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Liverpool v
Thursday August 5th 2010, 8pm
Europa League 3rd Qualifying Round
By James Baxter
(Neutral fan)

This was not my first ever visit to Anfield but the last one was in May 1989, just a month or so after the Hillsborough disaster, when I stood in the Kop with a Liverpool supporting friend for a game against QPR. I remember nothing about the game itself, other than that Liverpool earned a routine 2-0 win. The atmosphere, though, was both unforgettable and very difficult to describe. The tragedy was still very recent so there was poignancy and a kind of sad dignity in the air. There were also feelings of friendship and mutual respect, one manifestation of which was the warm applause given to safety announcements over the tannoy.

I’d always wanted to return but living abroad and the fact that most Liverpool games sell out before tickets go on general sale made it difficult. The Rabotnicki game, ‘perhaps the most low key European night in Liverpool’s history’ according to one newspaper report, provided a rare opportunity so my girlfriend, my Dad and I, to all made the trip.

Getting to Anfield from the city centre is not a problem. Several buses drop you right outside the Kop, numbers 17 and 26 seeming to be the most frequent. It’s good to allow plenty of time though as the buses get crowded and often find themselves stuck in traffic. One thing I’d forgotten from 1989 but was reminded of during the journey was how many Liverpool fans take taxis to Anfield. Several cabs, most with four or more people in them, passed us on the way.

One of the best things about a game where a sizeable crowd is expected is the pre-match ‘buzz’ outside the ground, which consists of fans following their rituals; waiting for friends, queuing to pick up tickets, getting fast-food or spilling out of pubs. At Anfield, this is all somehow enhanced. It’s difficult to know how or why but perhaps it’s something to do with the aura the ground holds or its traditional surroundings of street upon street of terraced houses.

The gates, statues and, of course, the Hillsborough Memorial are all impressive. The stands themselves, however, from the outside at least, make little impression. Inside, the ground seems smaller than you might expect. It seems smaller too than grounds with lower capacities, such as Villa Park. Perhaps this is because Liverpool have crammed more seats into less space. Also, of course, unlike at Villa, the corners at Anfield are all filled in. 

Our seats were in the upper tier of the Centenary Stand where the views are excellent but the legroom is not. The Kop, as usual, was full but there were empty seats in both the Main Stand and the Anfield Road end. The atmosphere was understandably flat at times but the Kop did give two fine renditions of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. I was disappointed that the first, before the game started, was prompted by the tannoy so it was good to hear the more spontaneous second one late in the game.

As for the game itself, it would have been more interesting if Rabotnicki had been able to cause Liverpool’s second string more problems in the first leg in Macedonia. As it was, Liverpool were 2-0 up going into the Anfield leg so were always going to progress. The main interest for me was in Joe Cole’s debut (his performance was worth the entrance money on its own) and in whether Steven Gerrard would look happy in a more withdrawn midfield role (he did, mostly). A goal from the enigmatic David N’gog and a Gerrard penalty gave Liverpool another 2-0 win. Rabotnicki reminded me of Tony Mowbray’s WBA when they were in the Premier League. Occasionally, they passed the ball sweetly around Liverpool. But they were error-prone in defence and clueless whenever they got near the home team’s penalty area.

Getting back to Liverpool city centre afterwards was an adventure. We found ourselves on a red London double-decker which clearly was not one of the ‘regular’ city buses. In fact, it looked like it had been ‘retired’ from official service years ago. Besides the driver, there was guy on it who kept leaning out and touting for passengers. Part of his pitch was that it was the last bus back to town, that there were no more 17s or 26s. This clearly wasn’t true but no matter ; we got back with no problems.

Anfield was definitely worth a return visit. I’d be up for going again but preferably to see Liverpool up against stiffer opposition than Rabotnicki.

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