It’s a long, long road
With many a winding turn
. . .and you’re going to have the privilege of experiencing every speck of dust along the way . . .
When we went to see the Reds play Southampton way back when in the third round of the Worthington Cup, the thought was vaguely in the back of our minds that this might be the opportunity for us season-ticketless unfortunates to get to a cup final, scarcity of tickets making no-go areas of the FA and European Cup finals – God be with the days when we could realistically talk in terms of reaching European Cup finals.
So we plodded along to each game and fondly clutched each successive stub which would be our key to the promised land of a cup final, any cup final. There were penalties against Ipswich, when Jamie Carragher flukily dispatched an unerring penalty in a shoot-out for the second time, and extra-time against Sheffield United, put that in your pipe and smoke it, Warnock! Seeing Man U beat Blackburn in the other semi-final ratcheted the tension up another notch and filled me with the kind of dread that, in retrospect, seems daft. Everything can be made look daft in hindsight, like that time with the bicycle pump, the wetsuit and the bucket of frogs, but why would we want to play the Mancs? The vista of them beating us at, well, anything is just too appalling to contemplate, and it would have been much simpler to have met Blackburn. Of course, nothing would be quite as satisfying as beating them, but the risks were simply too great . . .
In this country, you gotta get the stubs first. Then when you get the stubs, you get the money. Then when you get the money, then you get the tickets, right? Unfortunately it wasn’t that simple. It took the best part of a fortnight to distribute tickets to season ticket holders and shareholders (why does that always conjure images of fat cats drinking brandy, smoking cigars and resting their expensive Italian shoes on the back of a downtrodden wallah?) which didn’t leave much time for the rest of us. To make matters worse, I had arranged for a short break down souf, leaving no opportunity to go up to the ground and queue for seven hours in the freezing cold and driving rain as smug season ticket holders drove to work in their snug BMW’s, not that any of them work because they’re leeches off the working people, receiving fat dividends and living in the penthouse suite, a crypto-fascist pyramid built with us poor non-season ticket holding saps at the bottom.
Or so a man in the pub told me, so it must be true.
Salvation came in the unlikely guise of the ticket office. The tickets were going to go on sale through the post, so we had to send our stubs and a blank cheque to the ticket office. A few frantic phone calls from Windsor later and the deed was done. All we could do was sit and wait.
At this stage, we had two tickets from season ticket holders who are clearly not greedy bastards but are the most beautiful and wonderful people in all the world. But four of us had gone to every home Worthington Cup match so it looked like two of us were going to be watching the game on the telly, which meant that if I wasn’t going to Cardiff that only one of us would be watching it on the telly, given my pathological distaste for watching the Reds on the box. In fact, I had already decided not to go because the thought of going while one of our party stayed behind and dreamed up many ways of inflicting pain in me for having left them behind, this led me to believe it was better they went and I could stay at home and play the martyr (“Take the ticket! I shall stay here and suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune!”)
This exercise in self-flagellation became unnecessary on Tuesday morning when a fat envelope flopped onto the mat. From a situation where only two of us were going, we now had a spare. Perhaps not everyone feels this way, but I get a guilty joy in giving spares to friends. The joyous yelps that come down the phone when you tell them that they’re going to Cardiff is very pleasant to hear. To be perfectly honest, making that phone call was a real power trip. Some might say that that’s the wrong reason to give someone a spare, but it’s not as if I tout the tickets, so why shouldn’t I feel satisfaction at making a friend’s year? (Bless me Father, for I have committed the sin of pride.)
After a five-hour jaunt through the highways and byways of central Wales, we finally arrived in Cardiff. This is where I make another confession. I was expecting Cardiff to be a complete dump. Decades of industrial decline and the marginalisation of Wales had given me the impression that the Welsh capital was a vision of a post-apocalyptic nightmare, all derelict buildings and slagheaps. Okay, I didn’t think it would be that bad, but the gap between the image and the reality was immense. Cardiff isn’t quite Vienna, but the wide streets and gleaming white buildings are very pleasing on the eye. The affection with which the town is held by rugby fans – and not just by Irish fans who haven’t seen us lose there in twenty years – made a lot of sense now, and I would like to formally apologise to the city of Cardiff for thinking such ignorant thoughts about it without ever seeing it for myself before.
On the other hand, the Millennium Stadium was a bit of a letdown. I can hear the spluttering and choking on cornflakes as people make a double take on that one. Don’t get me wrong, it is a magnificent arena. We could see everything from our perch way up in the top tier of the statistically lucky (that’s probably an oxymoron) North Stand, and it’s impressive to think they built it for a mere £175 million, especially when you ponder the Wembley farce and the estimated £600 million that it would cost Arsenal to build a smaller stadium. But the way people go on about the Millennium Stadium, I was expecting something out of a Fritz Lang movie. Where was the lift to whisk me straight to my seat, the rollers to massage my buttocks during the game, the drinks cabinet built into the row in front of me? Even the much-vaunted roof merely gave the impression of sitting in an extremely large basketball arena. It’s a more than adequate venue, and the new Wembley will want to be really special to top it. But I’m too just cynical to be overwhelmed by a glorified cow shed.
The match itself is well documented elsewhere, which is just as well seeing as I can’t remember the half of it. Sunday was the sixty-third occasion I had the pleasure of witnessing the Reds, and it was far and away the biggest occasion. Everything was fine for most of the first half, as we sang down the Mancs (not that that was anything to boast about, there was less noise coming from them than at the funeral of a Trappist monk) and the game only periodically sparked into life. Even the Van Nistelrooy shot which shaved Dudek’s left hand post wasn’t anything to get too wound up about because we could clearly see from our vantage point that it would go wide. How’s that for keeping cool under pressure? But then Gerrard’s shot deflected off Beckham and my sense of sang froid dribbled out of my body like so much diarrhoea.
The adrenalin fuelled hypersensitivity of the football fan means that crucial moments are played in slow motion. So when Van Nistelrooy’s shot left his boot, I had enough time to see that it was impossible for the ball to turn in that space back towards the goal, and at no point did I think he was going to score. With Gerrard’s effort, it was clear even from about 150 metres away that the loop of the ball was going to beat Barthez. So for one exquisite split second I knew we were going to score, but it still hadn’t happened. Suns were formed, grew, aged and went supernova in that moment, then the ball nestled in the back of the net and pandemonium ensued.
Once the initial euphoria had subsided, panic set in. Now we had something to lose. Christ, we’d endured weeks of uncertainty regarding tickets, spent a small fortune on seats that would have given a Sherpa a nosebleed and endured a journey through a landscape labelled ‘here lie monsters’ on most good maps. That was all small beer compared to the thought of losing to the prawn sandwich brigade in a game in which we had taken the lead. It was so close, so close, and the thought of having it taken away from me – never mind ‘we’ now, everyone else could wrestle their personal demons themselves – would have made the sternest of hearts quail, and my heart is about as stern as a canary.
As a result, the normal match instincts – sing here, clap there, jump to your feet during Scouser Tommy – went totally haywire. Many of the incidents in the first twenty minutes of the second half, which was much more exciting than the first, passed with barely a whimper from yours truly. A Tom & Jerry style ‘no sale’ sign was in my eyes as my mind struggled to filter the oceans of information before me.
I’ve been there before, following Waterford. There’s not a great deal at stake during individual league or European games. Each game only makes total sense at the end of the season when all the points are tallied up. But this game, much as every championship match back home, represented our entire season shoehorned into 90 minutes. And for those twenty minutes in the second half, I completely lost my nerve.
Not as much as the lad sitting behind me, who was quivering like a leaf even before the kick-off and nearly strangled me with delight when Gerrard scored. The pressures of running as important a Liverpool institution as he does much be worse than I thought.
Gradually equilibrium was restored. The Glams may have had lots of possession but they weren’t actually doing a great deal with it, their supremely ironic policy of hoofing it to Van Nistelrooy at every opportunity was yielding little reward. They didn’t even have that lump of Kryptonite called Diego Forlan to help them. A useless inert rock to most individuals, it turns Superman into a quivering wreck. But Super-Dude was having the time of his life, keeping everything at bay and performing like in the good old days of, oh, all of a year ago. As they became increasingly rattled the breakaway was always on, and when Didi sent St Michael away there was only one thing certain: if he had missed, he would have been lynched. It looked to me as if he had taken one touch too many, then BANG! The structural integrity of the Millennium Stadium was put to the sternest possible test as 30,000 Mancslime stampeded for the exit and 30,000 Reds went ape-sh*t as only Reds can.
There are no words to describe the feeling. It was just great. Louis Van Gaal – remember him? – was asked when he won the European Cup with Ajax whether it was the pinnacle of his career. No, he said, the Uefa Cup a couple of years earlier was better because “the first time is always the best.” Apart from sniggering at the image of a Dutchman trying to rate his first joint and/or his first shag, it’s a comment that made no sense to me at the time and makes perfect sense now. Winning the FA Cup is obviously better, and the manner in which we won it two years ago was obviously better, but this time I was sitting in the Millennium Stadium, making a personal contribution to the cause – for that image to work, please ignores all previous comments to the effect that not a peep came from me in the third quarter of the game.
And never forget (as if!) that we beat the Mancs. I may be biased and all that, but their fans were utterly useless. The only banners they brought were George crosses with ‘MUFC’ emblazoned across the middle, and the biggest noise they mustered during the game was when Scholes produced a dive that would have embarrassed the guy in the John Smith’s ad. Their bleating after the game about lucky Liverpool and Mickey Mouse Cups, especially after they made their desire to win the trophy crystal clear, it made the moment all the sweeter. As the singer after the game serenaded us with YNWA, you couldn’t help but wonder what he would have planned for them had they won. Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life? Glory Glory Man United? Thank goodness for good taste that we won.
Nothing could spoil the mood now. Not even a seven-hour journey back to Liverpool on a bus with a man who was determined to force his way on everything upon everyone. Sing a song he didn’t know and he’d laugh in your face and start singing “Manchester is full of sh*t” very badly at the top of his voice. But everyone else was smiling and joking, and why not? We really must do it again.
There will be other days for Liverpool. There will be more important days, you can be assured of that, whether under Gerard Houllier or not. But it’s hard to see things getting better than that. If it does, it’s going to be a very good life.