The Sandon is a labyrinth. Walk in through one of its multiple entrances and you will be faced with multiple places to go – different rooms of different sizes; a large main one downstairs, a large main one upstairs, and then there is the conservatory bit, and the corner bit that only serves Carling out of plastic cups. You can get lost just going for a whazz, as I did once, and as I will no doubt do again.
Because The Sandon is where I go. A lot. Before every match, in fact. With my mates. My release.
The Sandon is a pub located on Oakfield Road, Liverpool. A short walk from Anfield. Built in 1870 it is where both Liverpool and Everton FC were founded through its connections to local brewer John Houlding and is the place where fans of the former now gather for a pre-match bevvy, as well as one or three afterwards.
I’ve been going there on and off for years but never as regularly as I have this season. It’s become part of the ritual – off the coach, walk up Stanley Park, turn left at the Texaco garage and head into The Sandon. Into the large main room downstairs.
Partly this is because I like alcohol and partly because it’s a collective thing – being part of a group of lads that I travel from London to Liverpool with who do the same thing. Same faces, different things to laugh and talk about.
On the Sunday just gone, we talked about our excitement about seeing the Reds face Manchester City, of how Arsenal, playing Bournemouth on the TV in front of us, are incredibly rubbish and how one of our group fell over in the Kop during last week’s FA Cup tie with Everton having got hammered in The Sandon prior to kick-off. “Do you remember the game?” I asked him. He shook his head and admitted he didn’t.
There’s nothing new here – football fans from different cities, countries and continents have been going to the pub before a match for decades and will continue to do so for decades more. Some with their partner, some with their friends, some to have a quick half, some to get completely trollied. Everyone’s different and in my case, going to the pub before the match has become almost as important as going to the match itself because of what I have been through during the past 12 months.
As years go, 2017 was undoubtedly the toughest of my life. A lot of good things happened but the overriding experience was of a darkness setting in that almost cost me my life. It started in February – a sudden, overwhelming sadness that led to seeking counselling and, in July, the grimness of lying on a bench in open woodland near my parents’ house and considering ending it all.
I pulled back from the brink and now, almost 12 months on from crisis point, feel better. As I wrote in a recent article for the Guardian, a significant reason for this is because I underwent counselling and through that process came to terms with something that had been buried deep within – a sadness, as well as anger, over seeing less and less of my closest friends.
Regular Saturday nights in the pub have become the odd pint on the odd Wednesday after work and now months pass without me speaking or hearing from people I previously couldn’t go more than two days without having some form of contact with. It’s part of moving from your twenties into your thirties and beyond, but it’s also hard. First-world problem hard, but hard nevertheless.
When life becomes a series of routines and duties, you need a release to remind you that for all that is great about getting older – in my case having a loving wife and magnificent daughter – you’re still the person you once were. The body and mind may be older but the spirit remains young; mine certainly. I still laugh at the same TV shows, get excited by the same music and absolutely love drinking and watching football.
So going to The Sandon before going to Anfield has become a release – a simple one but a release nevertheless. And it is the same for others in our group, as I discovered at the end of last month.
Nimit is 28, a friend of my kid brother from school. He is the unofficial leader of our group – the loud and lary one, the lad who loves everyone and who we love back (don’t tell him I said that). He’s the life and soul and, being 28, someone I suspected had not hit that point in life when you become gripped by introspection. But there he was, in The Sandon before we played Leicester City on December 30, telling me about how much he loved coming to the football because it provided him with an escape from the routines of life. Nimit used the word ‘release’ too; I never knew someone almost 10 years younger could feel the same way.
We need to talk about these things. I discovered that through my weekly counselling sessions and from the feedback I received to my Guardian article. A steady stream of messages glowing with warmth and empathy from people – women as well as men – who also felt the loneliness that comes when you spend more time standing awkwardly next to a fellow parent in the local park then you do next to your mate from college in a tent at Glastonbury, or in my case during the glorious summer of 2006, Benicassim.
It’s important men in particular talk about this, largely because we’re rubbish at doing so. We can recite lines from The Office for hours on end, and list our favourite centre-backs from the 90s at will, but ask one of us to discuss our feelings and the silence is deafening.
It can also be deadly, as figures provided to Football365 by The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) outline. Every day, an average of 12 men take their life in the UK, while in 2016, three in every four suicides were male. Of men under the age of 45 in the UK, more than four in 10 have also contemplated taking their life. In other words, too many blokes are suffering in silence and, as I discovered, the only way to sooth the torment is by opening up and accepting there is a problem.
That means first talking and then finding a balance in life that leads to contentment. For many, myself included, that means going to the football. The coach up, the pub beforehand, the match itself and the chat afterwards – it’s all part of the same, much-needed, much-cherished experience.
And before this is viewed through the prism of stereotype; of a bunch of boozed-up louts necking ale and staggering half cut to the match, let me point out that until April last year our group contained a gentle, softly-spoken, giggly 54-year-old called Batuk Madlani, or as he was better known – Uncle. He went home and away and was hugely popular, among the younger lot in our group especially. Lads in their twenties sharing a laugh, joke and plenty of time with a man in his fifties – football did that, and when Uncle passed away suddenly in the spring, it was those same young lads, Nimit among them, who had his name carved onto a stone outside Anfield’s Main Stand. You can see them both in the picture that illustrates this piece.
For all its faults – and there are plenty – football is a wonderful thing. Out of the darkness, it has provided me with light, a reminder that even as I head towards middle-age there is an something out there that keeps me young and happy. The match matters, but the entire experience of going to the match matters even more. I can’t wait for my next trip to Anfield and I can’t wait for my next trip to The Sandon.
To contact CALM call 0800 58 58 58 or visit thecalmzone.net