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A Matter of Life and Death by Nigel Roth

Today, given I have Covid yet again and feel much like a chronically-ill Victorian consumption sufferer, plagued once more with the curse of my time, I’m going to sit comfortably at home and listen to a football match on the radio.

Forty-two years ago almost to the day, I did the very same thing.

My beloved Liverpool were on their way to another First Division league title, a second in a row, and despite the fact that they would lose that same year to Dinamo Tbilisi in the European cup first round, to Arsenal in the semi-final of the FA Cup, and to Nottingham Forest in the semi-final of the League Cup, they were still my heroes.

And, as none of those teams actually ended up winning any of the cups they knocked Liverpool out of, an early sense of schadenfreude kept me from tearing out all of my hair.

In 1980, it was Liverpool against Manchester City, and my JVC was tuned appropriately and at-the-ready, and I was hoping for a clear reception so as not to miss any of the action.

A few months earlier, after winning at home, Liverpool had suffered a 3-0 defeat against Tbilisi, as eighty-thousand Georgians cheered and sang in the packed Boris Paichadze National Stadium, while I listened intently to the faraway commentary, interspersed with crackle and feedback, as the commentators raised their voices to be heard above the thunderous hum of a game that sounded to me like it was being played on the moon rather than two-and-a-half thousand miles away.

At one point the commentator referred to Liverpool’s Paul Marking, a name I’d never heard before, and I wondered aloud to myself if a new player had been bought without my knowledge, and if David Fairclough was no longer our ‘super sub’. Paul Marking, though, seemed to be causing the team all sorts of problems, and I shouted at the radio for the coach Bob Paisley to substitute him quickly.

When the background noise died away for a moment, as a technician probably worked out how to muffle some of the crowd noise, I realized that Liverpool were suffering from poor marking, rather than Paul Marking, and I apologized to Paisley, and concluded we were not going to win this particular battle in the murky distant ground on the other side of the known world where Valdimir Gutsaev, Ramaz Shengelia, and Aleksandr Chicadze were the dragons.

It took me weeks to get over that.

But this match was different.

Liverpool were at home at Anfield, and the Kop, named after the Spion Kop, the South African hill that saw desperate action during the Boer War in 1900, when almost four-hundred soldiers lost their lives, and which the Liverpool Daily Post & Echo journalist Ernest Edwards saw fit to bestow on a football terrace at a stadium, would sing out the Liverpool anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone, before and at the end of the game, and chant the club’s name deeply and continually throughout, buoying the players and spurring them on.

While today I have some cheese and a glass of wine to accompany the match commentary, that day I had peanut butter sandwiches and Fanta. My mother was somewhere downstairs polishing her fangs, and my father beavered away in the liquor store, serving and chatting and chain-smoking Rothmans in case they suddenly stopped making them. And my brother watched television, and planned ways to annoy me as we got older.

He was a good planner.

Meanwhile, in my bedroom, I made sure the arial was pointing in the optimal direction for receiving the wireless signal, and that the sound was on just loud enough to hear the game without inducing any distortion, and that my room was neat and tidy, so I could throw a tennis ball against the far wall, and catch it cooly and cat-like like Ray Clemence, or flick it over the furniture with the force of the formidable Jimmy Case.

As Anfield came to life, the sun shone through my window, and I imagined the Liverpool team, their solid red shirts, shorts, and socks, gleaming against the Merseyside green of the pitch, that yellow mythical Liver Bird prominently displayed on their chests, and prayed I’d be celebrating in ninety minutes, plus injury time.

Because while today if Brighton, who haven’t won a game in ages, do pull off a miracle win I’ll be disappointed, I will not be, as I was when Liverpool were beaten in that year by Coventry City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Manchester United, and my grandfather's team Tottenham Hotspur, thoroughly depressed and desperate for days, shunning food and discussion or even mention of football.

So when I begged that day for Liverpool to beat Manchester City, who’ll eventually finish sixth from bottom and just above the relegation zone (a state I’d be delighted to see them in this year as well), it wasn’t just for a football match to go my way.

My week was made or crushed by Liverpool’s performance.

Bill Shankly, the 1980-manager Bob Paisley’s predecessor, once said that while "some people believe football is a matter of life and death ... I can assure you it is much, much more important than that," and I thought then that that was an understatement.

Today, I have no ball to throw against the wall. I have no aerial to point skywards. I don’t even have a radio, as such. But the sun is shining, and the Anfield grass is still green, so I’m told.

At fourteen, the game was the most nerve-wracking and scary ninety minutes of my week. At fifty-five, those ninety minutes will be the only reprieve from a nerve-wracking and scary seven days.

That day all those years ago, Liverpool won 2-0, and I cheered so loudly that my mother shouted up the stairs to tell me to stop the racket, which she did every week that we won. Today, I'll probably still cheer, but it’ll be a little muted and more grown-up and with less of the emotion of an innocent child.

Because today, football is only a very temporary escape from a real matter of life and death.

photo by Kafeed Ahmed

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