Standing Room Only

“Ode to a playground. A place from your past or childhood, one that you’re fond of, is destroyed. Write it a memorial.”

Well, I don’t know about a playground, but this latest of the WordPress ‘365 Days of Writing Prompts’ made me realize that, in the getting on for a year and a half that I’ve been largely talking to myself on this blog I have barely mentioned the third great passion of my life, after Sugar Magnolia (of course) and the Grateful Dead.

Liverpool FC.

Now, don’t tell me you’ve never heard of the Liverpool football team. If you really haven’t then please feel free to stay around and learn something – unless you’d rather go off and watch cat videos, of course. However, I’m going to assume a basic level of knowledge about ‘by far the greatest team the world has ever seen’ and focus, in the context of this writing prompt, on a place that is no longer there.

The Kop.

Except it is still there, but it’s just not the same. What I’m talking about is the Kop back when it was a terrace where you stood – along with about 25,000 other, like-minded people – to watch a game of football. Today the Kop is still there behind the goal at the Walton Breck Road end of Anfield, and it still provides the loudest and most raucous display of good-humored fanaticism you can find just about anywhere in world football. Now, though, it’s called a Stand, because it’s got seats (I know; you tell me) and the  capacity is less than half what it used to be.

It is still, apparently, the largest single-tier structure in Britain (interesting fact #1), but when I stood on it, as I did many times in my youth, it was even bigger. It was built at the turn of the last century, when it held as many as 30,000, who must surely have made themselves heard, but when they put a roof on it, in 1928, the sound was amplified hugely.

Courtesy of my Dad’s season ticket for the old Kemlyn Road stand I had already been to a lot of matches at Anfield, so I had seen and heard the Kop from close up.

Even from sixty yards away, it was a scary-looking place. Picture 27,000 people packed onto 100 steps running almost the entire width of the stadium; my back-of-the-envelope arithmetic gives about three square feet of space each – on a quiet day, and there weren’t many of those. The crowd would surge up and down, looking like it was crashing against a sea wall, as the action on the field flowed backhand forth. When Liverpool scored, especially at that end of the ground, it was absolute mayhem.

And it was loud. Did you know, incidentally, (interesting fact #2) that the loudest noise ever recorded at a British football match was at the Kop end, in 2005? And by then it was in its slimmed-down, seated, configuration.

It was already the stuff of legend too, as you can see if you watch this short extract from a 1964 edition of the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, ‘Panorama’. Ignore the received pronunciation of the presenter and just look and listen to what’s going on behind him.

I would probably have been fourteen or fifteen before I was adjudged big enough and old enough to stand on the Kop. A gentle soul like me would have been eaten alive on the nursery slopes of the Boys’ Pen, a standing area tucked into one corner of the Kop proper, where only the real hard knocks from Scotty Road went. 

It was an important rite of passage, and from the very first I loved being a part of the Kop crowd — and you did feel like a part of something that was much greater than the sum of its constituents. It obviously helped that I don’t have a problem with claustrophobia, and as long as you remembered to stand right in front of a crush barrier rather then right behind one, you had at least some control when things got a bit agitated.

It didn’t even matter too much if the guy standing next to you at kick-off was a stranger to deodorant, because by half-time he’d probably have drifted twenty feet away, like a piece of flotsam on the endless human tides. I was fortunate too, in never personally suffering the temporary affliction known as ‘Hot Leg’, which was what you got if you found yourself standing in front of someone with too much pre-match beer and nowhere (else) to go.

But apart from the shared experience – and the fact that behind the goal really is the ideal perspective from which to appreciate the tactical element of football, for me the best part was the incidental humour of the constant banter. Like the time, when ‘Boys From The Black Stuff’ was on TV and as a Liverpool player readied himself to take a corner kick, a voice piped up from the Kop: ‘I can do tha’; gizza job’.

My personal favourite must have been at one of my first matches, since it would have been August or September 1967. As the terraces were filling up, a lad arrived to meet up with a group of his mates who’d already established a beachhead on the next barrier to me. He was wearing a tie-dye T-shirt, briefly the fashion of the time.

“Aright Joey, lad” said one of them in greeting, “is darra new shirt or ‘ave yer just bin sick?”

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