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Paul Howard: Love affair with Liverpool tugging at my heartstrings again

The club’s glory years in my childhood have proved frustratingly elusive ever since

Kenny Dalglish was born on the fourth of March, 1951. I know this without needing to look it up. As a boy, the date – gleaned from the back of a Topps All Stars picture card – was seared into my memory like the fact that his middle name was Mathieson.

His date of birth was central to a little piece of arithmetic I did in my head 10 times a day, every day, for the best part of my childhood. One day, some time around 1978, I asked my dad what was the youngest age at which someone – not naming names – might make his First Division debut. He reckoned 16.

Then I asked him what was the oldest age at which a man – again, this was purely hypothetical – might still be playing First Division football. He guessed 36.

It was all the information I needed. Because if what this man was saying was true, there would be an overlap between my football career and that of the player who meant more to me than any other player in the world.

It would be a short window of opportunity, no longer than a few months, but me and Kenny Dalglish would get the chance to play together for Liverpool – according to my calculations, in the final months of the 1986-87 season.

My wife stuck her head around the door and asked, 'Why don't you just pick a different team?'

Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.

While Dalglish, as player-manager, was still occasionally picking himself that season, my own football career had stalled due to a combination of puniness, poor motor skills and a lazy right eye that failed to respond to corrective surgery.

It was only when the fact of his retirement was confirmed, after his very last appearance at the age of 39, that I gave up on the dream. But being devoted to just one football team for your entire life, I’ve since discovered, is to live in denial anyway.

Thirty years later, on the first day of the 2016-17 season, I was pacing the floor of the living room, effing and blinding at the TV, after watching Liverpool concede a dumb injury-time equaliser against Watford. My wife stuck her head around the door and asked, ‘Why don’t you just pick a different team?’

A rock of good sense in most other matters, Mary could see that loving Liverpool was bringing me very little in the way of happiness. And that is still the case, even with the team now standing closer than they’ve been in 30 years to rediscovering something of their old greatness. There is no excitement. There is no pleasure. All I feel is tension and a sick sense of foreboding.

Childhood memories

On Wednesday afternoon, I went back to biting my fingernails, something I hadn’t done in years. I was thinking about City versus United – doing sums in my head again – and, one by one, I chewed every one, right down to the quick.

I’m not above analysing it. I know why I feel this way. Once, I associated Liverpool with joyful childhood memories. Now, I associate Liverpool with the frustrations and thwarted desires that are part of what it is to be a grown-up. Liverpool winning the league after a gap of nearly 30 years will return a little bit of my childhood to me. Well, that’s what I’ve come up with so far. The process of self-realisation is ongoing.

It used to be easy to be a Liverpool fan. Which is part of the reason I started following them in the first place.

In the 1970s, when I first fell in love with football, they were winning everything. At six years old, I was allowed to stay up late to watch them beat Borussia Monchengladbach in the 1977 European Cup final.

The match commentary was delivered down a telephone line from Rome, which made it sound like it was coming to us not so much from a different country as a different dimension. I loved those blood red jerseys with the thick white v-neck and cuffs. I loved Kevin Keegan and his power ballad hair. But mostly I loved the fact that Liverpool won that preposterously outsized trophy.

We lived in England at the time. Our local team was Luton Town, who played their football in the unglamorous environs of the English Second Division. In 1978, when the players visited our school, I turned down the offer to meet them in the staffroom until a teacher persuaded me that Ray Clemence was in there as well, an act of betrayal that I was slow to forgive. I asked David Pleat, "Where's Ray Clemence?" and David Pleat said, "Ray who?"

When we moved to Ireland, the first question that my new classmates wanted answered was: "What team do you follow?"

Your football team was an expression of how you saw yourself, an outward extension of your character. In Archbishop McQuaid National School in Ballybrack, there were 15 boys in my class. Seven followed Liverpool, seven Manchester United and one Manchester City.

These allegiances mattered so much to us that, while I can’t remember what most of those kids looked like and couldn’t pick them out of a line-up today, I can still remember who followed who nearly four decades later.

There wasn't much live football on TV in those days. Saturday afternoons were spent watching men like Giant Haystacks and Rollerball Rocco throw each other around a wrestling ring while we waited for news from the football grounds to filter through to Dickie Davies on a thing called the vidiprinter.

Team poster

Following a team as a kid was about more than just watching them on TV. For me, it was ripping open a pack of Topps All Stars, popping the hard stick of gum in my mouth, then flicking through the cards, sugar-coated fingers trembling in anticipation of discovering a Liverpool player among them.

It was about how you chose to decorate your bedroom wall to pay homage to your team. Staring down at me from the foot of my bed for a lot of my chilhood was an assemblage of hard-looking men with permed hair and enormous moustaches and jerseys with the word “Hitachi” written on them.

My first Liverpool team poster, bought for £2 from Golden Discs in Dún Laoghaire, was already torn and battered when I Blu-Tacked it to the wall thanks to an incident I'd got involved in earlier in the day.

My best friend, Jason Dunne – a Scouser, as it happened – dared me to run into Walton's music shop and blow into one of their trumpets. As I fled the scene afterwards, laughing my head off, I dropped the poster under the wheels of a number 7 bus.

Following your team was about getting your first full kit – in my case, a cheap knock-off version of the canary-yellow-with-red-pinstripes away strip that Liverpool wore in the early 1980s. It was made by O’Neill’s and it came in a little bag containing a jersey, silky shorts, thick socks, but sadly no stick-on moustache.

The jersey was either short- or long-sleeved – and I chose long – because I liked to replicate one of Ronnie Whelan’s goal celebrations where he pulled the sleeve down over his hand to pump his fist to the crowd.

If you've never supported anything other than a successful team, you can persuade yourself that the good times are going to last forever. For the Liverpool side of the 1970s and 1980s, winning leagues titles was as easy as having a birthday – wait around long enough and it happened as a matter of dull routine, barring the occasional blip involving Nottingham Forest or Aston Villa or Everton.

Conveniently, the end of the Liverpool era – and, worse, the beginning of the Manchester United one – coincided with end of my adolescence and the beginning of adulthood.

The 1989 Hillsborough tragedy, which so famously broke Dalglish, was really the start of the end. I was working in the John Hinde postcard factory in Dublin, where my workmates and I usually spent our morning tea break talking about football, especially the great Liverpool side of the time that included Peter Beardsley, John Barnes, Steve McMahon, Ray Houghton and John Aldridge. The Monday morning after Hillsborough, we just sat around in silent shock. There was nothing to say.

Middle age

Liverpool’s last league title arrived a year later and I remember the day in clear detail. I had just taken a step into the grown-up world, having quit my job as a postcard caption writer to try to become a sports journalist.

That morning I ran a disposable razor over my peach-smooth, teeange face to try to accelerate some stubble growth, then I spent the afternoon on a first date with a girl who was, on reflection, a postcode or two out of my league.

She insisted we watch Dirty Dancing on VHS and refused to pause it so that I could find out from Dickie Davies how Liverpool were getting on against QPR. I said I didn’t mind not knowing until later on. But I was young and stupid. I had no idea that the relationship wouldn’t outlast the summer or that I would be well into middle age before Liverpool came close to winning another league title.

I was so excited about the future that I couldn't sleep for 24 hours and stayed up through the night, like a madman, painting the hall, stairs and landing

I suppose the three decades since then have taught me some lessons I needed to know as an adult about the impermanent nature of things and about enjoying good times while they last.

Giving your love to just one team – and a largely underachieving one at that – requires a huge emotional commitment. And it requires insulating yourself against disappointment. When Liverpool won the European Champions League in 2005, I was so excited about the future that I couldn't sleep for 24 hours and stayed up through the night, like a madman, painting the hall, stairs and landing.

But it proved to be just another transient piece of joy. And when they came close to finally winning the title again in 2009 and 2014, I tried my best, for as long as I could, to rein in my optimism that another glorious era, like that I lived through as a child, might be at hand.

And yet here I am this weekend – more than 40 years a Liverpool fan – like a big idiot, believing all over again.

Paul Howard

Paul Howard

Paul Howard, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a journalist and author, and the creator of Ross O'Carroll-Kelly

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