IT STARTED with a miss.
We all get dusty-eyed now about the nice moments of the last European Cup win; the atmosphere versus Chelsea, Jamie Carragher’s reaction to the shoot-out win in Istanbul, the homecoming, the laughs, the smiles…
But it could have been so different. And it nearly was. It was a moment when thousands of hearts sank. When time stood still.
When the ball dropped to Eidur Gudjohnsen at the far post it was like someone had pressed the mute button. It was the loudest night on the Kop in my lifetime (I swear the actual stand was moving) yet in that split second you could hear a pin drop. Life went into slow motion.
Breath was held, hands went to faces — with Jerzy Dudek flailing in no-man’s land it looked a cert the net would ripple as the Chelsea striker took aim in the last moments of six minutes of injury time…but it didn’t.
In that moment, we knew it — we were going to a European Cup final. For the first time in 20 years, we, Liverpool, a team featuring Djimi Traore, Igor Biscan and Milan Baros had done it. A team that had finished 37 points behind title-winning Chelsea, in fifth place, behind Everton, and on the same points as Bolton with 14 league defeats to our name. We were going to Istanbul with number five in our sights. What a time to be alive.
Talk of Turkey began in town, when we eventually got there. It wasn’t an if or might, it was a how or when. No-one wanted to miss this; a chance to be part of history. A chance to make our own stories to follow those of ’77 in Rome, ’78 at Wembley, ’81 in Paris and ’84 back in Rome.
That was after what seemed like hours of embracing people I’d never met, and barking “Get in” at everyone who crossed my path wearing red, and wearing smiles.
No-one wanted to leave The Kop that night and it took a tannoy announcement to make it happen. And no wonder. This was the taste of the big time a generation had been waiting for — me included. And we’d done it — against the odds, and in the best atmosphere for years.
Everyone associated to Liverpool is rightly proud of the club’s rich history. But the tales from Reds of another generation; the books, the DVDs and the pictures, none of it can match being there yourself. Seeing it first hand.
Before Istanbul, the last time Liverpool had competed in a European Cup final was at Heysel.
I was eight in May 1985 and can just about remember watching Liverpool and Juventus go through the motions on the pitch after the horror of what had happened before — a black day which I barely understood at such a tender age.
I watched that final, like many a Reds game at that time, in the back room of my ma’s on a crap Pye black and white portable telly. This time though, I’d be there — in the same country, the same city, the same ground as the Reds. And this time I’d win it with them. I’d play a part.
Then as now, it was the usual score on getting abroad for a game — fans were shafted left, right and centre by travel operators, hotel owners and the rest.
After being fortunate enough to qualify for a ticket — a miracle in itself — it was decided to swerve the fleapit hotels that were charging Hilton prices. As much as I wanted to fly over and get on the ale, money was talking.
Without the time, or the inclination to be fair, of some other Reds who trekked all over Europe by road, sea and air to reach Istanbul, we opted for the flight there and back option. It was a bit of a bank-breaker (or should I say credit card), but so what? This could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance.
On the day of the match, John Lennon Airport was a buzz of anticipation, even the taxi driver had seemed bang up for it as he drove us through empty streets for an early start at the departure lounge. Even Lennon himself (well the statue) was kitted out in a fez, scarf and flag for the occasion.
The party that had gone on and on post-Chelsea had started again.
But then, for us at least, things started to go wrong.
A delayed flight couldn’t dampen the excitement, but when we were told we couldn’t join the early embarkers living it up in Taksim Square, and instead our coach, under police advice, would be heading for the harbour of all places, it wasn’t quite what we had in mind.
On arrival, our fears were confirmed. It was definitely a harbour. We wandered aimlessly about for a bit before turning up a side street. There were a few Reds dotted around but there were more AC Milan fans in this end of Istanbul. Most were sipping coffee, idling the day away in the sunshine. This wasn’t where the party was at. We had hours to kill before we had to return to the coach and this was about as exciting as Widnes on a wet Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the texts continued to drop into my phone’s inbox. “It’s boss here, you know. Loads of Reds. Get down here.”
I could picture the beer flowing, the songs, the laughs. And here I was stuck on a Saga holiday. Great.
Time to go. So we did — how far could it be? A couple of other Reds had the same idea and a taxi was shared. It seemed that in this part of the world driving schools are run by The Stig. Swerving in and out of traffic sporting a ‘I don’t give a fuck grin’ and caring little for road rules and traffic lights isn’t the best combination for a taxi driver. I could picture the compo claim already — if I lived to put on the neck brace.
While snarled up in traffic en route to Taksim, a couple of local kids shouted to us. “Liverpool,” said one. “Three-three!” said the other, holding up the right amount of fingers (using two hands, obviously — it was Istanbul, not Wigan).
At the time, we thought nothing of it. Looking back, well it’s a bit weird, isn’t it? Hope he found a bookie to make the most of his prophecy.
After what seemed like a lifetime, we reached Taksim. After the ride we’d had, I didn’t know whether to open the door or jump out of the window Dukes of Hazzard style.
Taksim Square was a sea of red. Banners, flags, Reds on a roof, Reds in a tree, Reds up a lamppost, songs, ale, sunshine…now we’re talking: this, is a European Cup final.
We met up with a couple of mates who’d blagged their way to Turkey on the pretence of working — one for the now defunct Liverpool Daily Post, the other for the Liverpool Echo (on the pretence of wring a “colour piece” — nice work if you can get it!).
After filling us in with tales from the night before, we all headed for the bar and bumped into another couple of journalists, one who greeted me with the matter of fact: “Thought you’d be here.” I liked the matter of factness. It was like I’d bumped into him in the Asda rather than in a foreign country two thousand miles from home.
Istanbul, what we saw of it in our short time there, was a cracking city and if I’ve got one regret from that trip it’s that I didn’t get to see more of it. The people, too, were spot on. They seemed genuinely amazed, or perhaps bemused, by just how many Reds had made the trip. Loads of locals turned up with cameras and video cameras to film the loony Englismen with faces as red as their shirts filling up on Efes. Many more quickly realised there was money to be made, arriving with bags of ice-cold beer to sell.
Even the waiter at the restaurant didn’t seem to mind too much at a poor attempt by one of our travelling party to get a free scran. He was totally on to the attempt to clean the plate and pretend he hadn’t helped himself buffet-style to a big plate of spag bol. Nice try, mate, here’s the bill.
The fella on the market stall didn’t bat an eyelid either, when the same Scouser ordered six fat cigars as we searched for a taxi. “It’s for when we win, mate.”
News had filtered through that the ground was in fact a good way out of the city — 20 minutes to half an hour was the grossly inaccurate estimate that was bandied about.
Straightforward enough then, or so you’d think. All forms of public transport were heaving with Reds so we split into two groups and jumped into a yellow cab each. But we were barely around the corner when our cab turned to reveal Tony Barrett’s cab parked up with a worrying plume of steam heading skywards from the bonnet. Another cab rolled over the cobbles containing John Aldridge, who promptly laughed his head off at the plight of his fellow Reds.
Not sure Tony found it quite so funny, and he was even more unhappy when a plan to decorate the cab in red backfired when a local kid whipped his scarf en route to the ground!
Back in our cab, things took a turn for the strange when the driver — on a motorway by this stage — began craning his neck out of the window to shout to some suited-up Turks in a Mercedes.
A full-on conversation took place at about 80 miles an hour. Next thing, we’re pulling over. “Eye, eye, mate, fuck these off, carry on, we’ve got to get to the ground here.”
“They’ll take you,” said the cab driver. “They want to go near the ground — they need people with tickets with them to get past the police cordon.”
Now in any other circumstances alarm bells would be going off. They could have been anyone, it could have been a scam, we might have been getting kidknapped, who knows?
“Tell them we’ll go if they pay for the cab,” said Nick, before anyone else had really thought about what to do.
And they did. Next minute we’re all piling into a Merc with a pair of complete strangers.
Despite the suggestions coming through on the text, their intentions were not sexual and we eventually arrived at the ground after witnessing the chaos on the service road we’d been ushered along to reach the stadium. There, hundreds of fans had grown weary of a never-ending traffic queue to reach the Ataturk Stadium, ditching coaches and buses to trek on foot across the lunar landscape with flags and banners in hand. It was quite the picture.
The ground was a modern — if odd-looking — bowl-type stadium in the middle of nowhere. The Moon, Mars — most people were going outer space with points of reference for the setting. Mind you, there was probably more ale on Mars.
There wasn’t a can to be had by the time we arrived, so we had to make do with the tail-end of a fans’ festival which at this point consisted of Pete Wylie knocking out Liverpool songs on stage.
That stage was soon full of Reds and the Turks got jittery with one organiser hilariously trying to warn about health and safety as fans bounced around him singing You’ll Never Walk Alone.
One fan grabbed the mic and shouted: “Jose Mourinho, I hope you’re enjoying Emmerdale Farm, lad!”.
In the ground it struck home just how many Reds had made the pilgrimage, with a good three-quarters of the Ataturk Liverpool — some feat considering the location, and the expense to get there.
Before the match got going there was an opening ceremony. Pretty pointless, but when you’re there you watch it, don’t you? So as everyone stood on seats to get a look, I followed suit, only to feel a prod in the back. “Get down will you, I can’t see.”
“Neither can I, that’s why I’ve stood up here like everyone else has.”
“Just get down.”
“You get up – then you’ll be able to see.”
And so it went on with the Victor Meldrew of Liverpool fans until his mate joined in as well.
“Oh fuck off, will yer.” And on that note, I turned back to the pomp of ceremony only to feel an attempted shove from behind.
There’s only so much a man can take, and at that point I was going to swing for the pair of them. My mate Jon had clearly spotted the red mist and pointed out that a Turkish jug wasn’t the best place to try to watch a European Cup final.
Handbags out the way, it was on to the game itself. You know what happened. At 3-0 down, all of a sudden we seemed a long, long way from home. The bravado, the adrenaline that had been surging through thousands of Reds all day, had gone.
We were outclassed in that first half and for all the romantic rewriting of how it all went, there was little evidence of defiance from the fans.
As we trudged into the bowels of the stand, no-one said a word, there were just a few shakes of the head, puffs of the cheeks and wipes of the brow. We were fucked.
“We’ve just got to keep a clean sheet second half,” someone eventually piped up. “Otherwise, this could be about 7-0. We could be on the end of the worst result in a European Cup final ever.”
As some lads left for the hills, unable to take any more (and who could blame them?) I thought of the Bluenoses, the Mancs, Andy Gray, all those Soccer AM beauts… They’ll all be loving it. Loading up on ‘banter’.
And my dad. “All that money to watch a bunch of fellas kicking a ball? You must be mad…”
Now you know why I was watching the ’85 final on the portable…
Everyone talks about the rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone just before the second half but I barely remember it to be honest. I have vague recollections of singing it, but it was more out of duty than hope. I didn’t for a minute think we’d get back into it.
The rest, as they say, is history.
When Andriy Shevchenko missed we just went nuts, absolutely nuts; falling over seats, rolling on people, bear-hugging strangers, tumbling down steps…
I even fell on my old mate Victor Meldrew from earlier — we held each other tight in a special moment: “You!”
And then we just laughed, there’s no time for fighting and arguing when you’ve just won the European Cup!
As I struggled to take it in, I remember Carragher diving into the crowd, Riise running around aimlessly (no change there, then).
Then out came the cup. It was miles away from us yet it looked massive. It was massive. It is massive. And it’s ours. For keeps.
After more bear-hugging, dancing and handshakes, me and Jon had to leave for our plane. Not that we knew where our coach was parked as we of course hadn’t arrived at the Ataturk in it.
We wandered about for a bit amongst rows and rows of identical coaches before eventually spying a fella we recognised smoking outside the coach. “Alright lads,” he said, nodding, with a dirty smirk on his face like he’d just done the deed. To be fair, it was that good.
On the coach you might expect it to be bananas; the scenes in stadium replicated in miniature all the way to the airport. But it was quiet. Nobody had anything left. Everyone was shattered. The players will tell you they put everything into the match. Well so did the fans. We lived it.
“Who missed that last pen, lad?” piped up this fella.
“Nah, I’m not having that.”
It was funny because I’d said the same in the ground. As he was walking up, I’d tapped Jon and said: “There’s no way he’ll miss, he’s quality.”
But it was meant to be. At the airport it was chaos. People everywhere, no-one knew what was going on — but no-one cared. Even the bizarre token system to get a pint was ignored and laughed off. There was no spoiling this.
Arriving back at Liverpool, I had a spring in my step despite having no kip for God knows how long. I was there when we lifted No.5. I was there for the greatest comeback in football history. I was there when a lad who grew up a stone’s throw from my mum’s lifted Old Big Ears as captain of Liverpool Football Club.
That’s put us on the map, that’s made them sit up and take notice. I even got a text off a Bluenose — and a fairly bitter one at that.
“Were you there?” it asked. I couldn’t type fast enough. “Fair enough lad, youse deserved it.” I nearly fell off the train seat. But to be fair he wasn’t alone. Because what a story it was. What a tale to tell.
And it still wasn’t over. I was on the train because I was headed to town. Bleary-eyed, jet-lagged, hungover but happy. I was walking on air. It was time for the victory parade. Those were the days, my friend.