When I first started watching English football, I rarely got to watch the league matches live. I worked in a bar with no TVs. My friends George and Noel would bring us VHS tapes of the weekend matches. George taped the Setanta matches and my Noel taped the FSC matches (often tacking on Sopranos episodes from HBO after each match). The matchdays I wasn’t working were days I had to find a place to watch since I had neither football channel at home. The English pub in town would always have the games on but they didn’t open until noon on weekends. So I learned to love Liverpool on a delay. Watching tapes some 12 hours after the match was over or catching the repeat airings at the pub.
Back then this was easy. I lived in NH. My friend Tim was the only other Liverpool supporter I knew. If Tim wasn’t a year older than me I’d have sworn he was my twin brother separated at birth. We listened to the same albums. We quoted the same movies. We finished each other’s sentences. So it was natural for both of us to take to Liverpool when we started following English football.
The two of us closed the bar on Saturdays. We locked the doors. Rolled out the VCR and projector. Threw the game on the wall of the pub while pumping the audio through the pub’s huge sound system. We poured fresh pints and sank into the plush leather sofas by the fake fireplace to soak up the match. Nobody came in to spoil the score for us all day. We could watch the match fresh, like it was happening right then. This was how I saw Torres score his first Liverpool league goal when he turned Tal Ben Haim and slotted the ball past Petr Cech. As the ball bounced off the post and in, Tim and I were launching to our feet. Jumping. Screaming. Cheering. Pointing. Spilling beer in an empty pub.
Then I moved to Boston and could watch just about every match live. There are pubs here that will open as early as the earliest match. Last season I watched every Liverpool league fixture live except the final match against Spurs which wasn’t aired. That one I listened to live on BBC radio over the internet.
But Wednesday’s match between Liverpool and Stoke City was not aired live. Fox Soccer Channel was showing off their new Champions League rights by showing European qualifiers. Liverpool wasn’t shown here until Thursday night at 8pm. But since I was off on my annual camping trip with the boys (including Tim) this turned out to be perfect. We were returning Thursday night. And spending the week in the woods off the Kangamangus Highway in New Hampshire meant there wasn’t a soul to spoil the result for us. We could watch the delayed game fresh. Just like old times when we closed the pub.
So some 29 hours after the match actually happened we sat down in Tim’s house (he now has FSC at home), cracked open some beers and prayed the performance against Spurs last weekend was simply a fluke and soon to be overshadowed by a goal rout.
Like many sport obsessives, we are always looking for a meaningful sign. In this case I wanted some clear indication that Liverpool could still get the season going on the front foot despite a miserable opening day performance. Lightning striking the ball as it went in off Reina’s goal kick as a chorus of angels sang over the Kop end would be perfect.
Furthermore: this was Stoke City. Last season both Liverpool’s fixtures against Stoke ended in nil-nil draws. A club with title hopes should not be dropping four points to a newly promoted side. And since Liverpool ended the season four points shy of Manchester United, those draws were all the more devastating in retrospect. It was essential Liverpool beat Stoke City in this season’s home opener and leave all that baggage behind.
So when Steven Gerrard found Fernando Torres in the box within four minutes my head nearly exploded with glee.
Gerrard started the move by passing the ball to Lucas and then he immediately tore into the box. Lucas returned the ball to Gerrard who cut back on the defenders and fired the ball into the area. Three Stoke players tried to smother Torres but he got off the shot so quickly and so crisply they could do nothing but stare as it flew home. After three days of hiking and sleeping on the ground, Tim and I didn’t have the energy to do cartwheels in his living room (though it felt appropriate) but we stood and cheered and I somehow managed to keep my beer in the bottle.
This was the moment I was looking for. Gerrard and Torres didn’t look themselves in the Spurs match. Their inimitable spark that secured so many points for Liverpool last season was largely absent on day one. Now the two combined to create a celestial goal in heavy traffic. Another nil-nil draw against Stoke had become impossible and the win felt all but guaranteed.
(Side note: Last year, Tim taught his girlfriend’s parrot to cheer, “Liverpool!” I always assumed things the bird said were random. It recorded things people said but I didn’t know it could associate them with events. But after Torres scored the first goal the bird was shouting: “Liverpool! Liverpool!” That made me happy. Too bad I’m not allowed to teach him: “Who the f*ck are Man United?”)
Then there was Glen Johnson.
When Chelsea or United supporters see their side win a corner kick, I would imagine they think something like: Oh look a corner – this should be a serious chance on goal…
When Liverpool supporters see our side win a corner kick, we think something like: Oh look a corner - can we please just get it past the first man?
Our corners have been dreadful in recent years. They don’t seem so much a chance on goal as a chance to hold onto possession for a few seconds longer. A corner kick is better than giving up a goal kick: this tends to be the most optimism I can muster when we win one. But then when Liverpool do score off a corner the rarity of the thing makes it an astounding event. Like winning the lottery or seeing Halley’s comet going by. I almost feel bad for supporters of clubs who can actually take convincing corner kicks. You’ve become so inured to the specialness because it happens so often. Like a porn actor who doesn’t enjoy sex anymore. Poor you. (Note: I don’t really feel bad for these supporters.)
So when Gerrard launched a pristine ball into the area and Dirk Kuyt headed it on target and the keeper couldn’t hold onto it and the ball bounced up and Glen Johnson turned and spun and bicycled the thing in… OH MY GOD THAT WAS ONE OF THE GREATEST THINGS I HAVE EVER SEEN!
Glen Johnson! The right back! Bicycle kick! Off a corner! Are you kidding me??
When we got Johnson this summer, all I wanted in him was a defender who got forward and created deadly chances from the wing. Now he’s finishing chances upside down in mid-air. £17m? Pocket change. The guy can defend, supply and score. Beautiful.
Then in the second half, Gerrard’s down the side again. (I just had to slip into the present tense for this one…) The pass is coming to him but he’s already down a cul de sac. There’s no room for a decent cross. I’m sure of it. But with a single movement he collects Mascherano’s service, spins and scoops the ball into open space. I’m waiting for the ref to blow and book Gerrard for having a hand attached to the bottom of his foot, but nothing happens. Now he’s in the box. He’s got plenty of room. He makes a low cross to the near side and Dirk Kuyt bangs it home. 3-0. Memories of dropped points against Stoke melt away. This is brilliant.
In the final minutes, Andriy V*****n would find Glen Johnson out wide. Johnson dribbled and deked and pryed himself away from his man just enough to get off a heat-seeking cross. Stoke’s keeper got a hand to it but he pushed the ball right into the path of David N’Gog’s head. The young striker riccocheted it off the bar and it bounced in.
I shouldn’t have expected anything less than a win in the Anfield opener against Stoke. But the hard lessons of last season still resonate in the corners of my skull. The word “Stoke” gives me chills. It has a devastating violence to it. Like - That Stoke through the heart that killed Liverpool’s title dreams.
But I feel better now. And a win against Villa later today should restore my confidence that this Liverpool can fight for the title.
And while I love watching the matches live above all else (I’ll be getting up early all season for all Liverpool broadcasts), it was nice to relive the old New Hampshire fan experience with Tim. I don’t get to watch matches with him every week any more. He’ll come down to Boston and watch at the pub with me a handful of times each season, and we’ll cheer on the events as they unfold and make noise in a room full of red shirts.
But watching the Stoke match at night with my football brother took me back to those days when we watched George and Noel’s tapes in that locked pub. It was like we were part of something clandestine. Quietly watching football in the dark. Maybe there was a band of rabid NFL fans outside with torches and persecution, but we didn’t care.
It reminded us we were in on it. Even if most Americans didn’t embrace football, we got it. We were in the club even if it was just two of us in an abandoned pub watching the game ages after it happened. I don’t know how to explain it, but it was a great time and a great place to meet Liverpool.