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Attacking the Kop


Liverpool's successful stars of the 1920s in front of their precious Kop

There’s nothing in football like the Kop. It throbs like some huge factory. Those fans come not only to be entertained, but to entertain.’ – From a press report in 1963.

One commentator, introducing the home match against Newcastle on Boxing Day 2018, warned of bad news for Liverpool, an example of former Liverpool boss Rafa using ‘psychology’ to put us off our stride. We had lost the toss and would have to attack the Kop during the first half, whereas all fans - and opponents - know that we prefer to face our most famous stand in the second half. We are not the only club, by any means, to have a similar preference – the Gallowgate in Newcastle, the Holte End in Birmingham or the Stretford End in, well, Stretford actually.

This preference of ours is certainly not new. At the Southampton match on 21 April 1962, ‘Yeats won the toss for Liverpool and his decision to defend the Kop goal in the first half was received with its usual rapturous approval of the crowd’. The Daily Post report on the West Ham game in the 1972-73 season reads: ‘It’s no great secret that Liverpool, for some strange psychological reason, tend to play with less confidence than usual at home when invited to attack the Kop goal in the first half,’  Hammers' skipper Bobby Moore duly tried to exploit this perceived weakness when he won the toss. Everton’s Duncan McKenzie and Brian Labone, who had been on the receiving end of the Liverpool attack many times, were wary of the Kop effect: ‘We used to have this talk in the dressing-room and we always said that if we won the toss we’d get Liverpool to kick into the Kop first half, otherwise you’d be up against it. Liverpool playing into the Kop in the second half was unbelievable, and to be avoided at all costs. The Kop could suck the ball into the penalty area. You’d have your backs against the Kop, and you couldn’t get away. All the time it was coming at you.’ (1)

I wondered when, and why, the practice of facing the Kop in the second half had originated. Are we simply following a club tradition as most fans and players believe, or succumbing to some forgotten superstition? Can the Kop actually be a magnet for goals when necessary, wanting to share in the glory when they help to vanquish the foe? It is certainly a common feeling among those lucky enough to have been there. Bear in mind, living things evolve. How did it start? How did it develop? Why the second half rather than the first? That symbiotic relationship between fans and players could not have happened overnight.

Furthermore, is there any evidence that the decision to face the Kop in the first or second half is justifiable on rational and statistical grounds? Compared with his first-class cricket counterpart, a football captain has a relatively simple choice. The cricketer has to consider the present and future state of the weather, a detailed examination of the wicket's surface (and how it is likely to change during the match), and the current strengths of the batsmen in the light of the known strengths of the opposition's bowlers. In football, the weather might play a small part – for example the sun setting in late autumn or late winter and early spring, with a traditional three o’clock start, is in a goalkeeper's eyes, but one would think that is an argument for not facing the Kop in the second half. The pitch in swirling wind or snow, and the length and dampness of the grass, are a level playing field for both sides.

I’ve tried to answer five related questions.

A) When and why did the club begin to prefer to face the Kop in the second half?
B) Do Liverpool win more games playing towards the Kop in the second half?
C) Do we score more goals at the Kop end than at the Anfield Road end?
D) Do we score more at the Kop end when we face it in the second, rather than the first, half?
E) Does the Kop really have the ‘worth a goal’ effect if we are behind at the interval?

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To my surprise, the answers proved very difficult to find. There appears to be no single source, even within the club itself, which records direction of play for all home games, though I’m very pleased to note that, following this research, lfchistory.net is now recording it in their respective match reports. Videos from many sources are the easiest means to solve individual competitive matches. Helpfully, almost all professionally made videos since the 1960s have been shot from the main stand with the Kop to the right. It does not help, however, when a radio commentator merely says that Liverpool are playing ‘from right to left’ in the first half, unwittingly infuriating any listeners not familiar with the commentary position.

One can begin to solve the problem by collating the data with inside knowledge of Anfield stadium in the appropriate era. Even a glimpse, or a photo, of either end distinguishes the post-1998, two-tiered Anny Road end (with its line of white lights) from the single-tiered Kop, the former also having away fans who are dressed differently. The placing of a pre-electronic advert can also be used. A view of the tunnel or absence thereof will reveal in which stand a camera is positioned, as will the presence or otherwise of the managers who usually look towards the end a goal has just been scored, or turn their back on it if a goal has been missed! The position of the half-time alphabetical scoreboard for simultaneous games elsewhere has varied over time, but if scores are already showing on it, the second half is being played. Until 2016, the roof of the main stand was supported by prominent red (later white) pillars whereas the Sir Kenny Dalglish stand and its precursors had none. The red scoreboard to the left of the Kop is also a useful distinguishing feature. The direction in which the players, especially the goalkeeper, leave the pitch at half- and full-time can also give away the more recent direction of play.

Most press reports do not state whether Liverpool attacked the Kop in the first or second half, but it can sometimes be deduced from the contents of an article when referring to timed, significant events during a match (e.g. a sending off; an own goal; a missed penalty; a substitution; a goalkeeper’s complaints about objects on the pitch). Occasionally, an otherwise insignificant event might be hidden in a casual reference, as when the Kop was heard making no-doubt courteous and helpful remarks to visiting defenders, or a visiting forward seen making a fingered response to the Kop’s honest appraisal of his skills; or when Skrtel 'fell into the Kop net' in 2012, or the team was ‘meandering towards the Kop’ in the second half after an equally languid first; or a shot so wayward that it shook raindrops from the roof of the Kop.

The analysis and conclusions which follow are mainly based on 827 competitive matches played at Anfield between summer 1986 and summer 2019. Direction of play could not be identified in the remaining 37 during that period, 15 of them between 1996 and 2002, with Everton surprisingly missing several times. 16 of the missing 40 were nil-nil draws. For comparison, direction of play in 474 matches between 1946 and 1986 has been identified.


The Kop in 1973 hailing Liverpool's championship win
A. When and why did the club begin to prefer to face the Kop in the second half?
Until 1 June 2019 (#see note at end), FIFA determined that the initial direction of play was decided by the toss of a coin (and by no other means), the winner to choose the direction of play. Incidentally, there appears to be no rule governing how the coin is tossed - to hand or to floor - or even by whom. Souness tossed the coin against Brighton in 1983 – and won; the referee handed Gerrard the coin on the occasion of the Shankly tribute game against Wigan, 16 December 2009, and Gerrard won. 

I anticipated that opponents would kick off towards the Kop in up to half of the games but I did not expect so many to do so! Of the 26 competitive games played at Anfield during the 2018-19 season, we faced the Kop in the first half only four times. In 2017-18, it was only five times in 27 games. Any fleeting, unworthy thoughts quickly vanished when the same phenomenon was found in earlier years – four in 24 a year earlier, five in 31 in 2015-16. If we go back to the 2005-6 season, we have faced the Kop first only 83 times in 369 games. Neither luck nor skullduggery can explain this imbalance – clearly, in the great majority of cases, the resulting direction of play would be the same whoever had won the toss and certainly does not square with the 1975-76 season when Liverpool played towards the Kop first, and towards Anfield Road first, 14 times in each case.

This phenomenon caused an unexpected digression. If the modern imbalance has not always been the case, when and why did it start? From 1986-87 to 1994-95 (with only fourteen cases remaining unsolved) we faced the Kop in the first half 94 times (43%) in 219 identified matches. Clearly, this is a result much closer to what common sense would suggest. Earlier seasons are marred by a lack of surviving evidence, but for what it is worth, of the 474 matches identified from 1946 to 1986 we faced the Kop in the first half in 202 (43%), a result almost identical to the 1987-95 findings. Research indicates that the significant imbalance began in the early- to mid- 1990, and later we will try to work out why.

Occasional references in early newspaper reports are almost the only source to discover when the preference to face Anfield Road in the first half began. There seems to be no connection between the toss and the Kop for many years after the stand was built. There was no mention of it in the ‘Echo’ report of the first game (v. Stoke, 1 September 1906). The weather was more important than direction of play per se following the winning of the toss; the Anfield pitch is aligned roughly north-east to south-west, with the prevailing wind and afternoon sunshine coming over where the Kop stand now is. On 30 November 1907 Liverpool lost the toss ‘and with it probably the match, for the wind – a gusty one – was all in favour of [Preston] North End from the start.’ Again, in February 1908, ‘It was a right and proper thing for the home captain to [win the toss], for by it he gained a slight advantage with the wind, and he set Brighton to face a bright sun.’

If the weather was the determining factor, it will come as no surprise that this preferred direction of play predates the Kop. On 10 November 1900 against Aston Villa, ‘Liverpool won the toss and started with the wind and sun in their favour’. There is even a hint, which I have been unable to verify, that the ground sloped downwards away from where the Kop is now - when our captain, Andrew Hannah (an ex-Everton player) won the toss on 9 September 1893, he made Lincoln start ‘up the incline’. In the 1920 game below, an hour before the start the youngsters were allowed over ‘on to the playing slope’. Reluctantly, we should reach a further conclusion – this preference for direction of play predates not only the Kop but also Liverpool FC itself. Kelly (2005, p. 5) records that, ‘The coin was tossed and [Preston] North End, winning, placed their backs to the sun, Everton defending the Anfield Road goal’. Given all the circumstances, I’m sure that facing north-east in the first half was established when Everton played there in the 1880s.

Thirty years later, it was said that ‘Spion Kop was a miniature Hampden Park, and it was filled more quickly than any other part of the ground.…. The stands filled slowly, because they were reserved seats, and people could afford to take their time……… The side winning the toss got a useful advantage, the sun being the chief factor. Birmingham won the toss. Liverpool, of course, were set to face the sunshine, the start being prompt.’ (3.00 p.m, FA Cup, 21 February 1920). Thus, the Kop was seen as a people’s stand, stand being the operative word, fourteen years after its erection, but was still not particularly associated with direction of play. The weather was more important in the decision throughout the 1920s and, purely as a result of topography, it was normal for Liverpool’s captains to face Anfield Road first whenever they won the toss.

After the Everton game on 26 September 1925, ‘Big Don [Mackinlay] drew the first blood of the day in winning the toss and elected to kick towards the Stanley Park End. Winning the toss meant the value of a fairly sharp wind and had [Everton’s goalkeeper] Harland facing the full blast of the midday sun. He’d certainly be requiring his flat cap today. Such a shame no one has designed a cap with a larger brim to give his eyes more shade.’ In December 1927 the press demanded a roof over the Kop. ‘Heavy rain all morning and up to kick off had a big effect on today’s gate, especially on the uncovered Kop. The sooner the club invest in a roof for the Kop the better, as it can only improve attendances.’ Their wish came true when the newly roofed Kop, 28,000 capacity, was opened to greet Bury on 25 August 1928. This one stand was very large, holding about half of the total crowd at most matches. Even then, the weather continued to dominate decisions following the toss. On 20 March 1929, ‘It was a brilliant afternoon, and the side winning the toss and playing with the sun would have a tremendous advantage, for old King Sol blazed right into the eyes of Sunderland, who played towards the Spion Kop.’


The Kop finally got its roof in 1928

This evidence strongly suggests, therefore, that our preferred direction of play was conceived in the 1880s, and became associated with the Kop probably as a result of its expansion, including steel roof, in 1928, and the consequent multiplication of decibels for the players on the field. The number of fans was increased by those who could, in those days, rush round from the Anfield Road end during the interval! The newly enlarged stand, with a roof much higher than the top of the original mound, also had an effect on wind and sun and has since developed into a far more entertaining, even romantic, background story than its more mundane origins suggest. The first time I can find direction of play being primarily related to the Kop instead of the weather is the Everton game on 23 January 1937. ‘Liverpool won the toss and defended the Kop end,’ according to the Evening Express. ‘Defended the Kop’ is the telling phrase, a fortress to be guarded.

There were relatively few times before the 1990s when we lost the toss, and our opponents chose to face the Kop in the first half. When Dundalk won the toss in 1969, before their 10-0 thrashing, the regular reporter Horace Yates described them as ‘possibly the only team in football who would willingly have given Liverpool the opportunity for a second half assault on the Kop’ – but he was wrong. Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday had done it in 1963, Arsenal in 1971 and AEK Athens in 1972, all being commented upon as being unusual events. Furthermore, since 1892, I can find only three examples of Liverpool winning the toss and deliberately facing the Kop first. One was against Juventus in 1965 (interpreted as a daring signal of self-belief in Liverpool’s superiority), another for the Pirelli Cup, 4 August 1998, classed as a pre-season friendly, and justifying the decision to include only competitive matches for this research. On 3 March 2007, almost unnoticed, we tried to upset Manchester United’s expectations in the same way, but it didn’t work - we lost 1-0.

If Liverpool has not changed its direction of play preference for as long as they have played at Anfield, one conclusion is inescapable – the modern phenomenon of so many opponents being willing, if not eager, to face the Kop in the first half has nothing to do with Liverpool. It must have been a result of larger numbers of opponents playing them at their own game by deciding to face their own visiting fans cheering in the Anfield Road end in the second half! Though the trend preceded 1998, the enlargement of that stand must surely have further encouraged them to do so. The Kop itself had been rebuilt in 1994 as all-seater, far safer of course, but far less intimidating as capacity had been more than halved to 12,390.

I can find no regularly available records of who wins the toss until 2013-14, so we have to rely on overall statistics to come to a conclusion, on the assumption that Liverpool win the toss in fifty per cent of matches. On this basis, the number of visiting teams choosing to face their own supporters in the first half has gone down from about forty per cent at the turn of the century to under twenty per cent now. During the last six seasons, however, we can see who are the serial offenders still making us play towards the Kop in the first half. West Ham seem to alternate, having won the toss six times in those years. Chelsea (who play the same trick on Manchester United) and Spurs keep changing their mind. Newcastle figure twice, and Manchester City twice in the same season (2017-18)! Worst offenders are Everton, with a minimum eighty-year rap sheet. Alan Ball had not forgotten Liverpool’s ‘Achilles heel’ after becoming Southampton captain in 1979.

My own feeling about the change in the mid-1990s was the sense that Liverpool was no longer the fortress it had been for decades, particularly during the earliest years of the Premiership. The unshakeable self-belief in teams and fans alike was undermined by a series of events – possibly Heysel in 1985, the loss of the match and thereby the championship to Arsenal (finishing the game towards their own fans) on the last day of the 1988-89 season, Hillsborough in 1989, the consequent loss of Dalglish as manager, and the change to all-seater. Visiting clubs became less concerned with taking whatever edge they could get by annoying their hosts, and more with pleasing their own fans at the Anfield Road end.


The change to an all-seater Kop had an influence in the 90s
B) Do Liverpool win more games playing towards the Kop in the second half?
In terms of pure numbers, yes – simply because we play far more games in that direction. The real question should be, what are the percentages, win lose or draw, when we start in either direction? Of the 827 games identified between 1986-87 and 2018-19, we started towards the Kop in 249 games, winning 154 (62%), drawing 57 (23%) and losing 38 (15%). In the remaining 578, we kicked off towards the Anfield Road end, winning 372 (65%), drawing 125 (23%), and losing 81 (12%). The difference is marginal – notionally, during those 33 years, we probably won fewer than one game per year more by facing the Kop in the second half, less than the margin of error caused by the ‘missing’ games whose direction of play has not yet been discovered. The earlier period (1946-47 to 1986-87) shows a similar result – of the 474 games, we won 142 out of 202 facing the Kop in the first half, and 207 of 272 in the second half – as a percentage, they are 70% and 72% respectively, again only a marginally better performance using our preferred direction.
C) Do our teams score more goals at the Kop end than at the Anfield Road end?
Yes. That old adage, that the Kop is ‘worth a goal’ is true in this case. This is where the Kop scores, as it were, over the opposite end of the pitch. In the 827 games during the years 1986-87 to 2018-19, Liverpool scored 1704 goals, of which 917 (54%) were at the Kop end, but only 787 (46%), 130 goals fewer, at the Anfield Road end. However, there were two seasons in which we scored significantly more at the Anfield Road end (1986-87, 2010-11), and many more when the difference was only marginal. In the same 827 games, the visitors scored 667 goals, of which 317 (48%) were at the Kop end, and 350 in front of their own fans, who appear to have less effect on our visitors than the Kop does on the Liverpool teams – not a strong argument for playing us at our own game!

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D) Do we score more at the Kop end in the second half?
The contrast between the ends is even more marked on this calculation. Of the 917 goals scored at the Kop end, 698 were in the second half, but only 219 when we faced the Kop in the first half. Bearing in mind that, over the 33 years, we have faced the Kop first in fewer than half as many games as facing Anfield Road, we average less than a goal a game (0.9) at the Kop end when we face them first, but 1.5 goals per game when we face the Kop in the second half. In short, the ‘second half effect’ which started this research in the first place is not a figment of the Kopites’ wishful thinking – it is real, and measurable to the tune of half a goal per game, though only a statistician might be happy with that answer.

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E) Does the Kop really have the ‘worth a goal’ effect if we are behind at the interval?
One of Liverpool’s brightest stars in the 40’s, Albert Stubbins, claimed: ‘It was a wonderful experience to play at Anfield, particularly when you were playing towards the Kop. If you were losing, say, 1-0, and you were playing into the Kop in the second half, it was worth a goal.’ 

I’ve located seventy-two games since 1986-87 in which we played towards the Anfield Road end in the first half, and had a one or two goal deficit on the day at half-time. The final results were 17 wins, 18 draws and 37 losses. In only one case did we overcome a two-goal deficit and win – the already remarkable Borussia Dortmund game on 14 April 2016. We’d done the same in an outstanding game against Club Bruges in 1976.

These results should be compared with two other sets – are we as successful in overcoming first half deficits when we have played towards the Kop in the first half; and is the belief in the ‘worth a goal’ effect only a left-over memory from before the Kop became all-seater in 1994?

In the first case, 35 games ended in 5 wins, 12 draws, and 18 losses. Only one game involved a three-goal deficit – Real Madrid on 22 October 2014. These results, on admittedly more limited numbers, are remarkably similar to those above, suggesting that the ‘mini-Kop’ at the Anfield Road end plays just as effective a role in helping Liverpool in the second half.

Perhaps, after all, it was the huge, all standing Kop (in Albert Stubbins’ time) from which the belief has descended. However, in the 32 years prior to 1994, playing towards the Kop after a half-time deficit resulted in 10 wins, 4 draws, and 16 losses (the 16 including the famous, final day against Norwich). Playing towards Anfield Road after a deficit resulted in 10 wins, 5 draws, and 15 losses.

Once again, it seems, finding a strong, positive effect of the Kop on overall results has proved elusive when measured over long periods. In each case, the number of wins plus draws is almost exactly the number of losses, in whichever direction the deficit first half has been played, and unaffected by the all seater Kop. On these figures, the widespread belief that the Kop somehow causes an extra goal might be correct, but only because it stimulates more goals, not necessarily more wins.

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Conclusion.
On match results then, commentators, and many fans, get it wrong. It is not ‘bad news’ if we lose the toss and are made to play towards the Kop in the first half, as the likelihood of winning the match is almost identical in whichever direction we play first, though in each case we will score more goals at the Kop end than Anfield Road. We have not lost such a match since Real Madrid in 2014, and not lost a Premier League match since Chelsea in May 2010.

The Kop has evolved through several phases, losing its original purpose for direction of play (which had been forgotten by the 1970s if not before), and developing to the height of its influence during the golden era of Liverpool under Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley and Kenny Dalglish. Since the Hillsborough tragedy, the necessary seating arrangements have, as predicted at the time, removed some of its terrors for visiting teams, and the development of the main stand now dwarfs the Kop which once housed half the Liverpool fans. There appears to be a sequence of events, running post-Hillsborough, through the resignation of Dalglish, the worrying lack of form in the early Premiership period, the change to an all-seater stand, more ‘tourists’ on the Kop, and a growing desire by visiting teams to play towards their own fans in the second half. Singing, once the invention of the Kop, is now shared by the whole ground. The flag waving, humour, and strong vocal support from the Kop continues, but I think we may still be in a transition to the next stage of its evolution.

Is it a coincidence that the most memorable events in our history seem to have taken place at the Kop end? Think of the winning goals against Everton, St Etienne, Borussia Dortmund, and most recently Barcelona. The tannoy was not needed towards the end of the 2019 Barcelona game; it was spontaneous singing, not so much a celebration of victory (that came after the final whistle), more defiant than defensive, knowing that a Spanish assault on our one-goal lead was imminent. The rest of the crowd joined in as if the whole of the stadium, in a sense, was an extension of the Kop, which had become the conductor leading the orchestra. It remains to be seen whether that is how it will be perceived in future, but one important vestige of the past will remain as it has for 130 years, surviving two world wars and twenty-one managers – our desire to play towards the Kop in the second half.

# FIFA’s change of rule earlier this year means that the same complete analysis cannot be undertaken for future seasons unless LFC provides the data on who wins the toss, and what decision the winner makes. Otherwise, we will no longer know which team has determined the direction of play.

1) Kelly, S., The Kop: Liverpool’s twelfth man, 2005 p. 230-1 

Copyright - Dr Colin D. Rogers for publication on LFChistory.net

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