TRANSFORMATION: A marked change in form, nature, or appearance.
It’s incredible to think I sat here around 12 months ago wondering how to write an article befitting a Champions League final.
A once in a lifetime experience I had already experienced twice before.
Yet here I am again. Here we are again.
Even just allowing that to sink in for a second is worthwhile. As we left Kyiv last year it felt as though the vast majority of us believed that it was only the beginning, not the end of a great drama that previous highs have signalled.
But I’m not sure how many of us truly believed we’d be back here 12 months later.
I’m not sure we believed that the team we had watched was stable enough to reach our ninth European Cup final so soon after that defeat.
The side we were privileged to support last season was a whirlwind. A symbol of the heavy metal football that our leader spoke of when he first joined the club. Demolishing opponents in spells of football witnessed rarely by the masses. A storm of thunder and lightning tearing through opposition players like nothing they’d ever seen before.
Fuelled by a crowd of rabid supporters starved of success for so long. Desperate for this team to be the one that brought back what we all are so desperate to see again. To feel again.
But did that side have what it took to make that final step, or was it always destined to be entertaining yet, ultimately, flawed? To be the glorious loser every time?
What would it take for us to reach the promised land?
I’ve spoken on these pages in recent weeks about the similarity between what we do in football and what religious acolytes have done for generations. We discussed on the best podcast I’ve ever been a part of how much our lives are entangled in this unexplainable phenomenon.
I look back over my years on this planet and it’s impossible to separate my journey with this football club from my adventure through life.
Even what you’re reading right now wouldn’t be the same without those intertwined experiences. It was in that run to the final in 2018 that I felt as though I found my voice as a writer for the first time.
Before then I’d written some nice things about football, some pieces that I was OK with. But during that period I remember thinking I just had to be myself. To say the things I really wanted to say, to be the person I really wanted to be and to let my writing reflect it all.
I felt alive when penning some of those articles, which might sound crazy to some when, at its heart, I’m just talking about writing words about a football team for you to pass time somewhere in the world.
But something shifted in me during that spell, which all culminated in the piece I wrote for the final one year ago. I’m not sure I’ll ever write anything that tops that article. My heart and soul poured into my laptop. Weeks of thoughts and songs and longing. Of dreaming and of wanting to inspire you to dream.
It may be the greatest thing I’ll ever write, and I wanted so desperately for it all to end in glory so that I could savour the piece for eternity as part of a glorious memory. The equivalent of my “Super Croat Igor Biscan Used To Be Atrocious” banner from Istanbul in my own archive of European Cup memories.
But it wasn’t to be. Ultimately it all ended in heartache, only this time at least the pain was eased with bucket loads of optimism in our football lives. Nevertheless, no one really remembers the mementos from the losing finals.
What you probably don’t know is that during that time I was going through the most difficult period in my personal life I’d experienced to that point. Psychological darkness and pain that had been building for years and had to come to an end eventually.
And I turned to football for something we didn’t discuss in detail on the Flat Earther’s podcast that resonated so much with so many of you.
For respite. For distraction.
I can see now more than I could ever see before one of the roles this weird thing plays in our lives. It gives us all something that very little else can give.
A safe place. Something that we can turn to in our darkest hours. A crutch. A community. A cathedral to visit for prayers and hymns.
Somewhere to escape from the troubles of daily life. A place to pour our emotions in a way we might not feel able elsewhere.
I remember a man used to sit behind me in the old Main Stand years ago who was infamous among the supporters who sat nearby for being overly angry with anything and everything that happened during a game. We used to joke that he clearly had a lot of shit going on in his life that he needed to vent every weekend.
I think of him now and realise that was probably true in more ways than I could possibly understand back then.
It was his escape. Whatever was happening in his life he could forget for 90 minutes while he screamed at overpaid footballers for not giving him enough. I think of him now and hope he’s OK.
I hope he’s learnt that from the darkest tunnels and the most painful times in our lives often come the greatest lessons. The light. The opportunities for growth. For transformation.
Since last year it’s been another period in which my football team has reflected my life.
Previously a wild and unpredictable journey which at times saw an out of control train tearing through stations with nothing to stop it, only to inevitably come off the rails altogether when the chaos could no longer be contained.
Ferocious emotion and drama, often seemingly unscripted and regularly exhilarating, but ultimately nothing to show for it apart from some great stories and painful experiences that could be pointed towards as opportunities for lessons to be learnt.
The question was whether the lessons would be learnt. An opportunity for reflection. For looking deep within to see what needed to change and what could be built upon.
A manager reflecting on a team so close to reaching the mountain top, only to fall short and desperately wanting it not to tumble from the edge.
A period of introspection and figuring out what was needed to transform this rock and roll extravaganza into a grown up side capable of taking the next crucial step along the path. The most difficult one. The one that takes us to ultimate glory. To that promised land.
What we’ve witnessed since then has been a side growing up. After years of watching possibilities of success, incredible highs and many, many lows, we’ve now seen a side transformed.
A team beaten only once in a Premier League season. The closest we’ve witnessed to the bastion of invincibility once described by a deity we worship.
A new colossus dressed head to toe in bright yellow or pink to walk around. To save us. To be thankful for.
A side oozing a calm charisma of one in control of its destiny.
To grow in life we must, at times, transform. To shed things from the past, often things we thought were key to our entire identity, in order to move forward, to progress.
This football team is no different. All season I’ve heard pundits say it’s not the same as it was a year ago. They said it as a criticism. That it isn’t able to do what it used to do, the blood and the thunder. And they were right, in part at least.
This team doesn’t need to do what it used to do because it has transformed. It has evolved from what it was to what it needed to become.
The blood and thunder still remains, but it is now channelled. Controlled. Directed. It is launched from a strong foundation, unlike the unpredictable and volatile runaway train it used to be.
And the idea of transformation is illustrated in no better way than through our captain. Much maligned, frequently doubted, never capitulating.
Brendan Rodgers tried to part exchange him for Clint Fucking Dempsey. Jordan refused. He knew that every manager he’s ever played for has ultimately spoken of him as an inspiration. A model professional. A natural leader. He wasn’t ready to accept he couldn’t make it at the highest level.
Yet he had never convinced every Liverpool supporter.
Until now. Until a knock on the manager’s door displaying again his determination to succeed. To never allow others to dictate what happens in his life. To take control and strive to be the best version of himself he can be.
Prepared to sacrifice himself for the greater good for years, intelligent enough to be able to recognise when someone can do a job better than him and, ultimately, having the self-belief to know the right time to make a bold move.
Our captain has, in a matter of weeks, transformed from a player causing arguments between families and friends in pubs across the world, to one dominating games in an attacking role, scoring and assisting at will.
A caterpillar breaking through its cocoon to blossom into the spectacular specimen it always had the potential to become.
A man reborn. A player transformed. A captain mirroring his team.
Our leader on the pitch. Watch his performance during the Barcelona victory and his reaction at the end and tell me this is anything other than a man who will run through brick walls for this club. For us supporters. For this trophy.
He needs it like we do. He wants it more than they do. He can drive this army of warriors over the line.
What were you doing a year ago? How has your life changed? How have you grown and what have you transformed? When you look forward to the next Champions League final, what will you have reflected on and developed? It’s worth contemplating.
We owe it to ourselves to do it. Every year. Every month. Every day. To reflect. To review. To renew. To take the best of what we were before and build upon it. To accept the parts of us that are flawed and do our best to repair them. To discard what doesn’t work and replace it with a new way of thinking.
A new way of acting that takes us closer to where we want to be. To where we really belong. To our place in history. However big, however small, to know that we are striving to be the best version of ourselves that we can possibly be.
To love. To laugh. To cry. To build and cherish and savour. To nurture and care. To support. To lift ourselves and to help our neighbours, whoever and wherever they may be.
This is our purpose. This is our calling. And right now, right here, this is what we were born for. What the universe intended for us. We’re exactly where we were always meant to be. Learning the lessons from the past and dreaming of the possibilities of a glorious future.
We are back again because we deserve to be. We have walked through the storms and we have braved the rain. We have been through endless dark nights. We have served our time and we have battled. You won’t find us returning tickets for European finals because we can’t find a way. We always find a way.
And this time, the way is to learn from the past. To make sure that mistakes are not repeated. To take care of each other and be controlled in how we move forward. To leave another European city speaking of 10s of thousands of supporters filling its bars, restaurants and streets with fun and laughter. With wit and charm. With songs and hymns.
We have grown with our team and we will continue to grow. To pass onto future generations what this means. That it’s unlike anything else. For all its faults and for all of the moments of darkness, this mad thing brings us something that nothing else can.
For the next few days allow it to distract you. To motivate you. To inspire you. To dream your greatest dream. To remember what it is to love as though you’ve never been hurt. To sing from your soul and dance in the streets. To jump in puddles like you did when you were a little kid.
To laugh. To hug. To hold hands. To cry.
To be you. The best of you.
This isn’t just a sport. Not only a game. Those who don’t understand never will. Don’t try to convince. Just tell your stories and let them gaze into your eyes as you do. They will see. The sparkle of diamonds brighter than any they’ll ever see in the real world.
This is magical. And our club is the greatest magician there’s ever been. Houdini, Copperfield and Blaine dream of doing what this enchanting thing can do.
It’s mystical. You’ll tell the stories to someone, somewhere on your deathbed and they’ll think you’re making them up. That you’ve lost your mind.
But you’ll know it was all true. As will I.
And that’s all we need. We don’t need to shout it from the rooftops and exclaim how great we are because the time for talking is over. We spoke too much before because we were so excited about what we knew deep down this could be.
But now it’s time. Now the players know. When they look each other in the eyes, in the buildup to the greatest night in the football calendar, they know what remains. James Milner said it this week: “We just need to make sure we finish the job this time.”
We can’t control what happens next. We can only believe, trust and pray. But we can do so knowing that we’ve grown. We’ve transformed. We’ve matured.
This time we’re the big boys. No more underdog tags. No more plucky losers. Standing tall. Shoulders back. Heads up. Calm and humble. Self assured and strong. Belief running through our veins like ice. Our body temperatures cooling as we watch the chaos around us in slow motion.
I sit writing this in the middle of Paris. Memories of a previous life filling my mind, and the possibilities of a new life whirling like a slow hurricane. What might be. Questions about what happens next and who we become after it’s all over.
It’s fitting that it’s the scene of one of our previous European Cup victories, and a prominent part in our greatest of European songs that the rest of the country has now hijacked.
I hadn’t even turned one when Alan Kennedy helped us to dispatch a Real Madrid side to win our third of the great trophies, from three final appearances. A grown-up side doing what it did. Winning a final 1-0 before no doubt having its medals thrown at the players and reminded this is just what we do and we need to do it again the following season. Three from three.
A side containing Clemence, Neal, Kennedy, Hansen, Thompson, Dalglish and Souness.
A team in need of no rallying cries.
It fascinates me that my life brings me to this place at a time when I need to write this piece.
When I need inspiration. When the awe-inspiring buildings overwhelm me and the sounds ripple through my body, awaking every molecule. When the past and potential future collide and my skin vibrates with excitement. When I can’t sleep at night with the images of what might be flashing through my mind.
How has this crazy experience interwoven with your life? What does this game represent in your journey? Take a moment to let the thoughts float through your mind. The memories. The people. The feelings and the sounds. What can you see?
It’s never just a game. It’s always something more. A reminder of an old life. A memory of a lost relative or friend. A signal that things can get better.
Hope. Distraction. Escapism. Inspiration. Release.
I’ve been asked numerous times in recent weeks to explain how it feels. What it’s like. What it really means.
I’ve been wondering about things in my own life at the same time. The two interwoven as they’ve always been. And it finally dawned on me one sunny evening when staring out of the window dreaming of what is to be. At last a realisation of what this feeling is.
Love. Unconditional love.
It’s not something we experience often in our lives, so when it happens it’s easy to miss. To confuse it with something else. To wonder why we can’t stop thinking about it. Why we can’t sleep at night. Why our heart races and our stomach leaps when it even crosses our mind.
We’re in love. In love with something that gives us things nothing else can ever provide. It’s why there’s no competition. It’s why we agree to spend money we can’t afford and we make decisions we might not usually make.
Why we sacrifice so many other things and give so much of ourselves to it. Why we check our phones constantly for updates and long for that next embrace. That next moment. When we can stare into each other’s eyes again.
And it doesn’t matter what it gives back. Our love is unconditional. We give everything we have and we do so willingly. Our hearts and our souls. To eternity.
We are little kids in school struggling to control how we feel. Giddy at the very thought of it. Lost in emotion.
It gives us places we’ll remember all our lives. The Kop against Chelsea in 2005. Taxim Square in Istanbul. The fan park in Kyiv. That night against Barcelona. All of those moments from Paris down to Turkey.
Places and memories filled with colour and songs and emotion. Of faces filled with laughter.
All those places have their moments, with lovers and friends we still can recall. Each of them priceless. Each of them unique. Each of them given to us by a love without compare.
And now as I walk through the world and watch this football team, I feel something else I’ve never felt before. Something in addition to unconditional love. Something more. Something that eluded me and eluded the mighty Reds for so long. Something else priceless and hard to find.
A feeling that no matter what happens next, everything is going to be OK. That we can be calm and assured and have faith in what is meant to be.
I felt last year that a rallying cry was needed. A call to arms to try desperately to push us over the final hurdle. To do whatever we could to help those lads across the line. We wanted it so badly. We felt it was destiny. I wanted to make you feel invincible.
But life doesn’t always work out that way. It is often hard and cold. Crushing our spirit and asking what we’ve got left. Whether we have enough inside us to go again. To try again.
Last year I shouted from the hilltops about how great we were and how we could win. It felt right at the time but I see now where I went wrong. Where I’d gone wrong in my own life.
Too much talking. Too many exclamations of greatness. Of what we could be. Of what we believed was our destiny.
I don’t believe we need it anymore. I can feel now more than ever before that we don’t need to shout about anything. We don’t need to scream rallying cries and tell everyone how good we are.
We’re a grown-up team now. A team filled with leaders. With men who know how to do what needs to be done. With people who have tasted the pain of defeat too many times to want to taste it again. Humans who know what it takes to win. A side transformed.
I believe in never giving up. In always trying one more time. But, sooner or later, you have to deliver. Sooner or later it’s time for the talking to stop and the actions to say it all for you.
In life, we can choose to attribute success to whatever we deem fit for our circumstances at any given time. In sport, the simple truth of the matter is that how good you are and how well you did is measured only in trophies.
We can extol the virtues of Jürgen Klopp and the mighty red machine he’s assembled as often as we want. We can talk of happiness being in the journey, not the destination. We can believe all of that to be true and still need that final piece.
This game represents to me a new beginning. A new life with a new team. Grownups ready to deliver on the promises made by their exuberant predecessors. To learn from the mistakes and pain of the past. To remember its history, good and bad, and take every last drop of experience that it can towards that final step.
I know I’ll never lose affection for what went before. I know I’ll often stop and think about it all. But now it’s time for a new generation. A new era.
A side with the calmness of Virgil van Dijk seeping through every pore. With Alisson Becker looking us all in the eye, one at a time, and telling us it’s all under control.
I love this football team and this life in a way I never have. I will love it while it’s here and miss it when it’s gone. I don’t know what happens next. The beauty and the pain of life is that none of us know. We can either embrace the unpredictability of it all or allow it to overwhelm us.
But I can be sure of one thing. That after we have found unconditional love, peace and serenity we can be truly indestructible. When no defeat can hurt us and no setback can keep us down. When we know, deep inside, that we are here to stay. That we are worthy. That we belong.
When we can breathe deeply, shoulders back, head up. When we can feel that peace and serenity flowing through our veins and calmness seeping through our fingertips. When we relax, our heart rate slowing and a feeling of uninhibited strength flooding every fibre of our bodies.
When we can hear that Champions League music and the echoes of the songs they only play for the winners. When we can smell the flares burning all around us and feel the electricity in the air from the millions of us all across the world being as one.
I couldn’t picture Jordan Henderson lifting the trophy a week ago. But now I can. Now I see it clearly. The inspirational captain flanked on either side by his indestructible generals, Milner and Van Dijk. With Alisson a step away and Andy Robertson beaming as he embraces Trent Alexander-Arnold.
The ecstasy of a team transformed from exuberant kids to grown-up winners.
To a side that knows how to get a job done, ready to build a dynasty. An empire. A legacy. Ready to shed the weight of history and claim for itself a place among the greats. It has everything it needs.
The time for talking is over.
It’s time to complete the transformation.
There are places I’ll remember all my life
Though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I’ve loved them all
But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life, I love you more
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life, I love you more
In my life, I love you more…
Allez les Rouges.
For more buildup to the Champions League final on location in Madrid and Liverpool, as well as extensive reaction in the immediate aftermath, SUBSCRIBE to TAW Player…
“It’s the best game I’ve ever played in… but hopefully that will change on Saturday.” 🏆
Jordan Henderson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on *that* game vs Barcelona and The Reds’ road to Madrid…
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) May 28, 2019