Are you a European Cup romantic? I am. From Reykjavik to Istanbul.

Posted by nige on May 20, 2005, 01:41:20 AM

Are you a football romantic? I most certainly am.

As a supporter, this European campaign started for me ... wait, you think I’m going to say v. Graz in August? Or Monaco in September? No, this European campaign started for me more than 10 months ago on July 14th 2004 in Reykjavik, Iceland, for the first Qualifying Round.

As soon as the draw was made in June, I felt that I had to go  to watch KR Reykjavik, champions of Iceland (for the first time in over a decade) v. Shelbourne, Champions of Ireland. UEFA Champions League Qualifying Round 1 (are you reading carefully, Everton supporters ??).

It was the 40th anniversary of Liverpool’s 1st ever European game v. KR Reykjavik, in the Champions Cup in ’64, so how could I resist ? LFC and KR  had been talking about organising a pre-season anniversary game in Iceland , as they had in ’84 for the 20th anniversary, and that's how I first became interested in going over .... However,  due to the lure of the American Dollar Tour in 2004 , that idea had been shelved. I understand, Mr. Parry, but that wasn't going to stop me.

Lots of glamour-seeking Reds supporters were off to the US.  But  I just flew on the very good value  "Iceland Express" flight  from  Stansted, walked into the Iceland National Stadium on matchday and knocked on the  KR reykjavik Club Secretary’s door. It was 8 hours before kick off and I just wanted to make sure the Shankly flag had a good vantage point.  the secretary, Sigurdur  Helgason, or Sigi for short,  was meeting the UEFA referee and assistants and he said he would see me later. But I wanted to tell the referee why I was there, too!

“Hello. I’m from the Liverpool Supporters’ Club”  I bluffed. Well, it's knd of true. “I want to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Liverpool in Europe and so I’d just like to hang this flag of Mr. Shankly in your stadium if that’s OK …”

“No problem. The groundstaff will help you.” He handed me a staple gun and pointed me to a ladder near the scoreboard. We marched over to fix Mr. Shankly onto the panelling underneath the scoreboard ... so that our great icon would be noticed that night on Icelandic TV. The young Arsenal-supporting groundsman seemed to think it was more unusual that I was standing on his pitch to take photos than that I'd flown about 1000 miles to see this game.

The Secretary had now finished meeeting with the Belgian referee & the rest of the ground staff & was rushing off to a sports shop to get more club ties, as Shelbourne FC had brought over more players & officials than he had anticipated. However he still made time to offer me a quick tour of this, the national stadium, then into his car, via two sports shops to the KR club HQ, where he looked for the original 1964 LFC v. KR programmes for me in the club archives.

He disappeared for 5 mins into a cupboard and ... alas ... even he couldn't find a copy of one of the most “collectable” of all Liverpool programmes !!

He introduced me to EVERYONE in the club, though, and did show me the pennant presented by big Ron Yeats before kick-off that night at the first leg in Reyjavik in 1964.  It turned out that he himself had played v. our great 4th Champions Cup winning team in that anniversary friendly in '84.

Then Sigi gave me a club banner and a free ticket to that night’s match. Director’s box. I went away for a few drinks with the fans from Dublin, but when I came back everyone semed to know about me & I was treated like royalty. A crowd of about 1500 had gathered, maybe 250 of them Irish.

Shelbourne were slightly the better team, stronger physically and  in quiet control, though it was a dull 0-0 at  half time. But suddenly after the interval KR surprisingly  stormed into a 2-0 lead due to two defensive lapses at set pieces. The Irish champions then stepped up a gear and it ended 2-2. Quite exciting in the end really, unlike the second leg a week later in Dublin, which finished 0-0, putting the Dubliners through on away goals to face Hajduk Split in the 2nd Qualifying round. Shelbourne won that tie 4-3  on aggregate and then of course lost out in the 3rd Qualifying Round to Depotivo La Coruña (0-0, 0-3 in Spain) who in turn ended up in Liverpool’s group. And the rest is history.

I had a good ‘craic’ that night with some of the Irish supporters but above all I promised Sigi: yes your KR Reykjavik flag will fly in Istanbul if we get to the  the final!   

A couple of days later I was watching an Icelandic division 2 game, just leaning over the fence only yards from the same national stadium, my Liverpool scarf & top of course on display, when an old man walking his dog said to me: "This is where I watched Peter Thompson destroy us in 1964 and I remember every move to this day. We had never seen anything like that in Iceland before."

Liverpool's first forays into Europe in 1964 were undoubtedly romantic. Shankly even had time to take his players on the famous detour to Butlins in Ayr before the opening leg in Iceland. They played swashbuckling football v. the Icelandic minnows and in the home legs at Anfield v. Anderlecht and then the famous semi v. Inter. But Shankly soon learned to toughen up his teams and battle for the 0-0 or the 1-1 when it was necessary. The two goalless quarter final legs versus Cologne in March 1965 gave warning of so much of what was to come & the bitterness of eventual semi-final defeat in Milan taught Shankly, Paisley & Fagan that sheer pragmatism and grit was what you needed to prevail  in Europe, as well as a bit of luck and a ref who wasn't bribed! Triumphs from then on were to be on solid defence, first gritty and determined, then from around the mid-70s a more cultured, 'European' passing style of defender was nurtured.

So those of  those of us old enough to remember watching all 4 European Cup wins (on telly in my case - Istanbul will be my first European Cup final in the flesh) will tell you that the last three of those finals were not pretty affairs. Paisley & Fagan's pragmatism reigned for the deserved but narrow wins against cautious teams like FC Brugge in '78, Real in '81 and  Roma in '84 ... and it was no coincidence that defenders scored key goals whilst their comrades covered them.

The  only really 'romantic' final, well at least if you weren't there in person in London, Paris or the second Rome final, was  the first and greatest triumph, 1977. Romantics are open about their feelings, and express themselves, as Liverpool did that night with open football and the running of Keegan, Heighway & McDermott.

Romantics feel at home in great historic cities like Rome, Paris and Istanbul because they can look back on the glories of past Empires and dream of future glory.

Romantics remember only the good aspects of such past glories, as all the great Romantic poets have - Coleridge looking back at Kubla Khan's empire, Keats and Byron at Ancient Greece or Shelley at Rome. Or WB Yeats dreaming of the monuments of Istanbul and the faith they represent  in his great poem "Sailing to Byzantium". Romantics paper over the ugly cracks in the past, fight for just causes and dream of justice in the future. 

So Liverpool supporters have looked back for the best part of 15 years on past glories, and since we returned to Europe our banners increasingly exude romantic statements about  riding at dawn to glory, destiny, faith, pride, justice, dreams, songs to sing, aiming for the stars and landing on the moon. The most romantic supporters have dreamt of past and future glories and have only occasionally come back to the reality of here and now, sometimes with a harsh bump, for the matches themselves.

But increasingly recently (since the UEFA Cup run in 2000-01 in fact) we have re-learnt the pragmatism of the hard-fought away draw where it is necessary, and in Rafael Benitez we have a  coach  who has every ounce of the realism of Paisley or Fagan. He knows the job that has to be done. The 4-5-1 is his ode to pragmatism and he composes it so well, bringing the best out of his predecessor's material but adding insights of his own and above all allowing  creativity to flourish.

On the surface Istanbul is a romantic city with its palaces, beautiful mosques, countless minarets and ancient walls, last breached at the end of May 552 years ago. But its inhabitants are deeply pragmatic, 12 million of them bustling around  this great city trying to make a living in a difficult economy and push their country forward. I was lucky enough to live in Istanbul for a year as a teacher ... but that was 17 years ago. I have noticed a lot of changes since then but still the shoeshine boys, simit sellers and carpet shop touts bustle around pragmatically as the tourists try to take in the romantic sights around them ....

Look through the romance & it is pragmatism that must reign, whether in the Turkish authorities' plans to deal carefully with our presence or in Rafael Benitez' plans to negate Pirlo, Kaka, Shevchenko and Crespo. During my time in Istanbul I  chose Beşiktaş as my team, and watched their coach, Shankly's protege Gordon Milne, veteran of that very first campaign which began in Reykjavik, try to add battling pragmatism to the romantic play of his squad. They won the title with the best defence ever seen in Turkey.

My new flag for the final shows the battling, defensive Carra & the creative Xabi (there was only room for 2 of our many heroes of this campaign ), urged on by the shrewd, calm figure of Benitez ... it echoes the slogans of the Spanish people's struggle in the 1930's "¡No pasaran! ¡Pasaremos!"   My favourite translation is "They shall not get through! We will get through!" or even "We shall overcome!"  International volunteers alongside seasoned hometown veterans, as in so many great units, on and off the field ...

35-40,000 Red Romantics in Istanbul will not mind how pragmatic the approach is as long as we battle hard once again to overcome the odds. The romantic loves an underdog. And when the pragmatism of the moment is over, whatever the outcome, then we will dream some more, of glorious future as well  as glorious past.

... and don't forget that when Peter Thompson's clever wing play destroyed KR Reykjavik in 1964, or when Souness & Dalglish unpicked FC Brugge's locks in 1978, those players had all had been at Liverpool just around year or less, just as some of our own heroes next week will have been ...

Smile and enjoy your time in Istanbul everyone!

Is-tan-bul !   What a city !
Its mosques & palaces so pretty !
We're off shopping in the Great Bazaar !
Chelsea  arent ;  Liverpool are !

To Byzantium! What a name !
We're going there for the final game !
Jose isn't - what a special shame !
The best fans are - no idle claim.

The Ataturk stadium, party night !
30,000 reds - Turkish delight !
When we were in town in 2002
We made great friends, like Liverpool do.

We're flying carpets to Constantinople !
Berlusconi's phoneys will be hopeful.
Like Abramovich he can buy a title,
But he can't buy support like ours - so vital.

Cos a football ground's an empty thing
If you don't open up your hearts and sing
And give your all if you want to come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

Not over the line ? You want to bet ?
The breath of the Kop sucked it in the net !
The spirit of these great nights since '65
Brought us one of the best in 2005.

You can give 4th place to Everton
We're sailing to Byzantium !


© Nigel Shaw 2005

For the record, by the way, if you've heard this or any other verse from me on the radio, I've never claimed to be a 'Scouse poet' or  a 'Liverpool poet'. In fact I've told them I'm not - I'm 'Nige from Merseyside'.

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