So, here we are. Six years later. Six long, and at times, difficult years. I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed.
I decided to revisit (and to be frank, re-write) my account of that night in Istanbul. I hope you enjoy it.
Tuesday May 24 2005
Then, as now, I was working in Sheffield. We’d opted to travel in and out of Istanbul on the day of the game. Annual leave was at a premium, so I found myself heading to work as normal on the Tuesday, albeit with a bag full of clothes. A colleague of mine had been to European Cup Finals in the past, and he and I spent the day discussing his experiences. As you’d expect coming from a truly red family, I was already well versed in tales of European Cup finals, but I was happy for the distraction. I was very kindly allowed to leave early, and with that, my journey began.
I wandered through the city, trying to imagine what it might feel like to see my boys lift the European Cup, to finally be able to say ‘I was there when….’ when the old discussions came around in the pub. I think I was still contemplating how I would feel when I reached Widnes station, and saw me Ma’ sat in the car, waiting for me. On the way back we stopped for some tea from the Chinese – Chicken Fried Rice, Chips and Curry Sauce. I was definitely home now.
Soon after we arrived back at my parent’s, my uncle arrived, and the travelling party of me, me Da’ and his eldest brother was complete; my other uncles and the lads from the Salisbury (Granton Road Salisbury, mind) were already there.
Actually, the fact that my uncle was so prompt shouldn’t be understated; he is notorious for being late. He’s lived in Coventry for years, and once flagged down a cab from the hard shoulder of the M6 to take him to “the station” after his car broke down. Not unreasonably, the cabby asked if he meant Birmingham New Street. He of course meant Lime Street; he was heading there to catch his train to Paris for the ’81 final.
Back to 2005 and our flight from Liverpool was scheduled for 00.05, meaning we had to be at the airport for around 10pm. By the time we arrived the airport was already a sea of red - a sign of things to come. The bloke in front of us was trying to check in a tin foil replica of the European Cup, but the girl was having none of it, so it became his hand luggage. It doubled up as a fetching bag, at any rate.
Flying from Liverpool Airport made the journey all the more special, it was a much better feeling than flying from Manchester, as we’d done when travelling to Dortmund. There was just a greater sense of community. Even the bitters were wishing us well, bless ‘em. In 2001 the Mancs just growled at us.
We decided to try and sneak a pint in before the flight, and headed up to the bars, passing the statue of John Lennon on the way. He was already groaning under the weight of scarves, hats and flags.
After a swift pint it was time for us to make our way to the boarding gate. As the queue shuffled along I started to receive text messages from friends who had already arrived in Istanbul. Opinions were divided, to some people it was a ‘Sh*t hole' and to others it ‘rocked'. Within 24 hours we would all learn first hand about the contrasting feelings Istanbul can evoke….
May 25 2005
Any notion of a comfortable flight and some sleep disappeared as we boarded. The plane that had been chartered wasn’t exactly modern, and had been re-fitted to carry the maximum number of seats possible. This meant the seats were tiny, and there was a bare minimum of legroom between the rows. Oh well, at least we were going to be fed. At 2.30am the crew came around with our meals. Given the time we were expecting something light, so all three of us accepted the foil covered provisions we were offered.
As I unwrapped the scran, my sense of anticipation evaporated faster than it had on Christmas day 1986 – the Teddy Ruxpin year. I was greeted with Potato Salad with Dill, Chicken and Leek in a cream sauce and Lemon Cheesecake – the perfect midnight snack, I'm sure you'll agree. Anyway, we ate it (well you do don't you) and then spent the remaining hour or so trying to wrestle some comfort out of our 'seats'. It didn't happen.
We landed in Istanbul at around 6am local time, and joined the queue for Passport Control. I’ve been lucky enough to travel quite widely, and consequently my passport is filled with many immigration stamps from around the world, but none of them is as cherished as the one that says “UEFA Champions League Final May 25 2005”
As we exited the airport and the sun began to rise, we boarded one of the hundred or so busses which were waiting to take us to Taksim Square, our home for the day, in the European side of the City. The journey took about an hour or so, and at times more closely resembled a destruction derby than a morning commute. Motorways went on for long stretches with no lane markings, and there seemed to be a general indifference towards self preservation amongst the drivers. As we were in a bus, we were bigger than most of the other traffic, so it was more entertaining than harrowing.
When we arrived at Taksim Square – we saw that Uefa, the Champions League sponsors and the Turkish authorities were holding a ‘party’ for us, and decided to investigate the various stands. Each of the four major sponsors had interactive exhibitions which you could participate in, which was enjoyable for about five minutes, but soon got dull. There had also been a huge screen erected which was showing highlights of our route to the final on a loop, and it would also be used to broadcast the game to those supporters unable to get tickets. The best part of the early morning was being able to meet and talk to Alan Kennedy and David Fairclough, two bona-fide Legends, in-between their media work. Both we're really friendly and open, and just as excited as us to be there.
After a while we wandered down the road to a cafe and had a sit down with some coffee (and a lager), to try and combat the tiredness that was beginning to descend. A lot of fellow reds were also enjoying a beer. It was 08.30 now and the looks on the locals faces as they headed to work were priceless - I don't think they appreciated that we'd been up all night.
After an hour or so we moved on to a cafe within Taksim square, overlooking the park. We spent a happy couple of hours there, watching fellow reds enjoying a kickabout and/or sunbathing. As lunch time approached, we began to get a little hungry, so my dad called the waiter over, and asked "Do you do toast?" (complete with a mime of spreading butter). "Toast…?" came the puzzled reply "..no sir, no toast, sorry.". A little while later we tried again with a second waiter, only this time we adopted a more general approach and asked if they did any food at all. "We only have Toast sir.", came the reply…..
Later we had a mooch around the colourful nearby streets and bazaars (interspersed with a few beers) and arranged to meet my mate Chris, his brother and friends at a pub next to Taksim square. On our way back, we saw one of my favourite banners ever:
By the time we returned to Taksim thousands of reds had arrived. The atmosphere was fantastic, everyone was singing, dancing and waving flags. It was quality, as per usual. This is one of the reasons that I absolutely love being a Liverpool fan - games like this where we take over the city we are playing in.
A lot of the bars around the square had flat roofs, which were of course taken advantage of, the pic below gives you an idea of the scene:
Taksim Square temporary roof terraces
We sunk a few beers with Chris and his group, and then went off in search of some food. The phrase ‘When in Rome’ has a special meaning to reds fans, so of course, it was Kebabs all round!
We again made our way back to the Square to find our buses to the Stadium, and unbelievably, the square was even busier this time, an sea of red:
If you look to the right of the picture, you'll see some yellow flags – a union of some sort had arranged a demonstration to coincide with our arrival, to ensure they got media coverage, and perhaps to ensure their safety too. I’m not sure about the right to free speech in Turkey, or if that right is respected by the authorities. But I was pleased that they had a platform, and that it had been afforded to them by the presence of thousands of people from a city with a strong trades union heritage. I hope they got what they wanted.
We decided to soak up the atmosphere and stayed in the square for an hour or so before heading down to the buses for the journey to the Ataturk, which took forever. It was only 25 miles but it took 2.5 hours. It was superb though. Each bus was rammed, with around 40-50 people on each. We sang for the entire journey, the atmosphere was electric. You could see the buses around you bouncing along as everyone on board sang their hearts out.
Wherever we where you could see people in the distance turning around to see what the noise was, and as they realised it was us, they were all smiles, shouting and waving us on our way. It was a great experience and a privilege to see the same reaction in everyone we passed. People were actually running out of their offices, houses and the shops to wave at us and listen to our singing. At one factory in particular, it seemed an entire shift made their way to the gates to cheers us on, only to be chased back in by a foreman carrying a big stick – which prompted several wags to claim they’d once worked for that particular foreman at Fords/Dunlops (delete as appropriate).
Over the last few miles before we reached the new road to the stadium, we passed through some of the poorer suburbs of Istanbul. The reception we got here was astounding. For at least four miles there was a human chain waving us on, all wearing red and white or holding up home made signs saying things like 'Liverpool Champions' & 'Go Liverpool' it was utterly awe-inspiring, and really made us feel welcome. I’m happy to say we were able to put on a show worthy of their hospitality.
I know that the Ataturk stadium is something of a folly, but I can't put into words how badly located it is. If you can imagine building a 90,000 capacity arena at the end of the Snake Pass with nothing else around for miles, you’re getting close. Consequently, a line of buses snaked away to the horizon, and we began to seriously wonder if the game would kick off on time. This didn’t stop the enterprising locals from making a few bob, though. They were driving up alongside the buses on what I suppose was supposed to be the hard shoulder, and selling cold beers from their car windows, a delivery service we took full advantage of.
We got about a mile or so from the stadium and the traffic just came to a standstill, so we took the executive decision to walk the rest of the way, across the cratered surface of the hill on which the Ataturk stadium sits. We climbed over a crash barrier, and joined around 3,000 other reds on the walk across the fields. With the light falling and the stadium glittering in the distance, it actually felt like a pilgrimage to our holy grail. Recalling the same sensation I had felt before we dispatched with Barca in 2001, Roma in 2002 and Chelsea in the semi final just three weeks earlier, I turned to me Da’ and Uncle and said “We're bringing the cup home for good tonight, this just feels right, like destiny"
Did I mention the beer is good in Turkey?!
I managed to take a couple of pictures on the walk in, the quality is poor due to them being from my phone, but this one is quite good, with the light fading, and the stadium glowing like a beacon on the horizon. You can see that the field is full of reds advancing towards the ground. It was a special sight. My dad is the one on the left, and my uncle on the right.
The path to glory
When we got into the stadium we saw that every single seat had a removable fabric cover on the back, with the words "My seat from the 2005 Champions League Final, Istanbul" on them - which I thought was a really nice touch.
Despite having been to Dortmund and experienced the sheer number of supporters we take to these games, there number of reds who had made it into the stadium was overwhelming.
The match itself has passed into a blur, now. I can remember the key moments, but little of anything else. I’ve still not watched the DVD of the final. I do own a copy, but it’s still waiting to be watched. I think I’m secretly scared that we might not actually win it this time!
In the first half I can only really recall the utter dejection I felt upon conceding after only one minute. Was that it? Was it all over before it had begun?
This sense of dread and fear grew, as Milan raced into a two and then three goal lead. As a football fan, and a true red, I had to admire them, and especially the ball from Kaka for the third goal, but it just wasn’t meant to happen this way. This wasn’t what I had expected to happen. This was supposed to be our day, not theirs. My Da’ would later admit to me that he had begun to fear he had let me down – he didn’t think it was right that my first European Cup final should turn out like this.
At half time, I was astounded to see a couple of heated rows break out amongst people nearby. Divisions were appearing between those calling for us to continue to believe and those who were letting their disappointment get the better of them. In at least one instance, blows were exchanged, but the combatants soon saw sense and were embracing each other. I think they were simply looking for someone to blame or take it out on.
Utterly dejected, I trudged off to the toilet. This remains my most surreal experience at a football match, and I suspect it will stay that way for a long time. The was complete silence on the open air concourse behind out seats. No one was talking, nothing was said. Heads were trained on the ground and everyone was in shock. It was like a wake. When I was in the toilet I looked up to see that there was no roof, it was open to the sky. Gazing up at the stars gave me something else to think about, if only for a second, and I began to question if it might be that important. It’s only football, after all…..
I headed back to my seat, and as I reached the brow of the stand I became aware of the faint rumblings of a familiar standard, emerging to the left of me, and I suddenly became acutely aware that the game wasn’t actually over, and more importantly, that it did matter. I hurried back to my family, and joined in the singing. Holding our heads up high, we would not walk alone.
Nine minutes later and we had hope. A headed goal from our leader, and an outside chance at redemption. I wouldn’t go as far as to say we believed the turn around was on, I think there was more of a sense of relief that we had replied, that there was some fight left in us, belief would arrive later, two minutes later.
The Kaiser has the ball at his feet and rolls a pass to Vladdy Smicer, the wee Czech knocks the ball out of his feet and before anyone can shout “don’t shoot you pr!ck”, he unleashes a ferocious drive into the bottom right hand corner of Dida’s goal and the game is well and truly on again. The Milan players are looking around for someone to blame, and the stadium is absolutely bouncing. We can do this.
Four minutes later and Gerrard breaks free into the box, and is clipped by Genarro Gatusso, gifting us a penalty, manna from heaven. As Xabi places the ball, the guy in front of me turns to face me and explains that he can’t watch. I can. I can sense the net bulging already. I trust Xabi. He steps up and hit s a good penalty into the corner of the net, but Dida reaches it – has he not read the script? No matter, as Xabi wins a race for the first and possibly only time in his life and nearly takes the roof off the net with his second attempt. 3-3, inside 15 minutes. Pinch me, I’m dreaming.
The rest of the ninety minutes passes by with us on top, and looking dangerous, but the fourth goal will not come. I try to convince myself that the recently returning Djibril Cisse will get the winner, but I can’t quite manage to believe myself.
26 May 2005
The game moves into extra time, and tired legs begin to take their toll on our boys. Carra cramps up, and the Milan players begin to exert more control on the game. It looks like we could lose, after all that effort.
Then comes the moment that terrifies and elates me, within the space of half a second. The ball breaks to Shevchenko, and his shot is blocked, but the save falls back at his feet and this wonderful player surely cannot miss. We are just minutes from penalties, and one of the most lethal footballers in the world has us on our knees. Thing is, Jerzy Dudek is actually pretty good on his knees (must be that catholic upbringing) and he makes the most ridiculous save I have ever seen. We are still alive, and what’s more, Milan’s spirit is finally, irretrievably, broken.
Full time. Penalties it is.
My mate who was in another part of the stadium told me after the game that the guy next to him was having kittens at this stage. He was really on edge as Serginho stepped up. My mate turns to him and says, cool as you like: “Don’t worry lad, I’ve been here before. Their first one goes over the bar” And so it does.
Our boys – as they always do in penalty shoot outs – play a blinder, scoring three out of the four they take, and with the only one to be saved being Riise’s, which was in fact the best penalty of the night. Milan’s players are feeble, as Jerzy picks them off, and brings the big cup home for good.
My journey home flew by, exchanging texts with reds from all over the world, hugging strangers and laughing at the poor bloke who like us is flying straight home to Liverpool, but unlike us is then taking a cab home, picking up his suitcase and family, heading straight back to the airport and flying to Bodrum for a fortnight’s holiday. Bodrum is about two hours away from Istanbul. It will take him nearly twenty to get there.
We arrived back at John Lennon at 07.00, and I catch the 9.08 train to Sheffield. My friend arranged an interview on radio Sheffield which was a lovely experience. I even mange to play in my regular Thursday game of five-a-side, and we heard my interview in the car on the way there. I crash out later that night at around 10.30/11.00pm - around 65 hours after I woke up.
25 May 2006
A year later I would find myself outside Anfield, sneaking in a crafty fag after the one year anniversary dinner. I got chatting to the Coral’s James Skelly after his band’s performance. It was a conversation fuelled by optimism for the future and the pride we both felt for our magnificent team, our Champions of Europe. I think we all had similar conversations. Well, I know we did.
Think back to those days. Think back, and recall the pride, the pounding of your heart, the way it nearly broke through your ribcage as our boys achieved the impossible.
That feeling will return. It may not happen soon enough for some, but we will return to our perch. We will again rule this continent. We are Liverpool. We will not be denied.