Sunday 8 May 2022

You'll Never Walk Alone - the forgotten pleasures of a collective experience

I see no value to me or to others of writing for writing's sake, so my blog posts, like those of anyone else who cares more about quality rather than quantity, have become fewer in number over the years. On many topics I have penned my thoughts and see no point in saying the same thing again in a different way, or in saying what others can say more effectively than I can.

So whilst I never think “What shall I write for my next post?”, every so often a set of thoughts forms so strongly in my head that I feel that I must commit them to the written word while they are so strongly held in my mind, and having committed them to writing, it seems silly in the age of online connectivity not to share them, even if only a few ever read them.

So here we go...with a post inspired by a football match but actually more about the joys of collectivism, and the inestimable harm that the Covid 19 Pandemic threatened to do to us as a species. If that sounds like a contrived and pretentious leap of reasoning, I apologise. However I hope that some will identify with what follows….

Yesterday evening, Saturday 7th May 2022, I had the good fortune to be present at one of the true cathedrals of the beautiful game, Anfield, the home of Liverpool FC, for a crucial fixture as the English Premier League approaches its seasonal climax. A generous friend of mine, who has hospitality seats at Anfield, had two spare places for a pre-match meal in the Centenary Suite followed by a crunch match against Tottenham Hotspur, and he texted me a couple of days ahead of the game to ask if I and one of my family fancied joining him. For my son Nick and me, this was a gift horse not to be looked in the mouth.

I'm a lifelong active football fan, with memories stretching back to crumbling windswept terraces of Burnden Park, the home of my hometown team, Bolton Wanderers, where as a schoolboy I would pay my 15p admission and cheer on my heroes in white, then as now plying their trade in the lower tiers of English football. Supporting Bolton has brought many highs and lows, and in the not-too-distant past there were real highs, when in the first decade of this century Nick and I never missed a game as our team established itself as a Premier League force and evolved into a highly successful outfit, with Sam Allardyce attracting mavericks and misfits from world football like Jay Jay Okocha, Ivan Campo, Youri Djorkaeff, El-Hadji Diouf, Fernando Hierro, Bruno N’Gotty and Nicholas Anelka. Such superstars all bought into Big Sam's style and values such that for several years the team punched well above its weight in the League, and during the early 2000s, we saw most of the world game’s superstars at the Reebok. Moreover, the big teams were quite often sent home humiliated and outclassed by a Wanderers team that at its best in 2004-2005 mixed sublime artistry with bruising pragmatism.

Heady days indeed, but Wanderers' decline into the lower leagues, plus other commitments in my life and that of my family, have led to a decline in the number of matches that we attend, then the pandemic has meant that I hadn't been to a live match in over three years. So to be thrust back into the experience with a surprise trip to a top-of-the-table clash between two of the legendary teams of English football represented a quite stunning return to a forgotten pleasure.

The pre-match buzz is better at Anfield than almost anywhere because the modernised and expanded stadium still rises like a temple from the midst of the terraced housing of the city whose name it bears. However wonderful the newly built stadia such as the Emirates, the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium or even Bolton's still futuristic Unibol, there is something special about Anfield, approached along residential streets with street corner pubs crowded with raucous fans. I'd forgotten how good that pre-match buzz is, as it assaults the senses with sounds (distant chanting) sights (pilgrim like fans dressed in club shirts or colours) and smells (burgers, onions and beer)

But nothing prepared me for the emotional impact of the moment we emerged to take our place high in the Sir Kenny Dalglish Stand. I've been to hundreds of matches over a period of over fifty years, at many of the great venues of football: Maine Road, Highbury, Old Trafford, Wembley old and new, even Marseille’s Velodrome, as well as Burnden Park and the Reebok/Unibol, and many times to Anfield. But not for a few years, and not since Liverpool’s current team has reached such excellence under Jürgen Klopp's charismatic leadership. I was unprepared for the impact of hearing “You'll Never Walk Alone” sung on a perfect spring evening beneath the lights, and even though I was there as a neutral, it was impossible not to join in with those truly inspirational words set to that soaring melody. What must it feel like as a player to hear that choir of 45000 singing with such gusto?

The game was a 1-1 draw, not a classic, not a goal fest, but a chance to be reminded of the stratospheric standards of the players now gracing the EPL. The likes of Kane, Son, Van Dyke, Salah, Henderson, Alexander-Arnold, Thiago and all the rest make even the premier league stars whom I watched a decade or so ago look slow and pedestrian. The modern game, played at bewildering speed on a pitch that looks and plays like snooker baize, is light years away from that which I watched on the rutted sandy mud heaps of the seventies. Live TV does a great job, but comes nowhere near to conveying the grace, pace, speed of thought and lightness of touch of the modern game. These men ARE worthy of their eye-watering wages, because people show up in their thousands to watch them, just as others pay to watch film stars and musicians. Exceptional talent is box office. And when a team of mercurial talents like this Liverpool side is led by Klopp, a man of such manifest human qualities, including a sense of proportion, the result is compelling. I genuinely believe that Klopp is one of the most impressive human beings in the public eye at present, and if I could meet one person from the world of sport I would wish it to be him.

But above all, what I took home from last night's game was a renewed belief in the value and power of a collective experience - the pleasure of being part of a crowd. I'm glad I am triple jabbed and have recently had a bout of Covid, because I was able to relish the joy of a crowd, free for now of any worry of what I might catch: the collective elation caused by a goal going in or by the frustration of a misplaced pass or an unlucky miss; even the shuffling along in a queue for the bar and the toilets, with unknown strangers breathing down ones neck, felt somehow like a forgotten pleasure recaptured.

Lockdown and isolation suited some, and brought its own benefits - a chance to slow down, even to stop, listen and reflect, and we must not forget that. But we homo sapiens are social animals, and even those like me who prefer quiet places and one to one chats rather than noisy parties, can find joy in the collectivity which affirms a common identity, be it at a concert, a sports match, or even a religious act of worship. And as is often pointed out, there is in fact very little difference between an act of religious worship and a football match - not least the singing of songs of praise to those whom we worship.

You'll Never Walk Alone? Well yes, I will often walk alone, and I'll enjoy it enormously, but to walk and to rejoice among a crowd of others is also a true joy. 

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