One Night in May

Posted by Rushian on September 27, 2005, 02:34:43 PM

The Champions League Final, 25th May 2005 – Istanbul, Turkey: Liverpool V AC Milan

Once upon a time, I had a dream… to see Liverpool win the European Cup. This is the story of the realisation of a dream:

It had finally happened, the day I had been waiting, hoping, praying for since I was four. The dream stretching from boyhood to manhood had at last been converted from farfetched fantasy to firm reality. At last, I was going to see my local team play in the biggest game in world football. And yes, I am familiar with that bit of metal named after Jules someone or other that everyone raves about; the prize for that competition that sees hoards of people around the globe attempt to recapture a lost sense of identity by attaching themselves to whatever increasingly disunited state they claim to belong to – World Cup my arse.

You ask any fan worth their salt, and they’ll tell you. Call it what you like, sponsor how you want, it’s the annually contested cup with the big ears that every fan wants to see his side get their hands on. The league title of course is your bread and butter – you’re desperate to win that every year. The European Cup however is something different. It’s one of the things that separates Liverpool from the likes of London. They’ve got their Palaces, Abbeys, Royalty, 24-hour art galleries… and as far as I’m concerned, they’re welcome to them. Why? Because for the fifth time, ‘Liverpool are Champions, Champions of Europe’.

By comparison, the fifteen professional teams in London, Chelsea and Arsenal included, can’t even boast a single triumph. So who cares about some museum when you’re Kings of the Continent? Oh and by the way, Everton have never won the European Cup.

OK, OK, I’m sorry – I just can’t help myself sometimes. I sit down to write an article about a game I’ve been to and end up deviating dangerously off course, usually ending up giving a place like London a bit of stick, well-meaning stick though of course. I’ll try and redeem myself by reflecting on the game in question. Me being me however, I’m going to do that in the most round about fashion possible, so please, bear with me.
Now, back in 1984, Liverpool won the last of their four European Cups, in a glorious victory in Rome. Ever since then the number ‘four’ has been etched in the very fabric of the club. And whilst our continental record is the envy of the nation, it has also in truth been a weight around our necks; because for twenty years we’ve failed to turn four into five. Three months after that triumph in the Italian capital I made my first visit to Anfield, just after my fourth birthday. We were Champions of England, Champions of Europe, and in my mind, Kings of the World …and I thought it would last forever. Enter Heysel, Souness and Liverpool’s dramatic fall from grace. Soon enough we became a side inflicted with consistent mediocrity, and save for a false dawn or two under Houllier, we have remained one since the day Dalglish walked out.

How then in 2005 have we become European Champions? Have we turned things around and built a side that is the envy of the continent? Well, not exactly – for although this season has at last seen the exit of the hapless Houllier, the rebuilding process during the debut season under the man who WILL deliver the title has not always been a smooth ride. Let’s consider the facts: eleven league defeats, an embarrassing FA Cup exit at the first time of asking – and the purchase of that nugget Pellegrino deserves a mention of its own. It was little wonder that the one competition the Argentine was not eligible for proved the one which brought us the most success. Benitez is new to the English league, and it has been a testing introduction to domestic football for him; Europe however is right up his street, so to speak.

So yes, Liverpool’s performances on English soil have at times made for painful viewing this season. I should know, I didn’t miss a single defeat. Considering this unconvincing league and FA Cup campaign in mind, this had to be the most unlikely of seasons to experience such a dramatic climax in the far more prestigious competition in question.
This is particularly evident, given the lack of expectancy and hope that was expressed as the season got under way in Austria last August. In light of the progress we were(n’t) making in the league, not even the most senseless of loyal Liverpudlians would have thrown a few quid at a mid-season bet on a triumph in Europe. Indeed from the mediocrity of Graz, to the no show in Olympiakos, to the embarrassment in Monaco – there was no way we were ever going to reach the latter stages. Despite an emotional night at home to the Greek Champions at Christmas that saw us qualify against all the odds for the second round, surely we thought it was merely delaying the inevitable – a disappointing exit. Oh and by the way, Everton have never won the European Cup.

But although the blue half of Merseyside desperately awaited this departure, it failed to materialise time and time again. Liverpool it seemed, were warming to the continental challenge. Having scraped through the group phase of the competition, next it was a return to Leverkusen and then Juve, and those first half home performances that convincingly won the respective ties; followed by the biggest night I’ve ever had in those twenty-one years at Anfield… you know the one, where we beat the ‘invincible’ Chelsea to reach the final – surely not. That left me in the ridiculous position of heading to the European Cup final.

Losing at home and away to Birmingham in the league, but overcoming the new Champions of Italy and then England in Europe’s premier competition – it’s been that kind of season. The barren spell had at last come to an end. Now some would say I shouldn’t complain – on the one hand, twenty-one years is a long time to wait to see your side get to ‘that game’, yet many fans devote a lifetime to the cause and never even see their team play top flight football. But then again, we are Liverpool. It’s not a question of what league we play in, it’s whether we’re Champions of England and Champions of Europe. I’ve waited long enough alright.

And so, our journey began to discover if, against all the odds, we could see the latter rendered a reality. I’ll spare you the monotony of detailing the panic for tickets and flights that preceded our eventual departure. Let’s just say that this big bandwagon showed up heading for Turkey and every man and his dog appeared out of the woodwork wanting a spec. But this was to be my twenty-fifth consecutive European away trip, and the simple fact was that I was going to be in that ground, irrespective of such complications. Oh and by the way, Everton have never won the European Cup.

It was 6.00am on the day before the game, and I was running late. So I grabbed my Fez hat, switched on my camcorder and jumped on the bus for John Lennon airport. Yeah, OK, I know what you’re thinking, call me a day-tripper all you like – whatever story was to unravel during the three days that followed, I had decided it just had to be captured on film. Whether it was an experience of Turkish delight or one more of the Orient Express variety, my geekish tendencies would ensure that I would have my own copy of events, so that in years to come all the lads could look back on the funny flags, bad clobber and the way football was for us in our early twenties. Though few understood, they’ll thank me one day. The DVD by the way will be available in all good music shops from October 2005. Yeah, right.
We landed in the Asian side of Constantinople, before making our way fittingly enough, back into Europe. The first stop was to throw our bags in a three-star hotel – a rarity indeed – after which we went out to sample the local hospitality for an hour or ten. And what a night that turned out to be. There must have been 30,000 Liverpudlians in and around the now infamous Taxim Square, and everyone seemed to find each other without resorting to the £3/minute phone calls that you had no chance of hearing anyway given the wall of sound that surrounded us. Most of the stories that unfolded that evening are best left to the imagination, so I won’t dwell on them here. If you’re lacking in that department, get yourself a copy of the DVD in October. It features me pretending to be a real documenter, talking into the camera in pitch black at 4.00am on the morning of the game, predicting a last minute Carragher winner, and innumerable other regrettable moments. Thankfully the camera was turned off later that morning when a couple of us slipped out early for a Turkish massage before meeting up with the rest of the lads for brekky. Ah well, when in Rome in all that. They’ll never find out anyway, most of them can’t read.

Another 10,000 filed in from all corners of the city during the early part of ‘that day’ to make it a true Scouse invasion. However, reminding us that there were another team involved in proceedings, a 9,000-strong Milanese group were also good enough to show up. Disappointingly though, they were sectioned off in another corner of the city, and in the ground were fenced off in a small stand behind ‘that goal’. As a result, I must confess to not having spoken to a single Milan fan during the entire trip. I was desperate to find one particular lad who, against my own better judgement, I’d promised in broken Italian after the Milan Derby in March that the two Rossi’s would meet in the final. I stood next to him for an hour in the San Siro the day before our ‘clash’ in Turin watching AC’s comfortable passage to the semi-final, as Milan’s own bitter blues littered the famous turf with flares. We vowed that night to meet up in Istanbul, although in truth, neither of us really believed Liverpool would be there.

Liverpool however, under the guidance of Rafa Benitez, somehow had got there. And, having left Liverpool as a virtual ghost town, hoards of Scousers now poured out of every orifice of the Turkish city, having travelled to see us win the cup and bring it home. If only that was the only challenge for the fans: getting to Istanbul. Oh no, it’s never quite that easy is it? For most Liverpool fans in Turkey, it was reaching the ground that proved the most difficult leg of the journey.

Having spent another memorable day in Taxim Square, and then the best part of two hours on one of hundreds of buses that left from the city centre heading for the ground, we found ourselves in the middle of a Turkish desert. Local urchins ran along side the buses waving items of Liverpool merchandise that some kind-hearted Scousers had obviously passed out of the window to them. It felt like we were being waved off to war, saluted for battle.
With the noise and busyness of Istanbul behind us, the surroundings were by now almost empty, save for the odd randomly erected block of flats. Yet the road, as if bored with itself and its location, seemed to meander in a zigzag fashion across the desert plain. And it was after one of these needless bends in the newly-laid road that we first laid eyes upon the battlefield; the arena upon which so many things would be decided. We all knew just how important this game was for Liverpool Football Club. Oh and by the way, Everton have never won the European Cup.

Having set eyes upon the Ataturk stadium at last, the passengers of virtually every coach had at that point, the point of the first sighting, decided that enough was enough. Although the ground was still a way off in the distance, we joined the hoards in marching over the desert that stood between us and our destiny, following the sea of red out into the unknown. Poems could have been written about what proved a considerable trek, “once more into the breach dear friends” and all that. As we walked the sun had begun to make its decent towards the hazy horizon, yet the question remained, was the sun about to go out on our quest for European glory? Such doubts, at first thought and then later verbalised, told that my nerves were beginning to get the better of me. This wasn’t AK Graz in a pre-season friendly; this was AC flippin Milan in the European Cup Final.

Suddenly I felt a strong urge to see the lad who had accompanied me during that first visit to Anfield all those years ago, where my love affair with this club first began. Our Danny however, was virtually the only familiar face I hadn’t seen since arriving in Turkey. As my mind began to run over a plethora of memories, a text from the lad in question fought its way through the airwaves. It read: “In the press box. Just met Fowler, he’s signed your programme. We’ve got to win it now. Oh, and just got my picture taken with the cup an all.” All that was missing was: ‘Oh and by the way, Everton have never won the European Cup.’ I don’t know why the thoughts of having our kid and Fowler in the ground helped still the nerves, but they did, for a while at least. What can I say, emotions were running high.

Outside the stadium the atmosphere was bubbling, and with kick-off looming, it was time to enter the ground. After the obligatory body search, I made for the turnstiles, which I happened to walk through with two of my mates’ dads either side of me. They must have sensed that my state was reverting back to one of increasing nervousness, and so reminded me that this is was their sixth European Cup final. We might have been playing the might of Milan, but neither club was short of a little pedigree, that much was certain. However, would Liverpool get to within a single victory of their Italian counterparts with a fifth triumph, and ensure the number four would be stripped from its very identity as a result, or would Milan win and increase the gap of greatness between us and them, edging closer to overall leaders Madrid at the same time? Either way, Everton have never won the European Cup.
When we entered the ground the Liverpool end was just deafening. We almost intimidated ourselves with the noise generated. Almost in awe of my own supporters, I walked around in silence capturing some last minute footage, taking a moment to consider the enormity of what was before us. We had heard all the stories of Rome in ’77 and the like, and how the crowd was instrumental in helping win us the match, taking over the ground, with Scousers and red flags everywhere. Well surely this had to match that. Yet for all we could do to raise the spirits of team, it soon dawned on me that all we cared about now was the result.

Now my camera had remained switched on throughout the two days building-up to the kick-off, and for some reason I had decided to leave it on for the opening moments of the match before banishing it until the destiny of the 2005 European Cup had been decided. The last picture captured on the footage? Traore conceding a first minute free kick. The final comment made by this documenter? ‘I’d better turn this off here in case they score,’ which as everyone in the world with a heartbeat knows, they did. Maldini was the culprit, with on-loan Chelsea striker Hernan Crespo grabbing two of his own before the interval. That I’m afraid is all the first half detail I can muster.

That hurt. I mean it really hurt. The collective pain of the home end was almost tangible. Our immediate reaction as the referee blew for half time and the lads walked dejectedly off towards the dressing room wasn’t one of anger or frustration at the fact we just hadn’t turned up. We weren’t able to process our emotions and rationalise what we had just been witness to, so to bring about such logical thought. Instead we were left to wallow in a numbing and painful disbelief. One thing we couldn’t escape however, Milan were awesome – three-up and deservedly so.
All around me during the interval there were grown men crying, unable to take the torture. You didn’t know where to look, what to say, what to do. It certainly didn’t feel like I was at a football match. Some supporters refused to remain in the transfixed state others had fallen into and began to make for the exits. Now this exodus wasn’t quite on the scale mentioned in media reports after the game, but it was a good number. One or two of our lads even decided to join the early leavers. “It’s my first European Cup Final Joe, and I don’t want it to be a fiveniller” one of them said as he passed me on the stairs. We exchanged knowing glances before they departed – he really didn’t have to explain, I knew what was running through their minds, and I could hardly argue, but at the same time there was no way I was going anywhere. I just stood motionless and wallowed in self-pity with everyone else. It was deep, deep despair.

And then, from nowhere, came a voice. A voice that simply said, ‘hold on’. Thinking about it now, it wasn’t really a cry of hope. It was too late, or as it turned out, too early for that. It was just a way of pooling together our collective pain and finding an outlet, a way of expressing our hurt. Inevitably the voice assumed the form of a song; with still greater inevitability that song was ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. It was simply one of the loudest and most poignant renditions I have ever heard. In fact only in the aftermath of Hillsborough have I heard it sung with such feeling. Tears visibly dripped into the mouths that sung the familiar words. The Milan fans just stood in silence, which seemed partly out of gracious respect, to allow us the opportunity to grieve, and partly out of shock, that at 3-0 down and let’s face it out, we were just so loud. As for who started the song, my money’s on God.

Now part of me thinks that it wasn’t even meant to inspire the team. We felt the destiny of the match was beyond doubt, for surely three goals without reply was too much to ask of Benitez’s men. We had travelled en mass to support our team, who hadn’t showed up, and as a sea of red, we were just trying to get through the agony. Shortly after this the teams came out, and with hope in short supply, most of us could only brace ourselves for more of the same. With the second half only moments old, Shevchenko nearly made it four to put the game further beyond doubt. I don’t think many behind the Liverpool goal could bare to watch as the chance went begging, I certainly couldn’t. The wounds inflicted during a painful first half were it seemed, beginning to reopen. Importantly however Shevchenko, not for the last time, missed.

And then it came - the golden sky at the end of the storm that we had sung about at half time and a million times before; the hour that will go down in Liverpool, Milanese, European and world football folklore. People the world over will talk about where they were for ‘that game’ for years to come as a result of what happened next. So I’ll tell you: Riise crosses, Gerrard heads, Liverpool score. And the second that the ball hit the back of Dida’s net, that was the moment, the moment I knew we were about to win our fifth European Cup. Now doubtless for those of you reading who weren’t there, you probably doubt me on this assertion – trust me, I just knew. I mean come on; we’ve got God getting the singing going… and I don’t mean Fowler sat with our Danny in the press box. Ok, so we were still two goals down to the best team in world. But I couldn’t escape this feeling deep inside of me that fate had just shifted back in our favour – and I wasn’t the only one to pick up on this dramatic swing of the pendulum. People around me starting saying ‘we can do this, we can do it.’ Eyes were drying and filling with hope.

As I stood amongst the masses, heading and kicking every ball, I had a very real realisation. Suddenly the experiences of the preceding eight months began to make sense – the logic of destiny had been revealed: Houllier getting sacked, Owen leaving as it was ‘his one chance to join a big club and win the European Cup’, Rafa arriving and lulling the continent into a false sense of security by losing the home leg of the qualifier to some Austrian minnows, scraping through the group phase, culminating in the first real pointer to the beauty of our destiny – Ste Gerrard’s last minute goal at home to Olympiakos to take us through; Luis Garcia’s goals against Leverkusen, Juve, and Chelsea, ridiculous misses from Lampard and Ibrahimovic, Mourinho and his “99.9% of Liverpool fans think they’re through, but they won’t go to the final” remark before the second leg of the semi-final, six minutes of ‘injury’ time, and still no breeches of a Carragher-inspired defence, the Kop’s unmatchable, unmistakable, unbreakable power to suck in Garcia’s effort and blow out Gudjohnsen’s, and then Gerrard’s header in Istanbul. It was all beginning to make sense. We were never written off because we were never considered as genuine contenders for the European Cup. But despite what the bookies, the managers and the pundits had said, number five in 2005 was simply meant to be.

There’s no point in me trying to give a suspense-ridden account of what happened next, everyone knows the story: Smicer, the forgotten man himself, having come on for ‘the bute’ was awesome, and what it more, scored a second Liverpool goal. Gerrard was colossal, truly colossal. He terrorised Milan to devastating effect, with one of his menacing direct runs into the penalty area illegally halted by the cheeky Gattuso, one of the Milan players who had touched the European Cup just before the kick-off (no Liverpool player went near it by the way). Alonso stepped up and scored the resultant spot-kick, taking two bites of the cherry to add to the tension …all within the greatest six minutes of my life. When my first son is born, and I tell him the event of his birth was a close second to that, he’ll be gutted – but then when we stand shoulder to shoulder in Munich or Madrid to see Liverpool win the 2020 European Cup final, he’ll understand perfectly. Three goals without reply just meant that much.

If I’m honest, much of the remaining minutes remain a bit of a blur. Some time after the completion of the comeback, the final whistle went; and although extra time saw a few nail biting moments, it was all leading to an inevitable conclusion – penalties, at the Milan end. Smicer and Cisse were among the penalty scorers for unfancied Liverpool, fittingly two of our least fancied players. Milan’s experienced superstars, having thought they had won it by half time, only to have it taken away by a gutsy Liverpool team, had little left to give, which was clearly illustrated by their tired collection of spot-kicks. It was Shevchenko, who had missed from a yard out in the final minute, just as Cannavaro and Gudjohnsen had done in the two previous rounds, who stepped up to take the final penalty kick. Now Carragher had been spotted doing frantic Grobbelaar impressions in front of Dudek on the pitch just prior to penalties. Dudek dared not disappoint the legendary Bootle maniac, and did exactly what he was told… did the Brucie shuffle and saved the penalty, sending 45,000 Scousers in the stadium, hundreds who had left the ground, and those who remained at home into delirium.
It was indescribable, it was beyond expression. If Shakespeare had have been stood next to me, all he would have been able to muster was, “unbelievable that, lad.” The plot was just too farfetched to describe, to accept, to believe. Had it have been a Spielberg production unveiling in front of our eyes, you’d have left the pictures in the interval, (assuming you’re at Woolton pictures which still has an interval), cursing at him for being a ‘Yank who doesn’t have a clue about football.’ The plot would have been laughed at as a fairytale, with all the historical reality and reliability of an American World War Two film.

But for that night, stood amongst my mates from by ours, and from all over the city, in the Ataturk Olympic stadium somewhere near Istanbul, it was our reality. The script may have been unfathomable, the climax unthinkable, the lows unbearable, the highs indescribable, the Shevchenko penalty unbelievable, the 2005 European Cup final unmissable… but the only truth worth writing is best done so in the simplest of terms: Liverpool are Champions of Europe. Oh and did I mention that Everton have never won the European Cup?
And so the story goes; “three-nil down, then three-three, then it went to penalties. Dudek saved from Shevchenko, then we took our trophy home.” At half time we were dead and buried. But we sang our anthem because we felt it to be the only thing that could have prevented us from tears. Indeed for many of us it didn’t even achieve that goal. It just attached meaning to them, and helped us through them. It was raw emotion in a stadium of football-daft people, who, despite all their experiences following the team, had little clue of how to deal with it. I counted five ambulances race around the track to the Milan end during the latter stages of the game, suggesting that Italian hearts too found the conclusion hard to accept. But though we seemed dead and buried, that half time song brought a reaction, that reaction brought a goal, that goal brought hope, that hope brought spirit, that spirit brought us the European Cup. Emily Dickinson once said that, “hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul; that sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.” That was the difference between the two sides. We ‘never stopped at all’. And now it’s ours to keep.

As Aldo said, ‘Five times baby, five times.’

© Joel Rookwood 2005

This piece is dedicated to Michael Shields

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