Park Life

by Ed Diggins

Look away Liverpool fans! The dust has barely settled on the weekend’s clash with Manchester United but Ed Diggins was there and gives us his version of events.

They say good things come to all those who wait. Its 4 am. I am wide awake and I cannot get back to sleep. My flight to Manchester is not until 9.30 am. Some things in life only come around once in a blue moon. Your first kiss behind the bike shed when you are 12 years old for example. Or your first can of Dutch Gold, behind said bike shed, when you are, errm 10 years old. Today is another one of them. It’s D Day. I absolutely love these games. It is my 11th trip in 11 weeks, but the one that has been standing out the most. The one that causes more stress than any other.

It feels like Christmas morning and Santa is coming to town. While Rafa Benitez fits the bill, with his dislike of soft ground, ever expanding waist line and sometimes red face, he ain’t no damn Santa Claus. But you know what i mean. I lie awake for two hours before deciding that enough is enough; I am heading to the airport. Some of the lads are on earlier flights, so I set off via the air coach and arrive about 40 minutes later. The airport is full of United fans. Men, women, children alike all wearing the red, white, green, yellow and every other color that’s associated with the club these days.

As lads start arriving, it is clear to see they all are suffering from PMS – Pre Match Syndrome. Everybody is a little edgy, you can point no blame, the last three games have been hard to take. Defeat is not an option today. I could not take four in a row as it would ruin the great four year spell that we had up until 18 months ago and also, put a dent in our title challenge. I am relaxed however, I have a good feeling about today. I think we can turn these over 3-1. An edgy start, possibly a goal each with United turning the screw with 20 minutes left and a late goal to seal it. I am joined by Simon and Pat for the flight, with Colin, Damian, Paul, Eoin, Mark, Dave and Remi on different routes over.

Aer Lingus do their best to ruin our day. As we place our back sides on the plane, we are told about “technical difficulties” and a 15 minute delay while a new part arrives and is fitted. It becomes 30 minutes and then 40 minutes and we start to worry. Luckily it does not take long more and we are on our way.

Traffic is mental the other side, so we walk a good share of the way and as we all congregate in our usual spot, outside the off licenses, the atmosphere is strange. Normally you would see up to 2000 people but today there’s barely 300. The cops have kept their practice from the Milan game of taking cans off everybody and this time they are more forceful. They have managed to quench the normal pre match buzz. Makes no sense. Cans are still on sale but confiscated, opened or unopened as soon as people come out.

We head off to the ground, stopping off for the biggest pre match tradition of all, the bridge burger. I missed this last year and we lost so I will not be making the same mistake this year. The grease is still dripping from the crusted bun as it is handed over but I do not care. This is three points and not just on the cholesterol scale. As we pass the away entrance, the walk becomes slower as abuse galore is traded towards the inrushing Scouse fans. We get inside the ground about ten minutes before kick off. We are greeted by ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ from the away end and it is drowned out by boos and counter songs within seconds. We are back in our normal seats in the Stretford end after being moved last week. As the teams come out, the place is rocking. It is our first glimpse of the line ups and there are no surprises really. Both selections are as expected. Dimitar Berbatov must feel hard done by after his wonderful show last week.

Game on. It is a year and a week since the horrible horrible events of last season. I left the ground that day not believing we didn’t win the game, let alone lose 4-1. We just cannot gift them the game again this year. Four minutes in and the Scouse are ahead. We are still screaming for a foul on Michael Carrick as Steven Gerrard puts Dirk Kuyt in behind the defence as the United back four are marked absent. The cross is near perfect and Fernando Torres heads home with a bullet header in to the top corner. Bedlam in the away end but the United fans respond. So do the team.

Antonio Valencia who has begun brightly, latches on to Insua’s poor header and charges towards goal. I can not see who is chasing him, but as he tumbles to the ground, howls and screams erupt around the stadium. Penalty!! Being so far away and low down, it is impossible to tell how far out he is, but we just have to trust it is the right decision. The Scouse players are not happy, but as Wayne Rooney pegs in the rebound, it is 1-1.

It’s Defcon 5 out there now. It really has been an epic opening 12 minutes. The two managers are at each other’s throats on the sideline, the players are at in on the pitch and it is lively in the stands too. The Liverpool fans in full voice for five minutes are now strangely subdued. I do not like the song, but ‘Sing When You’re Winning’ comes to mind. It is not pretty stuff on the pitch, and it’s getting edgy. Liverpool are content on playing the ‘parked bus’ method, looking to spring on the break or go long. This year we are able to handle it and Nemanja Vidic is cleaning Torres out of it. This is nerve wrecking. These games are terrible. I have changed my mind, I absolutely hate these games!

Time is ticking by slowly, the first 20 minutes feels like an hour. Ji Sung Park misses a decent chance from Valencia’s cross and then Pepe Reina saves from Nani. This game is here for the taking. Valencia is having a stormer and Insua is there to be taken to the cleaners, but we are not using him enough. We are playing too much ball in the air and Liverpool are comfortable with this. We see very little action down our end thankfully, but there is not much happening at the other end either. Half time comes and it is evenly matched. United finish the half a little stronger, but Liverpool are resolute. United have been solid at the back, with Gerrard and Torres reduced to scraps since the goal. Carrick has been poor and Park terrible. Nothing is going right for him but he never gives up.

With United attacking the Stettie in the second half, there is always a great chance of a win. Time is now flying by, the fair is not much better, though United are starting to get on top. Fifteen minutes in and its the breakthrough. Darran Fletcher’s glorious cross is met by the head of Park who sends it into the net. That is more like it, the place goes mental. Park peels away, blood is spouting from his head as he celebrates feet away from us. Gary ends up getting thrown over the seat like City all over again.

The rest of the game is a blur, but Park and Fletcher are now playing superb. We are looking to close out the game. Rooney is playing like a man possessed and is winning everything that is played his way. Chances are few and far between still with little happening at either end. As the game enters injury time, five minutes is no surprise. Liverpool get one last chance. It falls to Torres, who fluffs his kick and the follow up header is soft. Sign of relief. It was close. Perhaps had Torres spent more time playing football than whining, moaning, pushing, shoving and diving, let alone kicking penalty spots, he would have been on his game and stuck it. Others will say that he should have seen red along time before it. He is a great player, but is going to become the most hated man in football very quickly if he does not be careful.

As we enter the sixth minute of injury time, the whistle blows. Shear delight and this one is sweet. We are no rush to leave the ground and the hour long walk into town is no trouble for us. We settle into Piccadilly station for an hour to watch the Chelsea game and have our first drinks of the day. It is also the first time I have sat down since 6am! Sainsbury’s provide us with eight cans for seven quid and this gives the fuel for the two hour journey to Birmingham airport. The train is packed and we have to stand all the way, but we do not care one bit. We are all in great sprits. Even more so when the texts come that Blackburn have shared a point. This rounds off a majestic day.

As we catch the flight home, I cast my mind back to the City home game in the Carling Cup semi.  In the run up to that night, we had lost to Chelsea, City, Leeds and Liverpool in the space of three months and were losing a rapid grip on bragging rights. How things have changed as City, Arsenal and now Liverpool have been put to the sword since that day. This is a big one. We will enjoy this and gloat for a few days.  It will have to be forgotten about quickly, but not just yet. Chelsea come in two weeks, but we will not worry about them for now. Bolton have to be beaten first. And we will be there.

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