Smiling in Heaven

Although few outside the family would have guessed, my fatherwas a lifelong fan of Liverpool. While his two sons chose to support Leeds United and Arsenal, he was resolute in his support. He would recite, like a rosary, the names of the great Liverpool sides of the times. Bill Shankly’s battle hardened team – Ray Clemence, Alec Lindsay, Tommy Smith, Chris Lawler, Larry Lloyd, Ian Callaghan, Emlyn Hughes, Steve Heighway, John Toshack and Kevin Keegan. Gritty football based on work rate and Bill Shankly’s insistence that the team would play from whistle to whistle. As other teams flagged, the Liverpool strikers pounced. So often the scoreline would read Keegan (85), Toshack (87) or Heighway (89). Scoring in the last five minutes was the hallmark of Bill Shankly’s teams.

But these values were ingrained into the Liverpool ethos over generations. In those days management was about continuity. As Shankly went, Bob Paisley took over and built success upon success. New names to conjure with – Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen, Phil Thompson, Graeme Souness, Ian Rush, John Barnes, Peter Beardsley, Robbie Fowler and so on.

Opposition sides were intimidated before they even reached the pitch. Above the final steps from changing room to field was the famous sign “This is Anfield”. And for perhaps 20 years, those words let opposition players know they were in for a game. And the Kop was merciless. Every opposition error was greeted with a mix of pantomime cheers and jeers in that confection of twinkle eyed disrespect that marks the Scouser apart from his fellow man.

Gradually the red tide ceased. The trophies dried up and the talk was of great games in the past rather than the prospects for the forthcoming Saturday. Nostalgia replaced promise. “This is Anfield” became a limp reminder of the home team’s identity rather than the full throated voice of threat.

Two years without a trophy became five. Five became ten and, unthinkably, ten became twenty. Until Wednesday this week Liverpool had gone thirty years without winning the title. For a fan base that did not so much expect success as demand it, the frustration must have been unthinkable. Managers came and went, each confidently promising success but ultimately failing to deliver the big one. Flattering to deceive. Other minor (and major) cups still found their way into the trophy cabinet at Anfield, even, most amazing of all, two champions league trophies. But, as any football fan will tell you, knockout competitions rely on good fortune as well as skill. Upsets occur. But to win the league, good fortune is not enough. You need a team that is as strong and resolute in February’s rain and mud as on the green baize and bright sunlight of early September. You’re not a real team until you have won the league.

And in an instant on Wednesday evening, Liverpool erased thirty years of frustration and disappointment. Thirty years when they had been bridesmaids but never the bride. Thirty years in which they were forced to watch helplessly as arch rivals Manchester United racked up title after title. Thirty years in which “The Reds” became synonymous with United rather than, as any Scouser will tell you, Liverpool.

But “the Reds” are once again Liverpool. In a season full of records, and disrupted in ways unpredictable and unimaginable, Liverpool have taken the premiership title, with seven games remaining. A breathtaking achievement. Unless they relax and play some of the juniors during the remaining fixtures (and why wouldn’t they), they will have rewritten the records books by the time we finally call it a day on the 2019 season. One brilliant German coach – Juergen Klopp – and probably the most talented Liverpool team ever to take the field. Only the most grudging and mean-spirited football partisan could fail to acknowledge the quality of the football played. Once again “This is Anfield” means something.

And as I watched Juergen Klopp, tired and emotional, I thought of my father and how much this would have meant to him. I think back to all the games we watched together, father and son. European cup finals and so on. Happy days.

I just hope they have a television in heaven. Because I can see him smiling.