After Liverpool’s goalless, soulless visit to Birmingham the previous weekend, I expected Manchester United to annihilate as literally as possible within the law (I hear it’s a four-match ban for an actual multiple homicide on the pitch). These days in the league, we’re languid, disorganized, uninspired. I had no right to expect anything less than a total routing at Old Trafford. But somehow I allowed myself to hope for a draw. A point at Old Trafford might be attainable. After all, United haven’t exactly been at their world-beating best. They blew that lead to Everton in stoppage time. They drew to Rangers midweek. Rooney didn’t look anywhere near his classic best. There was some hope.
At our pub there was a good turnout of mostly Liverpool supporters. Either they are all football masochists like me, or they are better at calling up some serious optimism in desperate times like this. The truth is we’re addicts and since the match was on Fox Soccer Plus, few of us could get our fix at home. During a big match like this, the supporters gravitate to the different ends of the bar. Most of the Liverpool regulars take over the far end, filling out the surrounding stools and tables and, in the end, taking over a good three-quarters of the pub. I am too nervous to sit and you’ll find me near the service station, trying to keep out of the waitstaff’s way as I shift from one foot to the other and curse at the television. The United supporters tend to take over the televisions near the door, securing a nook for themselves. The familiar faces from each end get wound up during match time, taunt each other with shouts and songs, and (usually) shake hands afterwards and exchange a few brief words in forced politeness. But during the match, we stay in our end. They stay in theirs.
But Sunday one dude planted himself at the very heart of the Liverpool side of the bar. He was wearing a black t-shirt that had nothing to do with football and he made very little noise in the first half, so I just assumed he was a Liverpool supporter. What United fan would stand among so many Carlsberg- and Standard Chartered-laden kits when the other side was teeming with AIG? But when Berbatov scored his first, this dude threw up his hands and shouted his praise. After had the lead, he had plentyto say. “C’mon, United! Get another! C’mon, Berba!”
Whether we are winning and losing, as more and more Boston Liverpool supporters discover the Phoenix Landing, I take pride in the fact that we outsing any other section of supporters. So if the kits and colors weren’t enough, I was very surprised that the lone United fan remained among us as we filled the room with “The Fields of Anfield Road” and “Poor Scouser Tommy”. The supporters in his radius were slowly getting annoyed with his cheering and comments. I couldn’t decide whether or not I should ignore him or outright suggest he go to the other end. Dude, I think you’ll have a much more enjoyable time down there. Seriously.
He wandered off at half-time. I figured he figured it out.
I was still clinging to the distant hope of a draw. As long as we didn’t let United score another. They had had most of the ball, but we had staved them off plenty and were showing good passing when we did get the ball. If we could reorganize and find some new angles, we could bang out that equalizer and go home with a point. Honestly, I just wanted us to score. I didn’t expect a win, but I wanted that feeling of shouting my head off and jumping and sloshing all that coffee through my veins at nine in the morning (I was driving up to see family later and thus avoiding beer). If we could keep them from scoring…
Then that damned Berbatov happened again.
There was no defending it. The tall Bulgarian was backed into the Liverpool defender, seemingly no room to work. He met the ball with a stunning bicycle kick and fired it off the bar just out of Pepe’s reach and it went in. What???
And just behind me, there was that dude again. Draining his lungs into my right ear. “BERBA!!!!”
Granted this is the kind of goal from an opposition striker that leaves me as awed as devastated. If I could remove myself from having my heart ripped out of my chest from behind for a minute I could, as a lover of beauty, grace and sport, say: That was a breathtaking goal!
But mostly I just wanted to crawl under the nearest bar stool, curl up into a fetal position and suck my thumb.
The state we were in – the way we’ve been playing this season – I could not fathom us coming back from two-nil down against United in their house. Then it was Torres streaking into the box. Then it was Jonny Evans taking him down. And it was Howard Webb blowing his whistle. Our section of the room exploded. Shouts of “C’mon, Stevie!” spattered the air. Steven Gerrard ran up to the spot and buried the ball behind Van der Sar. The noise around me was deafening. We jumped. We screamed. We sang. It was heaven.
Even if we didn’t get another, I’d had that moment. A flash of clear sky in our overcast sense of things. And then a handful of minutes later, in a tackle that somehow didn’t invite a straight red card, O’Shea took Torres down twenty yards from goal. Again it was Gerrard on the dead ball. Again we jumped. We screamed. We sang. The United fan was finally looking jostled and uncomfortable. But he stood his ground. And so did his side.
The momentum felt like it had completely swung Liverpool’s way. I now felt like a draw was inevitable, but a late winner (for us) was still a real possibility. Our boys were fired up. Torres was determined. Gerrard was dictating attacks. Joe Cole was everywhere. Johnson began remembering how to turn a defender. Poulsen stopped looking invisible and started making sleek, first-touch passes. We could do it!
Then our defense crumbled yet again. And of course it was who else but Berbatov putting head to ball at the far post and putting United ahead with only a few minutes remaining.
Our “friend” went crazy once again. He stretched his arms high and gave thanks for Dimitar Berbatov. A friend of mine finally snapped and turned on him. He needed an outlet for his mounting frustration and here was a vocal United supporter two feet away.
“Why don’t you go down there with the other c*nts!” he shouted at the dude.
The United fan threw his hands in the air and started singing: You are a Scouser! A dirty Scouser!
And that’s when I lost it. My earlier thoughts of (somewhat) politely suggesting he went to the other side of the bar quickly shattered. At least one of my Scouse friends was in earshot. I felt offended by proxy. “Fuck off, man!” I said.
“He started it!” said the dude, turning into a five-year-old and pointing at my friend.
“I don’t care,” I said. Trying to regain my composure. “Go down there!” I pointed.
“I’m watching here,” he said. “I’m not moving.” He folded his arms and fixed his eyes on the television above me.
Whatever. I turned back to the match. I didn’t get it. I knew I wouldn’t want to stand amongst the opposition. Win or lose. Not during play. I wanted to be with my fellow supporters. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t too. But I decided there was no future in debating the matter.
I turned back and watched the rest of our loss. When the final whistle blew, the United fan took of immediately and headed straight for the door.
That’s when I caught on to the serious tension that had been building behind me. My friend Jamie thumbed after the disappeared dude. “Did he threaten you, mate?”
What? No. I shook my head. “He was just being annoying,” I said.
“I thought he asked you if you wanted to ‘start something.’”
“No,” I said. Trying to think which sentence Jamie had misheard. Must have been when he said, “He started it!” As I recounted the conversation, two other friends were leaning in to get the scoop. Apparently there were three or four guys who were watching the dude toward the end in case he tried to fight me and they were ready to jump in on my behalf. “He was just looking for a battle of words,” I said. “Nothing more.”
We sighed as the United supporters drifted out. The couple of them that we knew wandered over to shake hands and say, “See you next time.” The tension lifted and the post-match depression set in. My friends stuck around to discuss the match, the side, Roy Hodgeson, the new signings.
It’s been a miserable start alright. But I still feel if the new signings can build a chemistry with the old guard, if Torres can get fit (and not get sold), if Hodgeson can get the most out of what he’s got, this season isn’t lost yet. And while I’m not for segregation in most social situations: will the United supporters kindly keep to your end of the pub when we face off in March? Thank you so very much.