Five hours in Paradise - Parts I & II

Posted by nige on June 10, 2004, 06:04:53 PM

Five Hours in Paradise

The atmosphere was tense at Anfield on Friday 21st May 2004; it made me think of a movie where the old Emperor is on his death bed, with no undisputed heir; all round him, his loyal guards and servants don't know what to  expect, nor what is being plotted behind the scenes by the real powers behind the throne, scheming to bring in a new man. The Thai offer; the Morgan bid; Gérard Houllier’s protestations that he was going nowhere: they all hung heavy in the air for as long as the media spin would let them.

2 friends were waiting for me in the Main Stand car park outside the Directors' Entrance; their professional-looking video equipment was making the smart-blazered security men a little anxious.

“Are you press? No interviews today.”
“No we’re just meeting our mate who’s playing in the Football Aid charity match".
“You got your guest passes?”
“No, he’s got them - we’ll just give him a call on his mobile.”

My phone rang.

“We’re here at the Main Stand. Where are you?”
“Got here early so I’m just in the club shop, buying a ball, so’s I can get Phil Neal, Alan Kennedy and the rest of them to sign. I’ll be there in 5 minutes.”

We'd deliberately parked right where the LFC players themselves park,  by the Player's Entrance, and we hung about there taking a few photos & video clips, with me joking nervously about being a big star making my Anfield debut.  At the age of nearly forty-one I had waited even longer to play for a "Liverpool" team at Anfield than even Paul Jones did ! This was all thanks to "Football Aid", a brilliant idea - raising money for charity and letting people like me fulfil their dreams ! Most of the big teams in England and Scotland give their supporters this opportunity every year during the merry month of May - see the website  www.footballaid.com

But  I never imagined  I'd actually be able to use the Players' Entrance itself as we'd been told to use the Directors Entrance,   so eventually we were amongst the last to go in there: my girlfriend Claire, her Reds-loving  mate Marcella, and two other mates, Simon & Dave. We were welcomed by a “Football Aid” official who didn’t tell us much but just told us we could go upstairs and sit down. Seeing that not much was happening yet, two of my "supporters" went off to find a pie on Walton Breck Road and a pint in the Albert!

How could they waste even 5 minutes of a chance to be inside a rarely-seen part of Anfield, I wondered? But no food was on sale inside Anfield today, and when you get the call of the pie & chips, I guess it must be obeyed ...

Up the main stairs, with the engraved plaque listing all the achievements of Liverpool Football Club, to a big lounge bar area behind the director’s box, where all the 26 Liverpool fans who had put in the highest bids on footballaid.com were just sitting there nervously with friends and families waiting for the action to start. For these lifelong supporters and amateur players of very varying standards, this would be their once-in-a–lifetime chance to play a 90-minute match at Anfield (or 45 minutes, if that was all their bid allowed them), alongside Alan Kennedy, David Johnson, Phil Neal and David Fairclough – about  50 major medals with the Reds between them. The 2 teams were due to be managed by Ian Callaghan and Brian Hall, but Cally had been unable to make it – I never found out why – so we had to make do with Brian Hall, “Little Bamber”as Kopites used to call him, who was basically running the show as Liverpool’s head of Public & Community Relations.

People were sitting round nervously sipping soft drinks, waiting to be told where to go next, most not daring to talk to the strangers around them, but I introduced myself to a few. An Irish lad had won the bidding for the legendary Red number seven shirt and was sitting at the next table with a few mates (only 4 guests allowed each – pity really, or I’d have invited everyone off Red and White Kop!). I also met the Red team’s keeper. As I’d be playing for the “away” team, I was pleased to note that he stood about  5’ 9” and looked like he was bricking it even more than me !

With just plain cafeteria-style tables & chairs, this room, where presumably over the years the great players had supped many celebratory drinks with the club’s directors, could have been a bit of an anti-climax. Marcela just wanted to know where the trophies were - we would be looking at the replicas in the Club Museum later. But we soon realised that all around the walls of this room, in about 70 metres of display cases, were fascinating mementoes of 40 years of European competition; all of the commemorative plates, plaques, silver salvers, samovars, shields, sculptures and statuettes that had been exchanged at pre-match dinners between club officials over the years: I noticed a small statuette of a silver she-wolf suckling two human figures, and thought it had to be a gift from AS Roma, and indeed the inscription confirmed that it was from our last appearance at the Stadio Olimpico. I looked around wondering what kind of souvenir there was from our last Euro away match in Marseille - a silver beach ball perhaps, to commemorate the sneaky trick they played on us by using that Euro 2004 ball ? No-just a boring  silver tea tray.  Other memorabilia commemorated international matches played at  Anfield, and last but not least there were the portraits: Shankly, Paisley, Moran, Dalglish.

Right next to these portraits a wall-mounted TV blared out a Sky Sports piece featuring Steve Morgan’s latest press conference. Morgan’s offer and his effective PR routine did, unfortunately, seem to have seduced most of those around me, who were murmuring their assent for this self-proclaimed saviour, under the disapproving noses of the portraits of those four patricians of the boot room. These supporters and their families (over half of whoseemed to be  fairly local) probably just needed to believe in something or someone after a difficult season; hopefully our next manager will give them that renewed belief, and the board not be so desperate for capital that they have to resort to either Thai investment or Morgan’s under-valuation.

Anyway, my hands were shaking as I filmed these scenes around the room, so I was extremely relieved to find out that I could just wander outside freely on my own into the director’s box, and slowly take in the atmosphere of an empty, but beautiful stadium. Because when our beautiful Anfield stadium is empty, it is ALL red and white and perfect, perfect green, the colours that good football should be. It is quite possible standing there to imagine a life where nothing at all is ever blue … except the sky. I could clamber across a couple of partitions and I was on the pitch, alone. I could touch the grass, such perfectly  cropped, billiard-table grass as I may never be privileged to touch again. I could sit in the dug-out, utterly alone, and contemplate the fact, soon to be official, that Gérard Houllier would never sit there again. And yes I stared up at the Kop to the spot where I  often stood in younger years, and yes, I thought how privileged I was just to be here, alive on this fine day, with dreams and  a match to play. I did not go down the tunnel, not yet, because I knew that soon I would be coming out of it with a team, for real, for a match.

I went back into the directors’ lounge, my hands still trembling with pre-match nerves as I filmed Brian Hall welcoming us on behalf of the club and explaining our schedule for the afternoon. We would be shown the dressing rooms; the pitch; the museum, then get changed, then be taken out by captains Alan Kennedy (Reds) & Phil Neal (skipper of my “away” team) for a 20-minute warm-up. Then we’d go back into the dressing rooms for a final team-talk, run out to a soundtrack of “matchday atmosphere”, line-up for photos, then play the 90 minutes of our lives, with of course a half-time team-talk too. Afterwards presentations and beers back in the director’s lounge.

“Does that sound OK?” asked Brian Hall.

“OK! It sounds bloody brilliant!” I thought. “With that schedule, I’m going to touch the sign & run out that tunnel AT LEAST 4 times!!”

So down we went, into the bowels of the stand, past the boot-room, to the dressing rooms where full personal kits were waiting for us, shirts hanging up with surnames across the back (I think I was the only one who didn’t have his own surname, having chosen ‘Shankly’ on my white number 4 away strip instead of ‘Shaw’). They even gave us each a free training top and a bottle of water each.

Then we strolled out onto the pitch – touching that sign for the first of what turned out, in fact,  to be five times -  with Brian Hall explaining that this high-tech surface is about as far from the mud-churned pitches of the old days when he played as it is possible to get. The grass grows down deep through a mix of sand and poly-something-or-other so that the roots  will bind together, meaning that it will hardly divot , and it was certainly in beautiful condition considering that this was 6 days after the last match of the season. I swear he nearly said  “ex-manager” when he explained how “the present manager likes it as short as possible, for plenty of zip”. Even though I’d been out on it alone earlier, I was still gobsmacked by just how beautiful a billiard-table surface it is; and yes, the “bevel” effect it seems to have when you are watching from the front row at the Kop end IS an optical illusion. It’s as flat as flat can be. Perfect.

As we walked past the Kop on our way to the museum behind it, Little Bamber told us stories of wonderful nights when the steam rose off 26,000 heaving bodies, with more on the roof above them…..

We were escorted into the museum for  a quick look around, with most of us too nervous to take anything in … but luckily  I've got it all on video, from Craig Johnston's LFC surfboard to King Billy's Cup Final shirt. On a video clip of the famous 1964  Panorama programme which  they were showing in one of the museum rooms, a reporter was asking some kids on the streets of Anfield in the sixties or seventies “would you like to play for Liverpol when you grow up?” “You bet!” they  shouted ….. and I echoed them whole-heartedly, as Brian Hall called through to us that it was time to go and get changed …. and as we went back round the Main Stand he nodded knowingly to another Brian (“the fella in charge of the dressing rooms” seemed to be his official job title, according to some footage on my video camera that I played back afterwards), and said, “Hey, Brian, you don’t think they could go in through the Players’ Entrance do you?”

“I was gonna take them through that way anyway!” replied the other Brian. 

Brilliant!! Past the Players' Entrance sign and then another one that says: “PLAYERS ONLY PAST THIS POINT”, into the tiny, logo-speckled post-match interview area we’ve seen so many times, then back to the dressing rooms again. As I turned to go in, who should be coming back down the tunnel but Alan Kennedy, Barney Rubble himself! He saw me filming him under the sign, and immediately gave me a spontaneous little pre-match interview “Hello mum !" he waved, "We’re going to beat these Whites today!”

We got chatting to our skipper, Phil Neal as we changed -  then I made sure I visited every nook and cranny of both home and away dressing rooms. What strikes you right away is that these are just cleaner and more spacious versions of any changing rooms anywhere, though the away dressing room isn’t as nice as the home one - it doesn’t even have any mirrors! I noticed that Jason McAteer, my fellow number 4, had left at least one lasting legacy at Anfield – massive “Wash and Go” dispensers between each shower head. And yes I went in every single cubicle, sat on every toilet seat and stood at every  urinal that our Red stars or the overpaid premiership primadonnas of our opponents ever sit on or stand at for their pre-match oblutions!

That’s why I was last out on the pitch for the warm-up, even forgetting to put me training top on. But that meant I had an excuse to go back  to touch the sign yet again, and just kept filming everything. “That’s the first time I’ve seen anybody holding a camera during the actual warm-up routine” quipped Brian Hall from just behind me, but I wasn’t going to let a second of this be lost for posterity... !


Part II  to follow ....

© nige 2004

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