I fell in love with Liverpool Football Club on Saturday 20 August 1994, twenty-one days before my 12th birthday. That summer’s evening I sat with my dad and watched Match of the Day and saw a dominant Reds side notch six past newly promoted Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. My eyes lit up with each goal. I knew my mum, who I worshiped, was from Liverpool but I’d never been to the city myself at that age, so watching these 11 players, bearing the name of the city on the crest on their shirts, I felt deeply linked in blood to the performance on the pitch. This was Liverpool to me, the team embodying who my mum was. And rattling in six and playing with a swagger, of course, fueled my excitement in a raw juvenile way.
Jan Molby, the sturdy Dane, tucked home a penalty on 12 minutes. Steve McManaman, the skinny wing wizard, notched the second. A weasel-faced Robbie Fowler, who was to become my absolute hero, grabbed the third on 45 – the first of 31 goals he scored during a prolific second season as a first-team player. Ian Rush, the neatly mustachioed, predatory legend in the twilight of his career smashed in two more in the second half, either side of Macca’s second goal of the game. There was a consolation netted for Palace but it’s banished from my memory.
From then on a pattern was firmly set. Every Saturday afternoon at 3pm I was glued to the live scores on Teletext – the forgotten bastion of naff pixels; chunky white, blue and yellow letters on a black background, three pages of Premier League scorelines rolling round and round and round for 90 minutes. It’s possibly the most dull way to ever follow a football match, long before the days of the likes of BBC Sport’s real-time online text commentary. This was bare basics stuff – text would be added if there was a goal, a red card, a penalty… that’s it. But when the zero next to Liverpool turned to 1, so began my delirium.
As the last few minutes played out at stadiums up and down the country it was time to tune in for Final Score on BBC One with dad before Saturday tea-time. My dad, a proud Bradfordian, would point out the Bradford City scores and pick out the results of Rochdale – my actual hometown club, but an obsession was already in motion. My mum would stick her head in the living room – usually she was making dinner in the kitchen at this time – and would offer an emotional response to the Liverpool scoreline that day. The rampaging Reds, as was their early season form in the 1994/5 season, had stolen my heart too.
By now I was being afforded the luxury of staying up late to take my seat in front of the TV for MOTD to pore over the Liverpool highlights. This is what my Saturday had been building to. The four of us, mum, dad, my sister and me, had watched Casualty together but now we were at the business end of the weekend’s TV schedule. After the highlights were over me and my dad would cap off the evening, discussing what we’d just watched while wheeling out an ancient board game called Team Tactix which had the smiling face of Liverpool’s captain from the much-decorated teams of the 70s, the late Emlyn Hughes, on the front of the box. This was something of a cardboard precursor if you like to Championship Manager, and it was a game we’d enjoy while sharing a block of my dad’s smelly French brie.
There have been many, many Liverpool games over the years that have captivated me in the same enthralling way as those highlights of the Crystal Palace victory but none, even our incredible victory in the Champion’s League final in Istanbul in 2005, that quite had the same impact as the very first game I attended at Anfield.
It was December 2, 1995 when my time had finally come. My first trip to Anfield in my second full season supporting them. Shuffling up the stairs in the bowels of the Main Stand, the sensation, as slowly me and my dad emerged up those concrete steps into the dazzling, floodlit interior of the stadium was unreal. I was overcome by the scale of entering this deafening arena, 38,006 others in the ground creating the most awesome and overwhelming wall of sound – singing, chanting, clapping, shouting words of encouragement and banter as the players warmed up on the pitch. It was a terrifyingly beautiful moment for me. The hairs literally did stand stiff on the back of my neck. It feels like yesterday, such was the power of those precious seconds.
What was to follow was no masterclass but I couldn’t have cared less. On a four game winless streak coming into the game with one point taken from an available 12, it was a game Roy Evans’ men couldn’t afford to lose and on 60 minutes things didn’t look good. Journeyman forward Neil Shipperley scored with a header to put the travelling Saints one up. I was desperate the game didn’t end in defeat and seven minutes later my prayers were answered in emphatic style. John Barnes weighted a pass through to the pacey Stan Collymore to perfection, and the then British record transfer took the ball in his stride with ease and lashed a thunderous right footed strike past a helpless, curly-haired Dave Beasant in front of the Southampton fans. The net bulged and I completely and utterly lost the plot – jumping up and down, arms aloft then clutching my dad in a frenzy and generally screaming my head off. To me it was like we’d won the league. It was Christmas, birthday, New Year’s Eve all rolled into one as they say.
The match ended one apiece but I wasn’t bothered by what ultimately was still a disappointing result and I capped off the most memorable day in my life up until this point by continuing to try out my newly acquired, delirious ability to scream, this time at the side of the pitch at the final whistle.
My hero Robbie Fowler was out there. I’d watched in awe as he tried a bicycle kick from the halfway line – it wasn’t far off target either – but for some unknown reason it was the name of Jason McAteer I was blasting out, over and over, ‘Jason! Jason!’
From what I remember the lad from Birkenhead had put in a tireless shift at wing back that day. Our ‘keeper, David James, was wandering towards the tunnel from his penalty box and appeared to have heard my cries. As far as I could fathom – at least to my possibly overly imaginative mind at this age – he motioned to McAteer that there was some young loon screaming for his attention as other fans filed out behind me. Unbelievably, McAteer jogged over, still panting after the final whistle, and signed a bit of paper I thrust his way. At this point I was totally speechless. He didn’t say a word but he didn’t need to. My dad, amazed that his usually ever-so-shy son had made this happen, touched his arm and said something like ‘well played lad’ (keeping it Yorkshire obviously). His autograph adorned my bedroom wall for years and years. I still have it in a frame somewhere. Cheers Jason, you made a young fan very, very happy that day.