My Aunt Winnie would be so proud…
So, how does a 14-year-old boy who grew up in an area where the official state religion is gridiron football decide to become a Liverpool FC supporter? Especially in July 1974, when soccer was that “foreign” game where you don’t even use your hands (and, where I lived in Oklahoma, was considered heresy if not outright blasphemy)? Well, it involves the RMS Lusitania, Bill Shankly, iced tea, and my Aunt Winnie. Not necessarily in that order.
Let me explain. No, wait… there is too much. Let me sum up.
A Visit from Across the Pond
For two weeks in July 1974, at our home in the outskirts of Oklahoma City, my family got a visit from my Aunt Winnie (Winifred) and her grandson Paul. Actually, Winnie was my “first cousin twice removed” or some nonsense like that, but to me she was simply “Aunt Winnie.” My paternal grandmother, who as a teenager had immigrated with others in the family to the United States – crossing the Atlantic on the RMS Lusitania in 1914 – lived with my parents before I was born. Winnie was her first cousin and part of the family who had remained in England… specifically, Liverpool. (I’ll bet you saw that coming.)
Cousin Paul was just a tad older than I, and we immediately hit it off. Seeing his reactions to things so common and natural to me was eye-opening… like his complete astonishment when we drove to visit Six Flags Over Texas. The 200-mile car ride (each way) was the equivalent to driving from Liverpool to London, except there was pretty much nothing along the way but wheat fields and cow pastures. “Will this road never end!” he exclaimed many times. (Years later, he joined the British Royal Navy and flew Sea Harrier fighter jets.)
Shall I Pour??
I completely adored Aunt Winnie… she was an absolute riot! It was nearly inconceivable she could be related to my dour, grumpy grandmother who lived with us. Winnie was a pub-matron (as she called herself) and an incredible spitfire who captivated me with her stories, her cooking, and her love of tea. Seriously, this lady traveled 4,500 miles from Liverpool to our home in Oklahoma and brought everything needed for two weeks of proper tea. The true reason the Empire let the Colonies go, in Winnie’s opinion, was because of iced tea.
Thanks to her, I am to this day a total and utter tea snob, and won’t touch a drop of coffee even at gunpoint. I may have an electric kettle these days instead of a teapot but I still prefer loose leaf tea to teabags, especially for my proper morning cuppa of Earl Grey. However, and with no apologies whatsoever, I still do love iced tea. But I digress…
Yes, I know… I said I would sum up. I’m getting there, I promise.
A Teenage Anglophile
During their visit, in addition to finding out about tea, shandy, and the gastronomical insanity of the full English breakfast, I received a crash course in being an Anglophile. I was educated on the differences between England, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom. Then I heard all about the monarchy and why (in Winnie’s view) it was “happy and glorious.” Mixed in along the way I learned about darts and snooker, about Monty Python and Doctor Who, about Liverpool history and its cultural impact on many things, including music.
Winnie claimed to know some singer named Gerry, which meant little to me at the time; even when she mentioned something about “Pacemakers,” it just added to the confusion. Years later, of course, I made the connection… and it made my head spin.
She also claimed to be friends with a couple of ladies whose sons she thought I might recognize. “The lads,” as she lovingly referred to them, were named Paul and John; she was right, of course, in that I most definitely had heard of them before.
A Different Kind of Football… and a Football Club
And yes – the whole point of this rambling bit of codswallop to which we have finally arrived — I learned about Association Football – “soccer.” Not that silly thing of which I was a die-hard fan and youth league player, but this beautiful yet somewhat confusing game which seemed far more elegant and less violent. A sport where a world championship actually involved other countries. (Sorry, baseball, but seriously… “World Series”??!!) In this sport, the ball was actually a ball — not a “prolate spheroid” — and everyone used their feet, not just the two least-athletic members of the team. It was a life-changing revelation to me.
Of course, it wasn’t just about the game… it was about the club: Liverpool Football Club. Winnie and Paul, along with the entire British contingent of the family, were full-blown hardcore over-the-top YNWA-singing out-of-their-minds completely bonkers LFC supporters.
Just two months prior to their visit, Winnie and Paul had been at Wembley to witness the 3-0 win over Newcastle in the 1974 FA Cup Final. My cousin transfixed me with his animated recap of Kevin Keegan’s two second-half goals, with Steve Heighway’s goal sandwiched in between, with such vivid detail it was like being there. Aunt Winnie had also been at Wembley for the 1965 Final when Liverpool won its first FA Cup defeating Leeds United 2-1 in extra time.
The depths of their quasi-religious fervor and passion for LFC soon became undeniable as it was during their visit Winnie and Paul heard of manager Bill Shankly’s retirement. The death of the Queen would have been easier for Winnie to hear; she nearly cancelled the rest of their visit to head home.
Cousin Paul was beyond devastated; the unplanned trip to Six Flags was entirely an attempt to cheer him up again. It helped, a little, but those last few days before they headed back to Liverpool were definitely more somber.
Now, I had experienced football fandom well before that. I grew up watching both college football and the NFL on television, and even attending some Oklahoma Sooners games. But I have never ever seen the level of rapid fanaticism and the level of bonding between a team and its supporters. Nothing even close. I don’t think it’s even possible to achieve anything like that in the United States with sports. Witnessing it first-hand, during those days in July 1974, I decided to risk being blasphemous and heretical… and became a Liverpool FC fan. A rather casual fan until recently, I’ll admit, but I’m making up for lost time… becoming the Old Fart Soccer Newbie I am today. I know Winnie would be quite proud… except for the iced tea.