SATURDAY October 16, 2004 will live eternally in my memory.
It was probably my most traumatic, rewarding experience watching Liverpool FC, Istanbul aside. Liverpool travelled to Fulham in the Premier League that day in the infancy of Rafa Benitez’s tenure. I was going the match with my mate and brother, while another mate of ours, not a big football fan, had volunteered to drive us in his car and go shopping while the match was on. Although I found this concept absolutely mental, I accepted the lift without objection and all on that gorgeous autumnal Liverpool morning seemed good in my 19-year-old world.
However, the day ahead was to be far from tranquil. The first sign that all was not well was when our mate picked us up in a Land Rover I can only describe as an old shit heap. It looked better served on the opening credits of Emmerdale rather than an arduous trip to London and back. Nevertheless, assurances were made and off we went, informed by our mate that a short pit stop near Crewe was required to ‘fill up’ before we could go on to the capital.
Crewe, lad, are you messing? There’s a Shell two minutes away, why the fuck are we going to Crewe?
I shouldn’t really ask these questions, and it’s at this point you realise why my mate will remain nameless throughout, although I had many other names for him after this day other than his own — the dopey bastard. Anyway, after a pit stop in an entry in Crewe somewhere and with Zak Dingle’s Jeep full of suspiciously tainted yet cost-effective diesel, we were on our way.
We were on our way for about five miles before the Jeep started to splutter before coming to a stop, dead, unresponsive. One of those moments where all those realities implemented at the back of your mind that you tell yourself are not relevant on a day like this come to the forefront. There we were, stranded in Crewe, looking at each other vacantly wondering just how our Saturday morning had gone so spectacularly west. A quick decision needed to be me made. We’re a couple of minutes from Crewe train station, there is a train to Euston in 10 minutes, it’s 11.30am, I’ve got £30 in my pocket. Everything is against us here, everything.
We decide, in our adolescent spontaneity, to bunk the train to London. Leaving our mate in some kind of outback Crewe wilderness with a gallon of god knows what in the shit heap, he might honestly still be there now, come to think of it. The train ride is a bad one; back and forth hiding in the toilets with no contingency for if we get caught. We get to the approach of Watford gap and the ticket inspector is in our distance in the aisles, slowly approaching us like some kind of movie villain or hell bent cop chasing the guy who’s wrongly been accused of some heinous form of criminal espionage he never committed. Come on Watford Gap you gloriously miserable post. We pass; we’re ok, for now.
Xabi Alonso on *that* penalty!
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) March 17, 2017
Euston is a blur of running for tubes and the abiding memory of my brother getting too clever and trying to run down an uphill escalator commendably before breaking into a heavy sweat and admitting defeat. Eventually, god knows how, Craven Cottage is in sight.
We get in the ground just before half time; we’re 2-0 down. The whistle goes and Liverpool trudge off the pitch. I look around and see Salif Diao ambling towards the corner of the pitch with his head bowed. “SALIF FUCKING DIAO,” I scream “I’VE GONE THROUGH ALL THIS FOR SALIF FUCKING DIAO?” My head has completely gone at this point. I feel like I have encountered some Shawshank-like exoneration and battled against all the odds to see my beloved Reds and all for what? My adolescent eyes sting and hang slightly heavy as the home contingent mock and laugh, the south at its worst. Salif Diao! Fuck off, Liverpool.
I manage composure, of some form at half-time, but looking at my brother and mate we are broken young men. I’ve no interest in sorting out how I get home from London at this point. No hope in our hearts, no golden sky.
Then there he was, in all his glory.
Diao is hooked and before the second half starts, a wavy haired Basque figure takes to the field and suddenly, I can manage a raise of eyebrows of sorts.
I had seen Xabi Alonso a fair bit by this point, having been completely spell bound by a 45 minutes of grandiose and elegance I’d not seen the likes of before at home to Norwich. He gets hold of this game, my god he gets hold of it, and before we know Liverpool are suddenly 1-2 and he is dictating everything with his orchestration and demand of the football. Give me that, go there, make that run, and watch how classy and easy I make this whole thing. He picks it up again and crosses the ball into an area of vindictiveness that only has one result, 2-2. Only one way home now, free-kick, I’ll have that lads, Edwin Van Der Sar doesn’t even move, he doesn’t see the point, I’m in love at this stage.
Igor Biscan, of all people, rounds it off and gives the creed and accolade that my physically and emotionally exasperating day truly deserves. The day belongs to only one man though, his soft eyes smile kindly and wave to the away end, I whisper a thank you, I have a tear. We hug, we clap, we sing the names of the 11 in Red knowing all of this was worth it, knowing that to be alive on this day and go through what we have will truly live with the three of us forever, it was a day of thankfulness.
Alonso joined Liverpool at a time when it was not only a football club but a city that felt like it was emerging out of the shadows, a place that was on the cusp of a huge European wake-up call on the football and cultural front. Liverpool was a place that needed no reminder to us already there of its gravitas, but it had found an uneasy passiveness which had led to a feeling of being left behind.
However, this was a man for me who throughout his time at the club embodied so much of what we were about and where we were going both on and off the pitch. He was majestic, gracious, cool, understated at times. Here was a Spaniard who could head up the billboards of Madrid’s bright lights but believed in where Liverpool was going, believed like us, that the north eclipsed the south on every level. A man who was so good the south couldn’t handle him and went for his ankles, but found to their cost he still looked better than Frank Lampard, even on crutches.
In case you’re wondering, we got on a couple of spaces on a coach back to Liverpool that night, I can’t remember the lads who kindly gave us a lift, but they looked after us, they ploughed us with food and drink, they laughed at the tale of our traumatic day. We all had a sing, we all had a lovely time. Good people looking after each other, home please driver.
What did Alonso stand for? He stood for a reminder that even on a day when all the elements possible are seemingly against you and the world can look such a huge and daunting place to a young lad, there is a hope and a light. And a reminder that your roots, your hometown, is worth a lot more than anything they can throw at you because of its grace, its elegance, its authenticity, its warmth. All of these things, on that day and beyond, personified and embodied by Liverpool’s imperial number 14.
Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, Xabi Alonso. Gracias, lad.