May 14, 2021

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Surreal, strange, madness – A year since Anfield’s final pre-pandemic match – Liverpool FC


It has now been 365 days since Anfield hosted a full crowd, when Liverpool welcomed Atletico Madrid in the Champions League at a time when COVID-19 had just hit the continent.

It was March 11, 2020, when Jurgen Klopp‘s side played in front of 52,267 fans, seeking to overturn a one-goal deficit against the Spaniards at Anfield.

But their eventual defeat after extra-time would ultimately drift into the background as it would be the last professional game played in front of a full crowd in England for more than a year as the pandemic swept across the world.

There were no masks or social distancing at that time but growing fears of what lay ahead, with the controversial decision to allow fans from Madrid to travel – which was already in lockdown – met with bewilderment.

And just 12 days later the UK was placed under its first national lockdown as life as we knew it changed in an instant. Life that has yet to return to normal.

Here, This Is Anfield’s Joanna Durkan (@JoannaDurkan_) and Matt Ladson (@mattladson) are joined by Jeff Goulding (@ShanklysBoys1), Jonathan Higgins (@Jhiggins3) and Keifer MacDonald (@KeiferMacd) to reflect on the last day they were at Anfield as normal and what was to come.

 

What do you remember the atmosphere around the game being like with the threat of COVID-19?

MATT: I was fortunate to be attending as media for the game and I was a little nervous about being in a room with Spanish media. I remember being quite surprised and very disappointed that there weren’t even extra hand sanitisers in the working areas, and simple things like doors weren’t propped open to avoid having to touch the same door handles.

Of course, the WHO had declared the pandemic officially that very day, so it was very much on everybody’s mind and the main talking point.

The day before, you had Jurgen (quite rightly) questioning Spanish media on why they’d travelled from Madrid, and then pre-match he berated fans who were holding their hands out to players. The foresight of what was to come: Klopp speaking the most sense on the pandemic situation.

I took a photo and put on Instagram with the caption ‘Hopefully not the last time for a while…’ but I think we all knew really it would be.

JOANNA: I felt there was certainly a sense of trepidation and as though no one wanted to cough or make any hint at the fact that they could have the virus. If you’ve been to a game, you’ll know usually there isn’t much shyness in that arena.

Otherwise, much of the day was as per normal and celebrations around the goals were just as jovial and included hugging complete strangers but in hindsight, maybe many were savouring their time in the ground ahead of an uncertain future.

JONATHAN: It seems surreal now but this a time where wearing masks, social distancing and lockdown were not part of ‘normal’ day to day life. The news reports were coming through but the reality is no one knew the extent of how devastating COVID-19 would turn out to be.

The atmosphere coming up to the game was no different to any big European cup game, after the way the first leg went and a couple of defeats in the league and FA Cup there a tiny bit of a lull, but this was all tossed to one side as the reds roared on the pitch and in the stands. Anfield was rocking that night and the Reds churned out one of their best performance of the season.

JEFF: I remember there being a strange atmosphere around this game. COVID was beginning to bubble to the surface of my mind and if my memory serves, I think by then, we were all becoming increasingly aware of how serious this was becoming, and the news from Madrid suggesting that they were restricting travel within Spain didn’t sit well with images of thousands of Madrid fans on the streets of Liverpool.

Yet, I think personally, I was still wrapped up predominantly with the footy and just wanted the greatest season in the last 40 years to continue. The Reds were going so well in the league, and I was still looking forward to another great European night under the floodlights, despite everything else.

KEIFER: As crazy as it sounds – speaking nearly a year to the day – it wasn’t something I was overly worried about that time. I went over to Madrid for the first leg and obviously a few days after coming back, Madrid went into a lockdown, with schools and universities being closed. That was maybe the first time I started to become cautious.

I remember in the days leading up to it, I found it odd that Atletico fans were unable to watch their side in their own city but they could travel across Europe to Liverpool. But on the night I didn’t have any worries about the virus itself as I don’t think anyone would’ve believed you if you told them how the world would change over the next few days as the lockdowns started to be implemented.

But as people started to arrive at the ground and pubs and you get talking, more and more people started to talk about this potentially being the last game for a while. It definitely added a strange feel to the tie.

 

How do you look back on the game going ahead in the first place?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, March 11, 2020: Liverpool supporters before the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 2nd Leg match between Liverpool FC and Club Atlético de Madrid at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

MATT: At the time, you’re battling your head vs. your heart: you know it’s daft for it to go ahead but you never wish not to want to go to Anfield for a European night to watch the Reds! I met up with a friend who had been to Cheltenham the day before.

The least that should have happened is no Madrid fans being there, but we all know that.

JOANNA: There was obvious concern about the arrival of fans from Madrid with their city having already gone into lockdown and Klopp even rightly vented his bemusement as to the decision in his pre-match press conference.

I spent the day in Liverpool before going to Anfield and was consistently in the midst of Atletico fans and I was certainly doing my best to do the ‘hands’ and ‘space’ aspect of the advice we’ve been given since.

But the game itself should never have gone ahead, they might have said it was not at the time but it was a superspreader event and they put tens of thousands of lives at risk by not calling it off or playing it behind-closed-doors.

JONATHAN: In hindsight, it was madness when you think about it really. The Madrid region turned out to be one of the heavily infected regions and it left a sadly devastating impact on the Merseyside region.

Liverpool v Atletico Madrid - Anfield, - March 11, 2020 Atletico Madrid fan wearing a face mask inside the stadium before the match as the number of coronavirus cases grow around the world Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine

JEFF: Clearly it was a disastrous decision, and there’s a sense that people in control were asleep at the wheel. Whether that was government agencies in the UK and Spain not talking to each other, and UEFA, we’ll have to wait for any potential enquiry to get to the bottom of that.

My feeling is they simply couldn’t have been. You can’t have the citizens of one city banned from travelling within their own country being allowed to travel overseas to another. The legacy of that is in the increased deaths and infections that happened as a result. It feels like decisions were being made for reasons other than public health, and that’s criminal in my view.

KEIFER: I’ve been asked this a lot over the last year, and with each passing day, the decision to allow the game to go ahead looks more and more ludicrous – even more so when you remember that large gatherings were still encouraged at the time.

But at the time, everything just seemed to escalate so quickly between the Bournemouth game (the previous Saturday) and the night of the Atletico game. Walking into the ground on the night was the first murmur I heard of football potentially being suspended and being completely honest, I couldn’t see it because football felt like the one constant that is always in your life.

It was obviously an event, like Cheltenham, that contributed to a spike in cases in the local area so it is something that you do look back on and feel slightly guilty about. But at the time, with the government’s advice, or lack of it, I don’t think anyone was told not to go.

 

Did you expect it to be more than a year with fans locked out and the pandemic still in full swing?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, February 20, 2021: A general view during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Everton FC, the 238th Merseyside Derby, at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

MATT: Perhaps I’d read a lot more than others on it at the time, but yes I think I did. I’d gone to get a haircut and the hairdresser looked at me like I had two heads when I said ‘I’m coming in before you get closed down’… I’d told people it would be the rest of the season and up to Christmas without fans. We didn’t want to believe it, but deep down we probably knew it.

Without the ‘Kent’ mutation, we’d have had 10,000+ fans back in by now and likely 50% capacity at least by the end of the season.

JOANNA: Definitely not. When I left Anfield that night I tried to absorb as much of it as I could, despite the defeat, but never did I think a year on that we’d be where we are.

It might be cliche, but this time has certainly put it beyond doubt, not that there ever was any, that the game lacks its soul without the loyal fans who pack the stands week in and week out. Their return, once its safe, cannot come soon enough.

JONATHAN: I personally didn’t. This pandemic has probably left a once in a generation impact on us all, I don’t think anybody really realised how long or how devastating it would turn out to be.

Anfield, locked due to Coronavirus (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

JEFF: No, if I am honest, I didn’t. At least not then. It’s been really difficult and I have missed football so much. I think football has missed us too.

Liverpool have certainly missed having fans in the ground. No one should ever doubt the impact of the Anfield atmosphere again, nor the travelling Kop for that matter.

KEIFER: I knew it would be a fair while before we saw fans return in any capacity, but the incompetence of the government and their decision making made the roadmap longer than it probably needed to be.

Initially, I was hopeful for the start of the 2020/21 season, but the deeper we went into the first lockdown the more aware I think we all become of the seriousness of the virus. I started to come to terms that the majority of the current season would be played to no spectators.

Hopefully, stadiums up and down the country will be full come August 2021.

 

Finally, what’s one thing you miss the most about going to Anfield?

MATT: I’m not sure I can pinpoint one thing. I’ve been lucky to have been back during the pandemic as media, but it’s really, really not the same, it’s soulless. I can completely understand why players are not enjoying it and why performances have dropped.

It’s so cliche to say Anfield has a heart, but it does. I miss everything about it, from my walk through Stanley Park, seeing friends, absorbing the atmosphere, to getting home and trying to get warmed up again!

JOANNA: The feelings it evokes, not just when you’re there but the anticipation leading up to it too. I typically go to about 10 games a season and so every one of those is savoured.

Let’s be honest, the drive to and from can take as long as three hours each way for me but never will I complain again as it all forms part of the matchday experience. It can be hard to put into words the range of emotions you go through, but that’s what I can’t wait to feel again soon!

JONATHAN: Oh god, so many things, catching up with friends, that buzz as you walk up the stadium, but for me, the one that I miss most is that walk from the turnstiles when you get into the stadium, that moment when you walk down the steps and you see the pitch for the first time.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Tuesday, May 7, 2019: Liverpool players and staff celebrate after the UEFA Champions League Semi-Final 2nd Leg match between Liverpool FC and FC Barcelona at Anfield. Liverpool won 4-0 (4-3 on aggregate). (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Anfield many times over the years but that moment gets you every single time and hopefully, it won’t be long more before we are back admiring the hallowed Anfield turf.

JEFF: That feeling I get when I wake up in the morning. The butterflies in my stomach and feeling like a kid at Christmas. I wake up looking forward to the game now, but it just isn’t the same.

KEIFER: Everything, absolutely everything. Even the little things I used to hate (cold pie, long turnstile queues and stand managers), I’d do anything to get back. But for me – as simple as it sounds – it’s the adrenaline rush of the ball hitting the back of the net, nothing can replicate that feeling.

I think I speak for many people when I say this season has felt like a chore at times and I think the players are noticing it too, it must feel like a training game every single week for them.