[Football] Rambling Thoughts and a Champions League Final
So there I was, beer in hand and a stunned look on my face as the club’s biggest game for over twenty years had turned into an anti-climax after just three minutes.
When Liverpool had last won the European Cup in 1984, I was still eight years old and too spoilt on success to really appreciate what this meant. This time round, I had suffered through every minute of every game, never really believing we could go all the way and never really caring how we got there. This time, I felt that I was really entitled to celebrate.
When the final whistle of the emotional semi-final against Chelsea had been blown, I’d quickly resigned myself that a trip to Istanbul was out of the question. The impeding birth of a baby girl meant that finances wouldn’t stretch for such a ‘luxury’. And it didn’t really matter. I’d seen all the games in the same pub and we’d always got through: changing now would be tempting faith.
Milan, we knew, had imploded in the final weeks of the season. They had barely scraped through the semi-final against PSV and had lost to Juventus at home to virtually hand them the league title.
In other words, it was the sort of form you dread facing. You know that big teams like Milan don’t keep on losing. You try to build up your hopes but deep down you feel that they’re going to come out and literally hammer you.
And so it was proving to be. Maldini had scored first then Crespo and again Crespo. 3-0 and we’re dead and buried, to gratuitously put in a football cliché.
It is amazing what goes through your mind in such moments. Thoughts of gleeful workmates who must be enjoying this game more than any Milan fan, of how foolish we had been to get our hopes up and how we were going to keep the score down. My mate Chris told me that we’d go home after the sixth goal. It was a joke but probably we were both scared shitless that it would come true.
I’m wearing my ‘Justice for the 96’ t-Shirt and, in such moments, it is much more comforting than any replica shirt can ever be. ‘Come on lads, give us a hand’ goes through my mind. And suddenly I’m a lot calmer.
Then the second half starts and it’s back to watch the big screen. There’s a Milan fan in front of me and he’s enjoying this immensely. He’s been careful not to antagonise the 200 or so Liverpool fans watching the game with him, but there’s a smug look on his face that makes you want to kick it in.
When Dudek turns away the Shevchenko free-kick he shrugs. It doesn’t matter, he seems to say. Other chances will come our way.
But it does matter for suddenly Gerrard scores. He turns to the fans, urging them on. At least we’ve saved some face.
Then Vladimir Smicer scores. This is his last game for the club and, if we’re honest, no one will really miss him. Too lightweight and too often injured has been the verdict for a couple of years. Yet his final two hours as a Liverpool player overturn every perspective. This isn’t simply another foreigner running down his contract. He truly loves the club, is passionate like we are. So, before going any further, Vladimir Smicer we salute you.
Milan can’t believe this. We can’t believe this. But our players do. Baros back heels a pass to Gerrard who breaks into the box only to be felled by Gattuso. Now, Gattuso has this reputation of being something of a bastard but he’s actually a good player. Not tonight though. He’s having a shocking game and it will hit him harder than most. Like our own Jamie Carragher, he’s passionate about the team and can’t stand losing. In December, he admitted that after the final he didn’t feel like playing football ever again. It took two months for the Milan staff to get him back to full training.
Anyway, it’s a penalty and there’s something of a surprise in the man who steps up to take it. We’re not very good at penalties but even though Gerrard missed one a couple of weeks earlier against Tottenham we’re expecting him to step up. Instead it is up to Alonso, who follows up the rebound after Dida saves his shot. Cue jumping on the Milan fan and shouting in his face. Now this is what makes football special.
The rest of the game seems to pass by with increasingly anxious glances at the clock. Being ever the optimist, I’m thinking that there must be a sucker punch lurking, that Milan will score in the last minute to take the cup. This doesn’t happen in normal time but almost comes true in extra-time when Dudek somehow, miraculously saves twice from Shevchenko.
It’s on to penalties and, for the first time in the evening, I’m feeling quite confident even when Riise fails to score his kick. When Shevchenko steps up, it is clear that he’s both deflated and afraid. The thought of Dudek’s save is clearly playing on his mind as he kicks straight into the centre. Dudek, who’s being doing a very pathetic imitation of Brucie’s wobbly-legs routine throughout the penalties, is almost fooled but stretches out to save it.
Describing the rest of the night is terribly difficult. Words can’t quite describe the feeling: I don’t know if it is just me but I never really know how to react when I finally achieve something I’ve long been dreaming about. There a mixture of elation, joy and, if I’m being honest, also a little bit of relief that it’s all over.
There’s also some incredulity. Even till this day, I can’t help thinking “bloody hell, did we really do that?” And that’s what makes such moments stand out, that inner glow and warmth you feel when thinking of particular instances during the final. It is these highs that make all the lows worthwhile. This what we, as fans live for. And bloody hell is it worth it.
This article first appeared on squarefootball.net on the 29th December 2005