The great French rugby player, Serge Blanco, once compared playing rugby to making love. You had to be considerate of your partner and put your own needs second to the needs of the other. The same kind of ‘logic’ can be applied to supporting Liverpool (steady – James/Chris Mc) although perhaps supporting Liverpool is more like a relationship. You put in so much effort, and you get mostly grief in return, so much so that you often wonder why you bother. But sometimes, there is a rare occasion when it all comes together, when you experience a moment of such pure passion and intensity that you know exactly why you bother. You take those moments and you nurture them and care for them. And it is those moments that sustain you through the lean times and make it all seem worthwhile.
Then sometimes, it’s simply the best ride you’ve had in your life. And I don’t mean a ride on a horse (you’re fired – Rivals admin).
If ever anyone had been cruising for a bruising, it was me. I had endured a five-hour bus journey to get home so that I could be surrounded by friends, rather than watching the pub in some scabby pub populated by Mancs crowing over every misplaced pass and wishing their old buddies Arsenal every success. It had made sense at the time, but I didn’t bargain on Liverpool playing like absolute puddings. The biggest shock of all came in the form of an anonymous performance by Steven Gerrard. It was a surprise to find out that he was still mortal.
The biggest talking point of a low-tempo first half was Stephane Henchoz’s handball. Some people have suggested that it wasn’t deliberate, so it wasn’t a penalty. Well, few people every ‘deliberately’ handle the ball. An instinctive reaction as the ball passes you is not really ‘deliberate’. For me, it was a penalty. We had a similar incident in the recent match against Spurs when Tim Sherwood stuck his arm out as ball went past him and we were all outraged that the ref missed it.
And there’s the rub in Liverpool’s favour. The ref missed it, but it was perfectly reasonable for him to do so. The simple truth is that it looked like it hit the post. Repeated replays during the game didn’t conclusively prove that it had struck his hand and it was only later that evening on Match of the Day that a definitive camera angle was unearthed to show it hit him on the arm.
Not that there was any doubt in the minds of Clive of Mancia or Fat Ron. When rumours were floating around that Fantasy Football League was going to be broadcast on ITV, a man approached Frank Skinner and told him not to do it, because “ITV ruin everything”. It got to the stage in the second half that I thought they were on a pay-per-say contract, where they received dosh for every time they said ‘handball’. To suggest that Henchoz’s second handball was a penalty was ludicrous. Stephane may be a brilliant player, but he doesn’t have eyes in the back of his head!
Now, I don’t think ITV were up for Arsenal, per se. Arsenal haven’t exactly blazed a trail through the Champions League, so they are not flavour of the month in ITV the way Leeds might be. But there’s a stench of the Establishment about their attitude towards Arsenal. This is the club with the marble halls, busts of their managers in the lobby and the team packed to the gills with posh Frenchies. Unreconstructed Trotskyites in the Beeb might not be impressed by the likes of that, but the nouveau riche moneymen in ITV love the whiff of the aristocracy, the scent of blue blood. Liverpool have never been part of any aristocracy – we’re meritocrats – so Arsenal had to be boosted at all costs, even the cost of any shred of credibility that ITV Sport may have had.
Time to climb off my republican soapbox and get back to the game. As I said earlier, we were bloody dire for most of the match. Arsenal weren’t much better initially, but they really turned the screw in the second half. Patrick Vieira in particular was sensational, which partially explains Stevie G’s anonymity. And when Ljungberg raced through to score, that was that. There was going to be no comebacks, and the odds were that they were going to add another. Then Henry slalomed through the defence, and it looked like curtains…when Arsenal look back on how they failed to win, this will be the pivotal moment. The worst thing was not the first miss, which was a great save, but the second one. With Westerveld lying on his arse, all he had to do was roll it into the corner. But somehow he scuffed it and Sami cleared off the line for what seemed like the third time. Actually, it was the third time. Michael Owen would have buried that chance…
When Owen was horsed off the ball by Keown with ten minutes left, a veritable Niagara of despair was poured onto the flickering embers of hope. So I wasn’t investing anything in the free kick which McAllister swung it into the box. When Owen’s shot arrowed into the net, the feeling was one of simple relief. Whatever happened now – and at this stage, extra time seemed the best bet – at least humiliation had been avoided.
But a curious and fortuitous conjunction of circumstances was about to propel us to glory. First, Arsenal were knackered. Their one thousand-year-old back five was beginning to wilt under the May sunshine. Second, it was soul destroying to see Liverpool equalise only ten minutes after they had deservedly taken the lead. Third, they are a dishonest team. Once the head goes down, it stays down, as they demonstrated at Anfield (4-0) and Old Trough (6-1) earlier this season. And finally, Michael Owen had the rage.
When Patrik Berger played that ball over the top, he proved Bob Paisley’s axiom that “there’s no such thing as a long ball or a short ball, only the right ball”. And as Owen rocketed past Lee Dixon, I just knew he was going to score. After all, he had the rage.
If after the first goal there was relief, the reaction after the second goal was pure insanity. “YEEEEESSSSS!!!!! YEEEEESSSSS!!!!! GOOOOOAAAAAAL!!!!! OH, JESUS CHRIST!!!!! OH, MICHAEL OWEN, YOU F*CKIN’ BEAUTY!!!!! YEEEEESSSSSS!!!!!” Or words to that effect. Bear hugs and chest thumping were the order of the day as the euphoria fountained out of us like lava out of Vesuvius. One of my brothers dashed out of the house, unable to contemplate the thought of the inevitable pressure we would have to endure. But in our hearts, we knew we had it won. Arsenal were a beaten team and now the only surprise was that we didn’t add to it. Robbie probably should have but it really didn’t matter.
The final whistle blew, hugs and tears were exchanged with the brother, then I raced to the door, roared out a raucous bellow of triumph, then hared up the road to track down the other bro. And in the post match daze, as we drank in the heady vapours of success, the most pertinent comment of the day belongs to him. “These things just don’t happen to us,” he murmured. And he was right. We’ve underachieved in such spectacular fashion for so many years now that to do what we did just beggars belief. But it is real. And it is so sweet.