This article first appeared on The Tomkins Times on 6th December 2012.
I grew up in Kettering, a market town some 150 miles or so from the hallowed turf of Anfield. I have no connection with Liverpool, and had never been there until I was 22.
So why do I support the Reds? You’d have to ask my dad, who is also a ‘Pool fan. “Because they’re the best” he answers whenever I ask him why he chose them. Thank God he started following football in the 1970s and not the 1990s…
As a child in the 1980s there was little football on television, and this is where my dad really played a blinder. He would only let me watch ‘The Match‘ on a Sunday afternoon if Liverpool were playing, as he had no interest in watching other teams. I therefore had little choice but to become a Red, and here I am blogging about it some twenty-five years or so later.
Yet my dad had no interest in actually taking me to a match, and I didn’t have the means to make it myself, and so at 21 I had still not seen my beloved team play.
But finally my old man came up trumps in October 2001. Leicester is only about half an hour from Kettering, so a fair few of our townspeople support the Foxes, and my dad managed to bag me a ticket for a Liverpool match at Filbert Street from a drinking buddy who had a season ticket there. My first time watching the Reds, and I’d be sat with the opposition support.
I didn’t care though, and couldn’t wait for the big day, not least as I wondered what team acting manager Phil Thompson (the match took place one week after Gerard Houllier’s heart attack) would select for ‘my’ Liverpool debut. Luckily for me, Thommo picked a strong team featuring most of my favourites of the time:
Wright - Carragher - Hyypia - Riise
Gerrard - McAllister - Redknapp - Murphy
Fowler - Heskey
Subs: Kirkland, Smicer, Berger, Barmby, Litmanen (Quite an attacking bench!)
I took my seat high up in the main stand about an hour before kick off. Whilst I watched my heroes warm up, I soon became transfixed by the singing coming from the travelling support (who included a certain Paul Tomkins, proprietor of this fine establishment, and its editor Chris Rowland amongst their number!), and I wished I was amongst them. No matter, I had a team to support, albeit through no actual vocalising on my part.
The match kicked off, and Liverpool were attacking the end I was sat nearest to. Best of all, within five minutes they were ahead, and the fact that Robbie Fowler (the hero of my teenage years) scored a classic poacher’s finish made it all the sweeter.
Not that I could celebrate that fact of course because of where I was sat. Five minutes later Sami Hyypia had glanced in a header and the Reds were 2-0 up away from home within ten minutes at my first game. Marvellous! “Oh Sami, Sami…” I discretely texted to my dad.
At this point, quite a few Leicester fans got up to leave; they’d seen enough, and presumably had better ways to spend the rest of their Saturday. However the stewards wouldn’t let them leave for some reason, and I’ve never known why. Is there a rule about not leaving too early?
Anyway, by half time Fowler had scored again on the counter attack to make it 3-0, and all was rosy for the Reds. Of course, in the second half the home side got back into it a bit more, as home sides inevitably do no matter how bad they are (and Leicester were terrible that season, finishing rock bottom and twelve points adrift of safety).
Who got on the scoresheet for the Foxes? Dennis bleedin’ Wise.
I had to smile at the irony; the first Liverpool game I properly remember is the 1988 FA Cup Final, and despite it being thirteen years later, one of the Wimbledon heroes from that day was on hand to score in my first match watching Liverpool, and force me to stand up and clap politely in order to try to fit in with the home crowd a bit!
But as Leicester didn’t really kick on from there, the match appeared to be fizzling out to a comfortable away win, though I was perhaps lucky that Leicester’s record signing, Ade Akinbiyi, had one of his comedically bad days in front of goal. Until…
The final minute of the match. The home fans around me were already streaming away, but needless to say I was staying until the end; I’d waited a long time for this moment after all.
Substitute Vladimir Smicer cut to the byline and crossed in for Fowler to connect beautifully with it from about fifteen yards out, and sent the ball flying past Ian Walker and into the roof of the net. A hat trick! My first game and I witnessed a Robbie Fowler hat trick! As a Liverpool fan who properly started following the team in the early 1990′s, this was a truly special moment.
I couldn’t resist. I stood up and punched the air with joy, not caring if any Leicester fans took offence to the sight of an enemy within their ranks. Of course, they were too busy burying their heads in their hands at the thought of the long relegation battle ahead to worry about me. Shortly afterwards the referee blew for full time and I stood up and applauded again.
Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight the match almost seems like a watershed that marked the true end of the 1990′s for Liverpool; I was witness to Robbie Fowler’s final goal of his first spell at the club, and within a month both he and Redknapp had played their final games for the club (or so we thought in Fowler’s case).
No doubt some fans have had more important or significant first games, but there’s not too many matches that I’d swap mine for.
To finish, a quick word on my first trip to Anfield. It was the first home game of the following season, and the Reds beat Southampton 3-0. New striker El-Hadji Diouf scored a brace that day; who’d have guessed on that August afternoon that he’d only ever score one more league goal for the club? The Houllier era, which had been ticking along nicely during my first Liverpool game ten months earlier, was on the verge of crumbling, and fast…