By Jeff Goulding
In my mind’s eye, the first game of the season at Anfield conjures images of sun-baked streets, the Sandon car park packed to overflowing and chippy queues spilling out onto pavements. Not this season though. Instead, on Friday 9th August, L4 was warm, wet and muggy as it greeted the Champions of Europe and their adoring followers. In many ways this was an unfamiliar start to a campaign.
There was even a new object of pilgrimage too. Added to the old haunts – the Shankly statue – the food-bank collections, the myriad pubs and fan-zones and the fanzine sellers dotted around the stadium was a giant mural of Trent Alexander-Arnold – an ordinary kid from Liverpool, whose dream came true.
Scores of people made their way along Anfield Road to Sybil Road, where they would find a row of terraced houses basking in their new found fame. To their right, on the opposite side of the road, the great Georgian town houses, a symbol of the area’s affluent past stared on in green-eyed jealousy.
For all the wealth and power of those ghosts of Liverpool’s past, they would never have felt the passion and adulation experienced by this working class lad from West Derby and his team mates. One-by-one they queued to have their picture taken in front of his image. In the rain, Kids younger than Trent and perhaps dreaming that they one day will adorn a wall, or be idolised by generations, posed in front of the painting. Maybe, they dreamed of scoring in front of the Kop and feeling its power rattle their bones.
That’s the point of the mural, isn’t it. To inspire, to reach out and say ‘there’s a chance for you too. If you work hard and sacrifice like me.’ Maybe. But there’s no harm in dreams anyway. We know. At Liverpool, perhaps more than anywhere else, we know that.
The rich merchants of Anfield Road have gone, it’s our place now. That’s because we’ve dreamt of glory for each other, and then fought to make those dreams a reality. Just like Trent, Jamie and Stevie and all the others who have graced our history, have dreamed.
So, all around me were the old familiar places juxtaposed with the new and the unusual. And, the game itself turned out to be a mirror of all of that.
There was the old swagger we enjoyed last term and evident in the first half against Norwich, accompanied by the never-satisfied few who bemoan every miss-step and proceed to hound their favourite whipping boys throughout the game, irrespective of the quality of the performance.
For example, the sight of Origi being dispossessed shortly after Norwich had scored their meaningless consolation was greeted by one inexplicable shout from a fella near me.
‘Get him off, he’s shit!’
It was greeted with tuts and expressions of disbelief, but it still jarred. Another guy had shouted to Henderson to “get off and stay off,” at half-time. This is a phenomena almost as old as Anfield itself. For all our famed support and never give up mentality, we have always been ‘blessed’ with such absolute idiots.
Jack Balmer, Liverpool’s bald-headed striker of the 1930s and 40s, who hailed from the same district of West Derby that gave rise to young Trent, was often on the receiving end of abuse from supporters. Bob Paisely once wrote about how his treatment at the hands of some fans had hurt the player, who had scored 98 goals in 289 appearances for the club.
In the pub, before the game, we had been talking about how Ronnie Whelan had often been a player who could do no right, in the same way the current captain, Henderson, can never satisfy some people today. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who watched the game in the 80s who will admit they did it, but the Irishman would frequently hear their shouts on the pitch.
Just like Henderson though, Whelan would answer his critics by winning the biggest prizes in football. He could do no more. Neither can Jordan.
But, for all the familiar bitter barbs from the minority, the atmosphere during the game was a throwback to the fan-parks of Madrid and the glory of our run to the final. The mosaic displayed at kick-off told the world, as if they didn’t already know, that the Reds were back on their European perch. That represented something new in the recent context, a trophy win to gloat about. The monkey is off this Liverpool team’s back.
The Kop bellowed, at every opportunity, ‘We are the champions, champions of Europe.’ If it’s not unbearable for our rivals yet – it won’t be long before they are tearing their hair out. That’s exactly as it should be. We’ll keep it up for as long as they would, if we had lost the final – times six.
Imagine singing that for twenty minutes solid at Old Trafford or Goodison. imagine the fume. Brilliant isn’t it.
Roared on by a jubilant and at times carnival-like Anfield, the players switched through the gears in the first half. That’s not to say Norwich were out of it though. They threatened a number of times, and Alisson was called upon to twice prevent what looked like a certain goal. One save produced a crescendo of applause from the Kop and repeated chants of his name.
Not since the days of Clemence and Grobbelaar have we had a keeper of this quality. In fact, in one of those moments in the game, where your mind drifts, I began to muse on whether Alisson may well be one of the best since the days of Elisha Scott. Such is his command of the area and ability to calm his defence, I can surely be forgiven my reverie, no matter how premature it might be.
So, the sight of him clutching his calf and falling to the turf deep in the first half was like an arrow through the heart. We can only hope the injury isn’t as bad as it looked. The sight of him walking off, rather than being stretchered was the smallest crumb of comfort.
What was heartening though was the roar of approval for Adrian, as he ran onto the pitch. This was the Kop as it should be, as it always was. Getting behind the man with the Liver Bird on his chest, regardless of any misgivings. Once he crosses the white line, he’s one of us and part of the fight.
Back in June, the former West Ham man could scarcely have dreamed that he would be running out in front of a huge crowd at Anfield – for the European Champions, and with the team already 3-0 up. The reserve keeper showed no signs of nerves.
Liverpool had gone ahead inside ten minutes, thanks to an own goal by Grant Hanley, who had turned in a cross from the left from Divock Origi. From my vantage point, it had seemed like the hero of Madrid himself had scored and we roared his name. It didn’t matter though, he can rightly claim the assist.
Then came Mohammed Salah with the Reds’ second in the 19th minute. It was a crucial goal in my view, and not just in terms of the match. So much of Salah’s game is in his head, and the confidence he will take from kicking off his season with a goal is immeasurable.
The sight also of Bobby Firmino with the assist and the resultant chants of ‘Egyptian King’ followed by our mesmeric ode to his Brazilian strike partner were all welcome signs of the old and familiar Liverpool. The Liverpool of last season, at one with its people and relentless on the field of play.
With barely half-an-hour on the clock the Reds were three up. This time we were watching van Dijk score, and Salah was providing the ammunition. His lovely cross from the left was headed home with aplomb and we were ecstatic. None of us quite knew what to expect before the game. It had potential banana skin written all over it.
However, the Reds had simply picked up where they had left off the season before. Memories of a forgettable preseason had evaporated and the explosion of euphoria was reminiscent of much bigger games. The Reds were back in town.
The potentially disastrous loss of Alisson was brushed aside, when on 42 minutes Origi found the net with a brilliant header, following a superb cross from Trent. The young Scouser was also picking up where he left off last time out. He had found his groove and the Kop found its eleven button.
Amidst the noise and jubilation half time felt like a kick in the teeth. An unwelcome interruption. And, so it proved to be.
As I bounced down to the concourse underneath the famous old terrace, I entertained thoughts of a complete rout. Of six, seven, maybe even eight goals. Well, a Kopite can dream. But, while the second half was hardly a nightmare, it was a shadow of the first.
In truth, Norwich deserved their one goal. They had given it a go and some the of the football in the final third was impressive. It remains to be seen whether the real Norwich emerged after half time, and if we can expect better results for them in the coming season. They will certainly look for the positives in that second period as they plot their bid for survival.
For Liverpool, the one bright spot in the second half was Sadio Mane. The last to return to preseason, he showed no signs of rustiness and was a thorn in Norwich’s side from the moment he entered the fray, replacing Origi. Both players received rapturous applause as one departed and the other ran on to the pitch.
The visiting supporters sang ‘1-0 in the second half.’ You’d imagine that’s exactly what their manager will have told his players in the dressing room. Restricting the European Champions to just four goals, and grabbing a consolation at Anfield maybe the benchmark for a team like Norwich. It is also a sign of the progress made by Klopp and his players.
So too are the mutterings and grumbles of some Liverpool supporters, as they left the ground. This was the first game of the season. The Reds will undoubtedly improve and grow into the campaign. We can only hope that it will include Alisson. But Adrian looks a competent deputy. Meanwhile the team can only beat what’s in front of them.
A number of messages greeted me when I arrived home. One of them, on social media, was from an Everton fan. It said we had looked like Brazil in the 70s, during the first half. But it warned of burn-out and suggested better teams would have turned us over in the second half.
Neither assessment was fair in my view. Liverpool did what they needed to do against a plucky Norwich team geed up by the optimism of a new season in the top flight. It was a free hit for them and expectations among their fans were low. That wasn’t the case for the six-times European Champions (have I mentioned that we won the European Cup?).
For our rivals those comments are a sign of wishful thinking. It’s fun living inside their heads, and the rent is so low, it almost feels like we’re squatting.
The bar has been set for the Reds now. They rule over an entire continent after all. Ambitions and expectations, are soaring. The fact that some are bemoaning a 4-1 home victory on the opening day of a new season, is perhaps another symbol of the team’s rebirth.
Let’s all hope that, as annoying as those moans might be, they become another familiar feature of the Anfield landscape. I could live with that.