In 1982, my father and I took a Friday night ferry from North Wall to Liverpool. The following day, at 3pm, Liverpool, the champions of England, were playing Luton Town at Anfield.
Neither of us had been to Anfield before but he had taken me to White Hart Lane to see Tottenham Hotspur play Coventry, a visit which was full of his reminiscences about the glory era at Spurs, a period he had witnessed regularly during his time living in London. For me, those stories belonged to a prehistoric age, something I was impressed he could remember at all, given how distant and faint those memories of 20 years before must be.
We arrived in Liverpool at 7am on a bright September morning, we were returning home on the ferry that evening so we had a day to kill in the city before the match.
As I remember it, after breakfast in a Liverpool cafe, we spent the morning in an amusement arcade and then headed out to Anfield for the first time, where we visited the club shop and I got a Liverpool tracksuit. Anfield, surrounded by terraced houses, was almost hidden except for the Kop which dwarfed the homes around it, a forbidding structure which even from the outside appeared to heave with a sense of its own power.
There was still about four hours before the game so, after spending as much time as possible at the ground, we went back into the city on another bus.
Finally, it was time to head back out for the game. Our tickets were for the Main Stand, which was accessed through a narrow strip of ground between the main stand and a wall dividing the ground from the rows of terraced houses behind them. On match days, it was also where the VIPs and injured players parked their cars. Through those players’ cars alone you could chart the evolution of a game, from the Ford Granadas and Rovers of the 1980s, which could have been driven by any executive, but which would often have the players’ name along the side to the modern era when the engines would roar as cars costing six figures were driven into the ground.
All I remember from the game itself is the giant Crown Paints tin (the club sponsor) in the centre-circle before the game, the air of disgruntlement in the crowd whenever one of the less established players, David Hodgson, messed up which he did frequently, and the mesmerising effect of the Kop which delivered on all of its promise. The game finished 3-3.
Afterwards, my dad met a man he knew and we went to the Holiday Inn in the city centre across the road from Lime Street as we waited for our ferry home. As we were there, the Liverpool goalkeeper, Bruce Grobbelaar, appeared in another part of the hotel bar. I remember my father’s friend, who had the air of a man who knew these things, told us that Bob Paisley, Liverpool’s manager, had savaged Grobbelaar after the game the previous weekend, when he had let in four goals. Now, having let in another three, our in-the-know friend was sure Grobbelaar had probably just been on the end of another savaging.
We took in this information and then went over and got Grobbelaar’s autograph. Uncharacteristically, my father made no mention of this new explosive information.
Our man on the inside at Anfield had also mentioned that Liverpool wanted to expand their ground but they were unable to do so because of a couple of sisters who were refusing to sell their houses behind what was then called the Kemlyn Road Stand.
These women were Nora and Joan Mason, who lived behind the Kemlyn Road Stand and whose story, even then, illustrated the conflict that was going on between the club’s nascent sense that there was an opportunity for commercial expansion and the difficulties this would sometimes cause for the communities these clubs were rooted in.
The attendance at the Liverpool game that day in 1982 was 33,694, a figure so low that I felt it must be a mistake. But it’s accurate and it reflected another truth about the city.
A month after that game, Channel 4 broadcast the first of a five-part series that captured that truth about Liverpool in the early 1980s. Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff, told the story of Yosser Hughes, an unemployed man from Liverpool who spirals into darker and darker places. One episode included cameos from Liverpool players including Sammy Lee and the captain Graeme Souness who Yosser encounters in a a bar.
Liverpool, as portrayed by Alan Bleasdale, couldn’t afford to watch football. As a friend of mine from Liverpool put it, “the arse had fallen out of the city and everyone was on the dole”. My friend says his father, who had gone to Anfield religiously since the 1950s, barely went for those years in the early 1980s when Liverpool would win the European Cup twice and three league titles in a row between 1982 and 1984.
Across England, attendances were depressed. Football wasn’t seen as a leisure activity but a game where hooliganism was rife. Football had a thriving culture but it existed outside the mainstream. At the start of the 1985/86 season, football would disappear from TV completely for the first three months of the season. It was the season after Heysel and the Bradford fire and it seemed as if the game might prefer to go underground.
Martin Tyler, then with ITV, would recall walking the first division’s leading goalscorer in 1985, Frank McAvennie, across Waterloo Bridge to see if anyone would recognise him. The only person who did was Billy Connolly- when Tyler took McAvennie back to the studios on the south bank.
If there was some sense that there was a game to be exploited, it was hard to see it. “Football rates itself far too highly,” the BBC’s head of sport at the time said. “It has no God-given right to be on television.”
Liverpool’s chairman John Smith took a view at odds with some of those like Ken Bates at Chelsea who were leading the resistance. “The clubs with any understanding realise they need television far more than television needs football.”
When football did reappear and live matches were broadcast, they were always accompanied by an overbearing anxiety that the crowds were getting what they needed to get. “This will bring the crowds back to football,” seemed to be a stock phrase for commentators who feared anything that might drive them away like a riot or a scoreless draw.
In those days, the crowds were predominately local. Football tourism was a niche activity. Manchester United always had strong support from London but in later years, when I spent nearly two decades covering football in England, it was noticeable how the numbers travelling from London to Liverpool by train for matches grew over the years.
In November 1990, Nora and Joan Mason finally agreed to sell 26 Kemlyn Road and two years later, Liverpool opened what was now called The Centenary Stand, to mark the club’s establishment in 1892. By then, the tragedy of Hillsborough had scarred the club and reshaped English football.
Liverpool were racing to catch up. If geography is history, then the space around Old Trafford allowed Manchester United – who were not hemmed in by terraced streets around their ground – to expand and capitalise on the success of Alex Ferguson’s side.
“Pre Euro 96, football was incredibly unfashionable,” the club’s one time owner David Moores would write in 2010. “There was nobody else on the scene in Liverpool who was even remotely interested in taking on the financial challenge of LFC. I became involved for one reason – for the love of the club.”
Liverpool edged forward. They wanted to expand the ground but as The Guardian’s David Conn would report, the manner in which they did it, buying up houses around the area, rankled with locals.
Soon it was accepted that Liverpool would have to take another path and leave Anfield, with Rick Parry overseeing plans in 2002.
In 2007, the club’s owner and lifelong fan Moores sold the club to two Americans, Tom Hicks and George Gillett. A condition of the sale was the development of the new stadium, something Moores and Parry had accepted was needed if the club was to compete.
“Rick was always vocal about planning for success, and after much soul-searching from everybody close to the club we bowed to the inevitable,” Moores would write in 2010. “We began to accept that the only way we could continue to compete was by building a new stadium. Anybody who cares to dredge the archive will find myself on record as finding the decision difficult to come to terms with; but looking back now, the thing I was finding most difficult, was the transformation of the game I loved. Football clubs were beginning to be seen as a source of profit rather than a source of pride; they were as much financial institutions as they were sporting legacies.”
Liverpool under Hicks and Gillett were neither. Hicks promised to have a “spade in the ground” within 60 days. The club would build a new stadium 300 yards from Anfield in Stanley Park. Hicks then wanted to redevelop the plans to make them more spectacular. It was accepted by all that Liverpool had outgrown Anfield and progress would require a move.
Then it began to unravel for Hicks and Gillett. They had loaded Liverpool with debt as part of their acquisition but as the sub-prime credit crunch emerged in the US ahead of the crash, they paused their plans for a new stadium.
They soon became targets for protest from supporters’ groups who had grown weary of their promises and the artists’ illustrations.
By 2010, Liverpool was limping along. Liverpool recorded losses of £54 million while auditors, KPMG for a second year running, expressed a “a material uncertainty” about the club’s ability to continue as a going concern.
Late that year, the club was sold to Fenway Sports Group who said they would continue to explore the possibility of a new stadium but would also explore staying at Anfield, something they had also done with the Boston Red Sox, which they also owned, when they redeveloped Fenway Park.
Last Sunday, I took my son Ira who is 8, to Anfield for the first time, nearly forty years after I first went there. The Main Stand, rebuilt in 2016, now rises as powerfully as the Kop once did, and many of the roads behind it have gone, but when you approach from the east, the stadium still stays partially hidden, appearing to emerge from beneath the houses like a sea creature.
“There it is,” I said to him as we drove up. “Where?” he said, seeing only the houses, before he stopped, laughed and said, “oh” as Anfield appeared in front of him.
We, too, visited the club shop after we’d bought a Mo Salah scarf from the stalls opposite The Kop.
At this point, it would be customary to say that the vast expansion of English football, the all devouring commercialisation and globalisation of the Premier League, has tarnished the game. As we walked around the shop, I should say it was depressing to see how everything can be monetized. This, I would continue, was inevitable in a game hijacked by oligarchs and petro-states, which has lost its connection with where it came from (an argument incidentally often advanced by those who were sceptical or dismissive of that connection in the first place).
I can believe those things, but at that moment all I saw was the joy of an eight-year-old boy who feels that finally he will be able to own a clay figure of Roberto Firmino and a Liverpool FC football with the players’ autographs on it.
We took our seats in the Main Stand, beside a man from Galway who lived in Boston and had flown in for the game. “Where is Klopp?” my son asked as we waited for the teams to come out for the warm up and he watched him as he stood on the halfway line watching Everton warm up.
My son said the best things about the game were the Mo Salah song and the “going down” chant Liverpool directed at the Everton fans. He also liked the amount of swearing the man from Galway did and the amount of apologising he did each time he swore.
But when Liverpool scored, he hugged me and high fived the man from Galway. Then at the end, he waited for Klopp to head for the Kop and thump his chest and we watched him walk off, his teeth dazzling even from fifty yards away and the Kop began to sing their song in honour of the manager who has transformed everything.
In 1982, Liverpool were in a period of unprecedented dominance. It looked like little could disrupt them. They would win five more league titles in the next eight years. And then not win another for 30 years.
On Thursday, it was announced that Jurgen Klopp had signed an extension to his contract and would be staying at the club until 2026. The players who feel essential to the club like Mo Salah may soon move on but Klopp’s decision to stay is more critical to the future of the club than what anyone else could do..
For years, Anfield could be as drab and quiet a ground as any in England and on those days, it would be easy to wonder what Liverpool would really be missing if they moved to a bigger, more functional ground.
But it doesn’t feel like that right now. The stadium is not a backdrop but an asset, commercially and in other ways, a place energised and made sense of by the management of Jurgen Klopp.
In 2010, David Moores wrote a letter to Tony Evans, then of The Times explaining his decision to sell the club to Hicks and Gillett and pleading with them to leave.
“I was from the ever-decreasing pool of old-school club owners, the locally-based, locally wealthy supporter like Jack Walker who stuck his money in out of his passion for the club. If we’d have done it as an ‘investment’ we’d have come unstuck pretty quickly. Back then, football was a mug’s game when it came to the finances.”
FSG brought clarity and intelligence to the ownership of the club which had previously lacked both. Their appointment of Klopp was the transformative event of their ownership but their decision to redevelop Anfield rather than leave for a new stadium was also hugely important.
They are now in another era, not dominant like the 1980s, but just as historic and magical. This is a Liverpool shaped by the genius of Klopp, the intelligence of the owners and the luck they had that nobody before them decided to abandon Anfield.
I sent a friend a picture of myself and Ira at Anfield. “Fathers and sons,” he replied and attached a picture of him embracing his own son when he completed the Boston Marathon two weeks ago. Would it have made any difference if the Liverpool ground I took my son to was different to the one I went to with my father 40 years ago? Probably not? Was it possible to find more meaning because it was the same place? Possibly.
The players I remember from the 1980s are now as distant as if somebody had talked to me in 1982 about Tommy Lawton or the work Major Frank Buckley did at Wolves before the war. My own son looks upon all players from any period before he started paying attention in about 2018 as has-beens, whether it is someone from 2014 or 1974.
There were 52,213 people at Anfield for the Merseyside derby last weekend. Nobody left fretting that the crowds might not come back but there are other worries and concerns which reflect the journey football has been on in the past 40 years.
In The Lion and The Unicorn, Orwell wrote, “What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.”
The Anfield of 1982 might have nothing in common with the Anfield of 2022. The boy who went there forty years ago with his father might have nothing in common with the man who went to Anfield 40 years later with his son. Except they happen to be the same place and the same person. And anything that can bring those threads together will always be cherished.