The two old men in the directors’ box stood open-mouthed, their eyes glazing over. The Kop in all its glory has the ability to leave even the most hardened visitor spellbound and, just as Roman Abramovich gawped in admiration when his first match as owner of Chelsea took him to Anfield in August 2003, so were George Gillett Jr and Tom Hicks gobsmacked by their first taste of the passion they have had the good fortune to buy into.
Two hours later, as the dust settled on a match of high drama and the noise followed the 42,579 crowd on to the streets, Gillett stood alone in the same spot in the directors’ box, watching Liverpool’s players go through their post-match warm-down exercises. Steven Gerrard spotted him and offered a thumbs-up. Gillett smiled down and clasped his hands together almost reverently. “Thank you so much,” he called to the Liverpool captain before telling a handful of reporters near by that the evening had been “like nothing I’ve ever heard or felt before”.
A cheesy Kodak moment or the blossoming of a Liverpool love affair? The cynic will remember how Gillett previously called the club a “franchise” and, cringingly, “the Liverpool Reds”, but the look on the American’s face throughtout the night — as he listened to his first rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone and as he sat, captivated, throughout 93 arresting minutes of action — suggested that the one-time owner of the Harlem Globetrotters realises that he has happened on more than just a franchise.
On their only previous visit, the day that they faced the media to explain why they had bought a 62 per cent stake in Liverpool, Gillett and Hicks confessed to being football philistines. Gillett suggested that it was “like buying the Boston Red Sox” — an enormous compliment by all accounts, but, whatever the undoubted passion that endures for the finest baseball team in Massachusetts, both reflected last night that the Anfield experience belongs to another world.
And so the thought occurred, as it will certainly have done to Gillett and Hicks, how can Liverpool possibly leave Anfield, a move that would have been like the Romans turning their back on Circus Maximus for a slightly larger facility on the outskirts of the Eternal City? With its myriad memories — the great European nights, yes, but perhaps above all the floral tributes that swamped the ground after the Hillsborough tragedy in 1989 — it can, at times, feel less like a football stadium than a cathedral, a shrine, an ancient relic.
Some day in the coming weeks, though, a shovel will be thrust into the ground on a vast expanse of green around the corner from Anfield and the countdown on the old stadium’s life will begin. Liverpool plan to relocate the short distance to Stanley Park in the summer of 2009, shortly after which the bulldozers and the wrecking balls will move in on the old place, on the biggest trophy room in English football and, yes, on the old Spion Kop which, though rebuilt and seated in the mid-1990s, occasionally still reverberates as much as it did in its pomp.
“What a great one to start with,” Hicks had said beforehand and, if anything, the occasion surpassed its billing. There was the blockbusting long-range shooting of John Arne Riise, the bewitching footwork of Lionel Messi, the relentless drive of Gerrard, the languid genius of Ronaldinho and, bestriding it all, reacting to every Barcelona twist and turn, the colossal figure of Jamie Carragher, who, like the Kop, seems to double in size on nights such as this.
As the stalemate on the night continued, the nerves of the Kop were briefly replaced with a little of the humour of old. As Víctor Valdés, the goalkeeper, begged to have the ball back as the clock ticked down, a huge inflatable beachball was thrown back at him, much to the Spaniard’s confusion.
After Eidur Gudjohnsen, the former Chelsea forward, had made the aggregate scoreline 2-2, the final ten minutes were excruciating, but, as the old stadium shook to the sound of anthems old and new, a line from Gillett’s press conference a month ago sprang to mind. “We don’t know about football, but we know about respect, winning and passion.”
Now you do, George. Now you do.
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