The Marseille experience revisited
Posted by Rushian on April 23, 2004, 03:18:13 AM
UEFA Cup Fourth Round - Olympique Marseilles
Following Liverpool's UEFA Cup fourth round opener against Marseilles, the club's official website claimed that the atmosphere inside Anfield was electric. And there is an element of truth in this statement, for indeed it was, once. However from my position, located in heart of the Kop, the atmosphere appeared anything but electric for the game in question. The mosaic 'Allez' served as a promising start to the evening, but sadly the fans who took part in the display could not continue this support during the game by providing the vocal encouragement the team sorely needed.
I wondered whether the Houllier protest, threatened though ultimately not carried out during the previous round against Levski Sofia, was not actually conducted, in a somewhat subtler format, before this game instead in the shape of the mosaic. But in truth had its organisers have actually been attempting to convince the under fire Liverpool manager that his future lies elsewhere, surely the inclusion of the prefix 'Just' and the suffix 'Houllier' would have been required on the display. As it was the connotation was entirely different, supportive even, and as such should have set us up for a memorable evening.
For Liverpool have had some famous nights in European competition against French opposition - St Etienne and AJ Auxerre to name but two. But they were perceived as big games, whereas this encounter tragically was not. And if the current Liverpool team could be accused of underestimating the latest side to cross the channel to ply their wits against Liverpool however, then the same could surely be said of the fans. For there was an uneasy air of indifference on the Kop, rather than one of excitement or expectancy that usually comes when facing tough opposition. What was more disappointing though was the performance that followed by the team, together with the tactics, the approach, and the sheer painful inevitability of it all.
In the opening period Liverpool were poor, appearing to be lacking in confidence and rhythm. Marseilles proved to a decent side in the opening encounter, but few outside the clutches of a fiercely pro-Marseilles bias would dare apply any superlatives in commenting on their performance. Indeed despite one or two awkward moments, it was evident that the game was there for the taking for Houllier's side. The crowd knew it, but also appeared to sense that Liverpool would ultimately not take the initiative. The fan's frustration seemed to seep into the mindset of the players, too many of whom appeared transfixed, failing to live up to the occasion.
Despite the monotonous first period, the home team did improve however, and took the lead ten minutes into the second half, through the ever-reliable Baros. Having secured an advantage however, once again the team frustratingly sat on the lead we had earned, failing to take the initiative and indeed the game by the scruff of the neck. Marseilles are a good side and produced a professional away performance on the night. Had we have piled forward after notching a first however, more goals would surely have followed and the tie would have been all but sewn up at Anfield. Instead we allowed the visitors to get back into the game, and that word 'inevitable' sadly must be employed once again to describe the impressive Drogba's late equaliser, which levelled the tie. Hamman, Gerrard and Baros all could have restored Liverpool's lead, but ultimately we were to be denied the second goal we desperately needed.
Barthez, on loan from Manchester United was, after being clapped initially when entering the field - as has always been the Kop tradition - then roundly booed for the remainder of the game. Several paper aeroplanes, made out of the card that had initially formed the mosaic, were aimed at the hairless 'keeper, some of which found their target much to the amusement of the Kop. But the night overall was no laughing matter. And as a result, not of the brilliance of Marseilles, nor even of any gross misfortune, but of our lacklustre and negative approach to the game, we now face a monumental task in southern France in a fortnight's time.
I love this club, and my support for it, by its very nature is and will always positive. But I admit to uttering a brief but meaningful 'boo' at the final whistle. It wasn't appreciated by certain elements of the Kop in the immediate vicinity, some of whom weren't shy about letting me know as much. After all, we had not lost the game. However only a win in France would render this uncharacteristic negative response from one disgruntled Kopite excessive and uncalled for. For this unnecessary stalemate has given us a mountain to climb in France, and one more of Blanc than Snowdonian proportions. One thing's for certain, unlike the disappointing Kop, Marseilles and the mighty Stade Velodrome will be ready for us. The question is, will Houllier's Liverpool be ready for Marseilles?
To put a positive spin on the evening, Houllier's away record in European competition at Liverpool is simply superb, with only three defeats from twenty-five outings. I just hope that Marseilles don't join Celta Vigo, Bayer Leverkusen and Valencia as sides to have overcome Liverpool on their own patch. If they do, with early exits to little more than average opponents in all three cups this season, and the league long gone, then surely the question must be posed - what then of Houllier? Our tradition holds the league title as our bread and butter. Under the current manager however, cups more than titles have been our source of glory. But this season's UEFA Cup campaign represents our final and fading hope of ensuring that this team does not become devoid of both. Marseilles away therefore now assumes simply colossal importance.
Our preparations for the away leg in Marseilles began soon after returning from the previous round's away leg in Sofia. And with the trip to the South coast of France threatening to assume far greater relevance than the previous three, and also appearing a more accessible trip than any others
this season, the higher demand from the fans, including those to which I am connected, was clearly more evident. This however, made the planning stages for our group problematic to say the least. However, following an untold
number of phone calls and Internet searches, eleven hopefuls eventually booked on the trip, each eagerly anticipating what we hoped would prove an historic French adventure.
Flights were organised from Stansted to St Etienne, from which we planned to catch a train to the French port of Marseilles. And so we arranged to meet at 7.00am on the morning before the game, at a pub situated roughly in the midst of our neighbourhoods. When we arrived at the said alehouse, and with frightening collective punctuality, we found the unnamed establishment in question open and ready to 'serve'. We got the feeling this was an indication that it was going to be one of those trips, and indeed it was.
After leaving the pub we headed straight for the nearest off licence, which having opened at 8.00, by ten past its solitary member of staff clearly wished it hadn't. We were all in high spirits, and so whilst certain individuals claimed responsibility for acquiring the second round of drinks, the remainder turned their attentions to putting the football that one group member had decided to bring to good use in the adjacent street. Then, following what those of us outside could only assume was the completion of the transaction in the nearby off licence, we were then told to pile back in the minibus. However it was at this point that the person who had 'bought' the two crates of stella chose to let us now that his quest to exchange money for the alcohol had not been particularly successful. Yet the cans nevertheless lay piled up on the one spare seat at the front (that had been accounted for in the booking process by the way, as 'the ale seat'), which we did not prove shy in getting to grips with .... the less said the better.
With time although not at a premium, though also not in abundance, it was decided that toilet stops on the journey to the airport should be limited. Though even the spasmodic breaks we did take did not solve the problem of relieving the rapidly filling bladders. For with twelve individually regulated bladders in the van, attempting to synchronise the toilet breaks proved a somewhat complicated task. So as we headed towards the Midlands, our means of relieving ourselves unfortunately became increasingly more desperate and idiotic, behaviour that was doubtless fuelled, so to speak, by the inebriation. With bloated stomachs becoming an increasing problem, we eventually resorted to screwing up the previous night's Echo, which was roundly inserted into an empty petrol can, serving as a funnel. This container however did not remain empty for long, and so a further alternative method had to be found. Then it appeared that the ingenuity of the group had completely deserted us. As for some, deciding to simply open one of the doors and just let rip on the M6 proved the next best means of emptying our bladders. With one hand on the other door and the other hand, of course, on the latest can, drivers in the motorway slow lane were treated to both a gruesome trail, and no doubt horrific sight for much of the remainder of the journey. If any of you had selected a similar route, and happened to witness for yourselves this primitive behaviour, I can't apologise enough.
After arriving at the highly populous Stansted airport, we were informed, via the tannoy that playing football is not permitted in the airport. I'm not sure to whom the security staff were referring to, no doubt a load of Scallies with no sense of how to behave. We tutted in unison as the announcement echoed around the terminal building, and subtly hid our ball from view. Then, on what was a packed plane, we were to discover that our singing was to be equally well received. On the flight our group surprisingly amounted to the bulk of Liverpool fans on board, with remaining elements of the travelling Kop no doubt having either favoured alternative times or more likely separate outes via Nice, Nimes, Montpellier, and no doubt Marseille itself. After disembarking the plane, which we did much to the relief of the tired collection of homosexual staff, several members of the group did on request get a St Etienne stamp in their passport. This simple mark was one that was sure to entail a thousand tales, the details of which only time would tell.
Once outside the airport my French accented, perfected - in my opinion at least - whilst on previous French trips with Liverpool in Le Harve, Paris and Auxerre, got another run out, with its first opportunity being to arrange taxis to the train station. Our driver was moderately entertaining en route, discussing football as well as any female could, as we took in the sights of St Etienne, including notably the ground of our famous 1977 opponents. The first of two eople carriers arrived at the station shortly before us, and subsequently decided amongst themselves that payment was not a necessity. Instead they vacated the vehicle at speed, much to the bemusement and then concern of their driver. The lady in question was unfortunately though also fairly inevitably however, friendly with the person behind the wheel of our cab. So upon the arrival of the second cab, and following a brief but heated conversation, the two drivers decided that the boot of our car would not be opened for us until payment was secured for both cabs. What was worse was that after our refusal to meet the collective cost, our chauffeur had decided to drive off unnoticed back to the airport with one of our bags remaining in the boot of her car. Angered and frustrated, we demanded that the car return, and in turn promised to locate the whereabouts of the troublesome party.
As we stood in the cold, with snow bizarrely enough beginning to fall all around us, having discovered their location, we eventually convinced the first group to pay, following which the bag was duly returned. And with that, the first sticky situation we had found ourselves in appeared to be resolved, with all parties moderately satisfied. Though the two cars had undoubtedly missed out on a punter or two and we had missed our train, so it was not exactly an ideal solution. Regardless of this minor hiccup however, we managed to catch the next train an hour later, a journey for which payment was also reluctantly, though undeniably secured on board. After a needlessly difficult couple of hours however, we arrived in the city of Lyon, where we were hoping to relax and spend the night.
Our quest for a hotel proved even more complex than the sheer lunacy of what had gone before, as the business district of the city in which we had arrived appeared completely devoid of available rooms. In truth we had not considered what would come at the end of the night in question - for our fixation during the planning stages did not get past the evening itself. Our intention had been to drink the night away in a local bar with hoards of local football-crazy occupants - men who had just returned from a devastating defeat at the hands of Man United conquerors FC Porto on Portuguese soil, and who were now eager to discuss all things football. These individuals were supposed to love us, for we were travelling deep into the unknown hoping to return having secured a famous victory over their sworn enemies. Instead we found ourselves lost and alone, freezing and temporarily homeless on the dark unfriendly streets of Lyon, without so much as a lion-embellished scarf in sight.
Our spirits had dampened somewhat after the frustratingly fruitless search, though we did eventually find a hotel for the night, albeit one that had only two rooms free. Painfully aware that this was our only option, the two representatives who were sent in to broker the deal, had no option but to gratefully accept the two rooms offered to us, thinking we could somehow sneak the others in. We were hoping that each room would contain more than one bed to ease the problem. On inspection of the rooms however, we discovered that each merely contained one double bed. And yet somehow the rooms were to house all eleven of us for the night, whilst generating a level of noise insufficient enough to arouse too many suspicions from the hotel staff.
Prior to the onset of slumber however, with the streets seemingly deserted, we went to investigate the town, such as it was. Surely Lyon had to have something to offer a dozen Liverpudlians. Again however our search was one that bore little success, so we had to settle randomly enough for a Vietnamese meal, which we duly washed down with a few French beers. Afterwards, with the streets still deserted, and the temperature dropping steadily, we decided to simply get a takeaway supper of Stella Artrois and resign ourselves to watching the mighty Real Madrid in the European Cup in one of the hotel bedrooms. Our behaviour in the hotel was impeccable, unbelievably so - on this evidence we would have made fine ambassadors for the club. In truth though, none of us fancied a night stranded outside on the cold Lyon streets. We were scared into good manners.
I awoke early the next morning, and looked up to experience an unsightly vision. For before my eyes lay a collection of ill smelling Scousers sprayed across a multitude of surfaces in both my room and the one adjacent to it. But it was match day and subsequently, following a wake up call, the lads rose from their pits with relatively minimal fuss or delay. Within an hour we had stopped off for a croissant breakfast, visited a charitable off licence (which doubled up as a temporary football pitch) and found ourselves a spare carriage on the Marseille-bound train. Once on board, the trip at last appeared to be getting going.
The seemingly endless 'two hour' train ride was made a little easier thanks to the refreshment and some fine Moroccan cigarettes, together with a selection of rather beautiful female passengers, a classical guitarist in the next compartment, and a curious eighteen-year-old French soldier of African dissent who joined us on the train. The latter individual for some reason pulled across the curtain to our cabin, and unperturbed decided to enter for a chat. The situation looked ominous. Instead however he ended up being a welcome participant in the various discussions, as in broken English he attempted to explain to a collection of mainly alcoholic doleites, what the life of an eighteen-year-old man from Marseilles entails. Amongst other things, we were warned against some of the more colourful characters that the vast city of Marseilles has to offer, and we welcomed his advice.
Four hours later we clambered off the train, upon which a spontaneous chorus sprung up from the relieved Kopites. At last we were in Marseilles. After a brief look around, the very fact that club merchandise was available to buy even before we left the train station, served to illustrate that we had left one football-obsessed city, and had found ourselves in another. Indeed everywhere we walked in Marseilles glances came our way, ranging from an almost pleasant knowing glance to an evil glare. People seemed aware of our presence, as if they were looking out for us. You could sense that everything was gearing up for the evening ahead. Then, after a brief stop for a photo or two at Marseilles' version of the Arc Du Triomphe, we had a break for something to eat. Outside the McNasty's where we enjoyed, as you'd expect, a quintessentially French meal, a collection of charming youngsters, each with skin colour that was a slightly different shade from the next, circled the window to taunt us. One such individual, a child of no more than eight, looked me square in the eye and slowly ran his finger across his neck, as if to suggest the nature of our fate during the day that lay ahead. With one smooth action any doubt that may have been lingering in our minds was removed, for this little Scall had confirmed what we in truth already knew - Marseilles was going to prove a tough city.
Unlike Lyon, the French port proved easy to locate a hotel with ample availability. But having survived paying for only two rooms the previous night, the group did not appear keen on wasting money by making a more luxurious and therefore unnecessary booking for the night that lay ahead. So sure enough, the eleven of us, via three representatives, booked into three single rooms. If the previous night was spent in three star accommodation, then this establishment wouldn't have been granted so much as a single point of a star. It was bleak to say the least, but at a price that would work out to be in the region of 6 Euros each. And, knowing we'd be too bladdered come three o'clock the following morning to care, we settled for the dingy hotel St Marie.
Whilst exploring the immediate vicinity however, inexplicably, we somehow then lost two older members of the group, who not for the first time chose to tread their own path. Those who remained cautiously dumped their luggage as we made our way to the ground in order for those of us who hadn't got a ticket to buy one. And in the streets surrounding the Stade de Velodrome, we were not short of offers. I saw the first tout we came across though did not at first hear him speak. When I was informed that 100 Euros was the price he was offering, I decided to join in the conversation to question the price and begin bargaining. But to my amazement the man who stood before me, shaven headed, complete with a Lacoste tracksuit and cap did not understand me - for he was French. In fact some slightly suspect trainers, and an accent that certainly wasn't Liverpudlian were the only clues revealing his true identity, and the fact that he wasn't a Scouser. The exploits of some of the older Kopites in the Parisian boutiques in the late '70s and early '80s, leaving us dressed the way we do in the current day, have never been so evident.
We eventually got tickets at face value from a couple of Liverpool lads we knew, and then wasted no more time, heading off to join the crowd of Liverpudlians at the port. En route however, I coerced the group into stopping off at the Zidane mural that I had seen on the TV during the '98 World Cup. Between the two legs I had read a French football website which claimed, "If you were born in Marseille, chances are great that you will become a gangster or a fisherman. A lot tougher it is to become a star of soccer. Unless you have the talent of Zidane." From our experiences to date of the French city it was hard to disagree. But what was also evident was the city and the club's pride in the fact the planet's most talented footballer hails from Marseilles, serving as a reason to pay our respects to the genius that is Zidane. The huge picture painted on the wall of a restaurant on the Mediterranean port's main seaside promenade had been installed during the World Cup and was supposed to be removed at the end of the competition. But it has remained on the wall ever since. A photo of the painting, so we thought, would surely have taken pride of place on any Scouse Fridge.
But sadly it wasn't to be, for the painting was covered up with a huge Adidas advert. Zidane's face was still slapped on the wall, consuming its surface almost entirely. Yet it just wasn't the same. Indeed it was an advertisement that was more Times Square than residential Marseilles. Nevertheless we got a photo or two with the flag and the mural in the background, after which we headed towards what appeared to be the Scouse base for the afternoon. Predictably it was an Irish bar, which again predictably sold crap ale in plastic glasses at inflated prices. So instead we popped round to the Spar round the back and bought some better ale at a fifth of the price. However save for the odd song, the bar and the immediate vicinity at least remained fairly quiet. That was until I heard the door burst open and felt something spray over my neck. My first instinct told me it was CS gas, probably being sprayed by rival fans or the police. As it turned out, it was merely the contents of a fire extinguisher, sprayed by a cheeky Liverpudlian. Liverpool now, had arrived.
After drying off we enjoyed a couple more drinks in a number of bars in the area, including an official Olympique Marseille cafe, before jumping a bus to the ground. On the bus, the sad group from Hull at the front of the bus unfortunately bore the brunt of the good-natured but fairly incessant abuse from our group, as we sang for the journeys entirety.
As we neared the ground though, we sensed he mood was beginning to turn somewhat. And when two members of our group were spotted having piled off the bus, and for some reason were rolling around on the floor with a couple of Marseilles lads, the situation didn't look promising. But what could have been a full-scale riot was thankfully contained to a brief but well contested scrap. After this we headed off to the stadium for the main billing of the evening. Around the ground some Liverpudlians seemed uneasy, evidently unsure whether the local reputation of 'being a bit handy' was well deserved or not. Few of us care about the fortunes of our national team (that's England by the way), and certainly not enough to travel abroad to see them play. Subsequently the pictures of the riots in the '98 World Cup in the streets of Marseilles between English fans and Marseilles inhabitants were media-fuelled, and consequently a perception serving as a function of an unqualified viewpoint. When we entered the stadium however, following a scrupulous security search, the reception we received was testimony to the fact that even the tabloid press report events with a degree of honesty at times. Hostile is not the word.
A recent broadsheet response to a Liverpool performance discussed Liverpool in terms of being "easily the most idiosyncratic of British cities." In reflection, following our trip to Marseilles, comparisons with our French compatriots were only too easy to make. Having visited the country a dozen or more times over the years, Marseilles was certainly unlike no other settlement in France. As with Liverpool, it appeared to be a country within a country. And it was a similar concept that inspired the flag 'The Peoples Republic of Liverpool' which we take with us wherever we go. It was this very banner that faced, not the stadium so to catch the TV cameras, with space at a premium in such locations as it was, but facing the home fans in the north terrace behind the goal. Stories of a club and its fans I believe get around fan circles across the continent, and I wanted to promote the uniqueness of Liverpool to the Marseilles masses. The home contingent had banners of their own, one of which notably stated simply 'Marseilles win for us'. We were about to discover whether the French outfit would do just that, as the enormity of the occasion began to hit us.
The Stade de Velodrome was a concoction of noise. If Basle are the best away fans I have seen in continental terms, then surely Marseilles are the best home fans. It was frightening to think that the noise was at such a level even without the reverberation a roof would bring. Flares, flags, mosaics, singing, chanting, shouting, screaming - and the leaders of the singing on the megaphones were some of the most passionate I have ever come across. The songs back and forward between Liverpool and Marseilles fans were extremely pleasant, ranging from 'Liverpool fuck you', with our response to sing the name of Monaco. In my opinion it should have been 'PSG', their more detested rivals, but that's a different story. And then there was the little matter of the game, which was certainly our most eagerly awaited encounter in Europe since the night of disappointment at home to Celtic a year ago less one week. How we wanted to make amends.
Houllier needed a massive performance from his Liverpool side, and indeed the team started like they meant business. Notably this was despite some early pressure from the hosts straight from the kick off. And with Barthez not paying attention, we took the opportunity immediately to kick the ball we had somehow sneaked in the ground (the very ball which had been the scourge of many an airport, street and shop en route to Marseilles), at the former United stopper. The edge of his area was however, as far as we could manage to kick the ball. But no one, including the inept baldy idiot seemed to notice the ball on the pitch. With play situated chiefly around the Liverpool penalty area in the opening moments, our ball remained on the playing surface for thirty seconds or more. Then Barthez awoke from one of his characteristic extensive lapses of concentration to discover the second ball on the pitch. Jonathon Pearce noticed it on the Channel Five commentary, I was discover when watching the video on my return, but it was co-commentator and former Liverpool player Ray Houghton who, evidently born with the gift of sight, noted that it was a completely different colour to the match ball. "That's been put on by one of the fans", he suggested. How right he was.
After Barthez had eventually cleared the ball off the pitch, Liverpool began to assert their authority on the game. And with fourteen minutes on the clock, Heskey latched on to a trademark pinpoint pass from Gerrard, controlled the ball and fired a measured shot beyond the feet of Barthez. Advantage Liverpool. After breaking the deadlock we could have added to our lead moments later, when Murphy's delicate chip sailed onto the roof of the net. Such chances were testimony to Liverpool's desire to find a second goal, which would have left the home side with a mountain to climb, and a fanatical support who were notably already beginning to turn sour.
Everything appeared to be going our way. But then again, we have got Igor Biscan in the side. And nothing ever quite goes according to plan when the joke of a centre half has a hand in proceedings. Hyypia and Henchoz as a pairing are not the quickest, but surely that does not warrant the consistent involvement of a player who makes Phil Babb looked composed. And please don't laugh, as I'm deadly serious. What you have in Biscan is pace, and a comical element to the side. Only certain players head the ball onto their own bar from a corner, as he did at Pompey earlier in the season. When he's on the ball though, the heart beat of every Liverpool fan raises to an uncomfortable level. He heads the ball in clearances then searches frantically to see the direction in which his 50p for a head has flung the ball. He is quick, and will often come to the rescue of the more assured though less pacey Hyypia but if pace alone were required for a centre half then how come Linford Christie didn't make it as a footballer? Because he's crap, that's why.
And shortly after the half hour mark, when Marlet was put through by a pass that sliced our defence apart with worrying ease, the hapless Croat, as ever, tugged the player down. Inevitably he was then sent off, with a penalty rightly or wrongly also rewarded. The offence that led to the penalty apparently began outside the box. And many, Houllier no doubt included, will claim that a season's fate is determined on such decisions. And whilst this maybe so, logic will tell you that you are as likely to be a beneficiary as a victim concerning the decisions of referees. Marseilles may have been the venue, but l'est we forget, this was not a one off game. Such considerations were soon rendered irrelevant however, for when Drogba fired home as he was always going to when facing Dudek from the spot, we had duly placed the advantage back in the hands of Marseilles. What was most disappointing however, was that we didn't appear to even attempt to win it back. From that moment on, with an hour still on the clock, such is the fragility of the spirit of this Liverpool team, we were beaten, and we all knew it.
Marseilles were not slow to realise this either. As ten minutes into the second half, the growing pressure on the Liverpool goal reaped its rewards, with Meite heading powerfully home from an accurate Ferreira corner. In response, such as it was, Hyypia and Cheyrou went close for Liverpool, but our reaction was little short of an embarrassment. If spasmodic impressive performances have served to paint over the cracks of the Houllier regime, then surely this performance more than any other exposes the blatant weaknesses of this team - lacklustre, characterless, unacceptable.
With the home fans rocking to the beat of the rhythmic passing of the now confident Marseilles side, the pain was almost unbearable. And rather than stand sharing painful glances with those around me, I chose instead to saunter towards the front of our body of support. Going one step further, to completely isolate myself from the masses, and lose myself in the occasion, I clambered up the fence at the front and stood on a pole, where I remained for the next half an hour. The looks I got from the onlooking masses, fans and police alike, were at first derisory and unsympathetic, but gradually, as the game wore on and began to fall increasingly out of Liverpool's grasp, pity and empathy began to sweep across their faces. In the end the obscenities disappeared, and words of support and appreciation were echoed as a replacement. "Fuck you Liverpool' uttered when our side were perceived of as a threat to their progression in the competition, soon became simply 'Liverpool'. As the final whistle went, Marseilles fans stood in respecting silence as 'You'll Never walk Alone' was boomed out from an emotional travelling Kop. After the poignant recital, a rousing applause went up from our now gracious hosts. Doubtless it did not reach the press, but once again, as we did in Leverkusen as well as on countless other occasions, Liverpool showed how to be gracious in defeat away from home in Europe, locations where it hurts to lose most. Defeated and dejected we may have been, but that will remain my proudest moment of the season.
Now some may think that such a performance would lead me to claim that my initial jeers after the first leg were justified, following the inevitable underachieving performance in the return leg. And they may well have been. However when the final whistle went, which I can only assume it did, for such was the immense noise, a referee's shrill whistle had no chance of being echoed beyond his immediate vicinity, a cacophony of jeers may have been the response of fans of some clubs. After all it's a tie we should have won. But then again, we are Liverpool. And although we may have blown another match, with all the style of Joan of Arc, what could be to gain from a meaningless boo that would at any rate have been drowned out by the Marseilles hysteria? George Best may hit the boos at the first sign of danger, but we are still the most loyal fans in the land. Anyway, even Ian St John has given up criticising this team, with his weekly 'this is the worst Liverpool side for thirty years' rant. For it is now too bloody obvious to state. Claims of Liverpool's boundless loyalty aside, in truth it was partly the futility of jeering that kept us all from depressing ourselves further by doing just that.
After a meal and a slow depressing walk to town from the stadium, the majority of the group decided that Marseilles was not the best place to be walking around in the small hours, and consequently crawled off to the hotel. Others though, decided that the early morning saunter was a necessity and set off for adventure. It wasn't until just before 6:00am that I became aware of their return, when the hotel manager, realising our group was considerably larger than the three we had booked and paid for, decided it would be best if we all vacated the premises. It proved not be a conditional offer. And so drunk with fatigue and doubtless copious amounts of French ale, we crawled out from our respective pits, which we had shared in Angela's Ashes-esque confinement, and headed to the train station.
The journey by foot was spent listening to exploits of the insane explorers during the previous evening, which so as not to incriminate anyone, particularly the individuals in question, I will not detail here. Then, when we arrived at the train station, half the party headed straight for Lyon with those who remained having breakfast before setting off. The more patient travellers enjoyed croissants and hot chocolate in a cafe adjacent to the station, compliments of the manager in return for us "letting Marseilles win". It was a good-natured gesture and, as we talked football, I became still more aware of the comparisons that could be drawn between the ports of Liverpool and Marseilles.
As we headed towards the platform to catch our train, I spotted the headline of a local newspaper, which simply read: 'Marseille sort Liverpool'. The bilingual connotations were hard for even the most dim-witted individual to overlook. We had been knocked out of Europe by side who deserved to go through. Simple as that. But boy did it hurt, for we also learned that Inter Milan would have been our next opponents had some daft Croatian woman not slept with her brother twenty-five years earlier and given birth to Igor Biscan. Houllier's probably setting up an academy in Zagreb as I write.
Whilst on the train, with little else to do on the first class carriage of the Lyon-bound locomotive, we bought some alcohol and continued the festivities. Strangely enough our later train got in before that that the previous group had taken, which evidently stopped at every lamppost en route. One group member, who unsurprisingly was the very man who held the off licence up before we left and also disappeared at various points of the trip, woke suddenly from his hourly sleep, and on hearing that we were due to arrive before the other group said, "I haven't seen them - we haven't overtaken them." There's no point in listing a selection of these random quips, funny though they were. You get the impression that such statements, though comical when considered in context, as isolated sentences, are likely to appear nonsensical - one of those 'I guess you had to be there' lines. I could not illustrate just how funny the loon was, but none of us will ever forget him.
When we got to Lyon we delighted the inhabitants of an 'Irish' bar by singing the morning away, drunk though not particularly raucous until the whole group were reunited. When together, we set off once again, this time in search of the ground of Olympique Lyonais. The stadium we discovered was unwelcoming, with its tall fences padlocked shut. But this minor detail wasn't to deter us. After scaling the odd fence, we entered the ground to see that disappointingly, the pitch was partially covered with plastic sheeting. Having lost our last ball to the previous pitch we had seen, we had to borrow another from the club shop, in order to have a kick around. Then after a brief chat sat in the dugout and a walk down the tunnel, we made for the exit.
It was then that a diving board was spotted. And then the lunacy of the Lyon episode really began. For inexplicably within seconds I was over the swimming pool fence, and naked but for one trainer and clambering up the steps to the top diving board. Judging by the size of this pool they obviously aren't called Olympique for nothing. And not only was the regrettable event photographed by the amused onlookers below, but thanks to the intrusive nature of 3 Video Mobile, a company soon to be our club's sponsors, one of the group has a video clip of the incident. I'm dreading its use in a future bribe, which let's face it, is an inevitability.
After drying off, we made our way back into town, from where we decided we had had enough of trains and so got taxis straight to St Etienne airport. And it was in the minute terminal building that I had a twenty-minute impromptu conversation with a middle-aged lady at the shop counter, about all things football. She told me all about the time when Liverpool visited St Etienne in the '70s, and when she travelled with friends to Anfield for the return leg. Never did I expect the most compelling conversation I would have on this trip to be with a middle-aged woman in an airport. But then again St Etienne is something special.
The group were more reserved on the flight home, still evidently disappointed at the fact that we would not be going to Milan for the quarterfinals against Inter. But this early exit, demonstrating just how poor we are, might serve to do more good than harm in the long run. For surely this must further illustrate the demise of the current regime and quicken Houllier's departure. And anyway it's not all doom and gloom, for after all, there's always Celtic in New York in the summer. That reminds me, do Ryan Air go to America?© Joel Rookwood 2004
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