Remembering Istanbul

5 years ago tonight, Liverpool played AC Milan in the Champions League final. It was to be one of the greatest games of football ever played. This is what I remember...

Let me tell you a story of young team
Who were sent far away from their home
To fight for their fans in that country
And also the red folks back home.


It was half-time on a cold December night, and we were lost in a desert.
We needed to score three goals in the 2nd half against Olympiakos. The ruins of our season stretched before us like a barren landscape. Then when all seemed lost, two rookie strikers appeared and the captain conjured a wonderstrike.
And then we noticed something, faraway on the horizon, an oasis?

At the time, even our captain didn't believe the oasis was real, but we had little else to walk towards. When our thirst took us past Leverkusen, the oasis came closer. Then our brilliant general masterminded the improbable conquest of Juve and Chelsea's mighty legions. And so it was that one night in May we finally reached the lush oasis that had once seemed so impossibly far away.

We sang and stared longingly at its silvery surface, mesmerised by our accomplishment. But still it shimmered, unreal, like a figment of a half-remembered dream. One final act was required - that would distinguish glory from mirage.
We needed to beat AC Milan.

1 - Requiem for a Dream

They put them in a champions' division
Sent them off to a far foreign land
Where the fans swarm around in their thousands
And there's nothing to see but the sand.

Sadly I wasn't in Istanbul, so I would watch the game in the legendary Extra Time Bar in London. Obviously a lot of people had the same idea, I arrived 90 minutes before kick-off and had to queue to get in, all 3 floors were already almost packed to the rafters. This was not a place for the agoraphobic.

We watched Sky's pre-match build-up with growing anticipation, we had plenty of dreams and songs to sing. When the line-up appears there's a buzz of excitement as Rafa's attacking intentions are revealed. The Italians won't know what's hit them! Someone nearby starts humming the Ring of Fire, which spreads contagiously until everybody joins in.

We kick off amid a roar of noise, but Djimi immediately gives the ball away and fouls his man trying to recover. We can scarcely believe it when Maldini hammers in the resulting cross. Imagine a party, everyone's having fun, when the music suddenly stops and someone announces the host's mother has died. Our carnival atmosphere deflates like a runaway balloon.

A minute later our resolve has returned. Hands are clapped. Come on you Reds!

But Milan are making our limited attacks look pretty feeble, spearing balls into our defence left, right and centre. With Sheva and Crespo constantly threatening to burst past the last man, our previously rock solid defence now seems made of plasticine. Then from a corner Crespo has a free header - Luis Garcia clears off the line. Bloody hell!
Eyes are rubbed, heads are shaken.

By now the wheels had well and truly fallen off our attacking plan, and Harry Kewell limps off to be replaced by Vladi Smicer. Plenty of phrases spring to mind now, but 'strength in depth' is not one of them.

Our unimaginative attacking, with Baros marooned up front, contrasts embarrassingly with our opponents, whose midfield moves forward as a unit, with two quick outlets scaring us witless. Poor passing and lack of movement means the Reds can't keep the ball, and when Milan have it we're chasing shadows.

Worries increase when Kaka bursts forward, and plays through Sheva who finishes expertly. We breathe again when the sympathetic linesman gives us the benefit of the doubt and flags him offside. Nervous smiles all round.

Suddenly Garcia breaks into the box, and Nesta blocks it with his arm.
Expectant shouts! But no pen! With more Reds watching the Ref than Kaka, Milan sweep forward again, Sheva beats Djimi, squares to Crespo who couldn't miss even in a Chelsea shirt. Oh bollocks.

And it's all gone quiet over there.

With few tackles to worry about Milan move into exhibition mode.
Kaka slides a long pass behind Carra's despairing lunge - no flag this time - and Crespo chips it in with his first touch. Oh fuck.

On Sky, Andy Gray announces "Game well and truly over".
Around me there are no shouts of disagreement, just bowed heads.
Hundreds of red-shirted people stand silently about me.
It's like being at the Pope's funeral.

We had reached the oasis, knelt at the water's edge, bowed and kissed the silver surface... and tasted sand.

The half-time whistle goes, and our dreams lie in ruins.
Having come so far, we curse the mirage's cruel capriciousness.

With no Reds highlights to watch and plenty of adverts, most fans seem to spend the interval sending text messages. Here's a quick summary of what I received:
Fuck. Gutted. WTF! Screwed. Shit. Bollocks. All over.

Basically, we are dead.

2 - Testament to a Miracle

As we lay on the battlefield dying, dying, dying
With the blood rushing out of our heads, of our heads
As we lay on the battlefield dying
These were the last words we said...

"Remember Garcia's against Juve?" ... Oh yes.
"Carra against Del Piero!" ... Awesome.
"The Kop against Chelsea!" ... Oh mate.

At the interval the mood is changing from gloom to rueful resignation as drinks are ordered and memories are replayed.

It might only have been a mirage, but it had led us on a wonderful journey. It had made us believe such adventures were possible again. How lucky we were to catch sight of that oasis when we were stumbling so hopelessly in the wilderness.

Whilst the dream might be in ruins, we were here to support our heroes and 45 minutes of our season remained. We had our pride to play for. No one was leaving, the bar remained packed, but subdued.

Coverage from the Ataturk resumes, and news comes in: Finnan is off and Didi is on – we’re going to a back three, just like we did against the Greeks. Heads nod. Interesting.

But the 2nd half doesn't get off to an auspicious start. Jerzy spills a simple cross. Groans. Milan humiliated Barca 4-0 in the '94 final, and we're now battling to avoid the same shame.

But now there's something different about the Reds coming forward. Instead of isolated raids, now we have 6 men in enemy territory, with commando captain Stevie G at the front-line harassing the enemy. A bit of pressure and the ball begins to ricochet off white shirts. One chance falls to Xabi who rifles a shot just wide.
A consolation goal looks distinctly possible.

Our momentum is interrupted by another Djimi Traore mistake, Kaka bursts through and Sami brings him down just outside the box. Sheva blasts in the free-kick, but Jerzy pulls off an amazing late low save.

That was the tipping point, when everything changed.

From their corner we win the ball back. Didi and Xabi work it neatly forward before picking out Riise. He crosses - it's blocked, he tries again and Super Steve heads into the top corner. Get in!
We explode into noise; we've an hour's pent-up emotion to release.
Captain Fantastic pumps his arms, "Come on! Come on!" he yells to his troops. We need little motivation. "Oh when the Reds! Go marching in!" You know the words.

And we'd just started singing the Fields of Anfield Road when Hamann feeds Vlad on the edge of the box - and holy fuck - it's 3-2!
"Come on! Come on!" I scream at the screen. "This is football!"

We're at fever pitch now, strangers are shaking each other by the shoulders, geeing each other up, the noise is deafening.
"Come on! Come on! We can do this!"

Now the Reds really are working like lions and fighting like tigers.
We hustle the ball off a white shirt and flood forward again.
Baros backheels to Gerrard, and he's clean through!
But Gattuso hacks him down!
It's as clear a penalty as night follows day.
Bedlam breaks out as the ref points to the spot.

Xabi Alonso steps up amid a din of clapping, cheering and shouting.
Shouts of anguish turn into delirious cheering as Dida saves only for Xabi to hammer in the rebound.

3 goals in 6 minutes. What a comeback!
As one, our massive crowd is jumping, dancing, singing, yelling, embracing.
The place is in ferment. "Come on! Come on!"

And there's still 30 minutes to play. Next, Riise goes for glory.
Dida saves, but we shout out John Arne's song anyway. The carnival atmosphere is back. YNWA echoes around the stadium and into homes and pubs around the world.

But back come Milan, and disaster! Jerzy spills an easy catch at Sheva's feet. Amazingly Djimi gets back to clear Sheva's shot off the line!
Around me, a hundred voices sigh in relief. Shamefully, Djimi doesn't have a song of his own for us to sing, so a chorus of his name has to suffice.

But now Milan aren't finding it so easy any more. Didi continues to intercept their probing passes and harass those who venture too close.

It's end to end now, a classic Stevie G Hollywood ball finds Garcia, but he can't control it. 30 seconds later Jerzy hesitates, Sheva gets in behind and is about to square to Kaka to score, when Carra appears from nowhere to pick the cross off his feet with a last-gasp tackle.

10 minutes left, and the bar now looks like a marathon finishing line, a crowd of haggard looking fans in red Reebok jerseys, faces drenched with sweat. For a few minutes the Reds produce a bit of "Ole!" football and we can get our breath back.

Oh no! Here they come again, Sheva carves us apart - whoa! thank fuck - there's Carra with another brilliant slide tackle 10 yards out. From the corner Stam flashes a header across goal - Kaka gets a touch and we're almost solksjaered - but it flashes wide. I notice a lot of my fellow fans now have hair reminiscent of Doc Brown in the Back to the Future movies.

Injury time finishes with Milan in the ascendancy. We seem to have settled for extra time; maybe Rafa fancies our chances against Milan's tired old legs.

Mind you, by now those in Red shirts aren't looking too spritely either.
Our dynamism isn't helped by our inspirational captain having to play at right-back. But it's a wise move by Rafa. In the space of 10 minutes Super Steve saves enough of our bacon for a super-sized fry-up.

Out of the blue a long ball arcs over Traore, and Newcastle-reject Tomasson half-connects and slices wide. Ouch. This is torture.

After 15 minutes of mostly Milan pressure, Smicer collapses with cramp.
I know exactly how he feels.

The 2nd period begins with a few forays into Milanese territory, but we don't commit enough forward so Milan win the ball back easily and continue to dominate possession.

10 minutes to go, and Carra stretches to make yet another last-gasp clearance before collapsing clutching his groin. Worldwide, every Red holds their breath. Stevie G moves to centre-back until our hero limps back onto the pitch. A minute later, Carra stretches to make another crucial interception. What a hero.

6 minutes to go. And Pirlo almost breaks through but Didi blocks him just outside the box. It's now obvious that the Reds are knackered, and that we're not saving ourselves for a final minute sucker-punch cavalry charge. We'll defend what we have.

Then, in the 118th minute, all was lost.

Finally one of Milan's crosses makes it through, and Sheva's bullet header from 8 yards is brilliantly saved by Jerzy.
But the ball falls at Sheva's feet.
And I saw him fire in the rebound from 2 yards out.
Gutted, my insides lurched. We'd lost. After all that, we'd been solksjaered.

I can barely believe my eyes when the replay shows Jerzy throwing out a hand to deflect Sheva's shot over the bar. It's the most astonishing save I've ever seen. A true wondersave. Unbelievably against all the odds, we are still alive.

Our incredible reprieve lifts us and the superb Didi Hamann charges forward, and Vlad wins a free-kick in the very last minute. We sing Riise's song, hoping for a fairytale ending. But not this time.

The final whistle blows for one of greatest cup finals of all time.

Diego Maradona comments afterwards:
"Even the Brazil team that won the 1970 World Cup could not have staged a comeback with Milan leading 3-0."

3 - Coda

So, how confident were you?
Did you believe?

We were facing a team of superstars who'd already won this competition on penalties.
At the Milan fans’ end.
Against Dida, the penalty save expert.
And we'd missed 7 of our last 15 penalties.
Including one less than an hour ago.
So, no problems then.

Of the 22 players on the field, 21 look like they're eating lemons.
But one is wearing a wide grin and having a laugh with his coaching staff: Jerzy Dudek. Bizarrely, Carra runs over to Jerzy and starts waving his arms. We'd soon discover what that was all about.

Meanwhile in London the noise is back. We shake each other shouting 'Believe!', clench fists and kiss badges. Huddles are forming mimicking the players in the centre circle. All around expressions range from stunned, to petrified, to expectant, to manic.
Here we go.

Serginho steps up first.
And amazingly Jerzy begins to run through an aerobics routine on his goal-line! This obviously brings back bad memories for the Brazilian, who completely bottles it and puts the ball into row F.
We react with restrained cheers; mindful our lads are hardly penalty kings either.

Our first kick is Didi versus Dida.
In contrast to Jerzy, Dida looks like he's been turned to stone, a bloody huge stone mind you.
Didi missed a pen in Cardiff, but he's obviously been practicing with the national team, he puts his kick into the corner.
Gasps of relief.

Next up is Pirlo, a dead-ball specialist.
Now Jerzy's dancing on the line. Pirlo does the Aldo shuffle but chokes, Jerzy guesses right and saves his weak shot.
Our wild cheers segue into a high volume rendition of "We've got a Big Pole in our Goal!"

Next up is Djibril Cisse.
Seven months ago he was minutes away from having a foot amputated.
Now he completes the fairytale comeback by sending Dida the wrong way.
Now we're really celebrating.

Now it's Tomasson's turn.
He ignores Jerzy's impression of a man guiding in a jumbo jet and blasts it home.

Riise steps forward next.
We expect him to blast it, but the huge Brazilian goalie gets his fingertips to the placed shot.
Doh! Heads are slapped, hair is ruffled.

Kaka takes the next kick.
Jerzy does the Brucie homage wobbly legs routine this time. But Kaka ignores him and contemptuously knocks it in the top corner. Ooooh.

There are nervous gasps - we know the next kick is crucial one.
And up steps Vlad, for what is probably his last kick in a Red shirt.
Gerrrinthere! He secures lifetime cult hero status by sending Dida the wrong way.
After jumping up and down for a while we remind everyone in earshot that he's Czech, great and really good friends with Patrik Berger.

And so Sheva must score.
Our small huddle holds its breath.
Jerzy stretches, wobbles, then crouches…
The European Footballer of the Year drives it straight and hard...
Jerzy has already dived, but flicks out a hand...

How can I possibly describe what happened next?

Basically, the place went berserk.
Jumping, screaming, cheering and yelling.
An explosion of noise.
Then came the random hugging of strangers.
Then came the exclamations of achievement.
Then came the singing.
I can do the experience pathetically little justice.
You had to be there.

What a night.

We'd created a legend, and several hundred million around the world witnessed it.
We saw Stevie G kiss the Cup, and found the dream was real after all.


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