Wonders Never Cease 末 A Miracle in Istanbul

Posted by Paul Tomkins on May 27, 2005, 12:02:52 PM

"Going on a journey, somewhere far out East, we'll find the time to show you, wonders never cease...".

It was the most apt song on my Walkman on a compilation I put together for the journey 末 the new single from Morcheeba, chosen for its incredibly hopeful and relevant lyric. Then there was the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour. It was magical beyond belief, and at times, a total mystery.

This is my tale from Istanbul. No doubt you are sick of everyone's stories by now. Anyway, this is my take on the trip, and on the match, and on a remarkable 48 hours. It is written very much as a 'stream of consciousness', as I wanted to get my thoughts down while the proverbial iron was hot, especially as I feel like death warmed up: or rather, like one of those many lukewarm kebabs turning on a spit. So please excuse any errors that arise as a result. (Of my tiredness, not the dodgy kebabs.)

This is about what the trip meant to me, and how a game of football may well just have changed my life.

Too good to miss

People may know that I suffer from M.E., and as a result I don't get to as many games as I'd like, and nowhere near as many as I used to. I had not the slightest intention of going to the final, until an incredibly generous mate made a promise that he'd pay for me if we beat Chelsea. He was already in possession of tickets via the Uefa ballot. How could I say 'no' to such an offer?

I knew the journey would be tough, but it would be the 'old gang' 末 those of us who sat together at Anfield for all those years 末 reunited for a road trip that would take us from Italy to Bulgaria, and then in a hired minibus to Istanbul. It all went 'Pete Tong' when we found the minibus wouldn't be allowed into Turkey, and then, last weekend, I wasn't at all well with my immune system totally shot to pieces. There was no way I would be able to handle such a convoluted journey. It looked like I would miss out after all. Then strings were pulled, swaps were made, and I was heading out on the morning of the match from Luton airport.

The trip started with me chatting to celebrity LFC fan, DJ Spoony, on the flight 末 a surprisingly sound fella, and a passionate Red. Despite the 3am start, following just three hours of sleep, I felt surprisingly okay 末 adrenaline was kicking in, and the excitement, as it would again and again, took me forward. I made it there in one piece.

In Taksim Square I met up with my mates, who had experienced a total nightmare in their coach ride from Sofia, but had made it there all the same. (I've just found out that the coach they had booked never returned to take them back to Bulgaria, so unfortunately they are still stranded in Istanbul.)

Spirits were good 末 the place was buzzing. I was also privileged to bump into about 25 -30 people I'd spoken to in an online sense over the course of the season but never before met. The sun was shining, and this small part of Istanbul felt like the centre of the universe. I was tiring a little, but the match was drawing ever closer, and I couldn't wait.

The journey by one of hundreds of specially laid-on buses from Taksim Square to the stadium was one of the most remarkable two hours I've spent. Reds were crammed onboard and incessantly singing "Ra-Ra-Rafa Benitez . . .", as people stomped their feet and the noise carried out to the waving Turks lining the street and the honking horns in passing cars. It was like the semi-final atmosphere from Anfield, generated by 50 (maybe 100!) Reds. I was sat next to the only Turk onboard 末 a very old man who had clambered on (God-knows why!) and was trying to sing "Xabi Alonso Garcia and Nunez", while waving regally to the crowds as if he was the luckiest man alive. I knew how he felt. We were royalty, being greeted by the people on route.

Log-jam on the only road into the stadium presented me with some of the most surreal sights I've ever witnessed: as we edged along, one Red on the road, palms thick with dripping blood, bashed our window in celebration. (Something told me he'd been doing it to all the other vehicles ahead of us.) Then I saw a party atop the bus on the lane next to ours: the lead singer of the band Cast, John Powers (also guitarist in the legendary Las), was dancing and jumping from bus roof to bus roof. Were my eyes deceiving me?

Eventually we all called it quits as, bus by bus, fans deserted their useless transport and began walking the last two miles, across a barren lunar landscape in the middle of nowhere, toward the party taking place outside the ground in the distance. A red river ran down the hill, to the sea of red dancing and singing in the Atatrk car park.
It only grew more surreal once inside the ground: what was the pre-match entertainment all about? Had someone spiked my water with LSD? And why were there only about five Milan fans in the Uefa stand, and about 20,000 Reds? I expected a mix of supporters, and instead felt like I was sat on the Kop.

Why Liverpool is the best club in the world

I took my seat in the lower section of the East stand, 20 yards over the half-way line down towards the Milan end. It turned out to be the end to be. It was where it all happened.

It took just one minute for Red dreams to shatter. Rafa's best-laid plans went out of the window: we were a goal down following a freakish bounce of the ball, before the system had even had a chance to prove Rafa right. Kewell limped off, having tried to run off a muscle tear (like running off a broken leg), and by 43 minutes it was all over. Crespo flicked home the third goal with such style and unnecessary arrogance it was impossible to feel anything but utter despondency.

While I still felt the Reds could rescue some pride, maybe by getting a consolation goal or keeping it at just 3-0, I also feared total humiliation. The lads in red were doing their best, but Milan's superstars were on fire. What a team! (Alas, my previous tongue-in-cheek attempt at debunking the myth of their greatness looked ill-advised.) I felt privileged to be watching such great players, but I wanted to be able to say I'd seen them in the flesh and they'd all had stinkers. Some luck . . .

Not only had my dreams of seeing us win evaporated, but so too had my book 末 my own personal "achievement" 末 started to seem a little meaningless. A 7-0 defeat, as looked on the cards, was going to ensure that Liverpudlians would want to forget football over the summer. It had been an amazing season, with remarkable comebacks and monumental occasions, but it needed a positive ending.

I wanted to be writing about champions, not a team of nearly men: 2nd in the Carling Cup, 2nd in the Champions League, and three points outside the qualification places in the league: 5th being the new '2nd', once 2nd in the Premiership became something to celebrate. I swear on my life that I said to myself "still, if we win it now, or even come close, it will be a remarkable story". But I didn't believe it. My faith wasn't strong. My faith was nearly non-existent.

And then something happened. Half-time may very well have changed my life. The evening 末 which had earlier grown increasingly dark and sinister as black clouds gathered in bullying formations 末 may not have been as ominous after all.

There was the tongue-in-cheek songs about winning 4-3, but that felt a little pathetic, and half-hearted. But then You'll Never Walk Alone started, and I felt a strange power. This was special: this was not Anfield before a game, this was the far-flung reaches of Europe, as humiliation beckoned. I imagined how it looked to the AC Milan fans: imagining how many have them may have paid their money partly to hear the legendary rendition. (Especially after they so amazingly sung it for us in 1989.) Liverpool fans singing YNWA is one of those things opposing fans 末 especially in Europe 末 feel a great need to experience. It is like those who paid to hear Sinatra, in his prime, singing My Way.

Suddenly I had belief. Not in victory, but in the fact that, despite 15 years of attending Anfield (since we last won one of the big trophies in 1990, no less) I was feeling, in my own heart, a thoroughly 'genuine' Liverpool fan, playing my part in rousing the team, having put my health on the line to be present. It felt such a small sacrifice.

Half-time provided the reason why I support Liverpool Football Club 末 not full-time. I was proud to be urging on 'my' side when it had no chance. I was honoured to be part of something that gave me chills down my spine. Win, draw or lose, this was Liverpool Football Club 末 that can never be taken away. That was all that mattered. If we could score a couple of goals then that would rescue some pride, and that was all I could realistically hope for. Surely? But sod it, we were singing YNWA, and it the one song from which hope springs eternal.

Fifteen minutes into the second half, and the most remarkable comeback in the history of major cup finals was achieved 末 if not yet 'completed' with so much time still to go in the game.

A book I'd chosen to write last autumn about a season of transition had been gradually turning, since February, into a book documenting the lead-up to the most amazing night in the club's history (and over the years there has some competition for that honour). It was suddenly going to resemble a work of fiction. Trouble now was this: surely no one would believe it? The final chapter, which I will complete in the coming days (excuse me for saving many details exclusively for that), would read as 'magic realism'.

As Traore cleared off the line, and Dudek made that utterly astonishing double-save, I finally understood that we would win; we couldn't possibly lose after such momentous interventions. Everything made sense, a cosmic force seeing the Reds home to glory. The crowd booed the Milan players as they strode forward like nervous lambs, and as Jerzy waved his arms to put them off. Ciss and Smicer scored their penalties: it all seemed so deserving, given their troubles this season. Vladi, so often the underachiever, had played such a crucial part. Shevchenko was denied by Dudek yet again, and I hugged and kissed what seemed like a million strangers.

And now the end is near . . .

In some ways the end was only beginning for me. Getting home would prove to be one the toughest challenges of my life: the horrific journey by bus to the airport which took three hours (great for the first hour as the celebrations rang out, before everyone grew weary); the chaos of the airport, where Turkey turned us into tramps: coupons for food in the marquee feeling like the procedure at a soup kitchen, and as the sun came up, fighting for cardboard boxes on which we could lie in the gutter outside the terminal, as, in dirty smelly clothes, we all sought to get back to England. (It was at 5am that I saw a dazed Veggard Heggem wander by on his own, and gave him a big thumbs-up.) All Luton flights, scheduled for 2am to 4am, were totally ignored, as one or two to Liverpool and Manchester took off, but no more. Finally at 6am everyone was allowed into the terminal.

At 9am I managed to get my first hour of sleep on the dirty terminal floor, and at 10am I was woken: people were going to "storm" the plane in complaint! In the end the airport staff said to just get onboard the plane on the tarmac, no matter which Luton flight you were booked in on. As we were driven to our Boeing 737 we saw a group of Reds run down the steps of a parked-up Airbus and sprint to the plane along the tarmac. It was like a case of Musical Airplanes. Any way you could get out, you were going to take it.

I was just glad to be heading home 末 although the plane was so unbelievably cramped any chance of sleep was impossible (especially as my legs were going into spasm). I was feeling awful, but kept thinking of the night before. And I was okay, smiling again.

M.E. (a.k.a. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) is a much misunderstood condition, and needs a lot of awareness raised on its behalf. It can be like having 'flu combined with total exhaustion and various problems with the nervous system. I was asking far too much of my body, but even if it resulted in a month of illness I didn't care. I was counting my lucky stars that I, unlike other Reds I know who have the illness, was able to make this special pilgrimage: that I had such a generous mate, and that for all my difficulties I am still far from bed-bound. If it could be better, it could certainly be a lot worse.

But there's more. Once back in England I had to head to collect my dog from my parents, as well as a video tape of the game: I needed to see through the lens of a camera what my own two eyes may have deceived me on. Another hour's kip before the homecoming started on TV, and a quick meal before, at 7pm, heading north on the motorway. I'd barely even got going on the M40 when it became gridlocked: a car transporter had burst into flames and melted the road. Four hours later I had moved just five miles.

I was so tired I was getting hysterical 末 drinking Red Bull just to keep my eyes open 末 but what really held me together was the image of the lads in extra-time, suffering with cramp, their bodies wracked with pain, but carrying on. I recalled the images of the post-match celebrations on the pitch, of the three goals and the great saves by a much-maligned 'keeper. A two-hour journey north ended up taking six hours. What kept me going was the hope I had discovered at half-time: the true, true meaning and power of You'll Never Walk Alone.

There was no clearer example than that of Djibril Ciss, who by rights should still have been rehabilitating and not yet able to play his part in such a triumph; he shouldn't have even been running yet, having come close to losing his leg in October, let alone dancing with the trophy. Never give up that hope. Always believe . . .

Number 'five' was of course the point of the entire adventure. But I had found hope in my heart. I don't wish to be crass or sentimental, it's just how it felt. It was football 末 only much bigger than sport; not more important than life or death, but a wonderful part the tapestry of existence.

No football match can ever mean as much to me again, nor be as remarkable. I accept that. It is unsurpassable. But coming down from a high is a small price to pay.

Hope. It's my new favourite word.

ゥ Paul Tomkins 2005

"Golden Past, Red Future" is still available to pre-order at 」8.99 at www.paultomkins.com, although the price will soon revert to 」9.99. It will go to print next week, and be available mid-June.

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