The man who drove me from the John Lennon airport into Liverpool city centre last Tuesday was a gem, the kind of quote-worthy character who almost makes you break the glass marked ‘For Emergency Use Only’ and extract the pen and notebook.
The airport itself was buzzing with the Spanish Armada just in off a fleet of planes from Madrid, while my own early morning flight from Dublin had been heavily speckled with the shirts and scarves of Irish Reds.
But when I got into the cab, the second thing I noticed — after the middle-aged driver’s cheery greeting — was the oddly unfamiliar green and white football scarf around his neck.
“They’re playing in the Champions’ League tonight,” the cabbie hinted, before the old drachma dropped and I finally identified the club as Panathinaikos.
So why was a Scouse cabbie — and, indeed, self-proclaimed supporter of Liverpool FC — wearing the colours of a club from far away Athens on the day his hometown team were due to play Real Madrid just up the road at Anfield?
Thereby hung a tale good for the telling. The man’s father, Liverpool born and bred, had served with the British Army in Greece in the Second World War, working closely with local partisans among whom were a young woman and her brothers. A relationship developed between the woman and the Englishman but, given the conservative nature of Greek peasant culture at the time, it would have been highly unlikely to go much further but for the notable fact that, in the course of one dangerous operation, the Liverpudlian managed to save the life of one of her brothers. This act of heroism was more than enough to earn the respect of the family patriarch and, in due course, his daughter’s hand in marriage.
After the war, the couple lived for a few years on a British Army base in Cyprus and then moved back to the husband’s home city on the Mersey, which is where my cab driver entered the picture and grew up to be enduringly proud of both his Liverpudlian and Greek heritage.
While Liverpool were doing the business in some style against Real Madrid, his other beloveds, Panathaniakos, were coming a cropper at home to Villarreal. And to make it a win-lose-lose 48 hours for the man behind the wheel, Manchester United failed to put a smile on his Liverpudlian face by overcoming Inter at Old Trafford the following night.
As a Greek-Scouser, his blood might not run undiluted Red but, like pretty much every other Liverpool FC supporter you meet, the cabbie’s aversion to Manchester United is deep-rooted. And, needless to say, it would be a sentiment duly reciprocated any time he drives his car east along the A62.
The often bitter nature of the rivalry between United and Liverpool might seem a given now but it wasn’t always so. At Old Trafford on Wednesday, I picked up a copy of the official in-house mag to find the broadcaster and United fan, Terry Christian, recalling the late 60s and early 70s as a time of something close to brotherly love between the now warring tribes.
Noting that managerial legends Bill Shankly and Matt Busby were great friends, he writes: “At that time, Mancunians generally liked Scousers and many had a soft spot for LFC. In fact, Mancunians were so fond of Liverpool, I don’t think I had single friend who watched the 1971 Cup Final between Liverpool and Arsenal and didn’t want the Scousers to win. Hard to believe now, isn’t it?”
Not when you consider how insidious jealousy can be, it ain’t. It might be one thing for United fans, still basking in the glow of the League and European success of just a few years before, to look benignly on Liverpool’s ultimately doomed bid for cup success in ‘71 but, when the balance began to tilt just a few years later — as United were relegated and then, in their first season back, had to play third fiddle to champions Liverpool — a hardening of hearts ensued.
What followed since has been a 30 years war that continues to rival any of the great city derbies of world football for bragging rights, for passion and, at times, for sheer poisonous hostility. On Tuesday night at Anfield, there was a United scarf in amongst the candles and photographs at the Hillsborough memorial, a rare show of sympathy and solidarity which could probably only have happened against the backdrop of genuine tragedy.
Normal service will be resumed this lunchtime in what is a make-or-break title game for the visitors and one given added spice in the build-up by Liverpool’s five-star performance against Real Madrid while United were pulling their punches against Inter.
So there’s plenty at stake at Old Trafford today but then, even if this was just an otherwise meaningless mid-table coming together, the deep red rivalry ensures that the world would still be watching, from Anfield to Athens and beyond.