what it felt like to trot out onto the field wearing my club’s colours in something the Americans would probably call Little League. I remember that rapturous night in the middle of GCSE stress. I recall the tour of Anfield my mum took me on for my birthday, the books I would devour about Shankly and Souness in between the latest Harry Potter. This is what it means to be a lifelong Liverpool fan. I don’t know what it would mean to watch a Liverpool captain lift the Premier League trophy, but I would sure as hell like to find out.
And no, I won’t calm down.
Follow Hannah on Twitter, @ladyhaja.