This is Anfield (still)
A fan’s first experience of Liverpool FC’s home improvements
Awhile ago, the race by both Scouse clubs to leave Stanley Park was put on hold by the reds opting for redevelopment over relocation.
And while Everton have pressed on with plans to move closer to the Mersey, Liverpool FC have added much more than just extra seats to their home.
Me and a pal made the pilgrimage from (whisper it) Manchester on a Sunday, via one of the stadium shuttle buses from Liverpool city centre.
Fellow excited passengers included families of dyed-in-the-wool Scousers, a first-time father & son from Ireland and Chinese teen boys & girls.
Despite the damp day and Burnley as opponents (no disrespect), it was clear from the mix of faces that Liverpool’s still a club with a special appeal.
Like Manchester, there’s a proud history here tied to the twin passions of football and music.
So I was looking forward to experiencing the ‘Anfield Beat’ — an exclusive hospitality offering for people like us who aren’t very ‘prawn sandwich’.
Hopping off the bus in the shadow of the new Main Stand we headed for the ticket office, passing a stage with a few local la’s singing Mersey classics.
Up the sturdy steps that put you at eye level with the rows of Anfield rooftops and turn right through the swish glass doors.
Genuinely smiling welcomes and ‘wave-throughs’ by the best turned-out people I’ve ever seen in a football stadium saw me quickly up the escalator.
A wristband, a free matchday programme and another ‘let me get the door, enjoy the match’ warm welcome — and I was in.
I’d describe the Anfield Beat as ‘what if the most passionate red and the most obsessive music collector opened a really cool sports bar together?’.
Despite being in the back of a football stand, it’s a hugely light space to mix with fellow fans, with full height windows overlooking Stanley Park.
With two hours before kick off, there was plenty to take in once I had a pint in my hand.
John Lennon and Bunnymen memorabilia on the walls, Sky Sports on the big screens, inspirational LFC quotes stencilled here and there…
There was also some decent quality live music from an acoustic duo who knew their way round a Beatles song or two.
But nothing really pulled my mate’s eyes away from his accumulator betting slip until the announcement of a genuine Liverpool FC legend.
A handshake with Steve Staunton was too good to pass up — a ‘sold too soon’ left back with over 100 games for Liverpool and the same again for Ireland!
He was there to do the prize draw but many were more bothered about meeting him than checking if they had a winning ticket.
As the autograph and selfie queue died down and the pre-game buzz ramped up, people polished off plates of food ready to take their seats.
Drink it in
A short walk from bar to double doors that open into one of the largest football stands in Europe, to join more than 20,000 others.
Yes, the new Main Stand is an impressive structure from outside and from the inside — but once you’re sat facing the pitch, you really appreciate it.
More legroom than the previous version, great views of the pitch, cushioned seats and just adjacent to the wall of noise from the legendary Kop.
When the opening bars of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ begin and the flags and scarves are held aloft by everyone it’s a singular sight.
Sometimes you get that football — and sport in general — can mean something bigger than what happens during the game.
That’s good — because Burnley scored early and we almost missed Liverpool’s 45min leveller by heading in for a complimentary half-time pint.
Pre-pulled drinks passed to you is a nice touch, as you head in with a few hundred other amateur coaches to set out winning strategies.
Luckily, Jurgen Klopp had his own ideas and Liverpool did bag the decisive winner as the sky turned from blue to dark grey.
New seats, old character
Understandably, the atmosphere in the Anfield Beat was great after the game, as Merseysiders, Mancunians and Australians alike celebrated.
I felt for the Burnley fans a bit as their team played well and they sang solidly for 90 minutes.
But leaving the multinational revellers behind to get the bus back to Lime Street, the main thing I felt was satisfaction.
There’s a cliche with football stadium redevelopment that ‘New = Loss of atmosphere’.
But that new stand, with its superb staff, buzzing bars and brilliant views is definitely an enhancement.
I’m glad Liverpool FC decided to stay at home.
And I’m glad they decided to welcome thousands more (including me) to enjoy one of football’s most iconic experiences.