RAWK Advent Calendar 2014 #4 - Emile Heskey versus AS Roma March 2002

Posted by MichaelA on November 19, 2014, 08:19:14 PM

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Belief. Faith. Trust.

When I was really very young, I believed in Father Christmas. Even the most joyless cynic believed in Father Christmas, once upon a time. As I grew older, and as I heard the wicked and scurrilous playground stories about him not being real, I still believed in Father Christmas. As I grew a little older, I stopped believing in Father Christmas, but I still believed in the magical power to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, and I believed in the pleasure and enjoyment that holding onto that belief gave to me. These days, I still sometimes manage to switch off the cynicism long enough to remember the power and the magic of believing in something, the wonder of disbelief. Hold onto it. Magical moments happen.

When I was still young, I believed in the Baby Jesus, and the story of the Nativity, of his miracles, and how he rose up from the dead. The power of faith made me believe, the trust I had in the people who told me those stories. I believe that even a Godless heathen is able to see beyond the religious cant, and accept that the story of Jesus is a story about humanity, about our capability to be humble, and the power and the goodness that comes from, you know, just being nice to people. It's good to have faith in people, and in turn, trusting them to have faith in you. Faith and trust can produce magical things in the lives of people. The "placebo effect" swings into full effect when it come to religious belief - because we want to hold onto a promise. Trust in yourself and have faith in others. Miraculous things are really more common than you think.

Much later on, when I was really quite old enough to know better, I believed in Emile Heskey. I believed in Emile because I saw him score twenty odd goals in a season, and because he helped me to renew my faith in football - through the faith he had in his ability to deliver for us in Red. In turn, I trusted that Gerard Houllier could bring out the best in Emile, and bring out the best in the squad of players that he had assembled at Anfield, way back then at the turn of this century. The names of the team that turned out that night still catch my breath; from the sublime Jari Litmanen, to the ridiculous future European Cup winner Igor Biscan. We had a pair of centre backs that I would happily kill for today, and we the had flickering flair of Vladimir Smicer and the graft and guile of Danny Murphy, and at the centre of it all we had the grit, determination and authority of our future, current Captain. Through the course of that season, Emile, and Steven Gerard and Jamie Carragher and the rest of the squad had earned my trust, I had growing faith in their ability, and I had begun to believe - briefly - that we were seeing a new dawn over Anfield. A myth was being made, and magic and miracles were being wrought.

This goal played a huge part in restoring my belief in football, transcending the humdrum, the run of the mill, and delivering something magical and miraculous that I still treasure almost thirteen years later...

On the night of the 19th March 2002, at Anfield, Liverpool Football Club were playing against the legendary Associazione Sportiva Roma. That night Emile Heskey was as big and as red as Father Christmas, magic made flesh as he covered as much ground as the big man does on Christmas Eve. That night, in the 64th minute, he resurrected his Anfield career, miraculously appearing in the penalty box, ascending in a heavenly manner like Jesus at Easter. And at that moment, this goal, this majestic header against AS Roma, this single moment in time, exemplified all of the beauty that football delivers to the fan -  our belief, our faith and our trust rewarded. And it also exemplifies the utter idiocy and self deluding stupidity that football players and football managers visit upon the poor helpless fan. In those moments we give ourselves up to the ecstatic fervour of the goal, the joy of the win, our faith in the magic of our players, and then - trusting and believing - we offer up our hopes and dreams in order to seem them dashed, and then broken, and ultimately to be betrayed. Over and over again. Like all the kneeling supplicants in pews and on mats, prostrate or heads bent, we believe that miracles can happen. Like sleepy infants on Christmas Eve, we keep one eye open to the possibility that magic is abroad that night. And as fans we sit and stand and kneel and pray and promise and hope with our hearts that we will see wonders. As fans, as Liverpool Football Club fans, we have a reason to believe. We have seen wonders. We have seen miracles. Faith is rewarded.

But that night. That night was already shaping up to be special. Gerard Houllier had been ill, recovering from his heart trouble, and he had been away from Anfield for five months. That night, AS Roma arrived, we needed a big win to progress beyond the group stages of the Champions League. That night, Gerard stepped up to the touchline. That night, I was sat in the upper centenary, directly opposite the tunnel, and I suddenly became aware of the crowd looking in that direction, the surge of noise, the roar of approval. And then his dark overcoat against the green turf, his drawn and pale face, and his crimson scarf. And at that moment the whole of the ground was on it's feet, scarves swinging, all chanting, all singing, all engulfed in the emotion that rolled off the stands and onto the pitch. All of that emotion was enveloping that man in the red scarf, it was reverberating back from the Kop to the Anfield Road End, and it was passed reverently backwards and forwards from the Main Stand to the Centenary. And it was deafening - an all encompassing moment of communion between the fans and the manager - 'Allez, Allez, Gerard Houllier".

That night, Gerard waved to the Kop, and at that moment he was embraced by Capello on the touchline, touching and touched, and that night Liverpool Football Cub roared again. The Liverbird soared again. And at that moment it seemed to me that anything might be possible, anywhere, in any sphere of human endeavour, and also at that moment, Roma knew that their task was impossible. The noise was energy giving, a hypnotic racket that transformed the fans, the players, the balance of events to come. Within moments of kick off we were ahead, and well of course we bloody were, and the noise that night did not diminish. That noise did not diminish because we believed unquestioningly that we were the team that was going to win the European Cup, and we believed that we would not be moved. The goals that we scored were the articles of faith that demonstrated the belief of our players, and the songs that we sang, and the names that we chanted, were the articles of faith by which we proved our belief in Liverpool Football Club.

It's worth a reminder (if only to myself) that there was a game on during this great outpouring of emotion and energy. I don't remember Roma delivering much of a threat, but I do recall that things on the pitch began to lull, and Totti chose to remind us that we were only midway into the second half. This was the time when Ged carefully chose to carefully stand up again, and the crowd duly erupted again. The players responded again as the energy and determination inside the ground grew. From my vantage point I was perfectly positioned to see Danny Murphy deliver a geometrically precise free kick from the left, from deep, curving right across the penalty area at the Kop end, describing a parabola, spinning over the heads of the Roma defenders. Drifting in to the arc of that cross rose Emile Heskey. Emile seemed to hang suspended in mid air, a freeze framed moment of grace and finesse. And at the very point of the intersection between his trust in the technical ability of Danny Murphy, and his belief in his own powerful striking ability, Emile Heskey met that football with his head, his clear focussed head, a head full of faith in his own wonderful talent, and he sent that football curling beyond the reach of Antonioli and into the back of the net. It was a beautiful goal. If this goal was a Venn diagram, it would sit perfectly in the intersection between the two circles labelled 'magical' and 'miracle'. We were winning 2-0, and we were going through to the the next round of the European Cup. At that moment, I had absolute faith in Emile Heskey, and I completely believed that we were going all the way to Hampden that May. Forty thousand other people in Anfield felt the same way; and maybe, briefly, Emile Heskey believed that we were going there too.

We hadn't had been at that stage of that competition since I was a boy, watching us reach our fourth fated Final - Heysel. It had been a long road back for the club, for the fans, and for me that night was very special. Our trusted Manager was back at Anfield, the belief was back at Liverpool Football Club, and it was tangible. The faith that the fans had in the manager and the players was unquestioning. I had fallen in love with football again, fallen head over heels with Liverpool Football Club again, and after too many years away, dashed, and broken and betrayed, this was a rebirth. A second nativity. That night, I placed my trust in Emile Heskey, and Steven Gerrard, and Jamie Carragher and John Arne Riise, and yes, even Igor Biscan. I allowed Liverpool Football Club back into life, into my personal space, and for the first time in (too) many years I had allowed the actions of eleven strangers to get into my head. I gave them the keys to my emotional wellbeing, and I believed they would deliver the good times for me. For a few short weeks after that night, every game felt like Christmas. 

And Emile? Emile Heskey exemplified the idea of the 'confidence player'. When Emile believed in himself, we all believed in him, but even when we all believed in Emile, he didn't always believe in himself. Learning to believe in yourself is the (second) greatest gift of all. HIs goals dried up again, the form fell away again. But we believed in Emile, and I believe he had faith in us. His humanity was undoubted, and by all accounts he's a smashing person. He's one of my favourite ex-reds, and he is someone who delivered one of my most emotional experiences as a supporter, and I owe him a deep debt of gratitude.

After that night, Gerard Houllier returned, back to the day to day management shortly after the Roma game, (in)famously declaring that we were ten games away from greatness. Maybe we were; but the form of the team dropped away over subsequent weeks. Beliefs were betrayed, faith was lost, trust was broken. A cynic might say that Ged believed in himself a little too much; that there is no place for hubris in football. The lesson I learned that night - and over the course of those ten games - was this: that it's better to live your life as a believer, have some faith in your ability to make a difference, and have faith in others to make a difference too.

That goal was one of those rare moments of euphoria that football can deliver; it was a chance to revel in the result, but it was also an opportunity to enjoy the way that it was achieved and the emotional catharsis that it delivered. More than that, Emile's goal became a talisman for me for months and years afterwards, a moment to savour, to anchor optimism and belief. It became a near-perfect illustration of how faith in ability - and trust in those around you - can deliver something truly wonderful. That night I saw something for myself that reminded me of my lost belief, and it restored my faith in football.


I put my trust in Liverpool. I still believe in Liverpool Football Club.

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