My earliest memory of being “a red” was when I watched a match on a small portable TV(a 14 inch TV) that was sitting on a tall cupboard in the corner of a neighbor of my aunties’ living room. I was about six weeks shy of my seventh birthday. It was a cup final — the League cup, or, as it was known at that time, the Milk Cup. Liverpool were playing their great rivals Manchester United.
The people in the house where I was watching the game were all Manchester Utd supporters. The women were looking after me and made sure I had fizzy orange and biscuits. Then the men arrived home. They were big men. They spoke with booming, loud voices, at least to my six-year-old ears. They had been out shooting with their dogs and were now cleaning their shotguns. I was fascinated. I had never seen, much less held a real gun before. They explained what they were doing, and they allowed me to hold the gun. I was wide-eyed, and I suppose a little in awe. Then the conversation turned to football “Which team are you going for?” the older man asked.
The answer to me was obvious it had to be Liverpool. I knew Liverpool had Kenny Dalglish and Ronnie Whelan. Both of these players had fair hair, like me, and I felt an affinity with them because of that. Plus, Ronnie Whelan was Irish, as was Mark Lawrenson. I also knew that they were good as my Dad used to call me to watch Match of the Day, the famed BBC soccer highlights show. I also have a vague recollection of some European nights and the crackling sound of the commenter on the phone from some exotic European city. But these league and European games have blended in my child’s head to leave this cup match as the first one to be stored in my long term memory.
My Dad had a soft spot for West Ham United because he grew up watching Booby Moore and partially because of his propensity to support the underdog. However, two uncles on my Mam’s side were avid Liverpool supporters. One day after watching a match on TV we went outside to play football. I went in goal. My Uncles started taking shots on me. I dived and made a good save, tipping the ball around the jumper that was being used as a goalpost. I made the mistake of saying, “Garry Bailey saves.” Bailey was the Utd goalkeeper, and my uncles were not impressed. The shots got harder. A lot harder. I was six, but there was no reprieve until I was saying, “Grobbelaar saves.” Grobbelaar was, of course, Liverpool’s Number One. So now in enemy territory, I announced that I was going for Liverpool.
The big men with their guns and their dogs were not impressed with my answer. There were shouts of “Out” and “Not in this house, boyo.” Luckily the women told them to “leave the child alone.” By this stage, the band had finished “God Save the Queen,” and we settled down and started watching the game on the small screen. Then disaster struck. Norman Whiteside, a young footballer from Northern Ireland, scored to put Utd ahead. There was loud whooping and hollering. Several pairs of hands rubbed my little blond head. “Now! should you be cheering for Liverpool,” they goaded me. The women in the house again told the men to “leave the child alone.” But all I could think was, “Come on, Liverpool. Show them.”
The game remained at one-nil well into the second half. I was still getting the occasional head rub and the suggestion that it was not too late to change my mind. Then with time running out, Liverpool scored. One-One. A single, but steely and defiant, “YES,” escaped from my six-year-old lips. Liverpool had done it. The game headed for extra time. Now things would get better for me. My fair-haired hero from Ireland Ronnie Whelan curled in a fantastic winner from the edge of the box. I jumped up and cheered. I wanted to rub the big men’s heads. But they were big and had guns, and I was only six, so I just enjoyed the moment and shortly later enjoyed watching the team walk up the famous Wembley steps and watched them lift the cup. I loved “You Will Never walk Alone.” I was definitely a Red. That feeling and that connection would grow and grow over the rest of my childhood.
The following year I became more aware of Ian Rush as Liverpool marched to the English title and the European Cup. While by the time Liverpool managed to reach the European Cup final in 1985, another Irishman, Jim Beglin, had joined Lawrenson and Whelan as part of the Irish link to Liverpool. This final was eagerly anticipated as Juventus had one of the best players in the world, Michel Platini, to lead a star-studded team against the team that had dominated Europe over the previous nine years. Unfortunately, this final was marred by violence that caused a wall to collapse, killing forty-eight Juve fans. My abiding memory of that night was not the long delay before it was decided to go ahead with the game, nor was it he winning goal, a Platini penalty, but the sight of Juve fans holding up a large sign in English, which read “Red Animals.” I had just turned nine. I didn’t understand what had happened or why they would have a sign like that. It seemed to me that they were the bad guys. I just wanted to watch football. Shockingly forty-eight people lost their lives. UEFA banned Liverpool and all English clubs from taking part in European competitions for five years.
Despite this ban, Liverpool remained the top team in England. The following year saw more domestic success for the Reds, a historic league and FA Cup double. There seemed to be more live games on TV this year, and Liverpool now had Kenny Dalglish as a player-manager. To top the season off, Liverpool played their Merseyside rivals Everton in the Cup Final. The city of Liverpool had the two best teams in England throughout the 1980s. A fantastic final saw the Red’s once again come from behind to beat the Toffee’s three-one. Everton were a tremendous team that had won the league in 1985 and would who would win it again in 1987. However, Liverpool ended 1986 as top dogs. Everton’s league victory in 1987 would lead to Dalglish creating one of the greatest teams in Liverpool’s history for the 1987/88 season.
Three new signings, Beardsley, Barnes, and Aldridge, would help take the team to a new level. They were joined by another Irish international, Ray Houghton. Liverpool always had a great footballing style. It was very much “pass and move” and work your socks off. While most English sides played “long ball” football, which was not very entertaining, Liverpool were an “easy on the eye” passing team. This team took the game to a new level. Their football was spellbinding. It was impossible not to fall in love with this team and the football they were playing. It was a team of stars, but John Barnes was the jewel in the crown. They blew teams away week in and week out. They were still unbeaten after 29 games only for Everton to foil their run. They once again got to the cup final but, in one of the biggest cup giant killings of all time, they were shocked by Wimbledon.
The following year, the 1988/89 season, cemented my connection to Liverpool. It would be a momentous year in the club’s history- but not in a good way. On the field, the Red’s were challenging for the title again this time against an impressive Arsenal team. However, an FA Cup semi-final match against Nottingham Forrest would see a tragedy unfold that would take ninety-six lives. The Hillsborough tragedy saw ninety-six Liverpool fans crushed to death through a mixture of negligence and incompetence on behave of those in charge of organizing the safety of supporters at a football game. It was horrific. There was an outpouring of grief. Anfield was turned into a shrine, and the Kop end was covered in flowers and scarfs. In the face of slander and injustice, the city of Liverpool united. The Red’s and the Blue’s came together in shared grief and anger at the press and the authorities. The events of that day were so shocking that football was unimportant. For around three weeks, it looked as though Liverpool’s season had ended.
Never has the Liverpool anthem of “You will never walk alone” being more important. As the players and staff of the club attended funeral after funeral, it became clear that the families wanted the team to return to the field of play. They did, and they were a team on a mission. Thy again reached the FA Cup final. The cup final was the showpiece of English football. This final was once again against Everton. After the horror of Hilsbourgh, it was fitting that it was an all Merseyside final. It is still quite something to see the way Red’s and Blue’s sat together for the biggest game in English football. The crowd booed the British anthem “God Save the Queen.” Unified chants of “Merseyside” rang around Wembley in an act of protest, defiance, and pride. The game was a classic cup final. A brilliant game of football, plenty of twists and turns, and it ended with another Liverpool victory by three goals to two.
The Double was looking likely again. Liverpool had caught Arsenal in the league to go top by three points and with a slight goal difference advantage. It all came down to the final league game of the season, at Anfield, against Arsenal. Arsenal needed to win by two clear goals. Liverpool were the form team, and it seemed like it was too much for Arsenal to achieve. Unbelievably the Gunners scored in the last minute to secure a two-nil win and the title. I had sobbed when my first dog, “Blackie,” was knocked down by a car, and now I sobbed again. Heartbroken. But more connected to the club and the idea of “You Never Walk Alone” than ever. The following season Liverpool were League champions again for a record 18th time. Little did I know then that I would have to wait 30 years for number 19. I have loads more I could write- the fall from grace, the Houllier years, Benitez, Istanbul, Rodgers, Klopp or my many trips to Anfield to see the Reds in the flesh. There have been plenty of amazing moments over the last 30 years, but each passing year of hurt strengthens the love and connection to Liverpool FC. This is our year. It’s fantastic to be a Red.