The old home town looks the same – but doesn’t feel it

05 Liverpool v Fulham 22 December 2012

The first observation I’d like to make after Liverpool’s 4-0 win over Fulham yesterday is what a 24-carat clown Mark Clattenburg is. In primary school our principal, a prominent figure in the schoolboys game in Ireland, would delight in ‘evening things up’ in the most trivial of intra-school matches. If you were 3-0 up, you could fully expect to be hit with a series of inexplicable decisions that would only stop when the score was back to 3-2. And it felt like that yesterday as Fulham benefitted from every 50:50 decision going. Nothing concrete, of course, and you would be perfectly justified in putting it down to partisan paranoia. Justified, that is, until a decision late in the game that took your breath away for its chutzpah. Liverpool earned a free right on the edge of the box and the Fulham wall was clearly not 10 yards back. So Clattenburg started pacing out the distance. As he did this, I joked that he was going to move the ball back. And to hoots of derision of the entire Kop that’s just what he did! There’s no way that’s what they teach you in referee school – “make sure the wall is in the right place then adjust the position of the ball accordingly”. When trying to stay within the bounds of reason when it comes to referees I try to put myself in the position of the official, which is why (for example) I was able to rationalise the decision to award a controversial penalty for handball awarded against Joe Allen a couple of weeks ago against West Ham. The only way you could justify this performance from Mark Clattenburg was to assume he was on the wacky backy that was so noticeable by its fragrance around Anfield after the game.

Anyway, enough bitterness. What struck me throughout the game was how little enjoyment I was getting from being at the game. Okay, it’s always nice to be stuffing someone, and there were some delightful vignettes such as the reception given to John Arne Riise (splendid response from him, bowing to the Kop) and standing up for the 96 (my wife told me afterwards that the Fulham fans leapt to their feet as well, which is a tremendous tribute to them and their club). But I didn’t enjoy being there.

If that seems a little obtuse, let me explain. I’ve been Anfield 97 times – yes, I have counted – and no matter how bad the result, and having seen them lost to Barnsley at my second game results were often very bad indeed, there was always pleasure to be had from attending the venue that Stuart Hall (are we allowed mention him?) would refer to as The Colosseum. The sights, the sounds, the smells – they never got old no matter how often I went. It’s been a long time since Liverpool were the club of choice of the bandwagon-jumper,  yet their allure to new fans remains rock-solid, and part of that is because of the mythology surrounding the club and the venue. Liverpool FC is cool, and even the presence of a dour son of Antrim GAA at the helm can’t change that.

And yet I felt little of the previous bonhomie at Anfield last night. Instead the overwhelming feeling was one of irritability that I had paid over €50 for such an uncertain evening’s entertainment. When we went to see Mumford & Sons last weekend it was with the near-certainty that they would be fantastic, and they were even better than that:

Obviously is was worth it all in the end yesterday as Liverpool ran Fulham ragged for 90 minutes and won by four goals at a game at which I was present for the first time in eight years and 28 attempts. Heck, Stewart Downing scoring a goal and providing an assist, both superb pieces of football and one more instance of each than he managed in the entire League campaign last season, was worth the admission fee along. But following a team has got to be about more than winning all the time. No one other than Kilkenny fans would follow hurling if that were the case. There was something missing last night, and I’m speculating that the fault lies with Waterford United. Even after losing to Dundalk in the playoff I walked out of the RSC with my head held high. The team who I had spent so much time following through the season had fallen short, but someone has got to lose and I had gotten great pleasure from their endeavors and at a fraction of the cost in terms of money and effort that it takes to follow Liverpool.

It’s early days with this new feeling. Maybe it’ll pass. Maybe I was just tired and cranky after getting up at five in the morning to travel. I’m certainly way too long in the tooth to give up on Liverpool FC. There are the best part of three decades worth of memories bound up with their exploits and the not-insignificant figure of Mrs d in my life who was thrilled to experience the too-rare pleasure of taking her seat in the ground. Still, not enjoying something that you’ve always enjoyed . . . it has to be significant. Hopefully Our Brendan will be so brilliant that we’ll never find out where it might lead.