Down the years, a trip to Liverpool L69 has hardly proved to be the most enjoyable, or indeed rewarding of experiences for those of us of the claret and blue persuasion, so when you throw into the mix last season’s humiliating reversal, allied to the undisputable fact that we’ve hardly started the current campaign in the most scintillating of form, it was hardly surprising that the four of us hit the M6 heading north, in a state of concern and trepidation, wondering and discussing what to expect throughout the evening ahead.
Our first trips to the home of Liverpool F.C. were back in the mid sixties, when that occasional quirk of fate that raises its head from time to time, sent us to Anfield on consecutive Saturday’s. It was January, and we initially went up there for an Old First Division fixture, then again the following Saturday for a third round F.A. Cup tie. We journeyed up to the home of ‘The Mersey Sound’ on both occasions via the fleet of coaches provided by the now defunct Flights of Stockland Green, a company and mode of transport no doubt remembered fondly by a few of you good folk out there, those who were following the lads to away games, back in the days of the swinging sixties. We lost both games by the same scoreline, 1-0, and those results sort of set the trend for visits to Anfield over the years.
Today was another game though, and another season, and by the time we’d passed the Hilton Park services, we’d somehow managed to convince ourselves that tonight was the night, victory would be ours, and a determined team performance would see us get at the very least, a point on the board, enabling us to get our new campaign well and truly underway. Even the negative words of every footballers bible, ‘The Tony Cascarino Blog’, who was telling his fans that Liverpool would beat us comfortably, failed to dampen down our spirits. Hey! Its away trip number one of another long season, what’s there to be down about? I’d predicted 1-1 on the vital Villa forum, so I decided to stick with that prediction in our regular away-day sweep. The four of us throw in a fiver each, correct score wins the pot, if you don’t get a correct score predictor, the twenty-quid carries over to the next away trip. Harmless fun for four harmless big kids.
We stopped off at one of our favourite watering holes, in Lymm, Cheshire, ‘The Bulls Head’, and were joined by three other traveling Villans, plus four ‘Pool supporters also on their way to the game (glory hunters from Netherton). Needless to say a fair bit of banter ensued, although surprisingly enough, our Netherton Reds were not overly confident of a Liverpool victory.
They were well surprised though about the booing at Villa Park for the Wigan game, and also of the flak being directed at our manager. ‘Listen’ my mate Neil put ’em right, the vast majority of the supporters don’t feel that Martin O’Neill or the club are showing the necessary ambition, and after the disappointing end to last season, the supporters are concerned that unless the squad is increased both in numbers and quality, then three years of progress will be wasted’. The ‘pretend’ scousers weren’t convinced.
Anyway thirst quenched, appetites satisfied, we bade our farewells, back in the car, destination Anfield.
Right, the teams, and this is how they lined up:-
Rafa’s Ragged Lot: Reina, Johnson, Carragher, Skrtel, Insua, Mascherano, Lucas, Kuyt, Gerrard, Benayoun, Torres. Subs: Cavalieri, Voronin, Riera, Babel, Kelly, Dossena, Ayala.
Mart’s Mighty Men: Brad Friedel, Habib Beye, Curtis Davies, Carlos Cuellar, Nicky Shorey, Jimmy Milner, Steve Sidwell, Stan Petrov, Nigel Reo-Coker, Ashley Young, Gabby Agbonlahor. Subs: Brad Guzan, Marc Albrighton, Nathan Delfouneso, Fabian Delph, Emile Heskey, Craig Gardner, Shane Lowry.
It was a still evening up on merseyside, the pitch quite naturally in perfect condition. It looked a picture, just right for a commanding Villa performance, and that is exactly what we got.
The usual rendition of ‘You’ll never walk alone’ rang out around Anfield as the teams lined up for the off. Its still a great sight to see and hear, even after all these years, all these visits, but once the game got underway, our boys immediately set about silencing the Anfield roar.
We clearly hadn’t sold all of our tickets, but I’d say that there were a good 2,000 Villans or so in attendance, all in good voice, and seemingly in high spirits.
I’d commented on the forum that I was glad that this game was at Anfield and not Villa Park. Too much flak and negativity flying around at the moment, not the ideal background to have to perform at home, knowing that one bad pass, one wayward shot, one defensive error, and the boo-boys would be on your back immediately.
There was almost a goal for the home lot in the very first minute, shades of Vienna again. Benayoun getting his head to a Gerrard through ball, and heading just wide as Brad dithered.
Liverpool poured forward, and in one crazy twenty second spell they had four clear cut openings to score, but somehow brave defending kept the ball out, and it remained at 0-0.
As the minutes ticked by though, the lads finally got their act together, you could see the confidence return. They were fighting and chasing for every ball, throwing bodies in the way to block shots, and Liverpool suddenly realised that there was going to be no repeat of that 5-0 thumping. The home lot were facing an aggressive and determined animal, and weren’t we traveling supporters loving it. There’s been talk of dis-harmony within the ranks, well there sure wasn’t any sign of it out on the pitch. Can I use the term, ‘brothers’ in arms’?
Ash was booked, presumably for obstruction, and the home side kept pushing forward, and an opening goal for them looked like just a matter of time.
The ‘Pool though were thwarted by the best defensive performance I’ve seen from us in a long, long time. Curtis Davies was immense, Habib Beye given a much better performance than in his debut the other week, Shorey played his full part, as did Cuellar, who despite some shaky moments, gave arguably his best performance in the sacred shirt. Steve Sidwell and Nigel Reo-Coker fought for every ball as though their lives depended on it, while Milly looked every inch the quality performer we all know he is.
On thirty- two minutes we were in front. Initially we thought that James Milner was the hero, but the Anfield announcer called it as an own goal from the Brazilian, Lucas.
Ironic really because it was Lucas who gave away the free-kick in midfield. Ashley swung the set-piece towards the near post, and it was poor Lucas who deflected the ball past Reina for an own-goal. Not that we cared one jot about his intervention.
1-0 to us, cue for much hugging and kissing amongst strangers, who as long as you were wearing claret and blue, were more than happy to share some ‘loving’.
A great save from Brad kept our lead intact, after Fernando Torres got onto the end of a Johnson cross.
Then right on half-time, could you believe it. In injury time we won a corner when Steve Sidwell’s shot was deflected for a corner. Reina was booked for protesting, it clearly looked from our end as if it had took a deflection, but the Spaniard clearly wasn’t happy.
Nicky Shorey’s corner was swung into the near post, and there was Curtis Davies to head home. 2-0.
O.K., Liverpool had had the bulk of the possession, had created more chances, but this was a Villa team fully up for it, battling to a man for the cause, and as biased as it may sound, most of us seemed to agree, we fully deserved the lead.
At half-time we were all obviously in a bouyant, delighted at what we’d witnessed, but aware of the fact that down the years, Liverpool have staged some memorable comebacks against top quality teams in this stadium, so we had a battling forty-five minutes ahead of us. It was far from over yet.
In defence though we actually looked organised for once, passion and desire looked there in abundance. Everything that was so lacking against Wigan, was clearly evident in abundance tonight.
As the second half got underway Nigel picked up a silly booking for kicking the ball away, while up at The Kop end, Kuyt went close twice, one effort I believe looked as if it came off the post.
When we broke though we really stretched Liverpool, and caused them problems a’plenty. Nigel was so, so close to putting us 3-0 up when Gabby slid a beauty of a ball across the face of the home goal, while up the other end Brad saved the day again, with another fine stop from a Steven Gerrard effort.
I must say here, probably because I’m in a benevolent mood, that Gerrard really is a top quality act. A niggly individual at times, but when it comes to sheer talent, he has it.
Voronin came on for Lucas in the sixty-fifth minute. It hadn’t been the Brazilian’s night.
Suddenly the home lot were back in it, with seventy two minutes of the game gone. Torres finished cleverly from a Insua cross from the left flank. 2-1, eighteen minutes left. Its bite your nails time we thought, a few more grey hairs.
But no! Nigel Reo-Coker was on the end of a superb Nicky Shorey through ball, only to be felled by that man Gerrard. Clear penalty, easy decision for the referee.
Up stepped Ash, the classic penalty, Reina the wrong way, 3-1 to us.
Ash had to go off after a challenge from Carragher, the scouser the butt of the Villa fans abuse throughout the ninety minutes.
Liverpool pushed forward, but Brad was not going to be beaten again, not tonight, not against his old club. He saved well from both
Torres and Glen Johnson as the minutes ticked by.
Then the final whistle, and an orgy of celebration. The players came to acknowledge us, some throwing their shirts into the supporters. They didn’t want to leave the pitch.
A tremendous victory. Heroes one and all. Truly proud to be a Villan. That was one top performance.
Right, back to the car, amidst a sea of unhappy home supporters. Most though were quite complimentary, and most agreed that they’d take Milner off our hands tomorrow – joking that they’d give us Lucas as a straight swop!
What an enjoyable ride home. We stopped for a few celebratory drinks, before setting off back down the M6.
To really rub it in, Beatles music was played at a pretty high volume from the car cd player! We just wanted to show that we’ve nothing against Liverpool. Not after this trip up there anyway.
Right, here we go. My marks out of ten for our heroes.
Brad Friedel – 8
Habib Beye – 7
Carlos Cuellar – 7
Curtis Davies – 9
Nicky Shorey – 7
Jimmy Milner – 8
Steve Sidwell – 7
Stan Petrov -7
Nigel Reo-Coker – 7
Ashley Young – 7
Gabby Agbonlahor -7
Emile Heskey – on for Ashley – 6