A bright spring evening in England. It’s a perfect time to be outside.
And yet, strangely – the streets are deserted. On my drive home across the Surrey Hills, the roads are as empty as I can remember.
And then I do remember – it’s the European Cup Final.
Well, almost. Actually, it’s the Champions’ League Final, but it’s the same competition, with a different name. The European Cup was something which Liverpool won four times, when they represented the heart of English football. But it was a diseased heart then, with violence and intimidation on the terraces and in the streets surrounding the game. And then came Heysel. The disaster of the 1985 European Cup final in Brussels, where a wall collapsed before the match under a surge of Liverpool fans, and scores of Juventus supporters lost their lives.
The match was duly played out that evening despite the appalling loss of life – and all of us watched it, although to this day none of us is quite sure why. As I recall it was a meaningless 1-0 defeat for Liverpool. A long ban from European competition followed for all English clubs. Five years in the wilderness for English football. Six years of penance for Liverpool.
That was the last time Liverpool played a European Cup Final. Twenty years ago.
And yet, something remains special about Liverpool. The fans, the whole city, paid their dues, and carry a dignity and respect within the game. For glories past, and forbearance through bad times. Another terrible disaster at Sheffield’s Hillsborough stadium in 1989, with 96 dead. The longest season of scouse suffering, endured with heads unbowed. ‘This is Anfield‘ says the famous sign above the tunnel at their ground – a thought to strike fear into the opposition then, and thoughtful respect even now.
But these days, football is about money as much as pride, and the pinnacle of European competition has passed Liverpool by. They don’t win the English league, any more, or even the FA Cup. The Champions’ League has grown, though, and Liverpool qualified for the tournament by finishing a distant fourth in the domestic league last season. But they’ve just no chance of winning at this level. Chelsea are the hot favourites.
The season progresses. Chelsea’s dominance is confirmed as they cruise through their matches in Europe whilst strolling towards their first English league title in 50 years, won by a mile. Liverpool are inconsistent, struggling for form. They don’t even finish fourth this year – just a poor fifth, and shame-facedly behind that other half of their home city which supports Everton Football Club.
But they’re still in the Champions’ League. Several times, they’re nearly out of it, but scramble to survive. Against all the odds, they manage to surprise Chelsea in the semi-final. That’s why they’re here, facing AC Milan in tonight’s Istanbul final.
It’s just about as far as you can travel from Liverpool and still be in Europe, and yet the fans all travel. Thirty-five thousand of them on that long pilgrimage to Turkey. And as I turn on the TV just before half time, all those the red and white scarves are waving again across the terraces, and the crowd are in the full flow of ‘You’ll never walk alone’. It’s like they’re leading, at home. And yet the scoreline reads AC Milan 3 – Liverpool 0.
How can they be three behind in just half an hour ? Because Milan scored the first inside the opening minute, and then the floodgates opened, that’s why. Now, even with the soulful voices of a forgiving and impassioned crowd, the twelfth man in their team of eleven, it’s surely unbearable to be in a red shirt out there on the pitch, so far behind so soon, and certainly with no route back from here.
I head downstairs as the second half begins. There’s a flicker of new resolve on the pitch, and fittingly the captain, Steven Gerrard scores. A consolation goal, for a great player, who shines within a flawed team. Surely he’ll be leaving the club for pastures new by next August. And then, the unbelievable happens. A second goal, from Smicer, just two minutes later. Suddenly, it seems there are at least three Steven Gerrards and seventeen more Liverpool players on the pitch, with four more now singing in the stands. The red shirts are everywhere, and the heads of the Milanese have gone down, having somehow forgotten that they’re still leading, 3-2.
I can hardly drag myself away from the screen to the dusk of my kitchen as I pour my cup of tea, shaking hands struggling to control the cup as I haul the remaining half of a giant bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk straight from the fridge, and dash back to the sofa. Somewhere within me, I know that this is going to be the European Cup Final of all time, and it’s just got to be celebrated. At such times, such life-affirmatory moments, even the crime of breaking into the kids’ secret stash becomes acceptable behaviour.
The tea and chocolate are put down beside me, but not for long – there’s another Liverpool attack, and Stevie Gerrard goes down, inside the penalty area, with arm aloft in front of mine even before he’s hit the ground. It’s a penalty….. which is saved by the goalie, but rebounds to Alonso, who’s sharp enough and quick enough to fire in the rebound. It’s 3-3, and Liverpool have come back from the dead. Never give up.
In the last twenty minutes of the game, the match turns again. Suddenly, Liverpool have something to lose, too. That pressure, lifted earlier by the certainty of defeat has returned. Amongst those tired legs, there’s a new fear, a fear of winning, experienced for the first time almost since the game began. The Liverpool crowd grow quiet, much quieter than they should be.
There’s another half hour of extra time to live through. That’s two hours of frantic football, and it shows. Carragher, Liverpool’s best defender tonight, falls with cramp. He gets up again, falls down, and hobbles back for an interception right in front of the Liverpool goal. Sheer will, and there’s not much more left. Milan look bound to score in the 120th minute, but somehow keeper Dudek, who frankly has looked vulnerable all night, shaky on crosses and spilling easy catches, somehow he denies them once, and then with pure reflex turns a second shot over the bar – an impossible and instinctive save. It’s inspiration he’ll need in the penalty shoot-out – that sad lottery of a way to end a game. But it’s a lottery that hinges on belief – and they may not have strength, they may not have legs left, but belief is something Liverpool aren’t lacking now.
A nervy opening Milan penalty misses the goal altogether, Liverpool score three, and miss one. Dudek keeps another two Italian shots out, and the game is over.
It’s the fifth time Liverpool have lifted this trophy, just 20 years since the last time. Next year, there’ll be a new trophy, for this long-awaited fifth win means that this one will now reside in that Anfield trophy cabinet, for ever.
The evening has fallen outside, a good while ago. The chocolate has long since disappeared, too. No matter – five miles tomorrow can run that off. It’s gone eleven, and the faint grey light of a late May nightfall settles across the garden as I head upstairs. It’s been one of the great matches of all time – one that’ll live long in the memory.
I’ll never be a Liverpool fan. I never will be, never can be. My own team’s much smaller ‘big’ game is still to come next Monday. It’s a different level of aspiration, a different life in football. But to me now it’s certain – there are sixty million scousers in England this evening, and the European Cup has come home at last tonight.
117. Come on you Irons ! FA Cup Final, Millennium Stadium
22. West Ham bubbles – football relegation and running
57. Blackpool Marathon: Welcome to the Pleasuredome
55. A redemption in Manchester
23. The uncertain glory of an April day: Shakespeare Marathon 2003
Let’s hope the result is the same as the 1964 FA Cup Final….. unfortunately although I was at Wembley in 1975 and 1980, I was too young for this one (and my Dad and Grandad went without me). Here is a report of the match which I managed to find. A European Cup Winner’s Cup followed the following year against TSV Munich 1860. Glory days indeed.
West Ham 3, Preston North End 2
The 1964 FA Cup Final is rightly remembered as one of the most dramatic finals ever witnessed. Ron Greenwood’s up-and-coming Hammers were hot favourites, but Second Division Preston North End came close to producing another major upset in what has been described as truly a ‘titanic battle’ beneath the Twin Towers.
Forty one years after West Ham United’s last FA Cup final appearance in the inaugural ‘White Horse’ final at Wembley, confidence was high, as they looked to take the famous trophy back to Upton Park for the very first time in their history, with recently voted ‘Footballer of the Year’ Bobby Moore leading the Hammers’ charge for glory.
Twice the Hammers came from behind before the winner was eventually struck deep in injury time. John Sissons scored West Ham’s first as he latched onto Johnny Byrne’s return pass shortly after Preston’s opener. Then, Geoff Hurst rose to head home the second equaliser. But it was Ronnie Boyce who sealed the victory when he met Peter Brabrook’s cross with great aplomb to send the Hammers’ fans into raptures.
West Ham 1, Preston North End 0
West Ham return to the Premiership after 2 years away.
Final score (after extra time):
Happy Hammers 2, Stella Artois 4.