Thursday, January 8, 2015

How to live a charmed life: An American's Liverpool FC pilgrimage

By Austin Hertzog

There are no guarantees in life.

It’s what led me to a basement Mexican restaurant on a dark, industrial street in Manchester on Thanksgiving. Merely one of many steps on the path to Anfield Road.

I don’t believe in bucket lists. I believe in do lists. Why dream something when you can make it happen?

For a lucky few, the reality is as good or better than the dream. Charmed existence I’ll admit, even clearer after a week focused on Merseyside.

Not every dream can be realized. No, you will not become the next Messi or become the quarterback of the Eagles. But a dream like stepping inside and experiencing one of the hallowed grounds of sport - maybe for you it’s Wrigley Field, or Fenway, or Lambeau Field or Old Trafford - can happen. And I don’t believe in any time like the now to make it so.

Temper expectations and lead a life bolstered by bonuses.

In reality, I booked a week across the Atlantic so I could sing an old musical number in a chorus of 40,000 for two and a half minutes. That was the singular requirement, the singular expectation. Beyond, the bonuses were innumerable.

You can step inside one of the meccas of sport, but it sure is easier when you have generous, well-connected friends and I had that in spades. The hard part - actually getting tickets to both a home game and, a couple of days later, among the 3,000 away end tickets to another - came together no thanks to me. It came from the strangest of places, a die-hard Manchester United supporter named Lee Carter.

Generosity from friends and sometimes more impressively from strangers was a never-ending motif of the trip, like Lee’s fantastic sister Rachel and her partner Nikki, who hosted us Friday night, or the guys from The Anfield Wrap (a podcast I listen to weekly), who I tweeted at Saturday night and proceeded to hang out with late night Saturday in Liverpool and was invited to sit in on the podcast taping the following day at the ‘top of the tower.’ Or the beers and lunch these guys treated me to the next day, just some American Red welcomed with open arms.

Fortune seemed to smile on myself and travel partner Tim Raub - an American Red whose Anfield dream began well before mine and not just because he’s older than I am - from the start, a seamless journey from plane to train to strolling in a straight line toward our downtown Manchester hotel.

A soccer pilgrimage fittingly began by going back to the beginning - the FA Museum. It’s a beautiful new, all-window structure with fantastic relics of the game, from FA Cup trophies from the 1800s to the Jose Mourinho puppet from Special 1TV (I’ll give you a guess which I was more excited about). Football took a backseat that evening to the aforementioned Mexican restaurant, next-door whiskey joint - wasn’t planning on how into American whiskey’s they’d be - and caught a band at the Whiskey Jar the power of the internet allowed me to check out in the U.S. and confirm was cool in the U.K.

Friday was a football tour de force, kicking off at the under-construction Etihad - they’re expanding it for what fan base I’m not sure - then across town to Old Trafford. We weren’t able to get inside save for a sliver of green seen down the players’ entrance, but the trip was worth it to the red side of Manchester for the history of the stadium, the statues - the ‘Holy Trinity’ of Charlton, Best and Law, as well as Ferguson - and most of all the honoring of the Munich disaster. While I knew most of the story, as a professional journalist I was profoundly affected by the memorials in the stadium tunnels and around the grounds as I looked upon so many of the 23 who died, a staggering number of working journalists.

It wasn’t just because I was with a Mancunian, but my enjoyment of Manchester as a place - accessible, welcoming, urban but not imposing - was on the verge of disturbing, so much so that upon navigating the city with such ease over a day and a half I wondered to myself if I was meant to be a Manc.

After my only proper meal of fish and chips, the road north took us to stadium No. 3 on the day, Bolton Wanderers and what is now Macron Stadium - Reebok to all of us - with a skybox view thanks to that Carter sweet-talking. Bolton has it figured out with a hotel affixed to the stadium with rooms that you can watch the game from. (I smell a league trip next season!)

You won’t find a hotel affixed to the fourth stadium of the day. You might not even find a hotel in the entire town of Accrington, but that didn’t stop us from taking in a League Two match between Exeter City and Accrington Stanley. Accrington Stanley isn’t especially close to Adlington, where Lee’s sister resides, but we were drawn there by not so much the cosmos, moreso the lactose. In a game of word association, if you say ‘Accrington Stanley’ to any Brit they’ll smile and say ‘milk advert’. An iconic commercial for milk from the 1980s with a young Scouse lad with dreams of playing for Stanley is engrained in the mind of anyone 30 and over. An unusual impetus for a game, but we were treated to cracking one, a 3-2 thriller that featured a couple goals from 25-plus yards that went in favor of Exeter.  (See for yourself:

After a few pints at the neighborhood bar back in Adlington for the nightcap - only Lancashire cask ales if you’re doing it right - it was time to recover for the centerpiece day of the trip.


I woke up in Adlington, well north of Manchester, walked three minutes to the train and an hour and a half later I emerged in another place I’d never been, the city center of Liverpool, ceaselessly impressed with the ease and sanity of the U.K. public transportation. It’s the type of consciousness that makes me cringe at being ‘American.’

After a quick stop at our hotel, I ducked my head and slinked into a black taxi. “Up to Anfield, please.”

It’s a surreal experience when you’re in the moment of something you’ve made plans for and anticipated for so long. You try to digest everything, hyper-aware. Tim seemed drunk, fumbling with his camera, barely cognizant he was standing under the Paisley Gates. He wondered where they were as we took a loop of the stadium, walking down snug Anfield Road to the Shankly Gates and Hillsborough Memorial.

The surrounding area was as advertised, dilapidated neighborhoods in a crawling state of gentrification, construction going on behind walls in preparation of LFC’s forthcoming announcement it will expand the main stand.

The character and atmosphere of a stadium embedded in a neighborhood, something lost in Manchester or South Philly for that matter, was moving. We caught a couple pints in The Albert, situated practically on the ground of the stadium, to soak in a bit of the matchday experience before meeting up with Dave Rowe, LFC Academy coach, who gave us his season tickets for the day.

Guided into the Main Stand, up the steps and into the stadium, we were in.

Then Gerry came on.

I didn’t fully realize it until the end of the trip just how much music plays a role in the soccer fan experience in England. In the U.S. you go to watch a game, millionaires putting on a show for paying spectators. In the U.K. you interact with the game and become a part of it. At my core, I think it’s why my fandom for LFC rates above any other team despite the distance or lack of lifelong ties to the club or city. It’s not a coincidence that I find it odd to watch players sprinting, dripping sweat while spectators scarf down a hot dog, plate of nachos and a beer. Or why you’ll find me standing between the benches, not up in the press box, when I cover a match.

Fandom is strange, which I suppose led me into journalism.

Being a part of a chorus as we lend our support to a cause makes much more sense to me.

The lifers throughout the Kop side of the Main Stand - our seats were with many obviously long-time season ticket holders who were at the game only because that’s just what they do at 3 p.m. on a Saturday - weren’t so affected to hear, ‘When you walk...’

I’d lent my voice to the anthem. Pilgrimage accomplished.

On current form, there were no grand expectations from the game. I wasn’t there for a win, but I had come all this way. A training session-worthy first half offered little. But Liverpool improved in the second half and the moment built. The 40,000-plus of us inside Anfield knew it and we let it be known with a hair-raising wall of sound, hearing the roar inside that stadium worth the price of admission alone.

I had the best seat in the house - level with the 18 on the Kop end - and muttered to myself, ‘No one’s following’ Rickie Lambert’s header that grazed the bottom of the crossbar in the 85th minute. I had the best seat in the house and I didn’t see Glen Johnson coming. But the veteran right back that I slag off on a regular basis surprised everyone, most of all me, sold out and beat everyone to the rebound with a diving header and made LFC a 1-0 winner over Stoke.

It was dark, felt like 10:30, and a celebratory steak and ale pie hit the spot, but it wasn’t making it light again. It was 5:15. Now what? You plan for your big moment, not what to do next.

After a few hours back in the room, I’d lasted. Tim hadn’t. It didn’t seem right to end a monumental day with a whimper so I walked without a plan or destination.

I found what I hadn’t expected: a modern, thriving metropolis with a vibrant nightlife. I strode anonymously, not people watching, more energy feeling. I was alone - except not at all - in a place I’d never been before, not knowing where I was going, but knowing where I was, blessed by a GPS-enabled phone and map. I wasn’t lost.

I despise feeling like a tourist. I don’t know if it’s irrationally thinking I’m being judged by the locals or the desire to belong. As with all things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle I suppose. Some people travel and want to see the sites. I go for the culture.

I hadn’t sorted that part out for the Liverpool leg of the trip. Blessed with the phone in my hand (a bigger victory than you’d realize) I tweeted at some of the primaries from The Anfield Wrap, a twice-a-week LFC podcast that is a fixture of my week. I hoped for a tip on a cool place to go. What I got was an invitation from TAW’s John Gibbons, who splices a local music flair into the podcast, to be he and his crew’s best friend for the next 15 hours.

The place to be was ‘Liquidation’ in the basement at Heebie Jeebies, an Indie dance party - Bloc Party’s ‘Helicopter’ comes to mind - that was perfectly not fit for the 18-22 crowd upstairs packed in with the Black Eyed Peas blaring. Welcomed like an old friend, I felt like an honorary Liverpudlian, not the outsider that at times gave me trepidation about cheering a team as my own that was founded and exists as part of a community far from my own.

But I suppose all sports franchises were built that way. Players were once members of the community. But big business and riches enveloped the foundation and it’s all become disconnected. England and its football has just hung on to the old days longer.

As that divide increased, distance decreased. Technology allowed me know what band to see 3,400 miles away, how to walk around Liverpool or how to connect with strangers. It also allows an American to follow a team an ocean away just as closely as someone who lives around the corner, in some ways even better with the superior TV coverage in the States.

I was invited to sit in on the podcast taping the next day at the ‘top of the tower’ in the Radio City 96.7 studios. It was a thrill to be behind the curtain and in on the process, which in many ways is what the entire trip embodied.

We learned about the reinvigoration of Liverpool on our walk to lunch with John, a deed undertaken by Rob Gutmann, who I know as a voice - classic pipes at that - on the Anfield Wrap but is actually a prominent business owner who has turned many downtown abandoned buildings into hotspot restaurants - our lunch destination, Yardbird, included. I later came to learn this place fell into that category, the former site of the White House Inn, made famous by its wall featuring the largest work of famed graffiti artist Banksy. (The large rat mural was taken down and put to auction in August but it failed to reach its reserve price of £225,000 and was due to return to Liverpool).

A pint of Guinness and goodbye to our absurdly hospitable new friends led us to the Liverpool museum before an easy evening to recharge the battery.

The night couldn’t be a total snooze. There was ground to cover. Or underground to cover.

When we had arrived in Liverpool to drop off our bags at The Richmond Hotel we met concierge Les, whose story is the opposite of what you’d expect from a guy sitting at a desk at a luxury hotel. But Les, in his twilight now, knows music: he was a former roadie for Deep Purple and Whitesnake. When we first met him he talked up the Cavern Club, made famous as the place the Beatles were ‘discovered’, a must-see and he sung the praises of the Beatles cover band that plays there, namely the brothers who play as and look like Paul and John.

It was Sunday but you’d have never known it from the buzz of the nightlife around Mathew Street. We started down the steps - a surprising number of steps - down the six flights of stairs, which must put the club three stories below ground level. With the sort of luck I was running on there was little doubt what band was about to take the stage.

Les knows his music.

(The Mersey Beats, Jimmy and Tony Coburn included, were playing a single 3-hour block our entire stay. It naturally and coincidentally fell on the time we just so happened to show up.)


There was no easing into Monday. There were things to be done and a return to Anfield topped the list.

I knew coming in, the electricity of match day would be too much to make one trip to Anfield sufficient. A tour was in order. It wasn’t the most comprehensive tour I’ve ever been on, but a few landmarks were worth the price of admission: the scaled-down locker room (that Mark Cuban could do quite a number on) and getting a picture snapped sitting between the spots of the captain and the future captain, the iconic ’This is Anfield’ sign and walking down the steps and out the tunnel into an empty Anfield, quiet but some kind of resonance of the energy that resides there on European nights and other match days lingers.

I got the photo of the Kop from the manager’s box that was destined to be my Twitter cover photo, so there’s that.

I was a sponge for as much LFC history as I could take in, knowing most every name, but not always knowing their exploits. The club museum inside Anfield was more well done than I had envisioned as it touched on the history of the stadium, the greats, the memorabilia with great visual effect. The dark room that glowed solely around the five ‘big ears’ - the Champions League trophy - was a sight regardless of your club affiliation.

A geography nerd lives inside of me. For all the time I spent looking at Google maps to grasp the area around Anfield and Stanley Park, an overhead view doesn’t exactly paint the same picture as when you’re on ground level.

We stepped out of Anfield and onto Walton Breck Road. I knew where I was trying to go - across Stanley Park to Everton’s Goodison Park - but the perspective was off. A helicopter would have made it easier for me, but I made due.

A couple right turns and I was looking at Dixie Dean. It seems every team loves making statues of their icons and Everton isn’t counterculture. Dean was a Toffee in the 1920 and 30s and remains the club’s best ever. Maybe they can find an all-time great this century, too…

That exhausts the amount of Everton ribbing I’m about though. I think quite highly of the blue side of the park for their past support of LFC through the Hillsborough tragedy and as a club that handles itself consistently with class. How could I not when I approached the box office and said, ‘We’d like to get tickets for the U21 match tonight.’ Their response was to rip off a couple tickets, hand them through the window with a smile. No charge.

I knew it ahead of time - it was a special family night with the Everton U21s hosting Sunderland U21s at Goodison for free - but that didn’t dim the shine of getting free tickets. Especially in an era of the big business of sport becoming ever more prevalent, a tiny gesture goes a long way.

We headed back downtown in time for the Magical Mystery Tour to see the sites of the Beatles before returning back to Goodison for the game that night.

It was a curious atmosphere with only a few hundred - all sitting on the Park End stands - inside a ground that holds 40,000. The intensity couldn’t match the League Two game, but we did get five goals - 3-2 for the home team - and got to see a number of Everton first teamers, including goal scorers Arouna Kone and Bryan Oveido and backup goalkeeper Joel Robles, who was our man of the match. For a place that supposedly has constant rain, somehow that Monday night was the only time there was rain our entire stay.

Tuesday’s focus was all about getting to Leicester, a place few Liverpudlians had ever been or had wanted to go. I eased into the day, wandering around downtown and the palpable buzz of the imminent holidays.

I’d learned some of the history, specifically of the toll World War II took on Liverpool, Sunday afternoon at the Museum of Liverpool and read a list of must-see spots that included the Church of St. Luke, a church that was critically damaged during the Liverpool Blitz in 1941. It’s in ruin though the walls and tower remain, what’s left still standing in the middle of downtown in memorial of the lives lost in the war.

From street level, you might not even realize St. Lukes is just a skeleton. Upon closer examination it makes for a striking visual as you peer inside a window to reveal the sky, perfectly blue with swathes of wispy clouds on a crisp early December morning.

I think the dichotomy brought me there. There was something poetic about the blessed individual on high from a dream trip sitting in the shadow of the wreckage, a spot that was definitively unblessed many decades before.

Or maybe it’s just the opposite: outside of that first moment of misfortune, St. Lukes stands strong many years later, its place in downtown fortified, a symbol of perseverance and memorial. Perspective is a choice.

So I sat, drank a coffee and watched my breath. And reflected.


At the start of the trip, right before leaving for the airport, we booked a place on the Spirit of Shankly supporters group coach. We had a seat to get to Leicester, but getting to that seat wasn’t the simplest proposition.

We were due to meet the coach where the M82 turns to an expressway at a bar called The Rocket. So we hopped the train and headed that direction, easily off at our stop. But with the multi-level highways and concrete chaos around there, there was no direct way to the establishment that was about 1,000 feet away from the station. Instead, a circuitous 20-minute walk through some neighborhood to get there.

Our stay was brief. We got there in good timing and ordered a pint, hopefully grabbing a bite to eat. We were in the right place it seemed, some younger guys with bags full of beer ready for the ride. Within three minutes of taking a seat, these younger guys were on the move, hearing one say, ‘There’s the coach’ as they bolted out the door and ran across an eight-lane highway.

Glad we hadn’t ordered food. Unsure of what to do but sure we didn’t want to miss the coach, we were on the move too, scaling guard rails, running through traffic to get across to the bus stop across the way.

It wasn’t our bus, but at least we were in the right place I came to learn after chatting up some of the locals. I’m still not sure what The Rocket had anything to do with the pick-up spot, I just hope the final third of my beer didn’t go to waste.

The Spirit of Shankly bus arrived and was mostly full. I sat down in an available seat next to nearly the last person I’d have expected to be sitting beside. He was in his 50s or early 60s, refined, wearing a cardigan sweater and reading a book. We chatted for stretches of the ride and I learned that he was a historian and architect (for lack of better description) and would often hold seminars at universities. About that hooliganism…

The singing began early and built as we approached, many on loop enough that I was able to pick them up and be armed with them to join in during the game.

There wasn’t time to hit a pub before the game because an American with a phone would have been a superior navigator to an English bus leader and driver (which became abundantly clear on the five-hour trip back inexplicably through Sheffield and many mountainous roads, the one blemish of the entire trip).

But we were there in fine time to spare before the game and made our way into the away fans gate, no police escorts required. Still, the away fans area is self-contained from the rest of the stadium (maybe the 49ers and Raiders should take note) and I was struck by the pandering to the away crowd: ‘Thank you for traveling XX miles to King Power Stadium’ with a spot to fill in the team’s crest and the mileage or a picture slideshow of past players who played for both LFC and Leicester. It screamed, ‘Please, don’t wreck the place’ to me.

Our seats were as good as you could hope for, just off the corner flag around 10-15 rows up that was elevated enough to see the entire field well. Simon Mignolet’s shakiness was on display early and the Foxes led early but Adam Lallana leveled at the far end with a one-touch smash through traffic to go into halftime 1-1.

Back on Monday during the Anfield tour, I made it a point to get a picture taken between the hanging jersey spot of the current and future captains, Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson. Players come and go on every team, but Gerrard is LFC for life and Henderson appears to have a long Anfield career ahead of him. Serendipity scored for me when those two each scored goals - Henderson on a pretty backheel from Raheem Sterling - and ran to celebrate in our corner as the 3,000 of us sang our hearts out and were sent home from that night, that week as happy as can be.

Not everyone will have the same good fortune on their dream trip. But there aren’t any guarantees they won’t.

Friday, August 24, 2012

You can rewrite record books, but you can't rewrite memories

On June 2, 2011, the War on Drugs, the United States initiative to reduce the worldwide illegal drug trade, was declared a failure by the Global Commission on Drug Policy.
On August 24, 2012, the War on Drugs in the sports world should be declared a failure.
Late Thursday night, the United States Anti-Doping Agency stripped Lance Armstrong of his record seven Tour de France titles and banned him for life from cycling.
The ruling came after Armstrong chose to discontinue his fight against the USADA’s doping charges, the final salvo in Armstrong’s previously never-ending fight against allegations of drug use by cycling federations around the globe.
“I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999,” Armstrong said in a statement Thursday night. “The toll this has taken on my family and my work for our foundation and on me leads me to where I am today – finished with this nonsense.”
“There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ For me, that time is now,” Armstrong said in a statement.
If there were an imaginary line of people lining up in support of Armstrong you would find me at the back of that line.
But what has been proven by Armstrong being stripped of his Tour titles?
There are two conclusions I can draw: revisionist history and mudslinging.
And neither are productive.
Operating from an imaginary perch of moral superiority, we have seen doping agencies and the U.S. government pursue users of performance-enhancing drugs and try to knock them down to size.
Armstrong called the USADA investigation against him an “unconstitutional witch hunt” and I can’t disagree.
Armstrong and baseball’s Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are the headliners in the hunt for PED users.
Bonds and Clemens were each acquitted in perjury cases against them in the last two years, but the court of public opinion has not ruled in each of their favor over time – and that’s where it should end.
In cycling, the record book now reads that only one American has ever won the Tour de France, Greg Lemond in 1986, 1989 and 1990. With Armstrong’s seven removed and Floyd Landis’ 2006 win vacated in 2010, Lemond now stands alone.
The ruling against Armstrong drags the sport he brought great notoriety through the dirt even more than it has already been in, becoming the third rider (Landis, Alberto Contador and Armstrong) to be stripped of the yellow jersey.
But have the memories of people who celebrated the wins of Armstrong, an undisputed cancer survivor and philanthropist, or the riders who lost to him on those seven occasions been wiped from their minds?
I didn’t think so.
Ask any Penn State alumnus from the past decade what their football game experience was like. In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, late coach Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions were forced to vacate 112 wins, dating back to 1998.
Penn State isn’t the only school to have wins “vacated” by the NCAA. USC football, UMass and Memphis men’s basketball programs have also been stripped of wins and championships in the past decade.
So the 100,000-plus fans to pack Beaver Stadium on a weekly basis all fall for the entire decade were all in dreamland? Well then...
Surprisingly, it seems baseball has gotten it right with PEDs. Since the Mitchell Report in 2007, Mark McGwire, of the great home run chase of 1998, Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez and former Clemens best friend Andy Pettitte are among players who have admitted steroid use. In the last month the San Francisco Giants’ Melky Cabrera, the All-Star Game MVP in the middle of a career year, and Oakland Athletics pitcher Bartolo Colon have been suspended 50 games for positive tests.
But the record book remains unchanged.
Disputing Armstrong, Bonds or Clemens’ guilt is not what any of this is about. After the last five years of PED courtroom mudslinging, I frankly don’t care if they are guilty or not.
I can understand an athlete’s desire to perform better at all costs with the help of performance-enhancing drugs, ignoring rules and regulations in the name of success. Rules are not made to be broken. They are in place to protect the sport and its athletes.
I can understand the choice therefore I’m not offended by it.
But don’t tell me my memory of a 73rd home run into the San Francisco sky, the buzz around Happy Valley every fall, or a cyclist riding through the Champs Elysees, both hands off the bars, one with all five fingers point, the other with two raised never happened.
And no doping agency or courtroom ruling can tell me otherwise.