As Emile Heskey rose salmon-like to meet Danny Murphy’s freekick, the laws of space and time were once again stretched to their elastic limit by forty thousand feverish Red minds. While not wanting to sound like I’m speaking for everyone, how many of us must have dwelled in that glorious picosecond before the ball crossed the line on how high he was jumping, it looked like he was hovering, what had happened to the Roma defence, they gave him so much room, oh good connection Emile, classic downward header, damn the goalie has gotten a hand to it, hang on it’s crossed the line.
Then Anfield exploded.
Regular readers of these meanderings, or people who know me (not the same thing at all) will know that I’m the Cassandra of the pundit world, constantly fretting over the impending Armageddon that no one else seems to see and storing up multiple stress-induced cardiac arrests for the not-too-distant future. But on Tuesday, everything was different. We were going to absolutely bladder Roma, even if it meant the Kop literally blowing the ball into the net. When one of the office Bluenoses – bitter as lemon-flavoured Tetley’s, but not a bad sort for all of that – waved the spectre of defeat in my face, I looked her straight in the eye and firmly corrected her illusions. We were going to win. It was as simple as that.
The impending return of Houllier was always likely to be the catalyst for a great European night, but this particular part-time Kopite has an odd confession to make. I never actually knew Ged was back! We all stood there, our bits of the mosaic defiantly held aloft, but at no point did the decibel level rise to indicate that any of us had spotted his arrival. Talk about oozing class. Rather than engaging in an exercise in milking the adulation for what it was worth, and who could have blamed him if he had done that, he simply resumed his seat as if he had embarrassingly stepped out to the toilet during a big game.
So the stage was set. Now all we needed was the Reds to deliver. Maybe things might have been different had an early goal not arrived, but it did. The penalty was another indication that this was our night, as Antonioli in the Roma goal flung himself to his left so quickly that even standing on the Kop we could see that he had exposed himself. Jari duly rolled the ball into the other corner. Whether he adjusted his shot to account for such a telegraphing of intentions is a moot point, but Litmanen certainly has the ability and the sense of cool to do just that.
The remainder of the game is mostly a blur at this stage, but the feeling persists that at no stage did it seem unlikely that the Reds wouldn’t get that second goal and as Emile Heskey rose salmon-like (see above) to give us what we craved, pandemonium swept around the famous old stadium. Even the crusties in the Main Stand put away their carpet slippers and knitting to join in the revelry. Standing in the Lower Centenary, whatever is the world coming to!
Initial thoughts were along the lines that things could actually get better for the Reds this season, what with a European Cup quarter-final to come and – whisper it – a tilt at the title. Further retrospection however leads to the inevitable conclusion that, in terms of atmosphere, this was as good as it gets. The return of Houllier was always likely to spark off a conflagration, and few teams other than the Serie A champions are likely to kick us off in such a grand manner, especially when you consider the mysticism that surrounds Roma in Liverpool folklore. Speaking to a couple of seasoned Reds in the days after the game, one insisted it wasn’t as good as Inter in 1965, while another said that the benchmark was still Rome in 1977. But both admitted that it had been pretty special (“9 out of 10”) and a part time out-of-towner can’t ask for any more than to be part of such a night.
Winding forward a few days and a bleep on the phone as I walked down Church Street – where the hell is the church on Church Street?!? – informed me that we had drawn Bayer 04 Leverkusen, to give them their anally retentive proper title. Standing in the middle of Liverpool’s main street, wearing a Red scarf and grinning like a Cheshire cat, I was immediately set upon by a mob of bottle-wielding Blues, determined to purify their city of one more woolyback. Okay, that’s not what really happened, although the recent assertions by the Toffees would give you the impression that the city of Liverpool was populated entirely by Blues determined to protect the city from Viking invasion. Instead I was swamped by people asking how “we” had done in the Champions League draw. And there was me thinking that the People were all Bluenoses. They must have all thought that David Moyes had magically secured Everton a place in the quarter-final because he’s such a beautiful, brilliant person.
Back to Anfield on Sunday, and if Tuesday had seen the champagne flowing in the stands, this was a party in which there was only Cinzano Bianco left to drink. Sitting in the Upper Anny Road with a tongue on me that felt like it had been vigorously massaged with sandpaper, the absurdity of partying like it was 1999 for five whole days would have hit me were it not for the fact that I was in a complete state after partying like it was 1999 for five whole days. A few desultory cheers flitted around the ground like an embarrassed ghost, but the exertions of the Tuesday were proving too much. Bearing that in mind, it was difficult to be angry with the players for being below par. If we, the core of the club, couldn’t get enthused, then what hope had the players, mercenaries that they are. And when Hasselbaink flicked the ball onto the roof of the net with only a few minutes left, a point seemed no more than we could hope for.
So when Emile Heskey skipped past his marker, combining all the best abilities of a gazelle and a combine harvester, it took a second for my sleep-deprived brain to register the fact that this was an opening. Looking at it briefly on the box later, it wasn’t even much of a chance as he was so far wide, but we’ll cling to anything in injury time. The cross sailed in and Smicer, in cricket parlance, played a dead bat to it, allowing the momentum of the ball to carry it goalwards.
What happened in the next split second was a mite hazy. With me crouching forward in my seat, and everyone in front of me standing up, I actually lost the flight of the ball as it left Vladi’s boot. A little bird landed on my shoulder though, and softly whispered that we had scored. The snarl of triumph that ripped around Anfield might have been a bit of a giveaway as well. All hell broke loose and the inhibitions of millennia of human civilisation were cast to the wind. The air was punched, backs were slapped, lips were kissed and voice boxes put through the wringer for the second time in five days. Meanwhile deiseach and two of his neighbours were lying in a heap in row 3 of the Upper Anny Road, having started out in row 4. It was definitely one of the other lads who dragged us down because I had ended up on top. Clambering back into my appointed place, I turned to see the two boys still lying on the floor, arms outstretched in a gesture of complete joy and bellowing out the song that was proving rather popular that afternoon: “Yeeeeeeesssssss!!!!”
Amidst all the natural euphoria of poaching a last minute winner, that most precious of football treasures, the magnitude of the goal was not lost on me. There wasn’t a moment in my madness when it wasn’t crystal clear that this goal had put us top of the league with (effectively) eight matches to go. And the sight of each and every one of the players leaping towards the heavens at the final whistle typified the sense that this was a potentially crucial moment. Time will tell whether this was the Gary Mac moment for 2001/2. Maybe this week will only prove to be the high point of a season which is all downhill. But if it is, it will have been quite a high.
And as I power-walked down the Walton Breck Road after the game, a sharp pain in my shin informed me that the body was no longer willing to ignore the pain caused by the wound inflicted on my leg during the post-goal celebrations. The things I do for Liverpool FC. I’d do it all over again.