We’ve got used to being inconvenienced by unusual kick-off times over the years but this one – the mighty Fulham at twelve o’clock on a Sunday – surely has to be the nadir.
Instead of Premier League fanfare, this is a time for pub footballers to squeeze into tight shirts and sweat out the previous night’s ale, have a fag at half-time and weave past deposits left by local dogs before blazing over nets hanging off rusty crossbars.
Although coinciding with advent of the SKY TV era, the original early starts were normally ordered at the behest of the police; most notably a string of potentially volatile games against Manchester United at Anfield in the mid-1990s. Perhaps that’s why noon kick-offs still rankle so much as memories of David James fumbles and Gary Pallister headers ruining weekends before they’ve begun readily spring to mind.
Today’s game is the first of a TV triple-header, with Chelsea against Everton and the Manchester derby getting the prime slots later. An absolutely perfect wall-to wall footy-feast for the armchair fan but no consideration for the habitual routines of a regular match-goer forced to contemplate a pint of lager at such an earthly hour. I’m not sure whether it’s the beer or the smell of disinfectant in the air of our freshly-opened pub that turns the stomach.
On the last minute traipse up to the ground it’s glaringly obvious just how old the local support is growing and there’s a Lowry-like stoop for many as they climb Sleepers Hill and Walton Breck Road on the approaches to the Kop. There’s a sense that thousands of old-timers are hanging on to see one last league title, the yearning as keen as for those wanting to experience the magic for the first time. It’s something that troubles the minds of all Liverpudlians as the years pass and the colour drains from the images of Alan Hansen with the old championship trophy.
Inside the ground the atmosphere is predictably flat and a minutes silence to mark a century since the end of the Great War only adds to the sombre mood of the crowd before kick-off. This is a day when the team will be responsible for rousing the patrons even if three points can put the Reds back on top for a couple of hours. The only discernible buzz is brought by the inclusion of Xherdan Shaqiri in a formation that looks like a 4-2-4 with the Swiss imp accompanying Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane up front.
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Fulham aren’t notorious for large away followings but to their credit the visitors have filled their Anfield Road End allocation and their fans who have been up since dawn are far more spritely than the local populace as the match settles into a rhythm. The Cottagers are surprisingly adventurous in the early stages and when a Joe Gomez error allows Ryan Sessegnon to bear down on the Kop goal it’s a huge relief to see him drag his shot wide with Alisson Becker fully exposed.
Liverpool escape again not long before half-time when a linesman’s flag comes to the rescue to rule out an emphatic downward header from Aleksandar Mitrovic. In the blink of an eye though, the Reds are in front. Alisson’s alert thinking from the restart frees Trent-Alexander Arnold and his raking pass has Salah scampering away into acres of space. With all of last season’s surety, Salah drills home beneath the keeper to bring Anfield to its feet.
The Reds raise their game in the second period with Shaqiri again cementing his cult status with the crowd. Andy Robertson too is a bundle of energy down the left flank, endlessly chasing down lost causes and providing a constant attacking outlet. With Liverpool fans still waiting to see the merits of £96m worth of talent in Fabinho and the benched Naby Keita, the bustling Shaqiri and effervescent Robertson look like bone-fide bargain signings.
The pair combine brilliantly to make the game safe in front of us eight minutes into the second half. Robertson’s high swinging cross arcs behind the Fulham rearguard and Shaqiri rushes in to cushion an exquisite left-foot volley into the Kop goal. He celebrates with folded arms and a nod and a wink to fans who have already taken him to their hearts.
It’s a job well done. Without hitting the eights, the Reds have won another home game without going through the gears. Thirty points from thirty six point to the grit and professionalism which combine with the occasional glimpse of brilliance which make Liverpool enduring contenders. After the international break, the domestic fixture list goes nuts and Klopp’s men are right in the mix.
*odds are subject to change.