South African football journalist Melissa Reddy is coming to the end of a dream week-and-a-half with Liverpool FC. This is her story of the last 10 days...
While you're marking down the days and counting the hours until you embark on something special, brush strokes on mental pictures take shape. Expectation starts swirling around, your imagination does a Usain Bolt, and your frontal lobe takes a trip to la-la land. Reality slips further away, and the reality is, that the painting in your head is always better than the actual experience.
Well, not always...
Last Wednesday, after a lengthy flight from Johannesburg to Heathrow, and what felt as long a wait for my connecting journey to Manchester, I eventually arrived in Liverpool. For most, it is simply a port city with a unique accent that houses two of England's historic football clubs. For the over 460,000 residents, it's home. For me, and millions around the globe, it represents a passion and pride that is near impossible to explain. My trip to Liverpool is the culmination of an intense 20-year love affair with Merseyside's biggest asset - the Reds.
In the early 90s, South Africa's only taste of English football would be a live screening of the FA Cup final, with highlight packages of the Premier League every so often. Sightings of John Barnes, Robbie Fowler and co were a rare treat, and yet, there was such a deep connection. As the coverage grew, along with my interest and understanding of the game, there were few things that could match my adoration of Liverpool Football Club.
Even today, the running joke is that the team is actually my boyfriend, with my close friends admitting they'd never get married or do anything substantial at the same time as an LFC fixture, because I wouldn't be present. They're probably right.
Supporting Liverpool is not something that only happens every matchday, it's a way of life, and importantly - the club supports us back. It boasts the most interactive Twitter feed of all the Premier League sides, with localised accounts for countries all over the world, a weekly dedicated global fan feature on the website, with a separate LFC TV programme (#LFCWORLD) every seven days, and an unbelievable rapport with ordinary Reds. Just ask the hundreds of fans gathered in the team hotel in Bangkok who, after literally days of waiting, were given the chance to meet Steven Gerrard after the captain decided to do something to reward them for their support.
From 'Happy Birthday' messages, to retweeting of pictures, and competitions where you can profile your pets in club gear, Liverpool involve their supporters as much as possible. It's a global institution, which still operates as a family - something I witnessed first-hand.
From being invited to meet the club's staff and work in their office, being taken to Melwood, and even having employees help me book train tickets, I have lived 'The Liverpool Way' since last Wednesday.
Those three words have been used to explain the club's promoting-from-within ethos, symbolised by the Boot Room. The Liverpool Way also signifies the Reds' handling of transfer speculation, and just about everything else - with dignity and grace.
For me, the Liverpool Way is epitomised by how the official website team and LFC TV staff have been my tour guides, my 'phone a friends', my mentors and just about everything I've needed. They've never been shy of helping, and were very accommodating.
From the club's head of press, Matt McCann, and his team, to the receptionist, the assistant coach - everyone has been welcoming, giving of their time, and engaging.
What of the larger-than-life players? They're just as down to earth and approachable. Steven Gerrard was the first to greet me with a warm smile at Melwood. Kolo Toure passed me through the corridor and asked if I was well. Brendan Rodgers dished up next to me in the cafeteria, and wanted to know if everything was okay, and how the food looked. Then there was Daniel Sturridge. He found out I am the deputy editor of KICK OFF Magazine, and asked me to put him on the cover. He then sat down and conversed about everything - from rap music, to his form, to the city, to how he could never turn down fans...
On Sunday, he celebrated turning 24 in the best way - a winning goal against Manchester United at Anfield. Courtesy of the club, I was there to witness a superb result at an indescribable ground, to put Liverpool top of the Premier League, on the eve of what would've been Bill Shankly's 100th birthday.
That mental picture didn't come anywhere close to my reality.
There is no possible way I could say thank you enough. What I can say though, is Shankly would've been proud.