Falling In Love With Liverpool No. 7s...

You never forget your first game and you never forget your first hero. For author Gareth R Roberts it was Kenny Dalglish and for his son it is Luis Suarez...

Last Updated: 16/01/14 at 09:34 Post Comment

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The Liverpool number 7 was standing on the penalty spot with his back to goal; the ball bounced around off a defender before arriving at his feet - in a flash, he turned, looked up and put the ball in the back of the West Ham net. I'll never forget it. The red number 7 was Kenny Dalglish, it was December 1977, my first ever game at Anfield. I was seven years old.

I had been a fan since being allowed to stay up and watch another great Liverpool Number 7, Kevin Keegan, help Liverpool win the European Cup the previous May; but, although I have a vague recollection of that great night, I remember my first actual match as clearly as if it was yesterday.

You do, don't you?

You remember that first moment when you see the pitch - you know the moment, the one when you emerge for the first time from the staircase at the back of the stand and see for the first time the perfect emerald green of a professional football pitch. Awesome.

And then, once you've got over the pitch and how different it is from the park where you play and on the telly where the pitch is small and fuzzy, you start to take in the atmosphere - and, if you're a kid when you first experience it, the atmosphere is likely to change your life forever: the smell of fags, the swearing, the songs, the passion, oh the passion - the raw, hard, working-class masculine passion. This was football, and I fell head over heels in love.

And the goal, yes, your first goal stays with you as well - the feeling of hope as the ball gets close to the opposition goal, the tingling sense of possibility as their defence fail to clear, the increase in heart rate as it reaches your striker, then, the golden moment of silence as the stadium collectively draws its breath, before the ball hits the back of the net and the crowd erupt in joyful mayhem. You never forget that.

And as I say, for me, it was December 1977, Anfield; the Liverpool of McDermott, Clemence, Emlyn Hughes and Tommy Smith were playing the West Ham of Brooking, Bonds and Lampard. We won 2-0.

And, for the next ten years or so, I was lucky, Kenny Dalglish remained in the same shirt, scoring goals and terrorising defences, as my team dominated football at home and abroad. It seemed as though Liverpool's supremacy with Kenny Dalglish wearing 7, would go on forever.

But it didn't. And sport is as much about regret and failure as it is triumph.

King Kenny retired, I suppose it was always going to happen, new number 7s tried to wear the sacred shirt; some were good, like Peter Beardsley and Steve McManaman, some were solidly mediocre, like Vlad Smicer and Nigel Clough, and some were downright awful, step forward, David Speedie and Harry Kewell. None had the same air of spellbinding magic that was Kenny Dalglish.

Fast-forward 34 years to February 2011, and I take my eldest son to his first Anfield match - he is also seven, Liverpool are playing Stoke in a midweek game. I hold his little hand, half-worrying that he might be scared by the crowd and the noise and the swearing and the smell of fags - but he isn't. "This is amazing Dad,' he tells me, as he looks down at the pitch in its verdant wondrousness, enjoying that moment for the first time. Liverpool are good that night - Kenny, my Kenny, is in the dug-out, and there is a new player wearing the sacred Liverpool number 7 shirt, a Uruguayan called Suarez - "Is he any good?" I hear someone say - and we hope so, but we've hoped so a lot over the years.

Then in the 70th minute, the ball is put through for the new number 7 - he is on to it in a flash. He steadies himself and looks up as their goalie advances - the crowd reacts, first the murmur of hope, then possibility, then expectation, then, then the silence. The Uruguayan puts the ball in the net and the crowd roar. I look at my little boy, he has his arms aloft, his little face beaming, his eyes fixed on the goalscorer, he has a new hero and football has a fan for life.

"It won't always be this good," I tell him, but, he doesn't listen - he's in love.

Gareth R Roberts

Gareth R Roberts is the author of 'Whatever Happened to Billy Parks', a story of wasted footballing talent, second chances, family and the beautiful game. Centered around the England v Poland match 40 years ago when England suffered one of its biggest footballing disasters the story is told from the perspective of West Ham's Billy Parks: beautiful, gifted and totally flawed. Forty years on Billy's liver is failing and he earns his beer money selling his memories on the after-dinner circuit. His family has deserted him, his friends are tired of his lies and excuses - but what if he could have a second chance?

This is the story of Billy Parks: a man who bore his genius like a dead weight on his slender shoulders and now craves that most precious of things - the chance to put things right.

Published in paperback, it's available on Amazon and in Waterstones

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