Author Les Jackson centres his writing around the pillars of family, friends and football and offers a reflection of the happier times with a personal recollection of the Miracle that was Istanbul.
We’ll always have it
We booked a flight plus a night’s accommodation with one of the myriad of companies offering such packages, which would see us leaving Liverpool’s John Lennon airport early on the morning of the match and staying in a hotel a few minutes from Taksim Square after the game, returning home the following day. It was far from cheap, but it meant I could work the two days before the game, an important consideration given my self-employed status. From the start of match week, tales and footage of Liverpool supporters in Istanbul, particularly around Taksim Square, which had been identified as an official congregating area for Reds fans, flooded our numerous fan forums and told of days and nights of non-stop joyous revelry. Wednesday couldn’t come soon enough for me and Tom.
In fact, Tom couldn’t sleep the night before the game (I managed forty winks), and we set off at some ungodly early hour. Peter Kenyon, Chelsea’s CEO and former CEO of Manchester United -– more than enough black marks there for him to be held forever in low esteem by any self-respecting Liverpool fan –- owned a Cheshire mansion about five minutes’ drive from us and on our route to the airport. I must belatedly apologise to any residents of the sleepy Somerford and Brereton Heath area on the A54 who may have been awakened by my childishly joyous and exaggerated use of the car horn as we sped past his home in the darkness. Pointlessly as well as he was already in Istanbul as a guest of UEFA. But in my defence, at 46 years of age, I was feeling like a kid at Christmas again.
Left at home behind us were San, Dan & Liv. They were all invited to watch the game at the Glovers’, along with the Nash’s, the Kemballs’ and the Byrnes (and maybe one or two others). Liv, 12 years old at the time, happily grabbed the opportunity, and it was a surprise to no one when San politely declined it. Dan, being the dutiful son he has always been, opted to watch the game with his mum. And that’s where they stayed until the final whistle.
In the fifteen-plus years since, the tale of the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’ has been recounted countless times, millions of words written covering the occasion, the build-up and the outcome. Istanbul, the great historic metropolis which straddles two continents; Taksim Square before and after the game; gridlocked traffic on the way to the Ataturk Stadium; a sea of yellow taxis and free buses; the biblical traipse across a barren landscape to a stadium seemingly built in the middle of nowhere; Milan fans outnumbered four or five to one. It’s all been brilliantly captured elsewhere, so I won’t attempt to force my inferior version upon you. But the story of the game itself surely deserves one more retelling.
We got in the ground about 45 minutes before kick-off, the organisation outside the stadium best described as chaotic. Not so much a queue as a crowd of fans with very few stadium officials, one of whom took my ticket, tore off the stub, then returned the ticket to me. The crowd shifted before I managed to proceed and when I eventually showed my ticket again to the same official, he appeared aghast that my ticket had no stub.
Having come this far and got this close, I was in no mood to be denied entry and told him so in as many words. Whether he understood what I’d said, or simply took stock of my demeanour was unclear but, brooking no further argument, a few seconds later I was in the ground with Tom. The atmosphere was bubbling nicely, the Milan fans impressively choreographed at the opposite end of the stadium, the Liverpool fans impressively off-the-cuff.
When I say the opposite end of the stadium, I refer to their proximity to me and Tom. The length of the stadium away. It soon became apparent that apart from that end of the stadium, the rest of it was populated almost entirely with Liverpool fans. As the teams took to the field to a cacophony of tribal rivalry, the uniqueness and enormity of the occasion really hit home, the feeling of utter privilege at simply being there almost tangible. Twenty years after our last such final, Liverpool were back at European football’s top table.
That feeling lasted for as long as it took Milan to take the lead, less than a minute into the ninety. The captains shook hands, the game kicked off and Milan scored. In echoes of the start of the second half of the 1990 FA Cup semi-final against Crystal Palace, Liverpool had kicked off and immediately ceded possession. Seconds later, Milan’s left-back and captain Paolo Maldini, hardly noted for his goal-scoring prowess, powered home Andrea Pirlo’s precise cross from a free-kick. We still had 89 minutes to respond of course, but Milan’s strong pre-game favourite tag was already looking well deserved. By half-time, it looked like a no-brainer.
Two further goals from striker Hernan Crespo, a world-class striker on loan from Liverpool’s semi-final victims Chelsea, in the six minutes before the break, appeared to have made a difficult task nigh on impossible. In truth, as well as Milan had played, sitting off Liverpool and hitting us on the break each time we courteously returned the ball to them, Liverpool showed all the signs of suffering from stage fright. We’d had plenty of possession but little cutting edge and no midfield shield to speak of for our vulnerable defence either.
As the whistle blew for half-time, a minute after Crespo’s second goal, jubilation poured from the Milan fans behind the goal defended, poorly, by Liverpool. Our end of the ground could best be described as deflated. Tom was almost inconsolable, his phone pinging incessantly with messages from the UK. Given where we lived, hardly any of his mates were Liverpool fans so I can only imagine that most of the texts he was receiving at this juncture would be far from supportive, indeed mocking in nature. I spent the first few minutes of the break trying to persuade him to put this down to experience, that we’d be back. I didn’t believe a word of what I was telling him mind you, and I’m pretty sure neither did he.
“What a shit day” was his only response.
As the start of the second half neared a few wags started singing “we’re gonna win 4-3”, a prospect so outrageously unlikely that most of us genuinely laughed. It was followed by a rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ which started as a murmur, almost mournfully, but was soon picked up by others in our support, the sound building until it became a crescendo of defiance. Personally, I was hoping for an improved showing in the second half, but not much more. Let’s at least save some face.
Almost from the kick-off, Liverpool’s keeper Jerzy Dudek was forced to make a fine save from Milan’s other world-class striker Andrei Shevchenko – himself destined for Chelsea 12 months down the line – tipping the ball round the post from a well-struck free kick and, just for a moment, with Milan seemingly picking up where they’d left off at half-time, an embarrassing repeat of the first half, maybe a record-breaking cup final scoreline defeat, seemed an all too real possibility. Tom’s ‘shit’ day was in danger of becoming all our worst nightmares. Less than 15 minutes later, it was promising to be our finest hour.
Spanish journalist Guillem Balague has written a book about this, Rafa’s first season, called ‘A Season on The Brink’. I highly recommend it. Between pages 142 and 143, an insert of glossy colour photographs is included, all related to the Champions League final, the first one of which is a full page shot of the scoreboard behind a section of our fans. Look closely, and you may spot me and Tom towards the bottom right-hand corner of the picture. On the other hand, you won’t have to look too hard to find the most important pieces of information it presents. Fifty-one minutes and fifty-six seconds of the scheduled 90 minutes have been played, and AC Milan still lead Liverpool 3-0. There must be about 200-300 fans in the picture, each face telling its own similar story, and it’s not a happy one.
About two minutes after that snap was taken, captain and talisman Steven Gerrard craned and twisted to score with a well-directed header from a John Arne Riise cross. Probably no more than a consolation, but at least my hope of a face-saving second half performance was alive and well. A modicum of pride might yet be restored. Certainly, a few of those faces in the crowd had a bit more of a smile on them.
Two minutes further on and I was blurting out “Back in it”, after Vladimir Smicer, a first-half substitute for the injured Harry Kewell, had taken a short sideways pass from Didi Hamann, a half-time substitute for the injured Steve Finnan, and found the bottom left-hand corner of the net from outside the penalty area (though at the time I was convinced Luis Garcia had scored the goal). Face-saving was dropping down the agenda now. With more than half-an-hour to get an equaliser and, who knows, even win it, we had grander aspirations.
Less than five minutes later, that agenda was in the bin. The Spanish referee, who had waived away our claims for a penalty in the first half, seconds before Milan’s second goal, pointed to the spot after Milan’s Gennaro Gattuso fouled Gerrard as he was running through on goal. With Gerrard about to shoot, the Italian clipped his heels and could consider himself fortunate not to be sent off.
Xabi Alonso stepped up to take the first penalty of his professional career, but was thwarted by a fine save from the Brazilian giant Dida in Milan’s goal. As the ball spilled back out, a fan behind me needlessly pointed out that he’d “missed it”, superfluous information that might have triggered an unprintable response from me given my immediate sense of deflation, a sense that a spell had been broken, if Xabi hadn’t followed up a split second later by slamming the rebound into the roof of the net.
Three-quarters of the ground exploded into a frenzy of joyous disbelief.
Back home, as I would find out later, San’s own joy was tempered (though only slightly I’m sure) by her annoyance at Milan Baros half-strangling Alonso in wild celebration. Unbelievably, we were level, all thoughts of hitherto certain acute embarrassment extinguished. Magic spell still in force, optimism reignited. Whatever happened now, we’d still be able to hold our heads up. Not that that was uppermost in my thoughts at the time. Or those of any Liverpool fan I’d have thought. Now we wanted to go on and win it. A couple of minutes later Dida saved a dipping long-range effort from Riise, and the spell was broken at last.
I don’t recall another attempt on target from Liverpool, certainly not one worthy of the name. From having nothing to lose at the start of the second half such was our dire position, now everything was on the line. That sense was everywhere, on the pitch as well as in the stands. It was however accompanied with a new doggedness, a sense of determination and resolve to go the distance. Milan reasserted their dominance but were kept at bay by a resolute defensive performance, with scouser Jamie Carragher excelling throughout, ably assisted by fellow centre back Sammy Hyypia and joined by Gerrard, switching from his marauding attacking midfield brief at the start of the second half to put in a sterling stint at right-back when needed in extra time.
And it was much needed. Once extra time had started, it was clear Liverpool were pretty much spent as an attacking force. The fans did what we could, keeping the noise levels up, willing the team on, our raw support all we had to offer. With three minutes of the 120 left, for once Gerrard was unable to prevent a deep cross from Serginho, one of the Milan substitutes. It was a superb cross which dissected the Liverpool centre backs and found Shevchenko moving onto it, unmarked just outside the six-yard box with only Dudek to beat. Behind the goal, as the cross arced onto the Ukrainian’s forehead, the previous 117 minutes of the game flashed before my eyes.
We’d played our part in one of the great European finals, saved our reputation, restored our pride. Hands would be shaken, hugs shared, and a fully deserved lap of honour trudged by our gallant losers and acknowledged by fans of both sides. The journey home would probably be a lot less onerous than it was looking like at half time. But ultimately trophy-less. Pride at our comeback from a hopeless position notwithstanding, the sense of impending loss – for that surely was imminent – was difficult to bear.
Shevchenko nodded downwards, the ball pitching just in front of Jerzy and giving him a chance to save which, though still difficult, he probably shouldn’t have had. He managed to parry the ball but only straight back to Shevchenko, who surely couldn’t miss the rebound. Miraculously, and it did feel like a miracle from my vantage point, a split second after the ball left the striker’s foot, Dudek’s hand reflexively reached up from his prone position and deflected it over the bar.
In that moment, as those with Milan tendencies held heads in hands as one, and the rest of us eventually exhaled our shared relief, I told myself we’d won it. I never voiced that opinion, not even a whisper to Tom standing next to me, but if ever a sign was given that was surely it. A few minutes later the referee’s whistle signalled the end of extra time. Penalties it was.
A quirk of the game was that all six goals had been scored in the same goal, directly in front of the Milan fans, as far away from where me and Tom stood as it was possible to be. So naturally, the penalties would be taken at that same end.
My conviction that Shevchenko’s miss was a sure sign our name was on the trophy did little to calm my nerves as we prepared for the penalty shoot-out, however. What did help was Milan, going first, missing their first two spot-kicks taken by Serginho and Pirlo, and Liverpool scoring both theirs, through Hamann and Cissé.
2-0 and looking good.
Milan’s third penalty, struck home by former Newcastle player Jon Dahl Tomasson, was their first success of the night, and was immediately followed by Liverpool’s first failure, Riise the culprit, victim of another fine penalty save by Dida. The nerves were back, and I screamed my frustration at the Norwegian, much to Tom’s amusement.
2-1. Still promising but the irony of Milan possibly staging their own penalty shoot-out comeback was not lost on me. The nerves cranked up another level.
The Brazilian Kaka was up next for Milan and netted with aplomb to level the scores, though they’d taken one more penalty than us. The noise level had hardly abated since the shoot-out started, and when Smicer then converted his, the sense of anticipation soared off the scales.
3-2. With both teams having taken four of their five penalties, the moment of truth was potentially seconds away. Shevchenko now needed to score to keep Milan in it.
I doubt there were many in the crowd of 72,000 who expected that the Ballon d’Or winner, Milan legend and widely regarded world superstar, who had scored the deciding penalty in Milan’s shoot-out victory over Juventus to lift the same trophy two years earlier, would do anything other than score from the spot, thereby ensuring that Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard would need to convert his penalty, his team’s fifth, to complete a remarkable turnaround.
Maybe one or two Milan fans, shaken by their reverse in fortunes during the game and now considering the consequences of ultimate failure when they returned home, would have watched him place the ball on the spot with some little dread. I certainly had no doubt he would score. Even as he scuffed his effort directly down the middle, I envisioned Dudek diving to one side and the ball nestling in the net.
It didn’t happen. Jerzy stood his ground and saved the admittedly dismal effort.
All over. Liverpool 3-2 winners on penalties and Champions of Europe for the fifth time after one of the most remarkable finals ever.
Pandemonium ensued. On the pitch, the Liverpool players celebrated, many of them seemingly in a daze. In the stands, Liverpool fans laughed and cried, sang and danced and acclaimed their heroes. Me and Tom hugged each other, and anyone else within hugging distance. The Milan fans silently left. There wasn’t much else for them to do. I know there were fireworks at the end as we collected the Cup because I’ve seen them on the recordings since. I don’t recall them at all at the stadium.
Back home, San and Dan celebrated in the street as the Glover household emptied to meet them halfway.
As we left the ground, now well into the morning after the day the game had kicked off, the quietness was eerie. It had been a very long and tiring day, especially for those of us who’d travelled on the day of the game, and the game was as emotionally draining as any I’d experienced. A surreal end to a surreal journey. In a good way.
I’ve watched the game many times since, the emotion of the occasion receding slightly as time passes, but always there just below the surface.
Me and Tom and Istanbul. I’ll always have that.
This is an extract from ‘A Life Well Red: A memoir edged in black – a true story of family, friends & football, of joy and tragedy‘ – available to buy now