The Night We Didn’t Walk Alone by Charles Commins
The Carling Cup isn’t a competition that many in the top tier of English football take seriously. It has been the norm for some time now for teams such as Arsenal to blood their young, up and coming superstars in the competition, sometimes all the way through to the showpiece final at Wembley. For lower league teams this can represent their best opportunity of creating an upset, something Northampton Town have been seizing upon over the last few seasons.
A year ago the Cobblers reached the fourth round of the competition for the first time in decades having beaten eventual League 1 Champions, Brighton, in the 1st round and Play Off finalists, Reading, in the 2nd before visiting one of sports’ greatest stadiums, Anfield, in the 3rd round.
It was a dreary day in the North West and having finished work at 4:30 I boarded the train at Warrington Central dressed all in Claret, wearing that year’s away shirt underneath a jumper and my favoured home shirt from 2008. There were no other Cobblers fans on the platform, only a smattering of Liverpool shirts that seemed uninterested in my get up that included bar scarf and huge Sixfields Boys flag. On the train I found myself surrounded by business men and women on their way home from a hard day’s work. The first interesting aspect of my evening was listening to four suits talk about their door to door sales exploits from the day. One lad seemed to revel in telling his story about how he had managed to get a “dear old lady” to sign herself up for a 12 month phone and internet contract that she “wouldn’t be around long enough to see out”. I was shocked but soon found my attention dwindling, my mind wandering into a daydream of how good it would feel to watch my team win at Anfield.
I was soon snatched out of my dream like state by a group of girls who, it turned out, had been asked by their boyfriends to quiz me on my football colours. Having managed to force my eyes away from one of the perkiest pair of breasts I had seen that week, I informed the girls that I was a Northampton fan on my way to Anfield. A moment later the girls were gone and had been replaced by a burley looking teenager who quipped to me about how I would feel about being beaten 10-0. I ignored him and started to pray that the train would hurry up and arrive at Liverpool Lime Street.
On my arrival I headed straight to the nearest Wetherspoons to meet the other half of the Warrington Cobblers Supporters Club. Having taken the day off work, Steve had already managed to drink three pints before I met him and straight away advised me that he had broken all the rules and decided to wear two pin badges that identified him as a football fan and Cobbler. After quickly supping down two drinks and a burger we headed off to Anfield in a taxi that was driven by an ardent Liverpool fan. In fairness to the Scouse chap he did drop us right outside the pub that was full of other Cobblers fans who had erected a huge flag across one of the windows, claiming the pub as our own.
After fighting our way to the bar and eventually getting double the amount of drinks required in an effort to ensure we wouldn’t need to fight our way back to the bar anytime soon, a huge roar of Fields of Green rose from the centre of the pub. The noise was incredible. It seemed 6,000 Cobblers fans had crammed themselves into the small public house and were intent on enjoying themselves. Such was the volume of the gathered punters a couple of police officers entered through the door in an effort to maintain civil order. They needn’t have bothered, spirits were high and not one person was bothered about their presence, some laughing and joking about the size of one of the officers and questioning how he managed to make it through the door so easily.
Soon it was time to get out of the pub and make our way to the turnstiles. This presented my first opportunity to visit the Hillsborough memorial outside the Shankley gates where I was interviewed by an LFCTV cameraman. I say interviewed, it was more a case of Steve and myself shouting down the camera lens about how good it was to be there and how much respect we had for the young Liverpool supporter who had joined us moments before for a nice chat and a bit of banter.
It was then that the problems started. Steve found his brother, who had driven up from Northampton with Steve’s ticket, and off they went inside to take their seats. I wasn’t so quick to follow him. News had come in that one of the supporter’s coaches was running late and may not make it before the whistle blew to start the match. Typically it was this bus that my Dad, and more importantly, my ticket was on. Disaster. Not only was my viewing of such an anticipated match at threat but my bladder was also starting to throb. I needed that coach to arrive there and then. To make matters worse the heavens had opened and I was starting to believe that the whole world was against me. I was frantically looking for a place to relieve myself but every corner was home to either a member of Merseyside Police or a Liverpool FC Steward.
I was watching hopelessly as my Cobbler counterparts entered the turnstiles and the wandering soles outside began to disapate. Soon I was on the phone to my Dad almost shouting down the phone at him as if it was his fault that the bus company had sent a driver who had already used his alotted driving hours by the time they reached Birmingham. The news soon came that the bus had arrived but my ticket was still agonisingly far away on the other side of Stanley Park. By this time my bladder was about to burst into a thousand messy pieces. I was left with no alternative but to disappear behind the nearest burger van and hope that no one had noticed.
After an eternity I stopped peeing and my Dad and Sister turned the corner, ticket in hand. Nearly grabbing the ticket out of his hand I pushed my Dad to the nearest turnstile and walked into the Anfield Road End of Anfield half way through the prematch rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone. My nerves were shot and the team were already out on the pitch. When the game kicked off I was just settling down into my seat, so relieved i completely forgot to shout my ritual “Come On Cobblers” at the top of my lungs.
When the half time whistle went the Cobblers were 1-0 down to a clinic Javanovic strike that finished a top class, Premier League, move. Spirits were still high, everyone just loving being there. This presented myself with an opportunity to take a photo of the three of us and look to see if there was anywhere I could hang my flag. For a stadium and football club well known for their flag waving there was nowhere within easy reach or view to hang it so i decided to wrap it up and place it under my seat. Looking around I gave myself the chance to really take in the size of the Kop and the rest of the stadium. I was actually expecting it to be bigger. I’ve been to Old Trafford and the Emerites and both those grounds seem to be able to fit Anfield in them easily. Maybe this is more down to the retrospective view I’m giving the day but it’s a serious thought even if it’s one that may not exist had I experienced the game standing on the Kop
It was during half time that I started to reflect on just how many Carling Cup away games I had attended over the previous few years had ended in an incredibly positive result. West Ham, Bolton and even Sunderland have given me incredible memories while following the Cobblers. I’ll admit that I spent the next five minutes dreaming of what might be in an hour’s time.
The second half got underway and the Cobblers came out fighting. When Billy McKay scored in front of the 6,000 other Cobblers supporters I went mad. It felt like the whole stadium was rocking. It was an incredible feeling that put a smile on the faces of everyone around me. The belief was so strong in the Anfield Road End at that point and when the game went to extra time I was shaking with excitement. Even my sister, who had only come because of her supposed love of Liverpool that is only there due to a certain Michael Owen. “He doesn’t even play for them anymore” I had said to her on the phone one evening but it didn’t stop her from shouting and cheering for the boys in white as loudly as any other Cobbler.
One of the sad things about the night is that no one seems to remember that it was Michael Jacobs that scored our second. People tend to focus too much, in my opinion, on Kevin Thornton shushing the Kop in celebration. I’m not saying that I didn’t love that moment but Kevin should remember that his shot was poor and easily saved by Brad Jones which then led to ‘Crackers’ smashing the ball into the net. The atmosphere moved up a notch and died almost at the same time after the goal. People seemed to be thinking that although they should support the team, if they said anything too loudly, the dream would end. I don’t really remember what happened when David N’Gog equalised right at the death. I think I felt it was all over in that moment. I was proud but disappointed we hadn’t quite done it. I couldn’t imagine us beating the mighty Liverpool on penalties. They were the kings of the shootout after all, it was how they last won the European Cup in 2005.
I wrapped my flag around my shoulders during the penalties, just as I had done at Sunderland two years previously. Then as Steve Guinan stepped up to the spot my Dad and Sister pulled it around themselves too.
It was horrible to see Giunan’s penalty flying over the crossbar and into the Kop. “This is definitely it. We’re out. After all that effort.”
Then N’Gog smashes it wide. “Get in, we’re still in it!”
Thornton scores. “Thank god for that!”
Davis scores. “What a penalty! Brilliant!”
Jacobs steps up. “He’ll miss this,” I said to my Dad. “Too much pressure.” Jacobs scores. “Told you!” I say followed by nervous laughter.
Eccleston misses. “Wooooooooooooooooooooo”
At this point everyone is trying to work out how many penalties have been taken. Then someone nudges me from behind and tells me that if we score, we’ve won. This only makes me shake violently and almost stop breathing. This is it, we could actually win. As Abdul Osman walks from the centre circle the thoughts rushing through my head are those of a true Northamptonian. We won’t win. It never happens to us. A pessimist to the end.
I didn’t see Osman wheel away from the Kop with his arms outstretched. I was far too busy jumping, shouting, hugging, kissing. It was overwhelming. I’d never experienced so much joy at the football in all my life. We could have gone on to win the cup at that point and it wouldn’t have felt any better. I watched as the players congregated on the pitch in front of us, dancing and singing along with the fans. It’s all a bit of a blur to be honest. I only know what happened after we won because I have watched the DVD several hundred times since. The euphoria was too great. I have no idea how long I stayed inside Anfield for. It could have been hours.
The realisation of what had happened didn’t quite reach me until I stepped outside and found Steve with his brother and nephew amongst the exuberant people. It was raining hard. Harder than I realised. I hadn’t brought a coat. I didn’t care. It was well past the last train home back to Warrington. Neither myself or Steve cared. Steve’s brother offered us a lift home in his van; it was only round the corner he said. We were talking gibberish about the match. Each of us so proud of the performance, trying to relive what we had just been through. Every corner we turned we apparently got closer to our vehicle home. At this point we were soaked through. The van seemed to be further and further away with each step we took. By the time we found it we had walked from one side of the city to the other. It was only supposed to be round the corner, Walking through Liverpool at night is only fun when your drunk or extremely high with emotion after a great win at Anfield.
The journey home along the M62 isn’t really something I would usually write about but I think it’s important to say how I lived in fear for those long 20 minutes. Being a van, there were no back seats, only a large space which included a hard hat and workmen’s tools. At one point I found a hack saw and suddenly felt very vulnerable. It wasn’t the end to the night I was expecting in all honesty. Every turn the driver took, the saw moved closer to my leg. I was soaked through, full of emotion and now had a fear of being cut by a saw. It was the most surreal night I had ever had and I loved every minute of it.