My Weekend in Liverpool

By David Shams

Since becoming a Liverpool fan, it’s been a dream of mine to visit Merseyside. Less than ten days ago, I did exactly that.

My friend Jeremy and I had been throwing around the idea of going. He’s a Liverpool fan too and wanted to experience the match day environment. Five years ago that we watched Chelsea end our title hopes and since then it’s been nothing short of a roller coaster ride—Steven Gerrard leaving for the MLS in 2015, a Europa League Final defeat in 2016, and losing to Real Madrid in Kiev last year.

By January, when it looked like there was another title run in the making, we’d all but settled on making the trip across the pond for the final weekend. There was a glimmer of hope that it’d be a double celebration—Liverpool winning their first top division title in 29 years on my 37th birthday.

We were too late to secure tickets into the ground via the fan club allocation—apparently we should have done that in October. And on the secondary-market prices were astronomical. But that didn’t stop us. Just being in the pubs and around other fans outside the stadium would be enough for us.

I found us (my wife joined as well, she didn’t want to miss out on this experience) an AirBnB on Anfield Road, just blocks from The Shankly Gates. It was an old Police Station turned into a hostel/dormitory. Our host, Ro, was exceedingly hospitable and overflowing with tips on what to do in the neighborhood during our stay.

The Shankly Gates May 12th, 2019.

The Shankly Gates May 12th, 2019.

While my wife napped, we had a bit of a bender in Cambridge the night before thanks to one of my old soccer pals from DC who’s now doing research at the University there, Jeremy and I walked around the ground. Fans from all over had converged in what can only be described as a pilgrimage. For some this would be their only glimpse of the hallowed ground, for others it was more of a chance to get reacquainted, but for all of us we stood in awe the temple that’s played host to so many of our favored football memories.

The team shop was jam packed with fans, too. And if I’m honest it wasn’t something I enjoyed. The shop was great, but the whole experience reminded me of Black Friday shopping in America. Having worked in retail for several of those days, I didn’t want any part of it. Jeremy and I stuck around just long enough to make a few purchases and continue along our path around the ground.

I manage to pull off a half-assed jahel stance, while not really smiling, even though I’m standing beneath The Kop.

I manage to pull off a half-assed jahel stance, while not really smiling, even though I’m standing beneath The Kop.

As we made our way past The Paisley Gateway and then along the outside of the Kenny Dalglish Stand, we ended up back at The Shankly Gates. There was a gentleman just outside the gates with a replica Champions League trophy selling photo ops for £3 a pop. He waived the fee after hearing we didn’t have cash.

Seeing as we were less than a block from the famous Arkles Pub, we stopped in there for a quick pint and an order of fish and chips from the next door chippy. As we entered, though, a group of lads struck up a conversation with us.

“You all going to the game tomorrow,” one asked as we were about to enter the north side of the pub.

“Unfortunately, no. We couldn’t get tickets,” I said.

“Wait, are you from America?”

“Yeah, Washington, DC.”

“I love that accent. I love Americans.”

“Thanks,” I said, chuckling and a little confused.

“Aw, well, I’m sorry about that, if it makes you uncomfortable.”

I knew what he was getting at. We do the same thing when they come over here, so it was even.

“No worries, we do it to you all when you head over to America,” I said trying to go back into the pub so I can have a pint.

“Right, okay, well go have your pint then, I wont hold you up any longer.”

Jeremy grabbed the pints, while I went to the chippy next door to get what was supposed to be something small to share, but ended up being a huge piece of fried fish. It was delicious, but several hours later I had some massive heartburn.

After her nap, my wife joined us before we raced off to the Classic Football Shirts pop-up down at the Royal Albert Dock. It was almost as if they knew I would be in town. I’m a sucker for old football jerseys. My goal was to pick up a Liverpool kit from the mid-90s. Those seem to be in short supply, so I ‘settled’ for two tops from a later period.

I ‘settled’ for these two beauties.

I ‘settled’ for these two beauties.

Once we wrapped up our business on the docks, we decided to catch an Uber to the Penny Lane area. Our parents would be upset if we didn’t at least make an attempt to head up there. We ended up grabbing a glass or two of wine at the Penny Lane Wine Bar, which I think had been overrun by some rather raucous, but still polite groups of lads. Nonetheless, the wine was delicious and the snacks we had hit the spot.

But we had bigger fish to fry on Saturday evening. My favorite Liverpool based podcast, The Anfield Wrap, was hosting their end of season party over at the University of Liverpool. To be honest, I was expecting a panel discussion and some Q&A from the crowd. That’s what I get for living in DC for the last 8 years—everything is a damned panel discussion. Even though the event was more pep rally than intellectual conversation about what’s going to happen in the summer or next season, the event was an experience I won’t forget. The three of us learned new chants, ones that I’ve not heard at the watch parties here in DC. And most importantly, we celebrated the amazing season Liverpool has had so far with all the other Scousers in attendance.

Jeremy, me, and Amanda at The Anfield Wrap pep rally

Jeremy, me, and Amanda at The Anfield Wrap pep rally

Owing primarily to the previous night’s shenanigans, my wife and I were beat. And it seemed Jeremy was too. So we all headed back to our AirBnB on Anfield Road. We wanted to be well rested for the long day ahead of us.

The next morning, my wife and I woke up a bit early. It was our plan to take a light run through Stanley Park and around Everton’s ground—Goodison Park. I’ve always been fascinated with stadiums, especially ones smack dab in the middle of neighborhoods. Both grounds at opposite ends of Stanley Park fit that bill. We ended up walking, though, as my achilles tendon was (and still is now as I write this) bothering me.

Goodison Park.

Goodison Park.

An old college buddy has been living in Liverpool for a few years now. He recommended a small bakery near Anfield that sent its proceeds to those who are less fortunate. Seeing as my wife and I love to support local businesses and are suckers for a good cause, we made sure our walk ended at Homebaked Anfield to pick up one of their delicious pies. Afterwards, we stocked up on bottled water at a nearby store—hydration would be key for a long day that would include heavy beer consumption.

Once we rallied back at the AirBnB after Jeremy returned from his own pie run to Homebaked Anfield, we headed to the Sandon. We were told it would be a hopping place to watch the game—to be fair, almost every pub in the area was. It was a bit confusing though, as we knew there would be a beer garden with a huge TV, but we couldn’t figure out how to get there. After a few minutes of deliberations, going through a few doors that led to some back passage ways, which themselves led into other bars, we emerged into a back courtyard that was the beer garden we had been searching for.

It was packed. Not sure why it surprised me, but it did. The scene reminiscent of a college bar on gameday. Lads chugging beers, talking shop, dulling the anxiety from the impending game, all while enjoying the amazing weather. As we took in the scenes just a few blocks from the stadium, drinking plastic 16 ounce bottles of Carling (owned by Molson Coors), the crowd in and around the Sandon started bellowing out the various chants and songs Kopites know by heart. The Fields of Anfield Road, Allez-Allez-Allez, You’ll Never Walk Alone, and other ballads commemorating specific players and their exploits for the club.

I believe they call this multi-tasking…or double fisting…or being responsible (see the water there?).

I believe they call this multi-tasking…or double fisting…or being responsible (see the water there?).

We met a group of young fans—some were just out for the scenes and didn’t really care about the football—that had congregated near us at the north end of the Sandon’s back garden, which was too far away from the big screen to actually enjoy the game. About twenty minutes before kickoff, the other group snaked their way through the crowd to get a better view of the big screen that had been bussed in from out of town, Amanda, Jeremy, and I followed, exploiting the gaps they were leaving in their wake. We made it to about four or five rows back from the fence protecting the bus from the crowd. It was as close as we could get.

There was a bit of a hiccup at the start of the match. The big screen was running on wifi or some sort of internet service and all of our cell phones were sucking up the bandwidth. After being instructed to turn our phones to airplane mode—a first outside of actually being on an airplane—the game booted up although we missed the first few minutes.

I could try to analyze the game here, but that’s not the point. They did win 2-0. But the real amazing moment was that all too brief 21 minutes when Liverpool stood precariously balanced at the top of the table. Sadio Mane scored for Liverpool in the 17th minute. But in a game much farther south between Manchester City and Brighton, one in which every Liverpool fan wanted Brighton to steal a point, Glenn Murray, Brighton’s journeyman striker, nodded home a corner kick to put Brighton up in the 27th minute.

The fans in the ground had started making some noise, which led all of us to believe that Liverpool had scored a second and for some reason our feed was delayed. As phones came out and off airplane mode there was a sudden realization that 29 years of waiting might actually come to an end.

Pandemonium. Scenes. Shouts. Screams. Ecstasy.

Beer was thrown, smoke flares were set off, fans quickly became friendly enough to embrace. An odd, profusely sweating chap with a Barcelona hat on backwards and wearing a heavyish leather jacket was giving everyone in his proximity double high fives. And this young lad with an Irish accent—or maybe it was Scouse, I don’t know—was nearly inconsolable. I’m not sure he was alive the last time Liverpool won a top division title.

“Are you okay,” I asked after we hugged in celebration, my hand still on his shoulder.

“No, I’m not,” he said laughing, possibly even holding back some tears, doubling over with his hands on his knees.

We all had some tears, if I’m honest. It was hard not to.

But less than a minute later, City had equalized. And ten minutes after that, they’d gone ahead. This was the exact scenario that my friend Jeremy and I had wanted to avoid. Brighton scoring first would only upset City even more and push them into a higher gear. They went on to win 4-1. Liverpool’s slim title hopes were dashed.

As both games wrapped up and the coverage switched from the Liverpool players lap of honor around Anfield to City’s trophy celebration down in Brighton, the inevitable beers started flying towards the imported big screen. Some missed. Some landed square in the heart of the screen. Fans cheered. It was an understandable frustration. Had Liverpool lost because of a bad call or egregious error by a match referee, the response would have likely been far worse. But Liverpool did everything they could—they lost once, had a points haul that would win the title in all but the last two years, and still managed to finish second place.

When we arrived on Merseyside the afternoon before, there was this overwhelming sense of jubilation, hopeful optimism, the idea that Liverpool fans were within 90 minutes of seeing their team get their hands on the league trophy for the first time in 29 years. My wife and I felt it on our walk Sunday morning. And in the bowels of the Sandon and more so as we emerged in the back beer garden, it was even more palpable. There was a buzzing a sense of accomplishment, that whatever happened, Liverpool had finally arrived back at the pinnacle of English football.

Maybe it was that feeling that somehow managed to mute what might normally have been a much more destructive response to having to delay their celebration for another year. But as we left the Sandon and headed toward Anfield Road to find Jeremy a match program, the entire atmosphere felt more deflated. As fans were finally filing out of the stadium after applauding their team for the best season Liverpool has had in ages, their facial expressions told a bigger story.

Dejection, confusion, heartbroken, but all with their heads held high. Not just because of the points total, but also because Liverpool’s season isn’t over. In two short weeks, Liverpool will travel to Madrid to face off against Tottenham in the Champion’s League Final—LFC’s second in a row.

Unlucky in our own pursuit for a program, we did manage to find much needed sustenance at a wonderfully named take-away counter. Wok On is exactly what you would think it is—a greasy spoon, serving asian noodles and rice, doing a thriving business on match days. It hit the spot, six hours of beer, sun, and only a smattering of water and our stomachs were engaged in a debate only the British Parliament could surpass.

My wife called it quits after the food, though. Jeremy and I spent the rest of the evening bar hopping. A quick beer at the Park Pub, just across the street from the Kop at Anfield. Then, on the advice of my wife, we headed down to the Flat Iron, where we got the last pints of Guinness before the owner cut off all the taps and ordered the bar staff to serve bottles only. To be fair, they’d run out of everything on tap…or were nearly there by the time we walked in.

We finished the night at the Arkles. Most of match day crowd had died down and gone home by that time. But when we entered it was still buzzing filled mostly with employees from the stadium. Plus they weren’t experiencing any beer shortages.

Jeremy and I struck up a conversation with Walter, a security guard at Anfield. He doesn’t get to actually see the games or participate in the chants/songs, because his job requires that his attention is elsewhere. But he does record the games.

“If we lose, I delete it. But I try to watch all the other games,” Walter told us.

He was a big fan of San Miguel, which is a popular spanish lager in the UK. We get it here, in DC, but its not as wide spread as it is there. We, also, found out that he supported the New York Yankees and does his best to catch as many games as possible on TV, but they were often too late. When we told him that the Yankees were coming to London, he seemed excited. But he didn’t act like he’d be able to make it. Before he left, Walter invited us to a few bars the next day to watch some bands play, which we declined since we had to leave for London early in the morning.

By the time we left Arkles, we had made several other friends, seen one person escorted out of the bar, one drink thrown on a patron, one person puke and then rally almost immediately, heard several renditions of the Bobby Firmino song, and at least one Sweet Caroline sing along.

When we arrived back at our AirBnB, we were famished but all of the chippies and restaurants had closed by that point. So we ordered Dominos, which is a realtively easy task rendered a bit more difficult once you realize you’re in a different country. What if the driver needs directions to your location? What if they need to call you? Will the pizza even be worth it?

Not being a Domino’s fan, it was a tough decision for me to make. But it wasn’t bad. And after an evening of beers, I’m pretty certain anything would have worked.

I feel asleep serenaded by the sound of Jeremy watching the Tick, or whatever it was called, on Netflix.

It was tough waking up honestly. Not because I was hung over…the hydration tactic worked, apparently…or maybe it was the pizza, but because I wasn’t ready to leave. Alas, we had an 11:45 train to London from Liverpool’s Lime Street Station.

The weekend in Liverpool was an amazing experience. And as cliche as it sounds, I’m already planning my next trip back. Hopefully, in late September-early October and this time for a little longer than two days. I’ll be back on Merseyside in no time.

David is the founder of DC Soccer Digest. He lives in Washington, DC. You can follow him on twitter at @ShamsWriter.

Nostalgia: Champions League Style

By David Shams

The first time I saw a Champions League Final was in 1995. To be honest, I had no idea what I was watching, but at the end I knew I wanted more.

Ajax’s young guns, Frank and Ronald De Boer, Nwankwo Kanu, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Edwin van der Saar, well basically their entire starting lineup, faced off against AC Milan, a squad that could only be described as the old guard, remnants left over from one of the more dominate footballing sides of the late 80’s and early 90’s.

I didn’t know it at the time, but they had met in the group stages with Ajax taking both matches 2-0. But, it just like a changing of the guards. Even though we didn’t get access to much club soccer on television, we did get a handful of soccer magazines. And from those sources my brother and I knew that AC Milan was powerhouse, they were the pinnacle, they were the Yankees.

It was the 85th minute before 19-year-old substitute Patrick Kluivert’s first touch from a Frank Rijkaard pass took him 1v1 with the goalkeeper. And with two defenders closing, while losing his own balance, Kluivert slotted the ball past an on-rushing goalkeeper.

The game winner.

An addiction to the beautiful game and arguably its most exciting competition took hold.

Maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement. I was already addicted. My brother and I would watch tapes of old games from the 1990 and 1994 editions of the World Cup. (I still have those tapes by the way) This was pre-MLS and pre-EPL being televised regularly where we grew up.

But there was something about that game that drove that hook even deeper. Like the first time you taste a craft beer after years of stale macro brews. Or when you get that first sip of 12-year Balvenie after growing up on bourbon. Whatever it was, I wanted more.

They made it to the finals the next season and could have been back to back champions if not for a silly defensive error. But to be honest, Juventus had one of their own that let Ajax back into the game. The final had to be settled in a shootout with the club from Turin hoisting the title. And by summer Ajax’s finest products in a generation had been shipped off to distant corners of the continent—mainly Spain and Italy.

I would be lying if I said seeing Ajax making a deep run in this year’s Champions League didn’t have me overcome with nostalgia. And not just for that spring afternoon 24 years ago in May. But for every Champions League campaign after that.

Rushing home from school to catch the last half of what ever game between whichever teams. Begging our soccer coach to delay practice so that we can catch a glimpse of our heros play each other. Jamming in a VHS cassette (I had to look that up because I had forgotten the terminology) and recording over the 1992 slam dunk contest, even if it’s only for the last 30 minutes of the game. Getting to see FC Bayern beat Glasgow Celtic at the Olympic Stadium on the opening match day of the 2003-04 Champions League.

Seeing Ajax in the semifinals does that to me. I’m not even an Ajax fan. Not in the same way, I’m a Liverpool fan, at least. But seeing them do well, seeing them make a deep run, against better funded, superstar filled squads, makes all those memories come flooding back.

And while this team may not be as dominant as the Ajax teams of the past, as, year-on-year, it’s far more difficult to keep up with the big spending Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City, they’ve nonetheless made a strong case for keeping their club’s spot in the pantheon of footballing royalty.

A healthy mix of young and old has Ajax two games away from a Champions League Final. But undoubtedly, though, this summer will, just like in the summer of ‘96, see all those bright young superstars in Amsterdam headed off for new challenges—La Liga, The Premier League, Serie A, The Bundesliga. They’ll be Ajax’s missionaries, plying their trade and talent across the continent.

In a way it’s heartbreaking. Imagine what this side could do if they stuck together. (It should be noted that the club made it to the 2017 Europa League Finals with some of the players from this year’s team.)

But that’s the modern game. Heartwarming, heartbreaking, nostalgia-inducing.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

David is the founder of DC Soccer Digest. He lives in Washington, DC.