The last time Glen Johnson got a taste of exactly the kind of fanaticism that awaits travelling football players in Bangkok, he was wearing distinctly different colours. The blue of Chelsea, to be precise.
At Tuesday’s press conference in the ballroom of the Grand Erawan hotel, the Englishman was all smiles, all ready to answer questions, and as Rafa put it, all ready to play. And he looked just right in the red of Liverpool FC. “It’s been fantastic. Everybody’s been great to me, helped me settle in. It’s brilliant here in Bangkok, all those fans in the Liverpool shirts, it’s a great sight to see,” he said, and added a hope that he could come up with the kind of consistent display he had last season with Portsmouth.
Today was a busy day for the squad, with the division of duties all too evident to anyone who happened to be out on a cloudy day in the Thai capital. When I was returning home, a cavalcade of policemen on bikes furiously signalled for our car to stop so a string of minivans could pass by, and yes, they contained Liverpool FC”s finest, eager for a bit of sightseeing. A few went to the Grand Palace, while others were packed off to do their various promotional commitments and football clinics. They probably did squeeze in a few hours rest before the nearly two-hour long training session that was to take place at the Rajamangala Stadum in the evening, passes to which were very kindly handed out to me by Steve McMahon, who is very nice to talk to, even if you are tongue-tied and star-struck.
At the beginning of the evening’s practice, the players confined themselves to two small circles in the centre of the field, but the stadium had been taken over by roaring, screaming, flag-waving supporters who were well-versed in all the Liverpool anthems. ‘We all dream of a team of Carraghers’ was repeated again and again as the man himself knocked a few balls around, along with emphatic cries of ‘Xabi don’t go’, ‘Mascherano don’t leave for Barca’, and requests to Fernando Torres to convey the same message to his countrymate: ‘Tell Xabi no go to Real, tell Xabi to stay, Fernando!’
Torres, meanwhile, contented himself with running laps around the athletics track at the stadium, checking his watch every now and then, and was soon joined by Yossi Benayoun, Alvaro Arbeloa and Xabi Alonso. They deigned to raise their hands to the crowd now and then, every time bringing up a fresh wave of cheers. In the kickabout that followed, the following were moments worthy of some noise: Johnson’s excellent backheel flick of a pass in the middle, Pepe’s quick recovery for a save that was nearly a lost cause, Carra getting stuck into the opposition, and so what if it happened to be his own clubmate, he was on a different team for the moment.
Torres and Alonso went off early back to the locker room to thunderous applause, and it’s pretty certain that the Spanish contingent will play a role only in the end credits of Wednesday’s match. Johnson is likely to be in the first XI, and after less than impressive results in their last two friendlies, Liverpool will look to get in a win on their pre-season tour of Asia. But regardless of the result, their visit here will be referred to time and again amongst the hordes of fanatics who have been thronging the hotel and stadium the last two days for a glimpse of a world they only see on television between August and May each season. They lined the path inside and outside the stadium gates once it was time for the players to leave the stadium after their practice on Tuesday night, and waited excitedly in the hope of getting another chance to get close to their heroes. There was no sign of that happening anytime soon, but they were happy to bide time discussing all things Liverpool, and it’ll stay in their minds as a happy memory forever.
I know I’ll never forget it.