Newly-crowned Premier League champions Liverpool travel to Etihad Stadium on Thursday night to take on second in the table Manchester City, title-holders for the last two seasons. As is the custom, Pep Guardiola’s team will give the Reds a guard of honour before kick-off. Even though there will be no fans in attendance at the venue, it’s bound to make every Liverpool fan’s heart swell with pride and there are bound to be a few tears of joy when they watch the end of their 30-year title drought from afar.
Ken Skupski, a former top 50 men’s doubles tennis player, was just seven when Liverpool won its last league title, back in 1990. He doesn’t remember it, but curiously, has a faint recollection of his hometown club losing the 1988-89 title to Arsenal based on a weaker scoring record (both teams were tied on 76 points).
“That hurt,” he offers.
Patrick Newton, another Liverpool resident, was just four when Liverpool won what is arguably considered the most gripping Champions League finals ever played in 2005. He doesn’t have much recollection of that match that he assumes he watched at his grandparents’ home (“Family tradition, to watch all finals there,” he explains). It was only a few months after Newton had attended his first match at his favourite club’s home ground Anfield – a Youth FA Cup tie.
“My parents pretty much started taking me to matches when I was old enough to leave home,” he says.
While Skupski and Newton have no recollection of the last time Liverpool won the English Football League – the top flight division until the Premier League was formed in 1992 – over in Leeds, 61-year-old Simon Plimley had spent just under half his life waiting to embrace that old, long lost feeling again. That feeling of watching The Reds being crowned champions of England.
And so it happened, when Chelsea beat second-placed Manchester City, and the title was secured. Yet this time, precautions against the COVID-19 pandemic would force the celebrations to be subdued – including, empty stands this Thursday night when City’s players give the new champions a Guard of Honour.
“To know that we won’t see it and the trophy ceremony in person, that we won’t be in the grounds to enjoy the moment, it’s a little disappointing,” says Newton, who grew up listening to stories his grandfather would tell him of the glory years in the 1970s and 80s, when the likes of Kenny Dalglish, Ian Rush, Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley et all ruled the roost.
“The older generation, they’ve seen it, they’ve experienced it. They know what it’s like. For (the younger generation) to think we’re finally going to see it, to have our moment, and now it’s been taken away from us. It’s a terrible situation in the world, so we can’t complain, but yes, it is disappointing.”
Skupski acknowledges that disappointment as well. But the 37-year-old also exudes a sense of relief.
“You have to appreciate the fact there are things going on bigger than football,” says the 2017 Wimbledon men’s doubles quarterfinalist. “We have had an amazing season but at one point we almost had to accept the season was going to be void. So to be able to come back to finish off what we started is a relief more than anything. It’s disappointing to not be in the stadium but at the end of the day, we are just super excited to finally get back on our perch.”
Whenever he managed to take a week or two off from the tennis circuit, Skupski would sneak in an outing at Anfield – including the 5-2 win over local rivals Everton. Newton has gone for all home matches this season ever since he was employed by The Anfield Wrap – a fan-site that started off by publishing podcasts (including interviews with former players Dalglish and Kevin Keegan, and current manager Jurgen Klopp).
Plimley, though, is a veteran. He’s been going for games since 1969.
“In the last five decades, I have seen Liverpool winning three Champions League titles, at Wembley (1978), Paris (1981) and in Madrid last year,” lists the sexagenarian. “I’ve also watched them play four FA Cup finals and four different league-title winning matches.”
This time though, once the league restarted behind closed doors in June, the match experience was different.
“I am missing the camaraderie of fellow fans – travelling together on the bus, having a pre- and post-match beer together and taunting the opposition fans,” he says. “I can’t replicate this at home as my wife was not happy about me making a lot of noise in front of the television.”
The stadium may be shut for them, and visits to the pubs – a regular venue for banter among fans – limited because of the pandemic. But with Liverpool winning its first league title in 30 years, and 19th overall, means The Unbearables (a tag Liverpool fans were given by rival fans, but one that they embraced citing the opponents being ‘jealous’ of the club’s achievements) now hold bragging rights. And after the three-decade wait, there’s a long list of rival fans the ‘torture’ will be repaid to – which includes, in Skupski’s list, his former doubles partner and Andy Murray’s current coach Jamie Delgado.
“My entire career, I’ve had to listen to Manchester United fans tell me how good their team was and how sad it must be being a Liverpool fan,” Skupski says. “I have to admit I was envious of their success. The title has been our need for too long as other fans have mocked us for so long. But now it’s time for The Unbearables to enjoy their wonderful team.”
And he signs off in a manner typical of Liverpool fans: “YNWA.”
You’ll Never Walk Alone. Ironic in these times.
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