Football: The Koppites always win when they're singing

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The Independent Online
IT REMAINS a rare pleasure to attend a match at Liverpool FC. The Kop makes it so.

Long gone are the days when - assured of a prize per season (and a home win per fortnight) - that bank of Scouse passion might have been subject to accusations of only "singing when they're winning". Only the relatively lean times test the strength of a support base. At Anfield, that base is strong and admirable. On Saturday, the colour, the noise and - most of all - the appreciation of footballing endeavour were magnificently vivid. Liverpool, meanwhile, lost 1-0 to the hot relegation favourites.

It is awkward when discussing the Kop - as it is with the Church - to know whether one is referring to a building or those who congregate in it. In fact, neither would be anything without the other - a few thousand bucket-seats on a sloped expanse of concrete and a few thousand football followers with nowhere to gather - but it is the people who give life to the building. What a necessary service those people did for the game last weekend.

At lunchtime, we had the continuing polarisation of Leeds and Manchester. Mrs Beckham was so hideously abused that her husband felt it necessary to make his distaste graphically public. Mercifully, by 2.30pm, like the intra-course sorbet that eliminates a bitter taste, the Kop was filling up.

Scarves head-high and horizontally-taut, the Kop's first rendition of "You'll never walk alone" echoed with audibly genuine "hope in the hearts." It drew applause from the Watford fans and created a momentum of support that lasted for much of the game. Nobody booed when the Watford team-sheet was read out; everybody clapped when the Watford goalkeeper ran towards them for the start of the second half. Then at the end - and here was the highlight for anyone who clings anachronistically onto ideals of mutual respect, sportsmanship or simple decency - they stayed behind to applaud their victorious visitors.

Of course they are not perfect - what several-thousand-strong mass of humanity is? Acknowledgement is duly made of very noticeable recent impatience among some Koppites which flies in the face of their fabled unconditional support. Furthermore, there are, no doubt, some who would seek to recount less happy experiences of Anfield, and many more who believe their own club's support to be comparably good.

However, what happened at the weekend deserves to be held up as an example. It was sufficiently good and sufficiently rare to draw an affectionate word from the visiting manager. Graham Taylor was right when he said: "In these days of all the tension, hype and pressure of the modern game, it was good to hear fans do that. I know my players were impressed and will remember it. It is to those fans' credit that they can do that. They weren't saying we were better than their players, but they appreciated how we had played."

I spoke on the subject to Ian St John who, having run out at Anfield more often and longer ago than he would probably prefer to recall, still rarely misses a match. He described such conduct as "standard." His was one of the early names to be singled out for chanting by the Kop. Like "Dal-glish" in later years, he was fortunate that his two syllables offered just the right emphasis to follow a rhythmic handclap. That level of support added playing inches to a small man and the ethos of the Anfield crowd remains something of which he is proud. "If an underdog comes up and plays the right way... with endeavour and organisation and without kicking lumps out of Liverpool, the crowd will appreciate that and they'll be applauded.

"I recall a famous Cup tie against Swansea in the early 60s when we absolutely murdered them. But it was one of those games in which their goalkeeper made about 25 brilliant saves. I got concussed and was blacking out but, in those days, they made you play on and, by the end, I think I was probably kicking the wrong way. It was terrible... but the Kop were great to them. At Liverpool, that's standard. It's tradition."

That tradition might have gone into decline after the installation of seats - (not, of course, that anyone at Liverpool objected to that) - and St John, like all devotees of the club, recalls the terraced Kop's "unique swaying and singing. After all, at rock concerts they stand. You do it better standing up."

But, through the dark days of the trauma which necessitated those seats, the tradition has survived and the perspective has sharpened. On the Kop, they love Liverpool but they understand that, without an opponent, there isn't a game. Without Watford and Swansea, and even Everton and Manchester United, Liverpool is a pretty pointless entity.

Pointless is precisely what Saturday became for Liverpool. Happily, the Kop offered that pointlessness some meaning.