The magic of the FA Cup. Sunday morning, and it is matchday in Liverpool, L23.
Spurs at home.
The type of draw Liverpool or Everton are used to. But this week, it is Marine AFC, denizens of Crosby, a few miles north of Anfield and Goodison who not just share but, today, hog the Mersey limelight.
I’m a Liverpool fan, but they’re not my most local team.
Marine play literally hundreds of yards from my house, the walk to the ground when I fancy it; a 6-minute stroll, sometimes for a second-half freebie but never just for 45 minutes. Once the match is over a sense of community prevails; golden goal admin and MOM duties for the “committee,” a couple of pints and pie and peas from the local chippy among the maelstrom for the players who mix with their own supporters.
The Marine lads are good footballers, though languishing – which is a cruel word for their rank – in the eighth tear of English football. Many of these boys are former academy starlets who, often for cruel reasons, didn’t quite make it into red or blue. But, they toughed it out; a love of football the motivator in continuing their profession on as little as £100-£300 per week – mere pin money to bolster the wage from full-time jobs as binmen, posties, clerks, and the like.
Regardless of this evening’s result in a match broadcast live to the nation at 5 pm on the BBC, it is already a football fairy-tale. Tottenham Hotspur FC are in Liverpool already but have not yet arrived. In a few hours though, Jose Mourinho, Harry Kane will be on College Road preparing to change in the club bar while the starstruck Mariners strip in their claustrophobic home dressing room.
At 9 am, all is quiet outside the ground, deathly even, amid these strange and challenging times. Full lock-down here means that the environs of Marine’s tiny but cosy stadium will remain deserted; police charged with keeping us away, and local children in this football hotbed denied a glimpse of icons they know only from their games of FIFA.
Marine Association Football Club have already “won” this cup – the lowest-ranked team to reach this stage, having progressed through seven rounds thus far, just to make it to the stage the “big boys” enter. That is one victory more than today’s opponents require to win the famous old trophy.
“Liverpool’s Black and Whites,” as one song once boomed from a corner of their home ground, will actually play in gold and black – a nod to their first-ever kit in the season of their 125th year.
I love this club. I can smell the liniment, hear the crunch of tackles and scream at the referee from a distance of 1 yard (in days prior to social distancing) and if ever I can’t make it, check the score from the roar of the crowd which fills the air of my garden, itself a mini-arena where my kids learned to kick a ball.
When I say crowd, I mean the usual throng of 250-300 regulars who are the traditional non-league mix of pensioners, trainspotters, groundhoppers, the eternally skint, and kids experiencing live football for the first time. In recent years a little firm of teenagers (drawn mainly from Sacred Heart school) have brought a youthful zest to a crowd that just loves its football and their nearest team.
Honesty, brio, and humour pervade this. Marine used to have a midfielder, Michael Jackson – a minor cult hero. Jacko was serenaded with this by his adoring supporters…….
“There’s only one Michael Jackson, one Michael Jackson……There used to be two, but now there’s just you….. We’re walking in a Jackson wonderland.”
Time is getting on now, it is 10 pm approaching, and the hub is the Pitchforth News, the local newsagents, where my son was a paperboy earning money for his Liverpool FC season ticket. T-shirts and matchday scarves have been selling like hotcakes from behind Gary and Peter’s counter.
Hotcakes have been selling from Waterfields – the pie shop that literally neighbours the “Marine Travel Arena.” These are among only “essential” establishments that remain open; the rest of humanity closed down – shut and skint – by this awful bloody virus and its new unruly cousin. Also doing a roaring trade will be the local Co-Op supermarket, where our keeper bought the beer – still in his luminous orange kit – when the passage to this dreamland was secured a month ago. And, if we’re allowed near, the “College Fryer” might see us buy superb chips and curry next to Son Heung-min.
It is still chilly but warmer than it was, at a current 6 degrees Celsius, so the plastic pitch covering, drafted in to ensure against our turf getting frostbite is perhaps an unnecessary expense. But, nothing would deny us this day, not even spiteful winter cold.
Talking of Jack Frost – as we Scousers call him – my mind wanders off again, back to my happy childhood. I time-travel back to the mid-1970s when my great uncle Jack Hagan, from a family of footballers, plonked a mini-me on the woodworm-riddled, cinder steps of the “Cowshed” at the College Road End, which stood on the same footprint of Marine’s sole seated area behind the goal. I can still smell the cigarette smoke and the ale on the drinkers’ breath from the “Bug and Bite” pub, otherwise known as The Edinburgh. The obsession had begun.
I’m beginning to feel emotional, craving happier days when life was simpler and not so fraught with worry. I begin to worry……. I need to get this written up somewhere and soon. The temporary floodlights (beaming a light superior to the dim glow of the permanent pylons who are Crosby’s tallest residents) are up and ready to breathe fire. The TV crews and vans are here, and the Spurs are up in their trackies and digesting breakfast.
It is time to go to work…… for everyone, players, fans, scribes alike. Speak to you after the match……… Up the Mariners and all their old sea dogs.
Part 2: Post-Match Review
Sadly I’m now back in town, that’s Liverpool for those who don’t know – in the City centre this time to watch the match.
The BBC has already made and done the club proud – Lineker, Shearer, Wright – a full-strength line-up and the Reds’ Jason McAteer (ex-Marine). They’re all talking with just sheer love – of football and actually, have become new fans of this old club.
It’s not long before it kicks off. Gary Lineker is superb – and his crew. Thanks for the coverage, it has been fantastic.
The poetry of Roger McGough used in the preamble sums up the visual beauty of the Crosby shoreline, Another Place, which is not always appreciated by some of the district’s more well-heeled inhabitants.
Enough on that. We’re appreciating all this, it’s not just the magic of the cup, it’s just magic. I just wish I was there. We all do. What a bloody shame, in every sense, that we have to miss this live.
Rightly, on TV, they’re talking about the Spurs now.
It’s not all about you, me, us, anyone. But, every now and then we all get our 5 minutes of fame. Spurs have had a million minutes of fame and it’s deserved. On the sly, I have historical Spurs loyalties, through a family and men who taught me to appreciate football and footballers first, and allow partisanship to take care of itself.
Spurs is a beautiful club.
Here is Jose now – on camera and he is smiling. Another football man.
“We will keep them” he purrs in that bizarre Portuguese that actually sounds more Russian than a Putin/Abramovich nightmare ticket.
He does not like Liverpool FC but he does like this part of Liverpool. Clearly. When he says we will keep them, he means he will care for them, for us; a bond has been struck with this great club of The Football League.
Just for once in the spirit of all this, sod the Premier League.
The Spurs have been great. Thank you. We hope you take up the invites to come and watch us for free next season. We really do!
Marine are manful in holding out what seems an age but is actually a mere quarter of the hardest exam they’ll ever sit.
A chance to punt into the box is wasted a tad, and in that sliding doors moment, a cannonball slams against the Crossender Crossbar.
I have to watch now. Too nervous to write and glance and enjoy.
Predictably as my pen drops, the dam breaks.
The game is over as a contest, so to speak as I begin to write again.
Right this minute, on 63.58 a lad is coming on. For another lad. Dele Alli off. Gareth Bale on.
Gareth is now 200 yards from my house as I keep on an eye on this potential felon.
A thief? Yes, but why?
Because, the last I saw him in the flesh we were both thousands of miles away in Kyiv, Ukraine. Then, he not so much robbed my house, as all my dreams.
The greatest goal I ever saw, it dropped my jaw that low, it collided with my hip. Now, here, he’s followed me all the way home to College Road.
I’ve digressed. This was never, ever a piece about football. It is not about football; rather, football people.
Harry Kane stayed at home, Bale came on, my “Son” turned up and my son texted me before the game to say he was watching. That will do for me.
As I write, but this time to sign off it’s 5-0 to Tottenham Hotspur, with about 20 to go. No shame at all. Spurs once lost 7-0 at our Anfield and were lucky to get nil.
It’s very nearly over now it’s still 5-0 and loads of people have been filmed in gardens, some choking on strawberries (in champagne) they would never normally entertain.
That said, I used to wear rosettes for big games and never had the decency or gluttony to polish them off before full-time. It was a the definition of a special occasion.
I’ll finish in the words of the great Neil Young. Songmeister, but also the name of the Marine manager.
Like his players and all the best of the rest of us, we have two jobs.
It’s cloudy out as I conclude now but, perhaps, a Harvest Moon awaits – for both combatants here, today, and tonight.
“We could dream this night away….. Let’s go out and see the night……..”
Yes, let’s do that.
Up the Mariners, the Spurs and The Reds – fancy a Madrid reunion anyone?