Sunday, February 17, 2008

Oh oh oh oh oh ooooooooooooh oh

I've always been a big football (aka soccer) fan, but in Melbourne the options for watching live matches were limited. In England, the home of football (aka soccer), there is no such problem. After being here for almost a year, I've been to matches at Villa Park, Wembley, Emirates stadium and, on Saturday, Anfield in Liverpool, surely one of the most storied sporting stadiums in the world. Thanks to my boss at work, I managed to pick up tickets to what was probably one of the least glamorous games to be played at Anfield this year - a 5th round FA Cup tie between Liverpool and Championship strugglers Barnsley. Who are Barnsley? Apparently, they hail from Yorkshire and actually have one FA Cup to their name, won back in early days of last century. Their most famous supporter is retired test umpire Dickie Bird. Until last Wednesday, they didn't have a fit goalkeeper other than a 12 year old boy from Wales who didn't so much keep goal as collect balls from the back of the net.

My boss' grand plan was that he'd send me to watch Liverpool smash these small-time gormless losers and I'd come home a Reds fan through and through. Shame that the best plans always go awry. Barnsley WON. Not only did they win, they won with the last kick of the game, literally. After 92 minutes of domination by Liverpool during which time Barnsley defended grimly and with passion putting bodies and, in one notable case, future prospects of fatherhood, on the line, the teams were locked at one-all. This of itself had the 6,000 Barnsley supporters moshing in the stands with excitement at the prospect of a replay in a week's time. Like all sensible Spaniards, the Liverpool coach Rafa Benitez didn't much fancy the prospect of a weekend in Yorkshire, so he threw on his big guns in the last 15 minutes, including Harry Kewell (my nominee for next year's Australian of the year) and Stevie Gerrard, Liverpool captain and all-round good guy. But it was to no avail, Harry smashed shot after shot directly into opposition players, eliciting much cheering and encouraging shouts of "Retard!" and "Idiot!" from the crowd. Stevie moved the ball around dynamically and put his team mates in great scoring positions, only to see the 12 year old Welsh goal keeper play a blinder and make a series of finger tip saves. It was great stuff. Then with seconds ticking away and the Liverpool players obviously keen to get back into their posh dressing rooms to enjoy a post match rub-down and bath complete with glass of Dom Perignon and a selection of female back-up dancers from the Spice Girls reunion tour, Barnsley attacked. First, they played the ball into Liverpool's penalty box where Sami Hyypia hacked the legs from under the Barnsley captain. It should have been a penalty! But it was in front of the Kop, Liverpool's most intimidating stand and the ref plainly had too much common sense to give away a penalty to the visitors at that point in the game. But Barnsley didn't give up, they won back the ball and just as the final whistle was about to ring out, their captain smashed a left foot shot into the bottom corner. There was pandemonium. The Barnsley fans were delirious. The Liverpool fans were disgusted. It was great.

So, anyway, I wasn't converted into a Liverpool fan - I prefer the Gunners for lots of reasons, one of which is that they win all the time - but I had a great time. Anfield is definitely a special place to visit and the crowd is as entertaining as the football (aka soccer). One abiding memory will be having pre-match drink at The Albert, which is a pub right around the corner from the stadium. It was packed full of Liverpudlian desperados singing songs about their team. They're creative and musical those Liverpudlians. My favourite was their ode to Javier Mascherano, one of their key playmakers. Mascherano isn't the easiest name to fit into a song, but they'd figured out that it rhymed with "oh" and, so the song "Oh oh oh oh oh oh oooooooh oh, Javier Mascherano-o" was born. Great stuff!

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