BOOK REVIEW / The city that walks alone: 'Three Sides of the Mersey' - Rogan Taylor, Andrew Ward & John Williams: Robson Books, 16.95

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The Independent Culture
READING this medley of Scouse memories in one take, there were many times when I rode high on the white water of Liverpool's exuberance, and twice when I feared drowning in the flood of the city's grief. Heysel left a foul taste of shame and bewilderment, while Hillsborough was simply desperate, a numbing, needless waste - but the rich river of Merseyside's voices, like the game of which they speak, still flowed on.

Three Sides of the Mersey is a labour of love. Built from copious interviews with players, club staff, and fans going back to the Twenties, it provides a permanent record of a 32-part series broadcast on Radio City last season. It's a compendious portrait of Liverpool's passion for football, and an endearing social history along the way.

Before the war, one player signed from North Wales recalls that 'Liverpool in those days was like going to Gibraltar or somewhere'. When you got there the crowds were enormous and you had to go among them on foot, on buses or on trams, to get to the ground. You got a few quid for your pains, you thought yourself lucky, and you knew your place; even if you were Dixie Dean and you scored, 'it was never more than hitching up his pants and back to the centre circle, and maybe a handshake'.

You played with a ball that got as heavy as lead. If you headed it against the lace, that'd cut your head up; centre-forwards would ask their wingers to put in crosses 'hard and low and lace away'. But some things never change; 20 minutes before the end the gates would be opened and young boys would get in free, and the crowd would say, 'Here come the directors'.

Sometimes I got suspicious of the fondness of memory. One player gently concedes the point, saying of a free kick that it was '30 or 40 yards - it gets further as I get older'. So when the fans recall good humour and good behaviour you wonder: was it always that courteous? That there were terrifying crushes is obvious, and people mention fights, but when they do they always say they were quickly broken up - so on the evidence here there really was a better time, a more decent age, when you threw coins to buy bubblegum off the boy with the tray, instead of to wound the other lot's keeper.

So what went wrong? If this book has a failing it lies in the diligent self-effacement of its researchers, who introduce each chapter with no more than a sentence or two, and then stand aside to let the voices all flow. Rogan Taylor and his colleagues are sharp and witty men who probably know as much as anyone in the country about the social history of the game, and I sometimes wanted them to step forward and fill in a gap or two; instead, we go from the happy days of the Sixties ('maybe everybody had a job') and the jubilation of the great nights in Europe in the Seventies and early Eighties, straight into Heysel like a train suddenly derailing in the dark. But then, maybe that was how it was; in 25 years, after all, Liverpudlians had never been in trouble before.

Perspective is given, instead, through the canny arrangement of what must have been, when they sat down to edit it, a veritable swamp of material. After the two disasters of the Eighties we switch to Tranmere, and are reminded that football is a wide and deep old stream. Calamity at Anfield goes hand in hand with a dour comic struggle for survival on the Wirral; when Rovers avoid relegation to the Vauxhall Conference in the last game of one season, the players throw their kit as souvenirs into the crowd - but the kit's not sponsored, so when the next season arrives, they've nothing to play in.

Stories like these make the book as much as anything the famous names have to say. Indeed, some of the player-speak is parrots-over- the-moon stuff - we don't come away much wiser from their attempts to explain why Bob Paisley was so successful - and only fanatic Merseysiders will lap it all up regardless. But for the rest of us, there are fans and players both who speak of the game's wider significance articulately and well. Much of the treasure in this book comes from the fact that Merseyside, in football, isn't just anywhere, but a place with a voice that's unique. When Andy Gray, a Rangers supporter, first arrives at Everton, he sees the fans unsegregated and he thinks, 'Bloody hell, what kind of city am I in here?'

After Hillsborough, Alan Hansen visits a fan in hospital who has '75 tubes up his nose'. The fan says to him: 'If you get to the Final, will you get us a ticket?' It's that kind of city, hard and battered and hanging in there; and this book is an invaluable record of the game that runs through it like a river, ebbing and flowing, but always there.