With the benefit of hindsight, it wasn’t the smartest move. Possessing less money than a heroin-addled church mouse with a gambling problem, I decided to forgo the pleasures of a free ticket to the 2004/5 European Cup semi-final against Chelsea. “Why”, I hear no one cry, “would poverty stop you taking a free ticket to a match?” Because that would have left me beholden to the in-laws who were willing to give me a free ticket but would have extracted their kilo of flesh in low-level emotional blackmail from Mrs deiseach. “Why”, I hear no one cry again, “would you be bothered if it’s your wife who would take the flak?” Because I quite enjoy the fantasy role of Man the Hairy Hunter, stoically staying at home while the woo-mahn went off to enjoy herself at the match. Besides, it all seemed like a good idea for 95 buttock-clenching minutes – buttock-clenching, that is, until Gudjohnsen’s shot across the bows which was more of the sphincter-loosening genus. No, definitely a good idea not to put myself through that.
Then the final whistle blew.
Watching it recently on YouTube without the aural diarrhoea of Clive Tyldesley and his oh-so-tactful reference to Brussels ’85, the detonation that swept around Anfield that night was quite simply the greatest moment in the history of the grand old ground which, by extension, makes it the greatest moment in the history of sports fans. Given Anfield’s lofty lineage, tracing a direct line from Inter ’65 through St Etienne ’77 to that night, to be the best of that lot is to be the best ever. It really is as simple as that.
It’s easy to make comments like that in the privacy of a Liverpool website, with no one but the odd Bluenose to remind you of empty seats at a rescheduled midweek fixture in darkest November, but it’s one I’d make – and have made – with an utterly straight face in the two years since. Chelsea, the swaggering billionaires from swinging sahf Landahn smugly defacing YNWA with their (accurate, it must be said) drone-like chants of “We are the Champions”, were turned into a collection of chastened schoolboys who had just received six-of-the-best in front of the entire school from the most repressed schoolmaster ever to grace the playing fields of Eton. The relentless roar that ripped through Anfield that night – even the Main Stand was on its collective feet, for Chrissake! – paralysed the nouveau riche southerners to the extent that they could only manage one shot on target in ninety-six minutes of football, and that from a deadball. A team of experienced officials mutely acquiesced with the mob’s incendiary insistence that that ball had crossed the line. In short, it were the Kop wot won it, and for someone who has spent years decrying the idea that crowds can win matches, that’s saying something.
And you can bet your bottom Gillett / Hicks dollar that we’ll be expected to do it all over again. The uncomfortable truth is that two years on and the Rafalution is looking more like the Rafolution – as in evolution, he mumbles with embarrassment as the joke falls flat. While we’ve gotten better, so have Chelsea. The excellence of Man Utd has disguised just how much more of a backbone they’ve acquired, whether it be constantly winning must-win games after the Mancs have put it up to them, or eking out tight victories in Europe against all manner of opposition.
What will put Liverpool ahead of Chelsea will be that X factor that we have in Europe. But how often can we dip in this particular well? On numerous occasions in the 1990’s – Spartak Moscow, Strasbourg and Paris St Germain spring to mind – the Reds were sent out with the word ‘Auxerre’ ringing in their ears, only for defeat to follow. Defeat ranged from ignominious to the glorious, but it was still defeat. On the occasions when we have overcome the odds, most notably against Olympiakos and Milan, it’s only at half-time that we felt the need to call on the footballing gods to intervene on our behalf. Arrive at Anfield with expectation of a tub-thumping European night and we’re likely to have our collective arses handed to us, like Benfica did last season.
To summarise, big Anfield nights are like best parties. They are rarely planned, they just happen. Put together all the ingredients necessary for a good party – like all the things you did at the last one – and it invariably falls as flat as a pancake. I worry that we’ll be in a similar position to two years ago, that everyone will turn up expecting Anfield to scorch another glorious chapter into the annals of football, and Chelsea duly bang in two away goals on the break in the first five minutes and spend the rest of the night oléing their way around to the anguish of the assembled Kopites. I worry about that a lot.
Of course, I worry even more that we’ll be humped in the first leg.