This was my second game back at Anfield since I came back to the UK. I had asked my uncle which of the two games he would rather go to, he chose Napoli. I hadn’t been for nearly 5 years and although I knew I was due to go to the Napoli game with my uncle, I couldn’t wait and went to the Blackburn game a few days after I arrived in the country. This turned out to be the first game after the cowboy duo of Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr had been run out of town by the law men of England and the money of New England Sports Ventures from America. The Napoli game happened the first home game attended by John W Henry, Linda Pizzuti and Damien Comolli, and a new era at Anfield.
Spending time with my uncle is one of my favourite things to do. He is a link to my father’s side of my family that I don’t have otherwise. He is also a lifelong Liverpool supporter. I can remember being a young child and sitting in the rear seat of our Austin Allegro while my mum and dad drove him into Southport so he could take the train to Liverpool for a game on a Saturday.
We took the train on this night too but we could drive ourselves to the station. It had rained pretty heavily that day but the clouds had mostly gone leaving damp streets behind. There had been reports that there might be the possibility of violence between the Liverpool and Napoli fans following fighting before the game in Napoli.
There were a number of police at the station as we boarded the train but no trouble. After getting off at Bank Hall we had a twenty minute walk to the ground. Like most football fans my uncle likes to reminisce about past glories, being a Liverpool fan he has many famous European nights to talk about. On the way he told me about his memories of the 1977 European Cup quarter-final against St Etienne, how he watched from the Kop as David Fairclough came off the bench to score the third goal with 6 minutes to go that sent Liverpool through. After the game he called his brother, my dad, from a payphone and remembers screaming at him, “You have to see the replay, just watch it, it’s incredible!”. My dad would have been at home with a nearly-two year old version of me and my mother, before the days of Sky Sports and social networking and there were no live mid-week matches on television. So the first he would have heard of the result was his brother screaming at him down the phone.
As we walked past Goodison and through Stanley Park we talked about the possibility of a new stadium being built in between the two old grounds. So many memories in the two places. Along the Anfield Road side of Liverpool’s stadium there used to be a row of tall, proud townhouses. They had been removed at some point since I was last there and the space was being used for a temporary car park. Before the Blackburn game I had had a coffee and read a newspaper in the circle of hotdog and chip vans at one end.
We were sitting in the Main Stand for this game, I had chosen to sit here so we could get a better view of the game but had forgotten what it is like to watch from there. The Main Stand is the part of Anfield in most need of renovation, the concession stands are basic, the toilets are small, there is less room between rows and the seats are wooden. There are two supporting pillars that also slightly obstruct the view of the pitch for the people sitting to either side of them. As it was we were just to the right hand side of one pillar and from my seat there was an area to the left of the goal in the Anfield Road end that was blocked, I had to shift around in my seat to see all the goalmouth. And as luck would have it, all 4 goals that night were scored at that end.
In this current age of football it is unusual to see fans from the opposing team in the same area of the stadium as the home supporters. On Derby Days there are often Everton fans scattered around all four stands at Anfield but for most other games the segregation is well-managed. On this night, despite the extra police presence and the warnings of violence, there were a number of Napoli fans seated near us. About 5 rows in front there were around 6 or 7 Italian Napoli fans, young lads and one young girl in their early twenties.
The pre-match entertainment was, as always, George Sephton going through his usual repertoire of Beatles songs and other less well-known local bands. My uncle told me he used to work with George a long time ago. George is a Liverpool legend now. One of my favourite things he did was a little speech after the European Cup semi-final against Chelsea in 2005. I didn’t hear it at the time, I was busy being delirious on the Kop, but I have since heard it on Youtube. George thanked everyone for their support that night, and we knew how important we had been in that victory. The power and passion had blown Chelsea and their money away. I saw Luis Garcia score his “ghost goal” and I was right in line with Eider Gudjohnson’s shot in the 6 minutes of injury time. I was sure it was heading in and thought I might pass out but luckily enough it flew past the post and moments later we were in the European Cup final and about to add another story to Liverpool’s list of triumphs.
Roy Hodgson’s team in 2010 were a far cry from the 2005 and 1977 versions and they started the game as nervously as they had all season. Steven Gerrard was on the bench for this game, in the hope that we would get the win we needed to make sure of progression to the next stage without using our captain. In central midfield was Christian Poulsen, one of Hodgson’s most criticised signings. Interestingly he has looked a better player since Hodgson left Liverpool, but he’s not the only one and we have looked a much better team as well.
It was a mistake from Poulsen that led to the Napoli opening goal, a badly misplaced header went straight to Edison Cavani who first time header sent Ezequiel Lavezzi into space between the Liverpool defence and he had enough composure to finish tidily past Reina. The Napoli fans in front of us stood up and loudly celebrated their team’s goal. This angered a number of the fans around us and for a moment it looked like there might be some trouble but a female steward ambled over and told everyone to relax. She sat down next to the Napoli fans throughout the whole game and chatted with them. The situation calmed down and luckily that was Napoli’s only goal of the game.
It is unfortunate that rival fans cannot sit in the same stands at football games. After attending baseball and football games in the US where this happens all the time, one wonders what it is about football, or life in Europe or South America, that makes us unable to sit near people who support another football team.
At half-time Hodgson sent Gerrard out to warm up by himself as he gave his teamtalk. Gerrard started the second half in place of the perpetually ineffective Milan Jovanovic and seemed to have a free role in front of the midfield three. Whatever he was doing, it worked. Liverpool had been unable to exploit the space on the sides of Napoli’s back three, and when they found good positions many players were unable to find the killer final ball. Steven Gerrard however can pass, and shoot. He scored three on this night and won the game for Liverpool. All three goals came from Napoli being forced into mistakes by Liverpool’s hard work, the first a terrible back-pass, the second a penalty and the third a cheeky chip over the keeper after great work from Lucas. As I wrote at the time, Gerrard was head and shoulders above the rest of the dross.
There were a few instances of communication between the fans at opposing ends of the stadium. The Kop unfurled a banner advising the Napoli fans to use soap and water, while the Napoli fans wished Diego Maradona a happy birthday and pointed out, “Anfield Road? Not bad. Compared to those who were in Acireale” (Acireale is a town in Sicily that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1693 and flattened by Allied bombers in 1941). Having been to both Liverpool and Napoli, I would say these two former great ports of the world have a lot more in common with each other than either set of fans would like to admit. Although the refuse collection in Liverpool is generally much better than in Napoli.
The game finished 3-1 to Liverpool and Steven Gerrard proved himself the best player on the pitch that night, from either side. Both teams would qualify for the next rounds of the Europa League, Liverpool to play Sparta Prague and Napoli to take on Villareal. Me and my uncle made our way back to Bank Hall station and home.
Read some other posts in this Sport and Travel series: