In front of me, outside the Colosseum, is a Roman centurion smoking a cigarette. He’s not alone. There are a lot of them about, all of them puffing on fags then getting their pictures taken – for a small charge of course – with tourists, who find the juxtaposition between the ancient and modern endlessly amusing. The centurions have tough faces, gnarly like varnished wood, tough, unsmiling. One of them fingers his
The eternal city has a magical place in the hearts of every Liverpool fan. It was here where the Reds won their first European Cup in 1977, the glorious romp against Borussia Mönchengladbach that cemented our reputation as a club with ambitions unconfined by national borders.
Seven years later, we were victorious once more, bringing the Cup back to Liverpool, defeating AS Roma in their own Stadio Olympico: a victory that saw Reds fans stabbed in serious numbers for having the temerity to support that ended the home sides apparently assured victory.
Tonight, our team, a side that’s rapidly growing in confidence under the educated eyes of Gerard Houllier has come once more to do business: to knock these self-important whoppers out of the UEFA Cup. And no blag centurion with lungs like the chimney of the Lobster Pot is going to stop us.
The city is crawling with Liverpool fans. Many are resisting the magnetism of the city’s Irish bars, and instead can be found around the sights, from the Colosseum – which a group of Lacoste-tracksuited youths successfully bunk into – to the Pantheon, the huge dome with the big hole in the top, built by the great General Agrippa over 2,000 years ago as a place of sacrifice. Our group, good(ish) Catholics to a man, even meet up with a couple of Rome based Scouse priests who show us the wonder of St Ignatious’ church and its cosmic 3D ceiling. Stoke City away this is not.
Late in the afternoon, as we get ready to leave our splendid spec near the Piazza Navone to go the game, we’re approached by some lads in Liverpool tops.
“Fucking Eyetie cowards,” shouts one, and his mates give us the Vs.
We look at around. Does he mean us, in our expensive knitwear, tasteful Roma scarves and Steve Wonder sunglasses? He does.
“Fucking come on then, Rome!”
Blimey. He is extremely agitated, and his mates, in a selection of British casual wear that could have come straight from Doncaster’s latest pound store are just as angry. The sensible thing to do here would be to explain – in the years-old tradition of the peace-making Liverpudlian abroad – that “we’re all Scousers, aren’t we.” Fuck that.
“Hey, Eeenglish, fuck your mother,” we shout, showing them the finger, aping the activities of every cliched, scooter-riding biff we’ve all encountered on school holidays abroad. The leader of Kwik Save Fashion Dept mob is not happy. Perhaps he’s scared of flick-combs he think we’re carrying.
He walks over in order to assert his masculinity and only then does he realise that we too, are not just Liverpool fans, but Liverpool fans with Liverpool accents. Something he’s not. Now he wants to be bezzie mates. Sorry, lad, but we’ve just spotted an extremely officious official from a well known Merseyside travel firm with the biggest hair/head combo we’ve ever seen. The opportunity for mirth is too good to resist.
“Can everyone on Coach A come this away,” he says.
“Hey you,” says a well known Liverpudlian from our crew.
“You’ve got a massive swede. It’s mad. Your head is dead big.”
He doesn’t know what to say and walks off, clipboard in hand.
The night draws in, the warm February sunshine replaced by the chill of a winter’s night, and we’re all put on buses and shipped to the stadium. Reports come in – as they always do – of lads who’ve been stabbed or set upon by groups of Romans, confirming every stereotype the British football fan has about Ultras. But we get in unscathed and find our place near the back of the packed Liverpool end.
And packed it most certainly is. There are thousands of Liverpool fans here, a tough, loud and some would say
Before the game I spot two banners that have gone down into Reds folklore, not just for their wit, but their sheer pointless abstraction.
a) THE NEVILLES ARE UGLY CUNTS
and even better,
b) FRANK BRUNO, YOU TORY PRICK
In the following years, Liverpool fans will outdo themselves in trying to come up with the most profound pieces of banner ‘poetry’, but these flags are what we’re really about: wit, surrealism and nasty, biting piss-taking. They will only be outdone by the legendary ‘I Hate Flags’ flag of a few years later.
The game begins, and Liverpool are superb, passing the ball like a proper European team – patient, but incisive, and over the course of 90 minutes provide a masterclass that eclipses – in playing terms at least – the efforts of the ’84 team. With Michael Owen at his absolute fearless best, Liverpool ride out winners 2-0. “In Rome,” we sing. “We always win in Rome.”
Unsurprisingly, we’re kept in the ground, not just for 30 minutes, but for a whole two hours. The stadium authorities put a recent Liverpool-Man United match on the big screen to keep us happy, but we’re more engrossed by the plastic bottle fight that’s developing among two groups of Liverpool fans near the pitch. The entertainment is enhanced by the sight of some lad covered in masking tape and passed above the crowd like a stage diver at a rock gig.
Finally, we’re let out, many of us ringing our mates back home on the mobiles that have gradually become part of the match-going experience. In the dark, we spot shadowy groups lurking in the distance, people we’ll later learn will be responsible for the stabbing – yet again – of Liverpool fans. But for those of us lucky enough to get back to our hotels unscathed, the party is only starting.
This article appears in the current issue of Well Red, the unmissable Liverpool magazine