Pete Sixsmith, one the of the best things happen to football writing in a generation (or six), reaches – I won’t say celebrates – a milestone birthday today. No prizes are being offered for guessing which one. He marks the occasion with some heartfelt words on how the magneticism of Liverpool, for him, rubbed off …
Growing up in the 60s, there was only one place boys wanted to be and that was on the banks of the Mersey.
As a regular reader of NME, Record Mirror, Melody Maker and Disc & Music Echo, I knew all about the Mersey Sound – The Beatles, The Undertakers, The Big 3, Rory Storm and The Hurricanes et al and I desperately wanted to be at the Cavern, rubbing shoulders with Gerry Marsden and thighs with Cilla Black.
Football wise, Merseyside was the centre of the universe in the first half of the decade, with Everton as the aristocrats. Goodison Park really was a cathedral of football in those days and Anfield was the slightly down at heel home of the city’s second team.
But Liverpool had something that the Blues didn’t have and that was street cred. Much of it came from their manager, the wonderful Bill Shankly, who seemed to tap into the city’s psyche far better than the aloof, Darlington-born Harry Catterick. Shankly was one of those who comes along once in a generation – Clough, Mourinho, Ferguson are his equivalents, strong men with opinions that upset some and inspired many.
When Shankly came to Liverpool they were on their uppers, stuck in Division Two while Everton lorded it over them in Division One. He changed the culture of the club, created the Fortress Anfield myth and signed players like Ron Yeats, Ian St John and Willie Stevenson to complement local lads like Roger Hunt and Ronnie Moran.
The club took off like Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok 1 and they departed Division Two, leaving us behind for a couple of years.
By the time we joined them in the top flight in 1964, they were well on their way to becoming the leading club in the country. The Kop, with its irreverent songs and chants heralded a new type of football watching, where fans interacted with the players rather than clapping, waving rattles or throwing hats in the air.
I first saw them on Boxing Day 1964 when they beat us 3-2 at Roker in a tremendous game, notable for the first appearance of Sixsmith in a red and white scarf, courtesy of Santa Claus and The Star Knitting Company of Huddersfield.
Throughout the 60s and 70s they collected trophies and fans; my younger brother was a Liverpool fan before he started going to Sunderland and they earned the undying affection of Mackems when they slaughtered the Mags in the second most enjoyable cup final I have witnessed.
Shankly retired and was replaced by Bob Paisley and they got better and better. Dalglish, Souness, Kennedy, Grobelaar, all marvelous players and all kept in place by the most avuncular manager in the game. I can’t imagine Bob Paisley ever behaving like Wenger or Ferguson and constantly knocking referees or refusing to accept that the better team won – not many did in his day!!
It all went wrong with the appointment of Graeme Souness after the Fagan, Dalglish, Moran period. Fine player that he was, he was a pragmatist rather than a romantic and he began what I see as Liverpool’s decline as a club. Poor signings, poor tactics and an arrogance that had served him well as a player let him down as a manager.
It’s about this time that I began to fall out with Liverpool as, for me, they ceased to be a city club and began to attract “fans” from all arts and parts whose only real connection with Anfield was through television, newspapers and a desire to talk about a big club in the pub, rather than their home town clubs like Darlington, Bristol Rovers and Mansfield.
After Souness we had to suffer Houllier, a manager who was never beaten fairly, always looking for an excuse for defeat and training his players in the art of the triple jump a la Gary McAllister at the Stadium of Light in 2002. Who can ever forget (or indeed be allowed to forget), that stupendous leap into the penalty area from the edge of the centre circle and the ridiculous Graham Barber awarding a penalty?
After Houllier we had Benitez, the luckiest manager in the entire history of the whole wide world. Success against AC Milan was more due them losing their bottle rather than anything Benitez did and boy, did he live on that success. I just didn’t like him and thought that some of his behavior was bizarre – his Ferguson list, his attitude towards the admittedly idiotic owners and his absurd signings.
For me, Liverpool are like William Hague in that they lost their mojo between the two Dalglish periods. They may well be in the process of re-discovering it; Dalglish knows the club, the city and is a link with the immediate post Shankly era. He did good business in shipping out Torres and has a good one in Luis Suarez. I’ll reserve judgement on the show pony he took off The Mags’ hands.
It should be a good game on Sunday. The ground will be full, we may have two fit forwards and there is bound to be controversy (McAllister’s dive, the beach ball incident, the free kick cock up at Anfield) so Sky should enjoy it.
I can’t see Liverpool ever being restored to my favourites list. The older I get, the more I dislike the alleged top four clubs who dominate the media at the expense of the likes of Sunderland Bolton and Stoke (ok, not them). But that’s just the bitterness of an old man who has to wait another 12 bloody months for his bus pass thanks to this robbing Tory government …