My Liverpool Story: Graham Lee

A Path Chosen 

    In this special Father’s Day edition of “My Liverpool Story” I am delighted to have the opportunity to share with you my Dad’s story of growing up in Liverpool.   He discusses the effect the team and the sport had on his everyday life in the 60s-80s.  It ends with how being at the epicenter in the heydays shapes his outlook of the 2000s.  

A Bygone Age

Summer as a soccer fan is always a time for reflection. We pretend to like cricket and may even go to a game or two (never at Old Trafford) pledging your allegiance to Lancashire County Cricket Club.   In truth cricket was only ever an excuse for an all day bevvy with your mates.

As the years roll by I can’t help but feel so fortunate that I had grown up in a time when our football heroes were just regular guys, one of the lads who had the same hopes and dreams that everyone else had. Those where the days…

I can still vividly remember my very first football kit as if it was yesterday. It was Christmas nineteen something or other. My old man picked it up at Jack Sharp’s on Whitechapel, the best sports store in the history of the universe at that time.  Actually, Lillywhites in London was and still is the best store for sporting swag, but in the city of Liverpool it was undisputedly Jack Sharp’s. Jack Sharp was an Evertonian and is the only scouser to have represented England at both football and cricket. When Jack hung up his boots he opened a sports store which occupied the same building in Whitechapel for over 70 years. My first kit was a red shirt with a white V-necked collar, white shorts and most importantly, white socks with red cuffs on top just so that no one could mistake them for the other red team just down the East Lancs Road.

I would have to say that in all likelihood it was Christmas 1965 when I unwrapped that special Christmas gift.  Liverpool had just transitioned into their all red strip at the beginning of the 65/66 season and so the red and white kit was probably going cheap for that Christmas. No fancy logos, no names on the back and for me, no number or even Liver Bird upon the chest but I treasured that precious cloth nonetheless. Those red and white socks were heavy knitted wool that weighed you down in the rain, and took years to properly dry if they ever did get wet.

Thinking back on it I can say that it definitely was Christmas ’65 because I was still wearing that kit some seven months later on a damp Saturday afternoon at the end of July.   At about 5:20pm, to be precise, our own Rodger Hunt wore the same colors (but with the all red socks) as he lifted the Jules Rimet trophy.

Learning the Sport

I was lucky enough to have an Uncle Albie who took me to either Sefton “Seffy” Park or Princes Park at least three times a week where we would kick a ball for hours on end. However, my old man taught me to be a two-footed player from an early age even though I was naturally right footed. Those were the days of leather footballs. Dad would soak the ball in a bucket of water to make it as heavy and hard as a cast iron cannonball.  He would have me wear a hob nailed rugby boot on my left foot and a canvas gym shoe on my right foot. Guess which foot I soon learned to kick the ball with…

My dad was not much of a footballing tactician for he only ever gave me one piece of advice about the game.  That was to quickly figure out who had the job of marking you and to hit them hard and early. I was probably six or seven years old when he imparted that sage advice.  Could you image your kids coach giving those instructions today?

As I got older it seemed as though a ball, any ball, even a balled up newspaper held together with a rubber band for indoors, was always at my feet. I grew up a typical “tanner ball player” playing keepie-uppie with a tennis ball or going to the local grocery store or even walking to school bouncing a football back and forth against garden walls. When I was seven the family moved to a nice suburb of Liverpool. I was so fortunate to be living in a neighborhood that many in the football world called home, many still do including JK and Kenny D.

The Neighborhood Kids

A few of our neighbors would take the time to stop and chat to this scrawny kid that seemed to always have a football tied to his feet.  Some even offered pointers and tips. Harry Catterick, one of the best Everton managers ever and a real gentleman, always seemed to find time to talk and gave me lots of impromptu coaching sessions during that time. Billy Bingham, the Northern Ireland manager would also stop by to talk. Although it was usually to tell me about the wonderful job he was doing with the Irish national team.

For me though it was a twenty year old who always stopped by for a game of “3 and in” with us kids on his way home from practice with Everton. Howard Kendall had just moved to The Toffees from Preston North End.   At that time, the youngest player to play in a FA Cup final and yet he would always join in our pick-up games or just spend time playing squash with me on the street corner and showing me some of the drills they had done earlier in the day at Finch Farm.

Living the Dream

I absolutely lived, ate and slept football. My weekends during the season would always begin on Friday night at Haig Avenue.  Straight from school with some school friends to stand behind the goals at the Blowick End cheering on my home team Southport FC who played in the 3rd and 4th divisions (today’s League One and Two). Saturday mornings I played for either my school team or my club team, but often it would be for both. The club team I played for has produced more than its fair share of talented pro’s over the years including the current coach of Miami FC.

During my time playing in Craven Minor and later the Zingari League I was fortunate to play with a future England goalie and against several budding pro’s. Once my matches were over I would then either take my usual spot in the Boys Pen at Anfield.  If Liverpool were on the road, it was out to the old Springfield Park where I would stand with two or three hundred other supporters watching Wigan Athletic who were an amateur outfit playing in the Northern Premiership. In a weird quirk of fate it was Wigan who won election to replace Southport in the English League back in 1978. Little did I realize back then that Wigan would one day be playing European football. 

It was about that time one of my best friends grandparents won a fortune on the Littlewoods Football Pools which proved to be incredibly lucky for me. Every other Tuesday night throughout the 1971 / 72 season a taxi would pick Phil and me up after dinner and take us to Anfield where we would watch the second best team in Merseyside (ref: Bill Shankly) Liverpool reserves play.

Reality of Life

In 1974 I left school and basically gave up being actively involved in playing football. I had come to the realization that my dreams of turning pro were in reality just dreams. I was on the “schoolboy books” for LFC but that was just a way for the club to claim any potential talent should that talent develop. There was one kid ahead of me who was always selected for the Liverpool Schoolboy squad before me. Even though he was a year younger there was no way that I would ever usurp this short and slightly overweight kid named Sammy Lee; he was just a pure natural ball player.

I discovered beer and other temptations of the flesh, but fate would never permit me to be very far from Football in general and LFC In particular. For many years my work supervisor was married to Jeannette (Jean) Shankly and although I never met Bill, or Nessie for that matter, I did get to spend a lot of time with the Shankly girls and their families.

In those days Liverpool fans never really appreciated the incredible history that was being made before their eyes. There was always a trophy of some description and honors at the end of every season. A victory parade and rally on the steps of St Georges Hall was just another event in our yearly calendar. Strangely enough as this last season (2018/19) progressed, there was one major parallel with the great teams of the Paisley era: the belief, no, the certainty, that there was always a goal in this team. The number of games won in the dying minutes were too numerous for it to be just luck. It was a pattern, an expectation, a reflection of the Liverpool Way.

Darker Times

For me it all went sour though one Wednesday evening in May 1985. I was working the late shift so I popped across the street to the old Slaughter House Pub for my usual meat pie and a glass of beer dinner break. I was excited to catch an hour or so of the European Cup final playing on the small black and white tele set high above the bar. I remember walking into a usually noisy and raucous bar that on this particular night was pin drop silent as we watched in horror and disbelief the news coverage slowly unfold from Brussels. 

The reality of Heysel began to sink in. Things changed that night – Liverpool were eventually banned from Europe for six years which effectively ended their dominance there and then. In truth it is only now, thirty plus years later that Liverpool are beginning to show signs of being the European power they once were. For me personally, it was the last straw. I had discovered that there really are some things more important that kicking a football around – I turned away from the game totally.

Rediscovering the Way

It would be another sixteen years and the crazy UEFA Cup win against Alaves in Dortmund before I began to tentatively follow the game again, but the last few years have been difficult.

The false dawn of Alaves and the expectations that waned all too quickly after Ataturk made it difficult. There was the six months under Roy Hodgson who, inexcusably, seemed to refuse to “get” Liverpool at all. He tried to make us all accept mediocrity as the new normal.

Could it get any worse? I am afraid so.  There was Brendan Rodgers, waving a white flag against Real Madrid, and letting Stoke City putting six past us. That was never and will never be the “Liverpool Way”. There were times when I became angry and frustrated that Liverpool fans seemed to be slowly but surely accepting all this. Even a “top four” mentality is just so not Liverpool. Remember a great man once said “If you are first you are first. If you are second, you are nothing” that is the “Liverpool Way”. It took a German to truly understand the heartbeat of Liverpool. In Jürgen our future is bright.  -YNWA.