OUR regular Argyle Media contributor CHRIS GROVES tells his moving story about why our trip to Anfield meant so much to him.
Half-and-half scarves. It is probably fair to say that they divide opinion somewhat.
To some, they are a perfect memento for special footballing occasions. Occasions, one might suggest, like Argyle travelling to Anfield to play Liverpool in the third round of the Emirates FA Cup. An item like this, with the date, team names and colours shared equally, can be the ideal product to buy and represent those great days out.
To others, however, half-and-half scarves are the personification of everything they feel is wrong about modern-day football. They feel it signifies a fair-weather football fan, a 'plastic', if you will, failing to throw all their weight behind one football team, and pandering too much to another. For this demographic, the concept of supporting more than one football club is simply abhorrent. Impossible to comprehend.
I may not have been wearing a half-and-half scarf around my neck as I sat in the press box at Anfield, but I certainly do not have a problem with them. That's because I am an avid supporter of both Plymouth Argyle and Liverpool.
This is my story of why this is the case, and why this match means so much to me.
In an old photo album, there is a picture of me that I’ve held in my mind for my entire life. It was taken when I was around four or five; happy, smiling, not a care in the world, and wearing a hat featuring the famous Liverpool crest.
Obviously, at this stage in my life, I was more into toy cars and bedtime stories than watching the football and making an informed decision over which team to support. Much like my choice of clothing that one sunny day, this decision was entirely my father’s.
If you are born into a football-mad family, their allegiances are usually pushed onto you at a very young age. There’s no harm in it, of course; more just a light-hearted way of your father and/or mother ensuring that you have yet another shared interest that bonds you for decades to come. This is exactly what my dad did when I was a toddler, and I am so happy that he did.
Born in the mid-1960s, my dad grew up during the heyday of Liverpool. Keegan, Dalglish, Rush, Hansen, Barnes; they were all wearing the red shirt during my dad’s formative years. Like so many other people his age, their dominance drew him in. Unsurprisingly, then, when his second child started showing an interest in football, the influencing began.
Liverpool merchandise and video tapes suddenly started appearing in my bedroom. I would catch myself cheering when the team in red scored on the television. The orientation was complete. From that point, Liverpool became a key cog in the ever-so-complex father/son bonding machine. My first footballing memory is my boyhood hero, Michael Owen, single-handedly winning the FA Cup for Liverpool in 2001. Watching it in the living room, we went berserk, though not as berserk as when Steven Gerrard did something very similar in 2006. By the time I was ten, Liverpool was everything to me – just like it was for my dad at the same age.
Of course, we still supported our local side. My dad took me to a handful of Argyle games that sparked a love for a team in green, as well as a team in red. But the lack of opportunities to watch Argyle meant that it took a little longer for a similar obsession to grow. Nowadays, my love for Argyle and Liverpool is equal. Supporting both teams never seemed like a problem. After all, there was no conflict of interest. The plucky Football League team down the road would never meet the all-conquering Merseyside giants.
Liverpool vs Argyle is a fixture my dad and I both daydreamed and chuckled about in equal measure. It always seemed too fanciful an idea to be taken seriously. After far too much shouting and celebrating after Argyle finally saw off Newport County to confirm the cup tie, I fell uncontrollably silent and numb. As the fixture approached, it really did not feel real at times. In a lot of ways, it did not feel right, either.
That aforementioned picture of me in my Liverpool hat is one I fear I will never see again. A long, difficult, ugly divorce between my parents over the last few years has meant that a number of precious family mementos have been either tarnished or lost in transit. My mother, a wonderfully strong character with the ability to spin so many plates at once, has handled a terrible situation as well as can possibly be expected, and I am more proud of her than I could ever possibly express. My father has been less fortunate.
For over three years, my dad has bounced from town to town, sofa to sofa, mental health unit to mental health unit, trying to piece his life back together. A battle with mental health, physical injuries and an awful string of family losses and unfortunate events has seen his life often spiral out of anyone’s control, including his own. Like the rest of my family, I have supported him, been infuriated by him, lost contact with him and been reunited with him more times than I can count.
Dad asks a lot about how I am doing. It helps him to stay motivated. I know he is proud of me for my work with Argyle and loves how invested I have become in football – even if I’m not scoring the winner in cup finals. The love of football that has driven me to become a freelance sports journalist comes directly from being held on the railings at Home Park by my dad. It also helps him a lot to talk about how Argyle and Liverpool are getting on. It probably keeps him grounded to talk about something so cyclical and constant like football, when much of his life is so unpredictable.
After becoming closer than we had been in years during last summer, my father took another turn for the worse that saw us fall out of touch since October. I cannot get in contact with him and, even if I could, I do not know what I would say. No matter how much someone you truly love may upset or anger you, there will always be that desire to bring them happiness. When you don't know how to do that, you are left with this empty, numb feeling.
Since the third round draw and the eventual win over Newport, my shock and joy has been curved somewhat by that empty feeling. The reason I care so much about this match is completely down to my dad, and now that it is here, he will not be able to watch it in person. I don’t even know if he is aware of it. Every single one of the uncountable moments that I’ve daydreamed about this game have involved my dad, so for it to take place without him has been something I have struggled to comprehend.
Of course, I feel so lucky and grateful to not just witness the match, but to be a part of it in a journalistic capacity. But I would give it all away in a heartbeat to be able to stand next to my dad and watch the game with him. I miss him for the majority of days and feel guilty when I do not. I wanted him to be there at Anfield more than anything else in the world. At the very least, I wanted to call him and share my excitement with him, but not even that was possible.
For sure, the day Argyle played Liverpool will be one that I never forget, but that will be because of a number of different, conflicting emotions. Every fan will have a unique story to tell about the game, each very personal to them. Big occasions like these bring those stories to life and bring out the passion and excitement in so many of us, created by things that others would struggle to understand. So why should those emotions ever by discouraged or frowned upon?
In the weeks building up to the game, I came across a smattering of disgruntled fans, unhappy with the way that ‘plastic’ supporters were excited about the Liverpool game, saying that people needed to calm down about the cup tie. Saying that Argyle should not let the cup tie take the focus from other pressing matters is a very valid point, but is there really a need to use that as a stick to beat excited fans with?
Hopefully I get the chance to find one of those half-and-half scarves (they sold like hot cakes, by the way), so I can give it to my dad. Instead of fearing and mocking what we do not understand, perhaps our minute differences should be embraced, just like our endless similarities are.
I don’t mind being called a plastic supporter or being criticised for getting excited about a big FA Cup game, because I know that I was influenced heavily by someone I love very dearly. In fact, it makes me chuckle a little. Before I played my first ever competitive 11-a-side match when I was 15, my dad pulled me to one side. He told me that if anyone tried to be nasty or get under my skin, “just laugh at them.”
So I do.