Six Times

This was never supposed to happen. No one thought that we had a chance.

Let’s back it up. A year ago, I was in Tokyo, Japan with the rest of my family to visit my sister, who works there. Against all odds, Liverpool Football Club had reached the Champions League final.

It had been something of a weird season, 2017/2018. Liverpool were progressing steadily in the League, managing to secure 4th place, the bare minimum expected of a club of this size. The season began with the Virgil Van Dijk transfer saga, which dragged on until January 2018.

For a team whose biggest problem up till that point had been its defence, Virgil the Colossus single-handedly transformed the team. With him marshalling the backline,

Liverpool swept aside Porto, turned English champions Manchester City inside out, and went past a very good Roma side, with one Alisson Becker in goal (more on him later). Then we faced Real Madrid in the final.

Wait. Before we get to that, let’s back it up a bit more. Like 2005 back. More than a decade ago.

The Miracle of Istanbul

Mention 2005 to any Liverpool fan, and they will immediately respond “Istanbul”. A genuine miracle took place that night.

One side had a team of living legends, with hallowed names like Nesta, Maldini, Pirlo and Shevchenko. The other was Liverpool, with the likes of Milan Baros and Djimi Traore.

But a 3-0 lead for AC Milan turned into a stunning 3-3 comeback and then Liverpool won it on penalties, and Steven Gerrard and Rafa Benitez became permanently etched into the folklore of this great club.

There are two things I want to highlight about this miraculous match. The first was how unexpected it was. Liverpool last won the European Cup in 1984, their fourth, and lost a final in tragic circumstances to Juventus in between. 21 long years, and Rafa Benitez wins it in his first ever season in charge.

I was 17 years old, and I can remember every single second of that match as if it was yesterday. I can remember how Paolo Maldini scored in the first minute, how Jerzy Dudek tumbled over for Crespo’s second, and the through ball by Kaka that went past Carragher’s despairing outstretched leg for the third. I can also see Gerrard’s looping header, Vladi Smicer’s bulging eyes and Baros nearly breaking Alonso’s neck. I can see Traore’s block off the line and Dudek’s save from Shevchenko at point blank range, and the way he wobbled his legs on the penalty line.

To the victor go the spoils

Because you see, if you win a big trophy with Liverpool, you become immortal. That isn’t exaggeration. For as long as the club exists, 40, 60, 80 years from now, your mighty deeds will be remembered.

The older generation of fans still remember Tommy Smith’s thumping header in Rome in 1977. They still remember Kenny Dalglish’s dink to beat Club Brugge, Alan Kennedy’s drive to beat Real Madrid, Bruce Grobbelaar’s original wobbly legs against Roma. What they did echoes in eternity.

Likewise, fans of my generation will remember Smicer, Riise, Alonso, Carragher, and Gerrard of the rest of our lives. Those memories are burned into our brain. For as long as we live, Istanbul will be associated with glory.

StevieG

Two sides of a coin

But you see the dark side of that, don’t you?

Because if you get to a final, and somehow lose…then no one will remember what you did to get there.

It’s cruel, but it’s a fact of football. Nobody remembers the second placed teams. Nobody remembers the runners-up. No matter what they might have achieved, no one remembers the losers. Winning is all that matters in the long run.

The Tragedy of Athens

I dare say fewer people will even remember that Liverpool managed to reach a second European Cup final under Rafa Benitez, 2007 in Athens, Greece. For my money, this was an even bigger feat than his 2005 heroics because Liverpool had come under the cancerous ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillette, and the club was suffering.

With very little money, Rafa managed to cobble together a team of journeymen like Peter Crouch, Jermaine Pennant and Bolo Zenden to make it to another final.

Liverpool lost, coincidentally to AC Milan. I have not watched a single minute of that match since the final whistle blew. The memories are too painful for me to bear. I can remember specific commentary lines from Istanbul, I have more or less blocked out what happened in Athens. And perhaps unfairly, whatever the team did to get there. I couldn’t tell you today who we beat in the semi final or quarters. It’s just too painful to relive.

Immortality is assured

So you see, the line dividing immortality from oblivion is so fine. But that’s football.

Istanbul was a miracle, but fans celebrating on that day could never have guessed it was to be the high point of Rafa’s reign. His career at the club ended in acrimony and heartbreak, and we never really lived up to the heights of that first great triumph.

But the thing is, no one really cares about that today. All we care about is that Rafa won number 5 and gave us the right to sing about Istanbul until the end of our days. No matter what else happened, he was a European champion. And nobody can take that away from him.

It is the ultimate trump card, the final argument. Once you have won either the league or the European Cup, your greatness is never in doubt.

RafaNumber5

A New Hope

So now we can fast forward to 2018 and Kiev and Jurgen Klopp in charge. Liverpool had zero chance to win the league but hey — we were just one game away from European glory. It must be mentioned at this point that Jurgen Klopp had already reached two finals with Liverpool, the League Cup and the Europa League, and he’d lost both.

Liverpool fans could see the hard work being put in, the team that was slowly beginning to take shape. The potential for greatness was there, if people would only be patient. Klopp replaced a fairly popular manager in Brendan Rodgers, who had come close to winning the league in 2014, but lost by just 2 points.

Again, Rodgers came close, but he couldn’t quite get it done. The amazing performances of Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez would not have that final triumph to underline things.

Despite the good work Klopp had done and the progress made, losing those two finals meant that the critics had ample ammunition to make their case that maybe he was a busted flush. It didn’t help that he’d lost another European Cup final in his previous job with Borussia Dortmund. Rival fans, of course, mocked Klopp for this supposed weakness, and he began to get a reputation as a ‘bottler’, someone who can’t get the job done when it matters most.

But for those of us who kept the faith, we could see the transformation taking place. And I will digress a little bit here and say how amazing it is that we have someone of impeccable character who understands the heart, soul and traditions of the club to represent us and to manage the team.

I’ve only felt this way about three other people, first was Rafa with Liverpool, then President Barack Obama and Chris Evans/Captain America. It’s amazing to believe in something so deeply, and having the best person imaginable embody those values and fighting hard for those ideals. Get a man like that leading you, and he can topple empires. Or build them.

If you understand that, you’ll understand why us fans want so desperately for Klopp to taste success with Liverpool. It’s the combination of:

  1. Not having won anything in such a long time.
  2. Wanting Klopp to succeed as a reward for his hard work and spotless character.
  3. Wanting to shut up the critics who pour scorn on him.

So things were set up for that night in Kiev. After a struggle, Klopp had gotten his man in Van Dijk, who specifically came to Liverpool because he believed in the project and believed in what Klopp was doing. For me, watching in Tokyo on the other side of the world, it felt like it was our turn and our time.

And what unfolded next was a horror show.

Horror

Sergio Ramos, may his name be cursed forever, dislocated Salah’s shoulder by wrestling him to the ground. And what’s even worse, he deliberately elbowed Loris Karius in the head, causing a concussion which may have led to his two mistakes that led to Real Madrid’s goals.

Liverpool played really well. But it wasn’t enough. And just like 2007, I have not watched a single second of the 2018 final since. It’s just too painful to contemplate, moreso when I see pictures of Salah crying or Oxlade-Chamberlain hobbling around on his crutches.

SalahCry

Kiev was destined to be forgotten, buried in the depths of history like Athens was. But you guessed it, rival fans and football writers never let us forget it. It seemed like Klopp was gaining an unwanted reputation for losing finals, for coming up to the finish line but never quite crossing it.

I was absolutely crushed, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t enjoy walking around the streets of Tokyo.

The Resurgence

But the club didn’t wallow in misery for too long. Just two days later, they announced the signing of Fabinho, an imperious defensive midfielder coveted by Manchester United. It shook the fans out of their funk and got them talking about next season’s chances.

Naby Keita finally joined, after a year’s delay. And most excitingly, Klopp goes and buys Alisson Becker from Roma, replacing Karius. For all his compassion, Klopp displayed the streak of ruthlessness that all great managers must have. Concussion or not, Karius wasn’t up to the standard of a Liverpool first teamer. So an upgrade was needed.

The highs and lows of our 2018/2019 Premier League season is worth an entire book on its own, but suffice to say for the first time in 29 long damn years, I thought we had a chance to win the bloody thing. After miraculous comeback victories and assured performances, it seemed like this amazing team and manager could finally break the curse and bring the title home.

Man City just needed to draw one game. Just one. But they mowed down team after team, beat Man United, and were neck-and-neck with Liverpool. It all came to a head during a week in early May. We were running out of games. Our last realistic hope was for Man City to drop points against Leicester, managed by none other than Brendan Rodgers. After Rafa and even Roy Hodgson had taken points off City earlier in the season, wouldn’t it be fitting if Rodgers could do us one last favour?

Leicester played well. But Vincent Kompany, a man who never scored, suddenly produced a goal from a long range shot out of nowhere. Then Leicester forward Iheanacho missed an open goal when it would have been easier to score. Everyone was utterly deflated.

It looked like we had lost the league. But Europe also seemed out of the question.

While Liverpool were performing heroics in the league, our European campaign seemed more difficult. Unlike last year when we easily topped the group stages, Liverpool didn’t do so well and had to fight to the last day to qualify for the knockout stages. A nervy 1-0 win over Napoli sealed the deal, featuring an incredible, point-blank reaction save from Alisson. Without that save, we wouldn’t have progressed.

Then came a stunning victory over the mighty Bayern Munich, Klopp’s old German nemesis, where Liverpool scored 3 on their ground. Porto, the Portuguese league champions, were summarily dispatched.

But then we came up against the Spanish champions, Barcelona. I didn’t watch the first leg because well, there was work the next day, and I was confident Liverpool would win easily. Sure, they had Lionel Messi the best player in the world, our own former hero Suarez, and Phil Coutinho, who had fought hard to leave Liverpool and join his ‘dream team’ in the search of glory. 3-0, I told my mum, before going to bed.

I was right. But not for the right reason. I woke up and stared at the result in shock. Liverpool had been beaten 3-0. As I read match reports, it appeared that Liverpool had actually played well. But they had been desperately unlucky, and had to overcome a 3-0 deficit in the second leg.

A mountain to climb

So picture the scene. We were 3-0 down. Man City had overcome all obstacles and would probably win the league. Liverpool had been run ragged by a determined Newcastle team managed by Rafa, who as professional as he was, wouldn’t dream of doing us any favours. In fact, it took Origi a last minute wonder goal to get the three points and take the league fight to the final day.

But the straw that broke the camel’s back was Firmino’s injury and Salah’s concussion. Both were ruled unfit to play against Barcelona.

It was laughably bad how stacked the odds were against us. We were hilariously, hopelessly, outgunned.

I felt so down that I messaged Mike about it.

SadWhatsapp

Klopp himself said in his press conference:

“Two of our best strikers will not be available and we have to score four goals.

That doesn’t make life any easier, but we’ll try. If we can’t do it, let’s fail in the most beautiful way.”

I even considered missing the match, getting some much-needed sleep, and checking the score the next day.

But by a stroke of luck, there was a big debate in Parliament that night so I thought I’d just stay up to write a story and then tough it out and watch the match anyway.

Let me tell you, I was feeling especially miserable, doing work while convinced that it was the end of Liverpool’s season.

One last gasp of glory.

Then the unthinkable happened.

The Miracle of Anfield

Instead of Salah and Firmino, we had to rely on Xherdan Shaqiri and meme hero Divock Origi. Liverpool had achieved miraculous comebacks at Anfield before. Fairclough vs St Etienne in 1977. Steven Gerrard vs Olympiakos in 2004. Dejan Lovren vs Barcelona in 2017.

But this was asking too much, surely. Barcelona had a 3-0 lead and Lionel Messi, the greatest player on the planet. Liverpool had to score 3 just to level the tie. If Barcelona scored even 1 goal, Liverpool had to score 5 overall just to win, as their official Twitter account helpfully pointed out.

And yet. Maybe. Just maybe.

There was a feeling that if we could get an early goal, anything could happen.

And then Origi did get an early goal, and it was off to the races.

DivockBarcaFirstGoal

Liverpool played perhaps the greatest game they had all season. The individual performances were note-perfect. The team effort was immense.

Gini Wijnaldum, who had played so poorly in the first leg at Barcelona, was subbed on and promptly scored two more goals to level the tie.

Barcelona looked shell-shocked. Messi, the god of football, suddenly looked mortal. Luis Suarez, who had taunted our players and injured Robertson, was left helpless. Great names like Rakitic, Vidal and Dembele looked completely out of ideas.

Georginio-Wijnaldum-Liverpool

And then, a moment of pure magic.

Trent Alexander-Arnold, the local lad from Liverpool won a corner.

He noticed that the Barcelona team were still getting into position. But somehow, perhaps by telepathy, Divock Origi sensed that Trent was going to try something.

He acted nonchalant and “walked away” from the corner, ostensibly to let Shaqiri take it.

Before anyone could respond, Trent doubled back and whipped the ball into the box. Origi guided it into the net. And Anfield erupted.

TrentCorner

It was a play not from a million-dollar training academy, it wasn’t invented by world-class tactical coaches or practiced to perfection.

It came from pure instinct, something that a kid might try while mucking about on the streets of Liverpool. And it fucking worked.

Liverpool hung on and when the final whistle blew, the reality of what we’d accomplished had sunk in. We were going to Madrid.

Screen Shot 2019-06-09 at 7.03.01 PM

The players lined up to sing a special You’ll Never Walk Along together with the crowd.

We’re going to Madrid

Think about what it meant to someone like Salah, who said it was his boyhood dream to win the Champions League, but had been cruelly denied in Kiev. He wasn’t even on the pitch, couldn’t affect the result, but his teammates had done it for him.

Think about what it meant to someone like Henderson, who got whacked on the knee during the match but took injections and painkillers at half time just so he could keep running even in the 90th minute. He was mocked as the worst captain Liverpool ever had. But here he was, leading his team to back-to-back European Cup finals.

And guys like Fabinho and Alisson, who were in their first seasons at the club. They were finalists. For someone like Fabinho, who came from Monaco with a tiny stadium and crowd, he looked overwhelmed by the passion of the crowd.

You see, the result meant that this wasn’t the end of our season. We still had something to fight for. Everything had changed in an instant.

No matter what happened in the league, even if Man City crushed our dreams, it no longer mattered as much.

We were still going to Madrid.

Madrid is Red

A hundred thousand Scousers and honorary Scousers alike invaded the Spanish capital, thronging the streets and plazas.

Despite the dire predictions of other rivals, there was hardly any violence or clashes with the police. The fans just wanted to drink a few beers and sing along to Jamie Webster, who was having the time of his life.

Tottenham’s players had been in Madrid for a few days, soaking up the atmosphere. This was their first ever CL final.

Liverpool, on the other hand, chose to treat it like an ordinary away game, and flew in the day before.

Liverpool were the favourites, but Tottenham were a good team with the potential to pull off an upset, as they demonstrated against Man City and Ajax. Although Liverpool beat them twice in the league, they were tough and close-run affairs. Anything could happen.

I was lucky to be so busy in the lead up to the match. I had a couple of interviews and lots of other work to do. This meant that I couldn’t engage in my usual pre-final activities and rituals, which largely consisted of freaking the hell out.

I couldn’t think about what I’d feel if we’d lost. I just couldn’t. I think that disappointment would be too much to bear.

The day before the final, I rushed out an interview so I could enjoy the pre-match festivities with a clear conscience.

Unfortunately I fell asleep and woke up somewhere around nighttime. The match was a couple of hours away.

The final

This was it. 90 minutes, possibly more, that would decide whether millions of fans around the world would be ecstatic, or devastated. This would be a battle, no-holds barred, with the players ready to leave everything on the field.

Then 20 seconds passed and Sadio Mane wins a penalty.

SadioPeno

Up steps Mohamed Salah. He had to limp off in Kiev. His chance to stamp his mark in Madrid.

One shot past Lloris, and he made history.

SalahScores

That goal settled some nerves…nah this was the friggin’ Champions League final, there was nothing of the sort. It would be a long 88 minutes to go. A true contest of the elite.

Liverpool and Tottenham then proceeded to play some of the worst football anyone had seen all season.

No one could figure it out. Was it the heat? The long break from the end of the season to the final? Whatever it was, both sides looked terrible. Firmino, in particular, had missed out the last three matches before this due to injury. Gini, the hero of Barcelona, was anonymous.

Off came Firmino after the break for the other hero of Barcelona, Divock Origi.

The Redemption of Divock Origi

Origi in particular had an interesting journey in football. In 2015 he was named as one of the worst players in the year in the French League.

His promising new start with Liverpool was cruelly disrupted by Funes fucking Mori, an Everton player who deliberately snapped his ankle.

FuckFunesMori

After he returned from injury, Origi struggled to regain form, and was loaned out to a couple of clubs.

At the beginning of the season, Wolves bid £15 million for Origi. And Klopp accepted.

Think about what that meant. The boss was telling him that he was surplus to requirements. Origi had his chance, and it was gone. Even if stayed on, he would have to get past the best attacking trio in the world, Mane, Salah and Firmino. Any sensible person would have taken the chance for a fresh start at a new club.

Divock Origi was not that person. He told Klopp that he wanted to stay, even if there were no guarantees about his playing time. So he stayed.

He didn’t make much of an impact on the season until his brilliant, last-minute goal at Anfield against Everton which became an instant classic of a meme.

OrigiEvertonGoal

Then his last-gasp header against Newcastle, which earned him a reputation as a clutch player, someone who could produce the goods in the big games.

And THEN, the Barcelona game. I’ve already gone over the sheer genius of Trent’s corner. But let’s not forget the skill it took for Origi to realise what was going on, get himself into the right position while not tipping off the Barca defence, and guide the incredibly fast ball into the net. Origi was already a hero. But remember, if we didn’t win the whole thing, the shine would be taken off his heroics just a little.

Then came the final, the biggest game of his life, and what do you know, the mad bastard only goes and scores again to set the seal on our victory.

And he celebrated with about the same cool, bemused enthusiasm as you might expect from someone scoring a goal in a meaningless friendly game. Someone like Henderson would have started tearing his shirt off. But maybe that’s Origi’s secret. By remaining calm, he delivers when it matters the most.

OrigiGif

The trophy lift

When the final whistle blew, guys like Van Dijk and Fabinho collapsed onto the grass, overwhelmed with the weight of the moment.

Milner screamed at the crowd, eyes and veins bulging. He had won every trophy there was to win in a journeyman career, playing at every position Klopp had asked him to. He had been mocked by Man City fans for missing out on trophies. Yet he was a European champion, something Man City had never achieved in their entire history.

Milly

Henderson ran over to hug his father, Brian Henderson. It was later revealed that Brian was suffering from cancer, and he had deliberately refused to let Hendo come and visit him lest he get distracted from his playing career. But together, they could celebrate at last.

Henderdad

There were so many of these stories. Salah, winning the one trophy he dreamed of while traveling four hours every day from his village to Cairo to train. Gini, dedicating the win to the grandmother who raised him and kept him off the streets. Robbo, plucked from obscurity to literally morph into the best left-back in world football. Mignolet and Lovren, who lost their first team spots but remained loyal members of the squad. A youngster like Rhian Brewster, a champion before he even played a minute for the club.

But out of all these stories, I think three resonated the most.

Henderson, our captain. The last survivor of King Kenny’s second reign at the club. Vilified by the press, by Sir Alex Ferguson, even by some Liverpool “fans”. He struggled with injuries and being asked to play in an unfamiliar position. He was derided as the worst captain in Liverpool’s proud history. But now he would forever be remembered as one of the five great men to have captained Liverpool to European glory.

Emlyn Hughes. Phil Thompson. Graeme Souness. Steven Gerrard. And now, Jordan Henderson.

Captains Courageous

Second, Trent Alexander-Arnold. Ever since Gerrard and Carragher left the club, Liverpool hadn’t had a true Scouser join the ranks. It is difficult for any youngster to make it at the club, the standards are so high. Liverpool have a global youth network with talent from all over the world. So can you imagine how rare it is for someone from the city itself rise through the ranks and claim a spot in the first team?

And how rare is it that this particular player is one of the best in world football? Fans would have been happy with a good Scouse player breaking through and perhaps becoming a solid, reliable member of the squad. But Trent is genuinely world class. There’s no question of him being given a spot just because of his roots, he’s earned it by himself.

And if that wasn’t enough, he isn’t even 21 years old! It’s frightening to think how good he will be with experience and maturity over time.

He is a future captain and a hometown hero, and the club is lucky to have him.

TAA

Most of all though, is vindication for the boss. Jurgen Norbert Klopp.

I’ve talked before about how Klopp had been mocked as a loser, and how he is the perfect fit for his post. So suffice it to say that having him win the biggest prize in club football is one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever seen in my life.

No matter what happens from now on, no matter what, Jurgen Klopp has won the European Cup for Liverpool. And no one can take that away from him. He has written his name in the history books. And his achievement will never fade from memory.

Fab Four

And what of us, the fans?

The pain and the heartbreak and the loss and the fear and the doubt and the fragility of hope?

Well now we have our answer. Now we could let it all go in one cathartic, massive shout.

We’ve conquered all of Europe.

We’re never going to stop.

LFCChampions

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