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It is not known exactly when a boys’ enclosure was first opened at Liverpool’s Anfield stadium, although it probably wasn’t until after the First World War. It was definitely in place throughout most of the 1920s and 1930s, when it was located in the Paddock of the old Kemlyn Road Stand and ran from around the halfway line on that side of the stadium up to where the Kemlyn Road Stand joined the Anfield Road Enclosure.
It seems to have been a popular area for youngsters to congregate and watch the team from and there doesn’t seem to be any record of bad behaviour until Leeds United came to Anfield for a First Division fixture on Saturday 5 February 1938. Apparently on this day kids inside the boys' enclosure threw orange peel onto the pitch, which might or might not have been directed at visiting players, nobody seems to be sure. But the club was warned and was ordered to have a policeman patrol this area of the stadium at future home matches.
A similar incident occurred almost exactly a year later (Saturday 25 February 1939) when Wolverhampton Wanders visited Anfield for a League match only two weeks after convincingly knocking Liverpool out of the F.A. cup at Molineux. Whether that defeat affected the general mood of the crowd towards the visitors is open to question but what is not in doubt is that there was again a “throwing incident” which this time seemed to involve whole pieces of fruit not just peel. The Football Association threatened to close the stadium (or at least the part of it that had been responsible) unless the club took action to prevent it happening again. To be fair to the lads in the Boys’ Pen, they might have just been copying what they had seen adults doing because in the home programmes for the matches against Leicester City (4 March) and Birmingham City (5 April) there was a very firm warning printed addressed as an open letter to “Very Good Friends, The Kopites” reminding them about the possible consequences of repeating this behaviour, that the club might be forced to play its home matches elsewhere or behind closed doors and that the culprits would be dealt with if caught. The Birmingham programme announced that “Finally, after much consideration, it has been decided to post a large number of plain-clothes police officers on the Kop every home match, and they have authority to arrest the man who dares throw another orange.” Perhaps the club was mainly targeting adults on the Kop but children often mimic what they see adults doing so effectively the whole of Liverpool’s home support, including the children, knew what the situation was wherever in the stadium they stood or sat.
Only two home matches remained in the 1938/39 season after that warning in the Birmingham programme. Within weeks of the end of the season the nation was caught up in another World War and competitive football had to take a back seat for several years.
By the time The Football League was able to resume its programme in the 1946/47 season, the kids’ enclosure in the front of the Kemlyn Road Stand had been moved to a raised area of the Kop with its own entrance in Lake Street on the Main Stand side of the stadium. It was a wise decision, perhaps made in the aftermath of the death of 33 spectators at a horribly overcrowded Burnden Park, Bolton earlier in the year with the move endorsed by another bad incident of overcrowding in Liverpool’s second home First Division match of the season against Chelsea on 7 September 1946 which forced hundreds of dehydrated spectators to seek refuge on the track around the pitch on an almost unbearably hot day for both playing and watching.
So the boys who attended Liverpool’s home matches finally had a place they could call home. But it was far from a welcoming home and the kids who supported visiting teams knew better than to go in there. Robbie Ashcroft, who spent many a match watching his team from this vantage points recalls : “The kids who went on the Boys’ Pen were hard. You had to be a survivor even to queue up. You could not show fear. Fear would be pounced on. There were no away fans but the number of scraps before, during and after the match was scary. The Kop was warm and friendly - the Boys’ Pen was angry, aggressive and mean.” Neal Dunkin, author of “Anfield of Dreams” which recounted his life as a Liverpool supporter as both boy and man, described it as a “nest of vipers”. Musician and big LFC fan Peter Hooton remembers that while “The Kop was an all-welcoming society, The Pen – a caged jungle - was a holding ground for frustrated juveniles and sometimes a lonely place for newcomers”. The Pen was also once described as “a horrible place and the inspiration for ‘Lord of the Flies’”. Robbie Ashcroft describes the Pen as “a transit camp to Heaven” and “a rite of passage for any Liverpool kid in the 60s”. He also recalls that “The tradition in the Boys’ Pen was to get in early, try to get to the front and then, if you were hard enough, try to escape. All that effort to get in and all we wanted was to make an escape bid. The Kop was our freedom. . As the Kop filled up the boys in the Pen got braver and braver. One by one kids would make a dash for freedom. Some would climb the railings to the point where they almost met the rafters. They would sway on the top risking broken limbs or being impaled on rusty metal – just because you had to. Sometimes an official would pull the child’s leg to stop him jumping – that always seemed the more dangerous option. The Kop would cheer and chant, a fireman’s blanket of fans would gather to catch the kid and it was all over in seconds. The urchin would leap, the Kop would catch, and the kid would fall to the ground and, like a rat up a sewer, would disappear from view in the blink of an eye. The Kop would let out a mighty roar, the Boys’ Pen would let out a mighty squeal and the next escapee would line up, as the next decoy scrap would begin.”
So these were the little Kopites of the future, the kids who dreamed of the day when they would be old enough, big enough and strong enough to join the adults on the other side of the barbed wire that kept them in their own little corner. Robbie Ashcroft didn’t realise until he had claimed his own ‘spec’ on the Kop that the boys in the Pen were “producing an ear-splitting cacophony of screeching that was painful”. Another supporter with many years experience of watching Liverpool at Anfield, Christopher Wood, recalls a momentous occasion when that screeching was not just tolerable but effective. It happened at the home derby with defending champions Everton on 21 November 1970, shortly after the visitors had taken a two-goal lead. Chris was standing in the Paddock in front of The Main Stand : “I was alerted by a sound coming from somewhere to my right. Treble voices from the Boys’ Pen started to chant “No Surrender”, faintly at first and then louder with each repetition as others joined in. Within seconds adult voices from the main terrace were chanting too, drowning out the rallying cry that those lads in the Pen had started. It boomed out in defiance from twenty thousand plus throats young and old. People remember the comeback of November 1970; they remember the goals. But how many remember, as I do, how a bunch of kids refused to allow their blind faith to waver in the face of adversity and began a call to arms that resulted in a famous and emotional victory. The players won the match but the comeback began in the Boys’ Pen and created a wall of sound that has rarely been matched or bettered at any other home fixture.”
A large percentage of the Pen kids graduated to the Kop in time as they outgrew the small enclosure. Another high percentage tried to find ingenious ways of getting into the Kop from the Pen. It was a security nightmare on match-days and one regular in the Pen in the 1970s recalls that his father, who was an Anfield Steward, even wrote to club Secretary (later Chief Executive) Peter Robinson urging him to close the Pen permanently. Another youngster from the same period recalls : “There was only one objective in the Boys' Pen. And that was to get out. Every kid wanted to bunk into the Kop - it was like an obsession. I probably missed some great moments on the pitch because I was so busy trying to get out. There were many routes - some of them more precarious than others. I think we sometimes annoyed the older fellas on the Kop but they must have been impressed by our determination."
The Boys’ Pen died a natural death as the 1970s became the 1980s. In a way, considering all the mayhem that went on in there, it was perhaps fortunate to survive for as long as it did. But it would have had to disappear post-Hillsborough anyway. Perhaps some older supporters recalling the time they spent in there have more bad memories than good. But it was still an important part of their upbringing. Respected journalist Brian Reade would get into the Kop at ‘three-quarter time’ when the gates were opened rather than spend the whole match in the Boys’ Pen : "I'd rather have waited until then than go in the Boys' Pen. It seemed like alien territory to me. When you're a kid, territory is everything,. It's not a nice feeling when you're an outsider. There was no ranking if you went in at three-quarter time because you charged in and found whatever space you could get." Brian concedes that he “missed out by not standing in the Pen. I did feel later on that I missed out on an apprenticeship.” Thousands of Liverpool youngsters finished that apprenticeship and graduated to the Kop and other parts of the stadium. Phil Thompson did more than that though. He got to live the dream by playing in front of the Kop as well : “My aim was to watch football regularly from the most famous terrace in world football. To get there, a fan would have to progress through the Boys' Pen. I was desperate to stand on the Kop. I used to get to the ground really early and do a runner. The earlier you got in, the easier it was because there were fewer stewards around. We used to call them guards. I frequently managed to get to the game for about 1 p.m. so I could maximise my chance of escaping the Pen. I was a good climber and nifty on foot so I have to say, quite proudly, that I was a prolific escapee." Terry McDermott and John Aldridge also graduated from the Boys’ Pen to the Kop and then, like Phil Thompson, on to the famous turf as well. Thompson remembers that after he first got into the first team : “When I looked up at the Pen during matches, it always felt strange. That was where it really started for me.”
The Boys’ Pen in the Kop was a strange place. It was often a dangerous place. It was a place where you had to grow up fast, a place you entered as a boy and then, when your apprenticeship had been served, you left it as a man.