Reds of my generation, or more precisely my age, have a curious relationship with the European Cup.
In 1977 watching the Reds was a rare treat for a six year old. For a start only two matches a season were shown live on television, – the FA Cup Final and the European Cup Final. So May of 1977 was a little bit special for a variety of reasons, but mainly because it was a first glimpse of the reds in live action. First up in the space of four heady May 1977 days was the FA cup final – Liverpool v Manchester United, with its unhappy and unjust ending. It was an uninspiring game and the fortuitous 2-1 mill town win, resulted in a junior apprentice scouse tantrum, as the garden hedge received a frenzied kicking. Fortunately, a glorious reprieve was only days away. The 25 May 1977, – Liverpool v Borussia Munchengladbach put the earlier Wembley event into the shade. Even in the mind of a six year old there was no doubt, which was the more glamorous, which was the more significant and important cup. This was my introduction to European football and it was exciting. In relation to the previous Saturday, it was Monte Carlo versus East Grinstead. Firstly and most evocatively, the Reds were wearing red, as they always should be. Secondly, there was an amazing sea of red and white chequered flags. Thirdly, it was definitely European – there was a big wide orange running track around the pitch, the ball used in the final was an exotic black and white polka dot number and Barry Davies’ voice crackled down what sounded like a telephone line, demonstrating that he was indeed in a distant, overseas location. Fourthly, and most importantly the Reds were imperious and absolutely battered their crack, but on the night, hapless, West German opposition, packed with German internationals (as well as the reigning European footballer of the year with the initials AS – 2005 alert). At the time West Germany were the world champions and European championship finalists.
Even to the eye of a six year old, the European Cup was a thing of beauty. It was slender, robust, handsome and elegant at the same time – a beautiful, big shiny, silver cup, with huge handles. It looked good in the hands of Emlyn Hughes too, as it did the following year. Compared to the midget tin pot on display at Wembley the previous Saturday it was obvious that this was THE CUP. In comparison, the FA Cup appeared a pug squat ugly ornament that had fallen out of the back of an antique shop. The sight of its absurd lid on the pernicious and gnome like Lou Macari did not help its image. My mind was made up – the FA Cup was second best, – the cup of mill towns and men of wool – feel the width of them kex Lou…..
A year later the Rome feat was repeated as another European cup was claimed with relative ease this in time in front of a record number of Redmen at Wembley against Belgian opposition, who accounted for the mighty Juventus in the semi-final… This winning the European Cup lark was easy and Liverpool FC and its red and white army were ubiquitous and all powerful.
Wind the clock on a further twelve months and things weren’t quite so straight forward. UpstartsNottinghamForest had done for us and then gone to win the big beautiful shiny silver cup that I’d only known us win. By this time I had seen the Reds in the flesh and go on to claim another championship, but I was jealous – green with envy in fact. I had been deprived of my customary end of season jamboree. What was going on? Worse still it happened again a year later. NottinghamForest were becoming a pain in the arse, yet by this stage it was becoming obvious that we were a far superior team that had the beating of Clough’s one dimensional outfit.
I need not have worried. The natural order of things was restored the following season. The all conquering Real Madrid were accounted for in Paris, in a season in which we finished fifth in the league (sounds familiar) The big beautiful shiny silver cup was back in the hands of its rightful owners.
Growing up in Birkenhead and becoming accustomed to winning the European cup as a 10 year old meant the full significance of being European champions often passed you by. It wasn’t exactly a cosmopolitan, ethnically diverse place. Foreigners were rarely encountered and foreign travel was a luxury. We were largely unaware of the awe with which the Reds were coming to be regarded across the world. Nevertheless, each triumph delivered a fully turbo charged electric buzz. Such was the magic of the European Cup.
When in 1984 we cruised to another victory in Rome as the away team, – my first as a teenager, but our fourth in eight years – Liverpool winning the European cup had become the norm. This was our competition. I’d been brought up with us winning it. I loved the European Cup. Rome 77 had seen to that. It was after all the most beautiful and biggest of shiny silver cups. But it was something that in my life time we won regularly. It was a fact of life. The European cup was a special competition that my team – Liverpool FC – won on a regular basis. Regular as clockwork we would take to the city’s streets in a huge display of civic pride welcoming the Redmen home from far flung foreign shores with that big silver shiny cup at the front of the open top bus. When you’re fourteen, eight years seems like a life time and in that life time, if something happens regularly enough, you assume it will continue forever. Then came Heysel.
Heysel isn’t a subject to dwell on in this context. It was a tragic black night that shouldn’t have happened and was very avoidable, but it was the last time we appeared in a European Cup Final and for my generation/ age group it ended our relationship with the European cup. Sixteen years on we were re-introduced to it and for a brief time we dreamed, until we met an exceptional Leverkusen team on a strange evening in Northern Germany.
After such an intense introduction to this most beautiful of cups, twenty years on we were hungry – primed and ready to go. This was our cup and part of our history, part of us – each and every one of us. Every game in this cup was treated with reverence as if it may have been our last. Cliches aside, the lesson we learnt was that to truly appreciate the good times, you need to experience the dark times. And Heysel and our role in it, and coming to terms with that in the years of wilderness that followed, together with the trauma of Hillsborough – two truly enormous events, meant that me and my generation began to interpret Liverpool Football Club in a slightly different light than we had done in the hedonistic carefree early eighties. LFC became a spiritual totem and the European Cup was the Holy Grail that defined the club and our earliest and happiest memories of it.
Apt therefore, that twenty years on from Heysel we met Juventus, in the quarter final of the European Cup 2005, our opponents that fateful night in 1985. An opportunity to publicly show our regret for the events of 1985, to offer out the public hand of friendship, but also to move on and to confront the past.
On the whole things were handled with dignity in the Juventus tie, to the eternal credit of LFC and its supporters, and we moved onwards and upwards. The power and emotion inside Anfield that night was a throw back to the past. It was a night that irrevocably and imbecility linked us to our glorious European heritage. And for those of us who first experienced LFC in the context of those eight years of European dominance it unleashed a maelstrom of emotions and passions that took us all the way to Asia Minor and Constantinople, or Istanbul in modern form, to renew our acquaintance with what we had once assumed to be rightfully ours. Fate, destiny, call you what you will, an irresistible force was with us and we wanted that big shiny silver cup that had once been so familiar to us, and had defined Liverpool as a club, but also had defined me and my generation.
In the best press article I have read since I got back from Istanbul, the Observer wrote that, “The road to Istanbul really began in Brussels 20 years ago, when the club’s domination of Europe came to such an abrupt and tragic end…” Nearly, but not quite. The road to Istanbul began with and was rooted in Rome 1977 and the start of that era of European dominance that nourished and fed the hunger and tradition that so gloriously blossomed and re-appeared in Istanbul on 25.05 2005 – twenty-eight years to the day from that first wondrous triumph.
Our hunger and tradition were evident in many forms in Istanbul, ranging from the sight of thousands of reds in a sea of red and white on the afternoon of the match in Taksim Square, to the irresistible force and seeming sense of destiny within the Attarturk Stadium that pushed us over the line and saw us crowned as European champions for the first time in twenty-one years. Brussels was a regrettable sobering point on the intervening journey, from which we hopefully learnt, and which served to heighten our appreciation of and hunger for, what had gone before. But there is no doubt that the starting point was 25-05-77.
Back in the dark winter months of the 2004-05 season Steven Kelly, editor of the Through the Wind and Rain fanzine, perceptively commented that it was a freakish and bizarre season. He implied that a stranger season he had never known. At the time, he was referring to our absurd list of injuries, a number of dubious and detrimentally decisive refereeing decisions that appeared not to be evening themselves out. We were having a lot of bad luck, but generally we were good one week and dreadful the next. The weirdness referred to by Steve did not dissipate. Rather it climaxed in the most incredible manner, in the most remarkably surreal, but irresistible night in Liverpool history on the 25.05.2005. This after all was a Liverpool side of also-rans in a distinctly average English league, that for the first time in over thirty years had the embarrassment of finishing below an Everton side that were not champions.
2005 was also a year rich in coincidence and poignancies. Lists of these coincidences circulated as we got closer and closer to the final. Even for a pronounced sceptic of such tittle tattle there were some remarkable things in those lists. If ever a sense of destiny had a role in a sporting triumph it was the way Liverpool were seemingly irresistibly drawn to their 2005 European cup triumph. It was as if someone had decided that it was time for Liverpool F.C. to revisit their European past and lift the big silver pot, as clubs with the strongest tradition in the European Cup, Ajax, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Milan had all done in recent times. Now it was our turn, because we were the missing element in that exclusive list of impeccable European Cup pedigree.
When we met Chelsea in the semi final having lost to them three times in the season, including a final in which we had conceded a fluke own goal, had a clear penalty turned down both there and at Anfield, where arguably our current side’s most important player had been cynically taken out for the rest of the season, only to unexpectedly return just prior to the semi-final, – the writing was on the wall. The sense that we were due something against this team of unlovable arrogant braggadocios grew after a first leg tie in which we were denied a clear penalty again, Cech made the most remarkable save of his career and Gudjohnsen cynically ensured a booking for our main man Alonso, leading to him missing the return leg. Alonso was now on the receiving end of two Chelsea wrong doings and the English champions’ comeuppance was ensured. Poetic justice therefore, that we were delivered into the final on a tidal wave of emotion and passion that most suggest was Anfield’s greatest ever night, thanks to a disputed and fortuitous goal (about time Mr Kelly) and a dreadful Gudjohnsen miss – your sins will find you out. The force was with us and it was gathering momentum.
There was something magically mystical about us reaching the Istanbul final in such unexpected circumstances. We were becoming an irresistible force and a pilgrimage to the banks of the Bosphorus of religious proportions ensued. Istanbul is a lively, exotic, passionate and crazy city. Without a lively, exotic, passionate and crazy travelling horde, Istanbul would have been disappointed with hosting the European Cup final. Fortunately, we delivered all of the above in spades and Istanbul enjoyed one of the greatest nights in its modern history. It staged the greatest European cup final in living memory and played host to the greatest fans in the world who were on a mission to fulfil their destiny and recreate their glorious past in the most special of competitions. The truth is that for the duration of our stay, there was a curious symbiosis between visiting scousers and the city of Istanbul. Anyone who didn’t sense this, either wasn’t there, or is completely incapable of any form of sensory perception.
My own visit to Istanbul began with check in at Belfast International airport at 8am Tuesday 24th May for an Easyjet flight to Amsterdam. It was not an auspicious start, although it was a fortunate one. The check in attendant was unhappy with my well worn passport. If you dug your nail round the bottom edge, which she delighted in doing, you could make it flake away slightly. She disappeared with the parting words, “I don’t know if you’ll be able to travel.” Imagine the scene there I was with luggage, match ticket, passport and Turkish airline tickets to Istanbul, on the eve of the most momentous night in Liverpool’s history, certainly since Rome ‘77 and here I was being informed that I might not be able to leave Belfast. It was 7.30 on a cold grey Belfast morning, but sweat began to trickle from my arm pit. I was left stranded in a state of purgatory at the check in desk for about five minutes before she returned scowling with the message, that they would let me travel today, but in future if I wanted to leave the country I’d need to get a new passport. I had intended to pace myself, but after that little encounter I greedily guzzled my first beer at 8am in the airport lounge.
On the flight I found myself sat next to a Liverpool supporting DerryCity reserve centre forward who agreed to accompany me into central Amsterdam for a little light refreshment, before I returned to Schipol for my connecting flight to Istanbul. He was a pleasant fella, but maybe not playing with a full deck. Anyone who necks two double brandy – Baileys cocktails on a one hour flight is a loose canon. My real mission was to locate a Pritt stick and administer a running repair to my dog eared passport (too much European travel with the Reds) and prevent any meddlesome check in staff sabotaging the second leg of my journey to Istanbul.
Central Amsterdam never materialised. The train we boarded despite being clearly labelled Amsterdam Central carried on past the Amsterdam Arena, out past fields and countryside and only eventually stopped forty miles away in the small Dutch town of Amerfort. For an experienced European traveller this was a bit of an embarrassment. However, unlike my new friend from Derry I was unflustered. Despite his best efforts at skewering both himself and me with careless chat to ticket office staff, I, like a good scouser, managed to avoid paying the excess fare from Amsterdam to Amerfort. Only an hour on foreign soil and the first train had been successfully bunked. At least that was the positive spin I put on things as I sat in a bar outside Amerfort train station and repaired my passport with a Dutch Pritt stick. I bade farewell to the panicky Derryite, who headed straight back for the bright lights of Amsterdam and I relaxed with a beer, with my flight three hours away at 17.30, but me still 45 miles from the airport.
It appeared the Amsterdam Central train split into two and we had been in the wrong carriage. The problem with travelling solo with plans to meet your comrades at your destination is that at any point something can go wrong and the best laid plans go array, and it’s always more likely to happen when you’re on your own. With this in mind, an hour later I was checked in, safely ensconced in the departure lounge at Schipol, and the Turkish airlines staff hadn’t so much as given my passport a second glance.
The Istanbul flight was uneventful. From Attaturk airport I took a cab to Taksim Square where I was meeting John Mackin, Paul Stewart and other members of our ten man strong crew, with the plan of bunking into their Flight Options hotel. If the flight had been uneventful, the taxi ride wasn’t. My Turkish taxi driver was sinister. He had a six inch knife scar down one cheek, looked as though he could handle himself and threw his car round corners. At times we were on two wheels. He was a Fernerbache supporter, but didn’t seem too happy about his side’s weekend league triumph. He was in fact morose. Or at least he was until the sight of a Ford destination football champions league football courtesy car wrapped around a tree reduced him to hysterics. “Football, football” he roared, slapping his steering wheel. Fuck me, I thought. Is this fella a distant Turkish relative of Alex Ferguson? I was glad to arrive in Taksim Square in one piece.
The sight that greeted me was of messy and very drunk reds massed around the square. At that point, about 11.00pm on Tuesday evening there was an element of tension in the air, or at the very least some electricity. Young Turks were entering the square flying flags from car windows. Some of them were trying to be provocative and gesturing at Liverpool supporters. But in the hours that followed, I think the Turks themselves came to realise that Liverpool supporters were interested only in drinking and singing. And what was more there were thousands of these red pilgrims. They were good for business and they were very good at drinking and singing.
With Mackin eventually located and the bag safely stashed in the hotel, I joined my comrades on a street leading away from the top end of Taksim square, were we stood until 4.30am drinking cans of Efes, swapping stories and generally soaking up the atmosphere. The banners were out and the peaceful early morning, if raucous open air drinking was an excellent backdrop to the eve of Liverpool’s first European cup final in twenty years. The main topic of conversation was the sheer numbers Liverpool had in the city. There were thousands and the streets were packed. Usually at European aways you’ll bump into familiar faces everywhere you go, but finding anyone here was near on impossible. Some Turks joined us, some were good natured, others were not, but they were soon dealt with by the local police. If Turkish pickpockets are to make a living out of their trade, they’ll have to pick easier targets than scousers and they’ll have to improve considerably. Most of our company were astounded at how crap they were at this simple art. The Turks wanted to know why we were just stood on the street in the early hours of the morning and what time we were planning to go to bed. Some of them had stopped to have a bevy with reds on their way home from a shift at a bar or a restaurant. They seemed puzzled by the mass open air drinking festival going on around them, but they were keen to join in. I tried explaining that what they were witnessing was a big religious pilgrimage, in which tens of thousands had come from disparate locations to pay homage to the Redmen, to our glorious past and to renew our relationship with the European cup.
When I went to bed in the early hours of Wednesday, the streets around Taksim Square, although quietening down, were still abuzz. The next day Taksim was chokka again by 10.30am and there was discernible electricity in the air that grew throughout the day. Taksim Square was an assault on the senses. Delicious wafts of kebab, crazy taxi drivers weaving their way past pedestrians and a dull buzz of excited chatter and singing from tens of thousands of scousers. It was the perfect setting for a European Cup Final featuring Liverpool. The square was bedecked in red and white. It was a bright sunny day and there was a mass red and white throng creating a carnival on the streets of Istanbul.
In all my time in that great city, I think I counted four Milan fans. They were hopelessly outnumbered. The question we were asking was how could we loose with such support? Generally, I am a hopeless pessimist, but even I wasn’t contemplating defeat. Too many people wanted it too badly for that to happen. I was irrationally confident. We all were. I think we were all beginning to believe in destiny and that we ourselves would do our bit to bring that cup home. That was certainly the mood amongst our little crew as we strolled the streets around Taksim taking in the sun and heading down to the river on Wednesday lunch time.
We never made the river but we were entertained by some Kurdish shoe shine lads, who clearly didn’t go to school, but spoke better English than most of our party. For an hour or so we idled away our time in the sun on a large terrace with stunning views down to the river and over the city. The sight of numerous mosques and some shabby neighbourhoods that made Kensington look like the height of middle class affluence indicated that we were indeed on the very edge of Europe, with Asia but an afternoon’s stroll away. By the standards of European trips we were having a quiet and uneventful day. We were taking it easy. At some point, Mackin and I sloped off to the Galatasaray Fish Market for a feast of Sardines, Squid and Octopus, but whereas normally we’d have polished off a bottle or two of wine, this was not the occasion for that. Steady as she goes – cold leisurely beers were the order of the day. This was not a time to be rip roaring drunk.
When we returned to the square the congregated throngs had reached ridiculous proportions. And the hazy overcast afternoon added to the dream like magic of it all. No team has banners like us. Okay some banners over do it on the mushy poetry front, or verge on the pretentious, but we’ve got some crackers and the fact they are nearly all red, demonstrates the value of the Boss Wednesday Agreement between the PFJ, the JLF and the Irregulars and the subsequent KFS campaign. I have to confess the sight of Taksim Square as a red and white strong hold, the numbers and the sheer vibrant colour on display, brought a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye.
Amidst this carnival I managed to locate probably the only two curmudgeons in the vast throng – entirely unrelated, but both well known Liverpudlians in their own circles. The first of these had flirted with musical stardom in the eighties, is a renowned lyricist and poet (stop press he’s making a musical comeback), an ex-roadender, -he was with ex-roadend chums, (most now touching fifty,) having a picnic, underneath a legendary banner – “Ali Bobby and the Over 40 Thieves.” Except our friend wasn’t happy. “Too many wools,” he protested, “and the Turks are alright, but they keep getting called off to pray…” But it’s the day of the European Cup final I countered. It was not a day to be bothered by wools. Anybody, who had made it to the periphery of Europe (and it wasn’t cheap,) probably deserved to be here by my reckoning. But I had to admire our friend’s persistence and consistency. He certainly wasn’t getting carried away by the moment – feet firmly on the ground, unlike myself who had been metamorphosed into a mushy sentimentalist by the entire experience. The next conversation I had was with another straight talking serial complainant, Ken Dodd impersonator and general irregular mender and fixer. Tonight, he told me, was only important, in regards to whether we got to go to Japan, or not. If we won, he’d be straight on the internet booking Japan for the lads. I was astonished and was momentarily unsure whether he was winding me up or not, but on reflection he was deadly serious. I wanted to shake him and tell him it was the European Cup Final, but as he’s of solid constitution, I resisted. His next complaint was about a mutual German friend – ‘Tommy check out…’ ‘too soft.. wouldn’t last five minutes in the trenches.’ Is it me I thought? Am I a magnet for miserablists?
If our day had been uneventful – our journey to the stadium wasn’t. We’d ordered a minibus to take us from the hotel out to the stadium, but when it hadn’t arrived by 6pm we were about to give it up as a bad job and hail cabs. Then it arrived. The crates of Efes were loaded aboard, Turkish techno blasted out and the party bus was on the road. Except it didn’t move. We were stuck in Taksim Square rush hour traffic, with the small added extra complication of a European cup final taking place with 70,000 people heading to the stadium. While we were stuck in traffic we allowed a team of Israeli journalists to board our bus, on condition they helped us slurp the Efes and distribute any spare press passes into the clutches of Baron von pigeon and Lord of all collectables Paul Stewart, while John Mackin hastily penned a few pro-PLO numbers to extend a warm welcome to our new guests. Gradually we began to move and as we headed for the road out to the stadium, we were joined by the driver’s mate on his motor bike, who was helping us navigate the traffic. Or at least he was until he was accosted by Woody and told Rolf Harris style that there was room on his bike for two.
Woody was the only member of our crew I had not met before and we had come to an agreement that I’d take the spare bed in his room that night, but the entertainment he provided on the journey to the stadium ensured that he will always be regarded with warmth by all those present. But Woody didn’t just entertain us, he entertained the processions of reds on route to the stadium and the locals who had lined the road side to wave at the red and white convoy. In fact he made the national quality press, none of your tabloid riff raff aboard our bus if you please… The Observer reported his antics thus….
Some of the more enterprising Liverpool fans hired motorcycle couriers to beat the traffic. Local youths with two-wheeled transport were paid a few lire to take a pillion passenger to the match. One such Motorbike Man contributed enormously to the pre-match entertainment, standing on the pegs at the back of the bike wearing nothing but shorts, trainers and a selection of tattoos on his upper body. At the end of one outstretched arm was a can of beer, at the end of another a red shirt coiled like a scarf. There were speed bumps in the road, but the driver gamely flew over them without slowing down and his passenger, equally bravely, maintained his crucifixion position throughout, bouncing over the bumps and relaxing only occasionally to take a sip of beer or slap the raised palm of an amused roadside Turk.
At all other times he was singing the tune that Liverpool have adopted as their unofficial tour anthem, the first few bars of Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’. No words, just the tune – the one you could hear Steve Gerrard singing when he went to the fans at the end of the game. ‘De de de de de de der der.’
It does not mean much, but it carries the sort of righteous bravado that sounds perfect when you are speeding to a match bare-chested, standing on the back of a motorbike – bravado that increased over the final leg of the journey when Motorbike Man somehow encouraged another fan to join him and there were three on the bike.
That third person was another passenger on our bus, Simon Morris, who had transformed from mild mannered accountant into daredevil party animal. He was actually on a corporate freebie he managed to wrangle, but I bet he was the only corporate guest who turned up bevvied and helmetless on the back of a Turk’s motorbike hollering ring of fire and whooping like an apache.
As we inched closer, the traffic ground to a halt, so we alighted and proceeded the rest of the way to the stadium on foot. We weren’t the only ones. All over the road tipsy reds spilt from buses and taxis and began hiking towards the space age construction on the horizon. A stream of reds along the road side and across the waste ground at the side made their way to the stadium like biblical hordes proceeding towards the Promised Land. Some people have since complained about the location of the stadium and the road out to it. It was built in the middle of nowhere with one road in and one road out, but to me it just added to craziness of the most bizarre and surreal, but also spiritual night watching the Redmen. It was all part of the blend.
We’d set off from the hotel at 6pm and hadn’t loitered outside the stadium, but I took my seat at 9.35, 10 minutes before kick off. Three and a half hours to travel 20Km, but it had actually been great fun and in great company. No sign of comrade Mackin, who’d I got separated from in the hike to the stadium. Then in a puff of smoke, and as if by magic, he appeared at my side wearing one of his Mr Benn costumes, or at least some curious headwear he’d misappropriated from a kebab salesman. This was it. We were ready.
Maldini’s goal took the wind out of our sails. I was fairly sure one goal would prove decisive and we were behind to the masters of catanacio in under a minute. By half time we were almost suicidal. Eventually after the now legendary half-time chorus of YNWA, I rose to my feet to head to the toilet. “Let’s get off,” Mackin proposed. “Get into town and get bevvied.” Instantly, my mood changed from one of resignation to belligerence. “Fuck off, this is the European Cup final. You’re going nowhere. Get back in the trenches and fight you cunt. For once in your life stand up, be a man, fight and take what’s coming.” It was an enlightening Churchillian moment, – honestly.
I was now in full scale Basle battle mode. I believed and I was ready to berate anyone who didn’t. The last time I’d seen the reds trail three nil at half time in a European tie was in St Jakob’s Park Basle. That night at half time I was a nuisance. I believed we were going to stage a come back. I hollered, bellowed, cajoled and berated. And it happened, although on that occasion it wasn’t enough. I was now utterly certain that something similar was going to happen here. The first half had been so similar to that night and now my state of mind was exactly the same. The second half too was to turn out very similar. Smicer played well, scored an excellent second goal in our come back and the equaliser came from a penalty rebound. It was uncanny.
After the karzie, I never made it back to my seat. Instead I entered a parallel universe along with 45,000 others. First off I wandered down the wrong aisle. Then as I was attempting to find my way back to the right one, Gerrard scored. As I was still celebrating that one, Smicer struck. As soon as he shaped his body it was obvious he was going to score, but having seen it since, it’s further out and more difficult than it looked. After his last performance in this city and his shocking miss, I’d have taken him out in the street and shot him. Before anyone had time to digest the fact that Valdimir Smicer had just scored a twenty-five yard cracker in a European Cup Final, we had a penalty. The eyes were seeing these things but the brain was struggling to keep up. All round me lads were rubbing the tops of the heads and asking one another – “what the fuck is going on, my head is wrecked?”
I temporarily made it back to the seat – no Mackin. “He thought you’d gone, he went to look for you,” the lads around us informed me. I assured them I didn’t want to jinx us and returned to my spec at the top of the aisle where I had been when the goals had gone in, although in truth I’d been bounding up and down fairly liberally. It seemed to be a congregation point for waifs, strays, weirdoes and eccentrics. Next to me was an elderly scouser with a big red face. “This is terrible for my angina,” he rasped, as he shovelled another tablet into his mouth. Now I’m a healthy, fit chap, but I was worried about the state of my heart, after everything that had gone on, and here I was at the most dramatic heart stopping European Cup final of all time, stood next to a fella with angina, who looked as though he was about to keel over any minute. For the rest of the game, I had one eye on the match and one eye on him. He drew my attention to a fella to our right, who he called the big man. “Where’s the big man gone? There he is! He’s a prophet! He’s the man! He predicted it all.” I looked this impromptu mystic up and down. He wore a long coat and a long red and white bar scarf. He had a slightly mysterious quality, like a character from a Mike Lee film. “Cisse’s gonna come on and score the winner. It’s in the stars fella, I’m telling yer..” Right on cue Cisse rose off the bench. I was beginning to think someone had spiked the Efes on the bus.
When Jerzy made the winning penalty save I bounded up the stairs, slapped a few backs, and then bumped into someone. It was Mackin. He’d spent penalties hiding under the stand, drinking contraband cans of Efes with ‘some red faced fella with angina..’ It was too surreal. A lengthy manly embrace followed, that only those who have travelled the length and breadth of Europe together following the Reds, can pull off with any degree of impunity. At last we headed back to our seats for the presentation.
We were greeted by those around us like returning war heroes. The last time we had seen these people, it was at a wake just under an hour and a half ago. Everyone was putting on a brave face. Now we were all guests together at the greatest most joyous party of our lives, having just witnessed a miracle. It was incredible. But we were all drinking it in and sharing this great moment together. Mackin was pointing out to a young lad in front – “to take it all in, remember this moment.” Indeed. YNWA played over the PA system. I began to well up as the enormity of what had just happened began to sink in. My phone rang and it was my Dad. I simply held it up for him to sample YNWA. “We are the Champions, Champions of Europe.” “When the Reds go up to lift the European Cup, we’ll be there.” “Championi, Championi, Championi, (hard c) Liverpool.” All were boomed out.
Everyone around us wanted a better view of the cup and we urged the players to show the lads the cup. We had seen so much over the previous two and a half hours we could barely take it all in. But we were having our night with destiny. My mind briefly wandered on to Emlyn and the great Cherith Watson who’d travelled with John and me to Dortmund. They’d have both loved this. I began to suspect they had a hand in writing the script. RIP.
What do you do when you’ve just seen your team stage the most incredible, dramatic, against the odds European cup victory of all time? That was the dilemma that now faced us. We had to do justice to what we had just seen, but first of all we had to get back into town, but we had no chance of finding our minibus in the chaos outside. We met Simon Morris and boarded one of the public buses and headed back for Taksim. It was packed to the rafters and it was desperate. People were on the verge of passing out and were forcing the doors open and alighting for a spot of fresh air, before reboarding. Over two hours later we finally hit some clear road and moved above snail’s pace. Then within a couple of minutes the bus made a strange noise and ground to a shuddering halt, pulling onto the hard shoulder. Thick black acrid smoke poured out of the back. Our bus was on fire in the middle of nowhere.
Stuntman Morris wasn’t letting the small matter of a burning bus defeat him however and mindful of his earlier motorbike antics, he dived across the bonnet of a passing car in the style of an extra from the Sweeny, or Starskey and Hutch, and forced it to stop. The driver suddenly had passengers and was ordered to drive to Taksim Square. Piece of piss this car jacking lark. Our driver spoke no English, but underneath his jacket he was wearing a 1970s Liverpool top – the white round neck, white Liverbird vintage. A strange evening had just got stranger.
When we arrived back at Taksim, we learned that Peter Hewey had definitely stayed to see the whole match and Woody had left, but done a U-turn and blagged his way back in, when he heard it was 3-2, while in the taxi. Justin, who had flown in from New York, and usually resembles Woody Allen on speed, was strangely serene, although he later reverted to type. Later on, Mackin and I found him asleep at 8.30am in an armchair in our hotel and forced him to wake and join us in a breakfast night cap of Raki. Winning the European Cup in such dramatic fashion does curious things to people. I looked around the bar and we nearly all had the same spaced out beatific smile. After what we had just witnessed and the emotional roller coaster ride we’d experienced, we looked and felt like acid casualties. But now it was time for champagne, kebabs, more champagne and Efes. At 7.00am we ventured out into Taksim Square for a dance – a fitting tribute to the red men – pogoing about asking Gerald Stinstadt how the party was going now. It was a trick question. It was still in full swing. Morris was back to his apache ways, had acquired a red head dress and was doing some sort of rain dance. At 8.00 we waved Nico, founder of the Keep Belgium Scouse movement, into a cab to the airport and I promised him we’d continue the celebrations in Antwerp, which was I where I was headed straight after the final to play football. At 9am I made it to bed. By 11 I was checking out.
At lunch time I said farewell to my Flight Options comrades and headed to the James Joyce with Mick the Dutch and Joe, where, rumour had it, they were showing a full re-run of the game through their BSkyB satellite feed. There we re-lived the whole experience. The thing that struck me, and again later while watching the Dutch version in Nico’s apartment in Ekeren, just outside Antwerp three days later, was just how audibly the volume levels and crowd intensity rose when Gerrard scored, and the positive affect that had on Liverpool and the detrimental impact it had on Milan. When you are there in the midst of it, you don’t necessarily appreciate it, but we really had played our part. Dudek’s double save drew gasps of astonishment from all around, even after a third viewing. Joe too was a mine of information and incisive observation as we watched the shoot out, pointing out how Dudek had taken the ball off the spot, presented it to the Milan kicker and looked them in the eye before each penalty. A subtlety I had missed in the stadium. Each Milan player stepped up to a cacophony of whistles, while each Liverpool player had their name boomed out, until Smicer. Around me in the stadium there had been a nervousness when Smicer stepped up, but as Joe pointed out, that was entirely unnecessary. Smicer is a technician. With no one to pressure him, or kick him, he will always score from the spot.
For a while afterwards, I began too think that I’d caught a chill in the Attaturk Stadium. After all the temperature had dropped at night fall and it had been draughty at the top of those steps. For the next week, every time I thought back to the events inside that stadium, I got the most incredible shiver and goose pimple inducing rush. Ordinarily only heavy duty narcotics can produce such a feeling.
The party continued as we toured a number of bars and chatted with victorious reds. The evening ended about 4.30am, with one of the greatest warbling sessions in the history of LFC in the bar opposite the Flight Options hotel, that had began about 7pm. At 4.40am I was sat with a beer in my hand in the reception of Mick and Joe’s hotel planning to get a taxi to the airport for my 7.30am flight to Amsterdam. At 6am I awoke still in the same arm chair, momentarily unsure where I was. Panic stricken I commandeered a cab and made the airport by 6.25, narrowly making check in. Over five hours later, at 3pm CET, I collapsed exhaustedly into an Antwerp hotel bed for a much deserved afternoon nap. I now had four more days of drinking, carousing, celebrating and merry making ahead of me. Tomorrow, my football team from Belfast were arriving to play our annual friendly against Nico’s Lunatics.
The following morning, one of the most bizarre events of the entire trip unfolded. Finding myself in a hotel room in Antwerp having enjoyed my first night’s proper sleep in 72 hours, – a whole 6 hours, – I was awoken at 8 am by chants from the 24 hour bar next door, known by the locals as ‘the mad bar’ because its patrons are Belgian social security claimants who drink in there round the clock until their giro’s run out. Rather appropriate then that the chants were coming from Merseyside based Evertonians singing “We are the Liverpool haters.” You couldn’t make it up. At first I thought it was lack of sleep, but I have since had it corroborated by a Belgian comrade who was in the bar with them…. (Drinking with Evertonians would explain his myopia two days later when his atrocious refereeing decisions cost us a 3-2 defeat to the Ekeren Lunatics). This was too good an opportunity to miss, out came the Road to Istanbul Champions League, ‘The Final 2005’ linoleum banner, that I had paid a Kurdish shoe shining urchin a few lira to acquire for me from up an Instanbul lamppost… and it was unfurled from the hotel window… followed by a rendition of “Get out you Everton bastards, we’re the Billy Shankly Boys..” Open mouthed, and silent, they pointed up at the window, like the residents of Widnes spotting an aeroplane for the first time……..
The next few days flew by in a happy and contented fashion, in another of the continent’s great cities. People who knew Nico, who remembered me from previous visits would rush out of bars, to congratulate us. The events of 25.05.2005 had captured the imagination of the whole of Europe. During that time I reflected that our initial thoughts on Wednesday lunch time had been correct, how could we lose with such support and with the hand of destiny on our shoulder to guide us? Liverpool and its fans have a special magical relationship with the European Cup and we’d just played our part in re-creating and re-defining that relationship. I’m planning to spend the rest of the summer raising a glass to that….. And in case you had forgotten… WE ARE CHAMPIONS, CHAMPIONS OF EUROPE…. AGAIN…