Taxi To Ataturk!

Posted by MichaelA on August 1, 2005, 04:15:07 PM

Dark peaty waters swirled around my foot, breaking and bubbling as it dropped away into the plunge pool six foot below me. I stood poised, Karate Kid style, one foot on the edge of the waterfall, one foot in mid air, arms balanced, ready to take a leap into the unknown. Common sense and self-preservation dictated that I really needed to concentrate on this, but I was thinking about Istanbul.

I was thinking about being in Istanbul with a broken leg. I was wondering why on earth I had thought that a canyoning trip, three days before the European Cup Final, was a good idea. I was wondering why I had thought that a canyoning trip was a good idea, full stop. But mainly I was thinking about Istanbul. The European Cup Final in Istanbul. I jumped...

It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a very big waterfall, but it was the biggest waterfall that I have ever jumped from. In fact, to date, it's the only waterfall that I have jumped from. When I resurfaced a few yards downstream I was grinning the kind of idiotic grin you don't see very often. The exhilaration of the moment was all consuming; or so it seemed at the time. But this was Sunday morning; by the early hours of Thursday morning I would be rewriting the Big Book Of Superlatives.

Two days later, and I am back on dry land. Work had brought me from Edinburgh to West London. In the weeks since we had beaten Chelsea I had had the attention span of a gnat. Concentration levels in London had not been assisted by the liquid hospitality of various members of my family. Finally, work done, I was able to get away, and meet my first travelling companion, my younger brother Mal. It was hot and sunny, and we were excitedly babbling at each other. We took a quick look at the match tickets in a daze of disbelief; we were on our way to the European Cup Final together. The European Cup Final.

We had flights from Heathrow to Frankfurt, where we would be staying with the third happy traveller, our very own RAWK rocket man - Gareth. For Mal and I, our journey together began in West London. We had to score some stuff for Gareth. I wasn't proud of what we were doing; indeed I felt sullied by the whole experience. So much so that it was Mal who actually carried out the transaction. However, once we had secured the Marmite, we were off to Heathrow, to Frankfurt, to Istanbul. In honour of our pposition, we ate pizza and drank Italian lager in departures, reminiscing, predicting, and nervously and excitedly discussing the trip, the match, and the prospect of winning. Consoling ourselves, even then, with the idea that the trip was the important thing, that the winning or the losing was secondary.

And yet…and yet…like many other fans, I had had a very peculiar sense that destiny was on our side. I firmly believe that you make your own luck in life, and yet since the Olympiakos home game I had had the feeling that events were taking a shape of their own, something that went beyond the mundane and everyday actions of mere mortals. The very stars themselves had been aligning themselves in our favour. Although I felt that this was something that I could not share with any one else for fear of jinxing my own predictions, I also felt that every other Liverpool fan was complicit in this inevitable fate. The idea of 20,000 travelling Reds in departure lounges across Europe merely heightened this sense of anticipation, that feeling that we were destined for something momentous.

Here I was, these feelings intact, 24 hours and 2000 miles from the Ataturk Stadium. Something was going very right, and as our flight hurtled across the skies of darkened Europe, beneath the stars I felt a sense of calm destiny - although it may well have been the lager kicking in. Certainly, an evening spent enjoying German Lager at Schloss Gareth contributed to the indulgent flight of fancy as the kick off drew ever nearer.

Istanbul Ataturk airport was like a slap across the face with a hot towel. It was humid and hot, a frantic and manic sensory overload, sponsored by UEFA. Banners for the Champions League brands hung suspended from pillars and ceilings around the arrival hall. It sent my jangling senses into overdrive. For weeks I had had a nameless, nagging, low-level drip of adrenalin pulsing through me; now I was in Istanbul, the match was hours away, and that steady drip had become a raging torrent of emotion, heightening the senses, and turning me into a jittery and nervous, sweat drenched panic monger. This anxiety was heightened when the car to the hotel was delayed. The driver spoke no English, the traffic was nuts, and sharing the hotel taxi we had a Polish born Chelsea fan who had flown in from Kyiv. Gareth had a migraine, and Mal was eating Magnum ice creams. We were already knackered; hot, sweaty and dehydrated (alright, hungover). As the taxi careered toward the Bosphorus, a peculiar set of circumstances became surreal when Gareth began fielding a series of phone calls from the BBC, which culminated in me being interviewed by Radio Scotland. The interviewer pushed me for a prediction, but I couldn't give a public voice to the quiet confidence that I felt whenever I thought about the game. The game that was now only a matter of hours away. In fact, the truth was that it was uncomfortably close to kick off, and a frantic scene developed in our hotel that was doubtless being replicated in hundreds of hotels across the city: colours, scarves, cash, tickets, taxi, BEER.

Shirts on, scarf around wrist, cash distributed in many pockets, tickets secured in my pants, I was ready. The hotel sorted us out with a car. Our driver spoke no English, and obviously we spoke no Turkish, but we rapidly established his support of newly crowned Turkish champions Fenerbahce, the need for an off licence, and the need for extreme haste. By this point, our transport sorted, my nerves were slightly less frazzled, in part due to the staggering response of the Turkish people that we met. Well, the Turkish people that we met at the off licence. Without fail they predicted a Liverpool victory; and wished us well with real passion. These people love their football, and as long as we were spending our money, they loved us too. Having achieved possession of a crate of Efes and, crucially, a couple of bottle openers, our driver negotiated his way through the city and out toward the Ataturk Stadium.

The road to the stadium was a twenty-odd mile procession of twenty-odd thousand Reds, utilising what seemed like every form of transport known to mankind. The Turks who lined the side of the road were selling beer and food, and taking scarves, shirts, HJC stickers, and holding up signs predicting a Liverpool victory. 5-0 was a popular prediction. I was still not prepared to predict anything, but the feeling grew that we were an all-conquering (and increasingly all pissed) army, as we slowly headed toward the stadium. It seemed inconceivable that we would do anything other than win. It wasn't overconfidence, or lack of respect for Milan; it was simply the weight of the anticipation of the thousands of Reds en route to the stadium.

It was an almost physical sense that there was a job to be done. This had already been a season like no other; so let us, in no particular order, have a brief recap. We had the great Thai noodle and Steve Morgan, the NWDA, EFC, and the ground share, the plans for a new Anfield, Ged's departure, Owen leaving, Stevie Gerrard's summer Strummer dither, broken legs, other injury nonsense, the shoddy League form, bloody Chelsea, beaten at Anfield South, Everton coming higher in the table, the Sun 'apology', the twentieth anniversary of Heysel, and then drawing Juve…and then bloody Chelsea again, and throughout the year Anfield had reverberated to the sound of the Rafalution. How could we come through so much, travel so far, without seeing Stevie lift that big shiny silver cup?

And, for many older Reds there was also the long shadow of Heysel to consider. I was conscious of a weight of responsibility upon my own shoulders, but there was a sense of determination and destiny amongst some of the older fans; the one who had been there, the ones with ghosts to lay to rest. There was a palpable sense of responsibility that the club and the fans owed to each other; to put us back amongst the great, but equally as importantly, the good, of European Football. I found it impossible to separate the thirty-odd year journey of my own personal history of support from the events unfolding around me in Istanbul. We were all making history, wiping clean the slate; how could it be anything other than Big Eared European Cup Number Five?

When, finally, our destination appeared in view at the end of that long winding road through the hills, I felt more than ever that the fates were on our side. Set against a barren and dusty landscape, the exodus of 25,000 Liverpool fans from the city took on a biblical feel. As the floodlights glared into the darkening night sky, the Ataturk was a surreal and beautiful sight - like a Coppola set from Apocalypse Now, but with Red flags. 

The Efes had until that point just about cancelled out the adrenalin, but from the moment the stadium appeared, my veins ran ice cold with anticipation. Unfortunately the Efes was also causing my bladder to run swollen with beer, and so, along with several thousand fellow Reds, I found relief along the side of the road to Ataturk. The evening began to take a peculiar turn when brother Mal idly pointed at a bloke standing on a pile of rubble having a pee and said ' he looks like Bob K.' 'Nah' we chorused. Given the extraordinary circumstances of the day, it seemed natural that his suspicions were confirmed moments later when a car pulled up alongside us containing Bob, Dave W and Christine, the three of them also ferrying fine Turkish lagers to the thirsty and increasingly stroppy RAWKites at the stadium.

At this point we were still well ahead of kick off time, but the gentle flurry of text messages had become an avalanche, as those aforementioned thirsty RAWKites at the ground variously queried the whereabouts of the beer, and in the case of Spartacus, the whereabouts of Gareth. Christine had Gareth's ticket, and seemed, to us, to be super keen to get in ahead of kick off time. Gareth was fielding more and more questions about our arrival time, and so with the stadium in sight, the traffic in jam, and Gareth in trouble, we jumped out and sprinted and hopped the last half-mile to the stadium.

The beer was distributed to various inebriated RAWKites. Flags were admired, news exchanged, selves were pinched, Christine learned about all about international time lines, and line-ups were texted. Without doubt the team news sent a shudder through the assembled fans; no Didi, Harry starts. Bloody hell. I'm no tactician; the finer points of the beautiful game are often lost upon me. However I know that Didi Hamann is one of our most essential players, and that leaving him out of the starting line up in a European Cup Final was tantamount to conceding a goal before we had even kicked off…

The night before the game, Gareth and Mal and I had sat up talking and drinking. We were discussing the nature of our support, and how we all experience matches. Mal pays attention to transfer chatter, listens to the tacticians, and watches the game with one-eyed passion. Gareth and I both agreed that for us it is a more instinctive thing. For me personally, it is partly tribal; it gives me an identity, simultaneously a sense of self, and a sense of belonging. When I watch a game I see shapes and pattern and colour and movement. I enjoy the skill, I have a reasonable grasp of tactics; but for me it is the visceral sensation of passion; the unconfined, unrestrained catharsis of throwing yourself body and soul into the moments of transcendent delirium when we play, when we score, when we win. Well, at least that's what makes me go back again and again; I know a couple of people who are just partial to the pies.

And so for me, the match itself was a kaleidoscopic tumult of images and noise and emotions. I can vaguely remember all the pre-match nonsense from UEFA. And I had my first proper pangs of doubt when the Milan fans began their flag waving and chanting. They looked ace; especially considering how few of them there were…but when we started singing You'll Never Walk Alone, invincibility reasserted itself as the dominant emotion - 30,000 Reds on their feet, scarves swaying, I was confident again. And I found myself part of an iconic memory of my childhood - in amongst 35,000 Reds at a European Cup Final.

I remember hugging my brother before kick off. We had come a long way together from that couch in the front room back in 1977. Back then, we had watched history made from afar; tonight we were to be part of it. Standing side by side on a night like that meant a great deal to both us. Before kick off we were very much in self-congratulation mode. I remember the rush of adrenalin as the game kicked off - COME ON REDMEN! Which was swiftly followed by the sobering slap of Maldini's goal. Although coming that early on, it only served to make us sing louder. So we sang. And we sang when we went three nil down, but I'm not sure my heart was really in it by then. All this way, with so much weight of expectation, thrown away. Thoughts were already turning to the dismal prospect of the return trip, defeated. So much for fate; and so much for destiny; I knew I was wrong to believe in any of that sort of nonsense. 40,000 Victor Meldrews uttered four little words over and over again.

At half time, the talk was of saving face, and restoring some pride. The text messages from friends and family at heart were laden with sympathy; it was, quite clearly, all over. I have a clear and distinct memory of sitting on my seat alongside Mal. We were possibly lost in our own little reveries, maybe exchanging the odd word or two. From somewhere to my left, the first chants of '4-3, we're gonna win 4-3' drifted across the terrace. It raised a smile, and it raised a few chins. And although you never give up hope, I just couldn't see us scoring four goals. We had seen Didi warming up though, so there was still a chance…I still think I was sat down when the chant changed…Walk On. Come on. With Hope In Your Heart. I know that I was definitely back on my feet then, and then stood back up on my seat, with my arms up, scarf held aloft, chin up, lungs bursting. Under those foreign stars we spat every word defiantly out into the night sky, and breathed life back into the punctured dreams that lay around us. The teams returned to the pitch, and we began to believe all over again.

The second half started and although we had improved, we didn't look much like scoring. The elation began to dissipate; the noise was beginning to drop when, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, he scored. Well, we jumped around, as you do. In fact, as we looked around it appeared that half of the stadium was jumping around with us; astoundingly it looked as if we had 40,000 fans in there.

I remember, will always remember to the grave, the look on my brother's face as we settled back to watch the game. He just raised a questioning eyebrow; and we were doing that idiotic grinning thing, and then it seemed that almost instantaneously, Vladi scored. The linesman didn't flag; but for some reason I was expecting a whistle, I think Vladi was too, simply because that sort of thing just doesn't happen outside of Fulchester. No whistle. Now this was elation, jumping in waterfalls was all very well, but, Jesus, 3-2. Incredible. Think about that word - something that is credible is something that is believable and conceivable. Incredible. Unbelievable. Inconceivable was just about right. Writing this now, trying to recapture that moment I realise the inadequacy of language in describing human emotion. You could swallow (and some have) a thesaurus and still struggle to encompass the depth and strength of feeling amongst the fans at that point in the evening.

I think that Vladi's goal was the moment at which Milan shrank from the task; even though we were still losing, there was only one team winning from that point on. The noise was insane; it was a barrage of sound and white noise that you could feel vibrating through your body as the stadium echoed to the sound of 45,000 Red men screaming for Milan's blood. I could hear the sounds echoing around my head for days afterwards. When the penalty was awarded, I remember being virtually rigid with fear; it felt as if every muscle was straining. When Xabi scored, the release was almost an out of body experience; I can almost see myself, even now, glassy eyed and to all intents and purposes having a shrieking, screaming seizure. The next hour was a torturous ordeal; having been drained by six minutes of madness. It seemed as if everyone in the entire stadium had been exhausted by the turning wheel fate. We sang You'll Never Walk Alone as a mantra for ourselves as much as for the players on the pitch. The punctuations of full time and half time in extra time were nothing more than breathless pauses in the inevitable and inexorable progress toward the penalty shoot out (which we won). 


I don't believe in fate, but even looking back now I still cannot fully shake the feeling that these fantastical events were being shaped elsewhere. In fact I like to think that Emlyn Hughes had something to do with it. He had the nerve to sidle up to a supreme being and ask a cheeky favour; lets face it, he worked with Shanks for a few years…but I guess that it is just coincidence and superstitious nonsense - Popes, and Grand Slams and Star Wars and whatever else. To an extent, we certainly did make our own luck, but more than anything, I think that we believed single-mindedly in the inevitability of victory. It was a victory written for the pages of Roy Of The Rovers - an epic certainly, and unprecedented without a doubt.

However, despite the romance and the majesty, the machinations of fate and destiny, the comic strip script and comic style goalkeeping, this was very much a human victory. It was a drama wrought through the combined efforts of the Liverpool team, the manager, and the fans. We all made it happen because we believed that it would happen for us. Milan wavered, they stopped believing, and from the moment that Stevie scored they never recovered their self-confidence. Once they saw the look in the eyes of the Redmen on the pitch, and heard the noise of 50,000 travelling Kopites surrounding it, they were lost.

In all likelihood, none of us there that night will ever see a game like that ever again. Through, skill, and talent, and belief and passion, we achieved something that will be unsurpassed. It is a privilege and an honour to be able to say, down all the years to come, that 'I was there'.     


Copyright MichaelA ;)

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