George Sephton has provided the sound-track to Liverpool home games since 1971. Eleven of their 18 league titles have been won during his time as stadium announcer. It’s been too long a wait for No. 12 but with almost 50 years as ‘The Voice of Anfield’, he couldn’t be happier. George spoke to John Fogarty.
John Fogarty: You’ve been a part of Anfield folklore for so long and you have only missed six matches in 49 seasons. Would it have been strange to have not been there for the Crystal Palace game?
George Sephton: The week before the Palace game, I was in the back garden with my wife having a cup of coffee when the phone rang from Anfield: “Can you get down within the hour?”
They were running through a few things like sound levels and the deal was to make sure ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ was clearly audible inside the ground but not so loud that you would raise the neighbourhood and beyond because they obviously don’t want people congregating.
As soon as I got home, it was all over Facebook, people recording the music standing in Stanley Park. I’m just so glad to have been there. I was thinking if they were having VAR there they wouldn’t need me because there isn’t room for two of us there while keeping social distancing.
But they came up with a scheme that prior and after the game I could hop desks with the VAR official.
Apart from anything else, I am a Liverpool fan and being so close to winning the league I wanted to be there. After all these years, I didn’t want to be sitting at home.
JF: As strange as the circumstances are, this is a league title that will never be forgotten. Were you giddy leading up to the resumption of action?
GS: Oh yes but it’s very hard to explain. We got to the stage in the 1980s where we expected to turn up and win the league. They were so dominant. We won it in 1990 but after that it was a case of “what’s going on here?”.
It went from five or six years not winning it to a whole generation of people who have never seen us win the league. You try and explain it to them that this is the way Liverpool used to get things done.
The Champions League final is set for August 23, I have it written in my diary, but up until that point we’re going to be the champions of everything and that is an unique point in our history. The European Cup, the Premier League, champions of the world and Super Cup champions. I’m tempted to say I don’t care after that but of course I do. We have to make sure we consolidate things and keep winning. It will be as special as it was when we won the Champions League last year because up to then people were saying: “Oh, Jurgen Klopp bottles it in finals.”
That all disappeared and then two other cups followed.
The World Club Cup is important to me. Some say it’s a noddy sort of competition but it isn’t; there are footballers in Liverpool who have medals saying they are champions of the world.
The people who I speak to who try and slag Liverpool simply can’t because we have been so dominant. You can’t dislike Jurgen. He’s just a good bloke. Quite a few junior teams would be playing on a Sunday morning and they suddenly realise the guy stood at the back with his dog behind all the parents is Jurgen. He’s unique, there’s no two ways about it. He’s a one-off.
JF: Which of the other 11 league titles won on your watch stands out?
GS: Probably ’84 when we won three trophies in the one season (league, European Cup, League Cup). That team was more or less invincible, I thought. That was the year we lost at Wembley to United. Liverpool were such a joy to watch in those days. But in the first game of the ’84-’85 season I came home and said to my wife that the atmosphere was so quiet in Anfield and the fans were so used to turning up and seeing us win the title that it was like going to see The Mousetrap in the theatre: You’ve seen it once and you know what happens in the end.
It went belly-up for us that season and we had the Heysel disaster at the end of it. Winning the double in 1986 was something because it meant a lot to complete it. When I was a child, people used to talk about the great Preston North End team in the late 1890s and it was something you would write to your grandchildren about. Tottenham did it in the 1960s and that was my first exposure to a great team. So when we did it I thought this was as good as it gets. But it obviously wasn’t because we have gone on to do greater things — six European Cups was not something I thought I would see in my lifetime.
Liverpool are back to where they were 30 years ago and it’s not just one trophy — we’re back on the perch and it’s how we’re seen by the rest of the football fraternity.
JF: Being in Anfield after Hillsborough — how emotional was that for you?
GS: I remember it got to the stage when they asked people to stop bringing flowers to Anfield because the place couldn’t take any more. We had a religious service to give people some sort of closure. That was the worst for me. I wasn’t there in an official capacity but I wandered up to my old room on the TV gantry with my wife and daughter and it was just heart-breaking. I actually took my son to the Goodison derby, which was the first game after Hillsborough.
He had been in Hillsborough and I wanted him to go to a football match sharpish without being completely disconcerted by the whole thing. That was OK and we got through that. I have never liked semi-finals but my young lad wanted to go to Hillsborough and I got a ticket for him, his mate, and his mate’s dad. He was going with a responsible adult so he was safe and I was at home with the paper and the TV on and then it obviously all happened. The next couple of hours were horrendous. I think it was an hour-and-a-quarter before the phone rang and it was the three of them from a phone box. What it must have been like for those people who never got that call but one to say their husband, wife, brother, sister, son, daughter had died. It’s beyond comprehension.
We went on to win the cup and we should have had the double that year only it fell apart at the last minute. You could see the team literally running out of steam against Arsenal on the night. It’s hard to look back on Hillsborough. It’s despair we all feel now.
Thirty years and basically they’ve got away with it, the people who did what they did. We wanted truth and justice and we got the truth — but no justice. I know the day the Hillsborough Report came out, September 12, 2012, I was talking at a business lunch in Runcorn and I was asked what I thought and I said I suspected it would be another whitewash. When I was driving home, the radio went over the House of Commons and there was David Cameron apologising on behalf of the country to Liverpool and I nearly crashed the car. I was that upset and tearful and yet surprised and happy all at once. The truth was out but I think people have generally given up any hope of getting justice. As time goes on, a lot of the people who were involved have retired, are in care homes, or passed away.
JF: You have had a front row seat to the power of The Kop down through the years but when has it been at its most potent?
GS: When we beat St Etienne in 1977, the atmosphere was out of this world and people said we would never get any better than that.
Chelsea for the (Champions League) semi-final in 2005 outclassed it just because of the way everything went. If you wrote the script, people would say you were crazy.
I still don’t think Luis Garcia put the ball over the line and I really don’t care. The noise level that night, I set out to make the place as noisy as possible that night and it worked. I was quite proud of myself. Two years later, we beat Chelsea in another European Cup semi-final and I remember getting collared by George Gillett afterwards. (Tom) Hicks and Gillett had just taken over and he grabbed me in the main stand reception saying: “George, you did a great job today, you made the atmosphere great.”
I thanked him but looking back he wasn’t the guy you wanted congratulating you.
In 2005, we only needed one goal but then Chelsea only had to equalise to go through.
People say Chelsea threw everything but the kitchen sink at Liverpool; I say I saw a kitchen sink flying towards Liverpool at one stage. Then there was the six minutes of added time. It’s on YouTube, the guy holding the board up before I announce it and you can see Rafa looking at his coaching staff as if to say: “what did he just say?”. Those six minutes were the longest of my life.
How we held out, I don’t know. For quite a while, people used to stop me in the street and ask me why on earth did I give six minutes. It got so bad I came home from a shopping centre because I thought somebody was going to thump me. I tried to explain I only read what was on the board. Anyway, we got through that game. But Barcelona last year knocked it and everything else into a cocked hat. They’re 3-0 up [on aggregate] and our two star players are crocked — that should have been the end of it. We win 4-0 and we’re asking: “How did that happen?” That was definitely the loudest the stadium has ever been and my room was shaking because of it. I was genuinely frightened it would fall off the top of the Kenny Dalglish Stand.
JF: Kenny once said of you, “George is part of the history and tradition of this club and it would be more relevant if he left than if I left.” You’re still titled a steward and I read somewhere before that you don’t like that term but you are the steward for the atmosphere in the stadium.
GS: I’m writing a book (Game Changer) to coincide with my 50th season and Kenny said he would write the foreword for me. There’s only a handful of people I could say I have idolised over the years. Paul McCartney would be one and Kenny would be the other.
And now he’s doing things for me, it’s crackers. Once every couple of years I’ll stop, take a deep breath and say to myself: “You’re talking to 54,000 people. What’s this all about?” To say it’s surreal doesn’t come close. I’m looking forward to season 50 actually starting because at that point the book will go to the publishers. Early on in the year, I was seriously worried the Premier League were going to void the season. When things were looking cut and dried for Liverpool as champions, I was saying I had this horrible sense of foreboding.
I made the joke that somebody was going to discover Virgil van Dijk’s paperwork was going to be out of date or something. I was wondering when the RFU were taking points off Saracens, was the same going to happen to us? Then two people I know dropped dead with heart attacks earlier in the year and maybe my heart would give out before I got to see them win the league.
Then coronavirus starts and I thought that was it, we would never get as close again to winning it. I was also thinking if they cancelled the season then this wasn’t my 49th and the 2021-22 season would be and I would have to start all over again. There would be part of me thinking 50 seasons would be enough for me but then I think if they go ahead and extend the Anfield Road end I’d love to be there when there’s 61,500 people there. My wife says: “Get through these 12 months and see what happens.”
I might get the push from Liverpool by then. People think I get £100,000 (€110,000) a week, 500 tickets a week, and I’m bosom pals with the manager. All of which couldn’t be further from the truth.
JF: The Irish association with the club grew significantly during your time as stadium announcer. How do you regard it?
GS: We used to say Liverpool was the capital of Ireland. Going back to the potato famine, Liverpool was the first port of call. The link with the club has probably become stronger with the advent of easier travel. Once upon a time, you couldn’t just nip across the Irish Sea to see a game and go home again.
You used to have Irish jokes but you don’t do that anymore. My mum and dad have been dead for 50, 60 years but I got the general impression from my dad that Irish people, in particular Irish Catholics, were up to no good permanently, that you name it, they got up to it. I remember getting to senior school age when I suddenly realised what actually went on out there on planet earth.
Over the years, my family and I have holidayed in Ireland and I have been over to the supporters’ clubs in Dublin and Waterford and I get on with them like a house on fire.
JF: You’re known for your eclectic music choices before games and at half-time and supporting local Liverpool bands. How do you pick it?
GS: I’ve always had a broad taste. It probably goes back to being an only child and sitting at home with my record player.
My dad was very strange, he was very fond of American blues music but when that turned into rock n’ roll and The Beatles came along he was horrified. He really hated everything to do with ’60s pop music. I said to myself I would never let that happen to me as I got along. There is a lot of music out now that I like and there’s a lot I can’t stand. I draw the line at Stormzy.
I like to see musicians play but when you have 300 dancers behind you or whatever and there’s no melody I give up. I do try and keep up with what’s going on. I have people contact me at times asking for me to play modern stuff and I write back: “X, y and z are promo releases and they’re not even available to buy yet — what exactly do you want me to do?”
The thing about supporting local bands started when I was 11 or 12; there was a rule in school that if it was raining at lunch-time you got a book and you went and sat in the main hall and read it. My mate and I soon got fed up with that and what we used to do was head off down to the basement to the science lecture ones.
There would be some big boys there practicing chords on their guitars. One of them was called Don Andrew, another was called George Harrison and the other one was called Paul McCartney. I always take the attitude that if there is a local band starting out they’re doing the same thing and they are to be encouraged.
JF: After 30 years of a wait, is this an emotional time for you?
GS: Well, I think social distancing goes out the window for this. But I hadn’t been counting my chickens. After the way 2020 has gone, nothing but nothing would have surprised me in this life anymore. It will take days to sink in. Being crowned champions is another marker on the road back to normality.
I’d often come out of Anfield practically on my hands and knees and need an hour looking at the wall at home before I’d be some way right again. After all the waiting, I think my blood pressure will subside now.