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You never walk alone with Liverpool

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By Craig Ray
26 Jun 2020 0

Craig Ray is the Daily Maverick sports editor.

Liverpool Football Club have ended a 30-year wait to be crowned English champions. For a club where winning the title was almost a right between 1972 and 1990, events this week have finally ended an unwanted chapter in its storied history.

There is no logic for why I have been a lifelong Liverpool fan. As a journalist from an older school of training, the first lesson you’re taught is to be impartial. You can’t be a fan if you’re covering sport. Easy to say. My love for Liverpool Football Club lies deep in my soul, but out of reach of cognitive reason. It is one of the few things I know I have loved my entire life. I can’t precisely say why. It just is.

My earliest memories are of living in a modest house on a sand road in Florida on Johannesburg’s West Rand. A house where I stayed throughout my childhood, where the road was eventually tarred and nearby highways built. It’s where I sat next to my father many Saturday evenings listening to the foreign-sounding presenter on the BBC World Service giving football updates and occasionally crossing to a live match. The roar of the crowd, the scream of the commentator – that crackled and hissed through an old Silver Voyager wireless radio, especially if there was a highveld thunderstorm – is still vivid in my mind.

My father, who was a very good footballer in his youth and instilled a love of the game in me, remains a passionate Manchester United supporter. The Red Devils did not resonate with my six-year-old self though. ‘Liverpool’ sounded different and slightly frightening. Kenny Dalglish was the most exotic name I’d heard. His exploits, told in weekly snippets on the BBC, and in more colourful detail in the regular arrival of Shoot Magazine, instilled a passion for Liverpool Football Club and also for story-telling.  

 

I saw the highlights of the 1981 European Cup final, days after the match, in a cinema in Hillbrow, which showed weekly newsreels. Alan Kennedy’s beautiful left-footed strike to humble the mighty Real Madrid was a thing of beauty.

In 1984 I was allowed to stay up late to watch the European Cup final live for the first time. Bruce Grobbelaar’s ‘wobbly legs’ in the penalty shootout victory over Roma, inspired non-stop imitations at break over the following weeks.

In 1989, Arsenal’s Michael Thomas broke Liverpool hearts to deny them the title and I had to endure endless ribbing at boarding school. Payback for years of rubbing it in with my friends was to be tolerated.

On 13 April 1991 – a Saturday – my mother lost her long battle with cancer. She died in the morning, peacefully in bed. Family gathered, friends came but later that day I slipped away, my father with me, and we watched Liverpool beat Leeds 5-4 quietly together. They gave me some momentary joy and blocked out the real world for a while. You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Of course, it was easy to love Liverpool as a child of the ‘70s because they were the best club team in Europe and probably the world. Like children of the 1990s were seduced by Manchester United’s success, I suppose I was one of those captured by Liverpool’s dominance in that era.

Liverpool’s supremacy lasted throughout the ‘80s as title after title mounted. The emergence of satellite television allowed me to follow the last great Liverpool era live. John Barnes in full flow, mixing power and finesse, with Peter Beardsley buzzing in the midfield and Kenny, now in the dugout as manager, pulling the strings. It seemed the good times would never end. 

Then Hillsborough happened. The deaths of 96 fans at the FA Cup semi-final in 1989 marked the end of the empire, even though it was strong enough to win another title in 1990 because Dalglish held the club together. But Dalglish, exhausted by the pressure of the football and the grief of the city, which included attending four funerals in one day, reached breaking point. He resigned midway through the following season. Little did anyone know it then, but the 1990 title would be Liverpool’s 18th and last – until this week.

On Thursday night Chelsea’s 2-1 win over Manchester City ensured that Liverpool were league champions again, 30 years after their last title. 

There are still seven games to be played in the current campaign and Liverpool have an unassailable 23 point lead over City. Liverpool became the earliest league winners in terms of games remaining (7) and the latest league winners in terms of date because of the three-month Covid-19 enforced break.

These statistics and many others will be dissected over the coming days and weeks as the team strives to break more records and make more history.

But for long-suffering fans, mostly in that city – but also for those of us in far-flung parts of the world who have shared in this drama – reaching the pinnacle again gives some sense to an insane world.

Jurgen Klopp, the German manager who promised on his first day in the job that the club “would win something” in four years, has delivered. The power of positive leadership, coupled with a clear plan and the owner’s commitment to build success over years rather than months, has paid off.

Liverpool Football Club is actually a metaphor for life, and my life in particular. The good times felt easy in the ‘70s and ‘80s, which coincided with my innocent and relatively protected childhood. The ‘90s, however, were when I ventured into the real world and Liverpool went into the football wilderness.

The last 30 years has come with ups and downs, successes and setbacks. While real life is hardly ever measured in titles and trophies, the slog of adulthood and the small pleasures it affords are what make it worthwhile. 

Liverpool Football Club is life played out on a stage. I’m glad it’s been part of my journey, and I, a part of Liverpool’s. The road still has a way to go yet. DM

Craig Ray is Sports Editor at Daily Maverick

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