Former Mmegi Staffer Gobusamang Gideon Nkala went to England with nine friends to watch the English Premiership game between blood rivals Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield last Saturday. In this sports travelogue, he shares his experiences
The journey to Anfield Stadium in Liverpool was always going to be an emotional affair. Long flights across the ocean; and laborious check-ins from airport to airport.
All these little inconveniencies paled into insignificance in the quest to watch what is historically called ‘the English derby’ featuring two of England’s most successful clubs- Liverpool Football Club and Manchester United. It offers the rare moment to soak in an unbelievable atmosphere when the entire stadium rises on its feet to belt out the Ainfield war-cry; You Will Never Walk Alone!
For me this journey did not start last week when I parked my bags to Liverpool. It was incubated over 30 years ago as a primary school pupil whose football horizons were limited to local heroes at Palapye United (PU). My loyalty to PU was only tested when my then idol, Oris Radipotsane was snatched by Township Rollers. Once in a while, my uncle who worked at the South African mines would come home during his contractual recess to toss me up into a painful process of football infidelity. It all started innocently with him regaling us with tales of the invisible Orlando Pirates of the 1970s and before we knew it, we were all indoctrinated to the black and white outfit of Soweto.
Along came a Zimbabwean teacher, whom we all called Caesar. It must have been him who talked about some finer football team that was just indescribable. He eulogised the all-conquering Liverpool and painted a picture that seemed to suggest that this club played football the way football had to be played. He crushed my football foundations. To him, Liverpool played much better than Orlando Pirates, better than Township Rollers and I did not ask if his much vaunted Liverpool was better than my gold standard, the quintessential PU. Later on, I remember seeing a picture of Bruce Grobbelaar on the sport pages of the Rand Daily Mail, the then newspaper of choice amongst a sizeable expatriate community in Palapye. My long distance fascination with Liverpool grew.
Over the years, the relationship has been nurtured and sustained by an immersion into reading thousands of articles on Liverpool Football Club, watching thousands of matches on television, buying season replica shirts and watching some Liverpool players turning out for their national teams during World Cup games. For me the possibility of seeing the Reds trudging into the football shrine that is Anfield would redefine Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Enter EPL Promotions
Once on an official trip in Mozambique, I met an elderly man. As people were discussing some exotic places around the world, the old man went off a tangent. He stated that although he had been to some very exotic places, he still remains unfulfilled until he travels to Lisbon. Some derided him for the choice of Lisbon, saying there is nothing spectacular about the Portuguese capital. But he retorted and was adamant that there was something sentimental and attractive to all those who lived in colonies that were administered from Lisbon. He insisted that he habours the dream of visiting the capital of his former colonial masters.
“My obituary would be set once I visit Lisbon, you know,” he said to uncontrolled giggles from all in the room.
Somehow, just from what seemed to be a joke we were coerced into stating our idea of a fulfilling destination. When my turn came I said there was an unquenched hunger in me to watch Liverpool at their stadium. I said this partly in jest but the other part of me was dead serious. I did nothing active to pursue this desire nor did I quench it. Years later I stumbled upon a Facebook post and the dream was reignited.
Geoffrey Mothooagae of EPL Promotions told some friends on social media that he has put up a package to see the Premiership gladiators at some sought-after games. I decide to give him a call and he offers a not to be turned down package payable over a few months. Three months down the line, I have paid up and I join nine others on the Manchester-Liverpool excursion.
The Road to Liverpool
Weeks before we could set off to the big game, Liverpool looked like they would carpet bomb any opposition thrown at them, the highlight of their form was how the mighty Reds shredded Arsenal into smithereens. I am on cloud nine and I wanted to be part of that delirium. Before we could say ‘Liverpool is back where it belongs’, we lose to Manchester City and then go on to register a series of inexplicable draws. The gung-ho spirit fizzles out and we all fear this might be an all familiar season where we flatter only to deceive.
“The game against Manchester United shall be our turning point,” I encourage myself.
There is more sad news on the horizon. Sadio Mane, by far Liverpool’s best player this season is injured and he will not be available for the game.
Yes, but I refuse to be downcast.
Two days before the match, I catch an early afternoon flight to Johannesburg. I have about three hours before my next connecting flight to Frankfurt. Professor Bojosi Otlhogile and Mpho Masupe at Standard Chartered Bank have made life a little bearable for SCB customers at airports. With their premier card you are allowed free access at Shongololo Business Lounge. Here you get an opportunity to recline, refresh and indulge in some nice cuisines before you enjoy their wonderful Wi-Fi.
As I saunter out of the Shongololo Lounge, I am headed to the Lufthansa Airlines boarding gates. On the boarding queue, a routine inspector asks me about the business that takes me to England.
“I am going to watch a football match,” I blurt out.
The response seems to have caught him unawares as he takes a much more sinister interest in me. He asks for match tickets and all and I extend my hand towards him bearing a sheath of documents which he scans. He nods slightly.
“Football match huh,” he mumbles as he attends to other travellers behind me.
I did not know what to make of his comment except to observe that on this very queue, there are a lot of German tourists who came all the way to see animals and other things. What is wrong with...? As I am thinking along this vein, I cannot help but think of a friend who upon hearing that I am going to watch a football match in England could not hide his amusement.
“A ware o ya go lebella bolo nne monna. Nna nka reka poo bogolo,” he said in between quips of laughter with sarcasm written all over his face.
I smile to myself thinking of this banter, with each smile becoming even more resolute that I did the right thing.
I am jostled out of my thoughts by the big roar of the Lufthansa Boeing 747-8 as it taxies down the Oliver Tambo runway and to make a gentle climb into the African skies. It would be a good 10 hours before it reaches the German transport hub of Frankfurt. Lufthansa like most big airlines around the world are faced with stiff competition from the Gulf states’ airlines like Qatar and Emirates who offer very competitive prices and services. The leg room in their flights seems more constricted, luckily on this day, the plane is not full and I have an unoccupied seat adjacent to mine. After dinner, I pull down the window shutters, pull down the seat dividers and I snuggle under the Lufthansa blanket. I am awakened by the steward who wanted to find out whether I am skipping my breakfast.
How could I possibly miss breakfast? I put up my seat, set up the tray table as I scan the continental breakfast delicacies before me. In a few minutes, I have cleaned it up. The Lufthansa entertainment section is very limited but thankfully, they have the Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams movie. I wade into the movie. There are some locations that stand out in this movie. There is Palapye Hotel, the very place where I used to pick up used copies of the Rand Daily Mail, the very place where some expatriate community would engage in animated conversations on English football and Liverpool. Here, I am following on a football love affair that was implanted through a conversation.
Flight LH 573 is now descending into an overcast Frankfurt and in a little while, we disembark and I take the shuttle train to the boarding gates en-route to Manchester. The security here is a little more intrusive but I go through just in time for an hour-long air hop into Manchester.
On the immigration line, it is clear that a lot of people have come for the game, many are conspicuous by the teams’ colours and scarfs. In no time, the
Before setting off to Liverpool, our ever enterprising trip chaperon wants to take us to the home of Manchester United. Our first port of call is Hotel Football located just at the foot of Old Trafford and owned by former Manchester United players, Ryan Giggs, the Neville brothers Phil and Gary, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt.
When we get to Old Trafford, we realise that Geoff is well known here. He is on first name basis with most of the hawkers and the stewards. “Where have you been Geoff?” Is the refrain from some stewards and hawkers at Old Trafford.
We take memories for posterity by taking pictures and buying little paraphernalia as we walk around the stadium.
It is now time to move to Liverpool. The plan was to use the train but Lime Train Station is closed and we take a cab instead. We are all chatty as we drive down motorway 62.
The Nadler Hotel in Liverpool
Our place of abode in Liverpool is the Nadler Hotel in Seel Street. From outside, it looks rustic with its beaten red bricks. There is nothing imposing about its modest Victorian architecture but the interior is a sight to behold, simple and yet elegant. The Nadler is centrally located within a walking distance of the Liverpool One shopping district, the Albert Docks, the waterfront at the Mersey River, train and bus stations.
The restaurant and entertainment zone is on steroids. You walk to the maritime museum where amongst other things, you will get a history of the legendary Titanic, which had a huge Liverpool connection. The Catholic’s Blessed Sacrament Shrine (parish) is just a few blocks away. This is the place that shall be home for the next three days. In a jiffy, we get into the busy Liverpool One shopping centre and it is a sea of Liverpool red.
Our hearts are all beating fast as we head to Anfield Road. When we arrive, there is a ceremony to mark the renaming of the centenary stand as the Kenny Daglish stand- the man who played and coached Liverpool. He is generally regarded as Liverpool’s greatest ever player. It is a surreal feeling as we traverse around Anfield and wrap up our tour with a group interview on BBC.
It has been a long day but the energy levels are still high. We go into the Boot Room Restaurant amidst blaring screens all beaming the might of an institution called Liverpool.
There is excitement and anticipation. Later in the evening, we are joined by other team members, Dr Tiro Mampane and his colleague, Ketshephaone Jacob. Calistus Phologolo, a man whose name is synonymous with garments and Cally Clothing and his colleague, Archie Masimega join us from London.
The last to arrive are dyed in the wool reds duo of Outule Jabu Kgosikhumo and Geoffrey Mokotedi. Most of us in this group are Kopites but Jabu Kgosikhumo, Geoff Mokotedi, Peter Kesitilwe and the big chief cheer-leader Kungo Mabogo must be some of the enthusiastic Liverpool supporters you can get. All they need is a Merseyside accent and they will be true scousers.
We came back here on Sunday to tour the Anfield Stadium. What a tour! We get to sit on the famous Kop stand, sit on the press room, walk past Jurgen Klopp’s office. The stewards here are very knowledgeable on the team and can fill you in every bit of little juicy details about the players.
It is the day of the match. I am trying to control my excitement and I fail dismally. Everywhere you look and turn, the atmosphere is carnival and poised for the game that grips not just the two cities but the entire world of football.
By 8:30am, we were all ready and eager to soak in the atmosphere of the game. As we gather outside the hotel in our Liverpool colours, it now emerges that not all of us are Kopites.
Archie Masimega and Ketshephaone Jacob are wearing enemy colours. Our tour chaperon (Geoff) is Manchester red. But he knows far too well that he would be lynched to put Manchester red on this day. Such is the intensity of the game that men have to bury their true colours. They tuck in their Manchester United shirts deep under their jackets.
As international guests, we join hundreds of supporters who have flown from different corners of the world to witness this spectacle. By my estimation, there must have been anywhere between 500 and 600 guests at the Crowne Plaza.
We are treated to a sumptuous breakfast before a Liverpool legend addresses us about the game and this time, the honour falls on John Aldridge. He answers all questions and speaks frankly about Liverpool’s leaky defence.
We arrive at the stadium just before 11am, and the streets are already clogged, business is roaring for hawkers. Liverpool is a huge industry. The team and the community makes millions of pounds out of it.
Our seats are opposite the Kop stand, on Anfield Road End Stand. Even by 11am, it is difficult to move around as armies of supporters are teeming in.
The noise levels have hit maximum decibels. Before we take our seats, we walk around and suddenly there is commotion along the Anfield road. The injured Sadio Mane has just waltzed into the parking lot in his white Bentley. Mane is the new Liverpool cult hero, he has replaced Coutinho as the darling of the masses. Then comes my own favourite player, Nathaniel Clyne. They are swamped and security stewards have a hard time swatting away hundreds of supporters begging for a picture or an autograph.
I have always thought I can never be star struck like a groupie; there I was snapping away at these football gladiators, I mean stars. Peter Kesitilwe is very nimble and he beats us hands down in this treasure hunt. He is off following Steven Gerard and next he cosies up with South African broadcaster, Robert Marawa.
The moment of truth beckons and we amble our way into the stands. I cannot for the life of me miss out on the singing of ‘You Will Never Walk Alone’. The teams walk on to the pitch. The entire stadium rises, all the flags are raised and You ‘Will Never Walk Alone’ reverberates around Anfield. I have my Liverpool scarf over my head, on my right hand I hold aloft the Botswana flag. The hair on my neck stands, I feel goose-bumps, all the decades love affair I have had with this club come rushing back and coalesce into this moment; I am swept under an electric rendition of football’s most popular anthem.
‘When you walk through a storm Hold your head up high And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of the storm Is a golden sky And the sweet silver song of a lark
Walk on through the wind Walk on through the rain Though your dreams be tossed and blown Walk on walk on with hope in your heart And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone
Walk on walk on with hope in your heart And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk Alone’.
The game itself did not quite light up the atmosphere. It was like a boxing match where fighters are too careful not to make a mistake. Liverpool had the desire and on three occasions, breached the Manchester United defence, causing us to leap from our chairs in anticipation but not much came out of our forays into enemy territory.
We were seated not far from the Manchester stand and it was quite a treat hearing the acerbic bile-filled exchanges between the two set of supporters, often through songs.
Where is the spirit of Istanbul? Man United supporters would poke the Liverpool supporters after another unproductive attack.
Liverpool would retaliate:
We won it five times, in Instabul we won it five times. In the end, the teams shared the spoils. It was not quite the result I had wanted but then we were all proud of the performance and more than anything, the experience was worth every penny.
After exploring the city a bit on Monday, it is time go back home. There is a bit of disturbing news about Hurricane Ophelia, which is battering Ireland and Britain. We drive through the wind to Manchester where amidst flight cancellations, my flight to London is on schedule. It is a bit windy and uncertain but as the song goes, when you walk through a storm, hold your head up high and don’t be afraid. ‘You will never walk alone’.