Minutes away from tragedy, a complete breakdown in control has left plenty for UEFA to answer to and Steven Scragg provides a personal account of the chaos in Paris.
Denied a deserved glory by the outrageous goalkeeping of Thibaut Courtois, in a game where Liverpool were without question the better team, against pantomime opposition that we felt really had it coming; I should be angry at the footballing outcome of the 2022 Champions League final, but that is an injustice that won’t kick in for some time yet – if ever – because of the events before the game, outside the Stade de France.
Three of our travelling party had tickets for the game, and three didn’t, including my This Is Anfield sibling, Jeff Goulding. So, I felt lucky enough to have a ticket in my pocket, as the game loomed upon the setting horizon of a frankly ludicrous season.
Myself, Andy Knott – creator of the Anfield mosaics – and Billy set off for the stadium a full four hours before kick-off, leaving behind Jeff, Keith, and Ben to consider their plans over which bar to watch the game.
In possession of tickets in different parts of the stadium, and having tipped up at exactly the same time, the three of us made it through the turnstiles at wildly differing times.
While I got in 45 minutes before the scheduled kick-off, Andy and Billy only made it in just in time for the delayed start of the game, Andy only after ingesting teargas.
Others, despite arriving with valid tickets that had been gained in the ballot, did not even make it into the stadium, including Jeff’s son, as well as a mutual friend of mine and Andy’s, Keith Coker, who had his ticket confiscated and was told to vacate the area.
There were countless others, and seats near me remained empty. UEFA and their ‘people’ clearly came up with an approach that deemed all tickets as counterfeit beyond a designated time of day, compounding a situation where they had been the root cause of the delay in the start of their own flagship club game.
Up until getting off the train at Saint-Denis, our trip had been of a textbook, slapstick nature.
Brexit provoked difficulties getting through Dover aside, our travelling party had had an absolute ball, making the journey via ferry – not P&O – to Dunkirk, and driving our way down in a van that had what appeared to be a couple of ejector seats.
The outline of a potential book had been sketched out before we had reached Keele services.
Conversation was always convivial, taking in a broad range of topics, inclusive of an in-depth assessment of ghosts and a ringing endorsement of spirit guides. In Paris, Ludovic had unwittingly become our French spirit guide as our taxi driving hero.
Not all superheroes wear capes etc. Some drive people carriers that can fit six passengers.
We had eaten, drank, and made merry, bumping into familiar faces, and making new allies in that way Scousers traditionally do; conversely, we had failed to catch sight of friends we had planned to meet up with.
We did the sights, taking in the Effiel Tower, the Seine, the Arc de Triomphe, the many beautiful palaces and much, much more, inclusive of stumbling across the wonderfully bemusing Bergamo branch of the Norwich City supporters club, before heading to the fan park, where we couldn’t get in, at least not without giving up the beers we had just bought from a resourceful individual with a shopping trolley full of ice and bottles.
In hindsight, the ring of steel around the fan park should have been taken as a warning for what was to come at the stadium. This felt very different to Madrid.
On the way to the stadium, we were confronted by two security cordons, the first of which tickets were not checked, this being roughly halfway through the billed 17-minute walk from the train station to the stadium.
Closer to the stadium we hit the second set of barriers, this time where tickets were being checked, only by a skeleton staff, however. Funnelling through an underpass in which police cars and vans were unnecessarily parked, this caused a bottleneck that became increasingly concerning.
From standing there within an air of initial inconvenience, the landscape soon became tighter packed and fraught.
Children were lifted out of a crowd that soon became a crush, a frightened man in a wheelchair was helped through as best as possible, the woman in front of me had a panic attack, for whom I worked as hard as I could to create space. For anyone under 5ft 8 it had to be almost suffocating.
Reasonably tall, at least I could see the sea of heads in front of me. Tensions escalated between fellow supporters, as everyone was surrounded by somebody vulnerable who needed extra space.
I’d suggest we’re were minutes away from tragedy, when it finally eased, a unilateral decision having been made by those at the front to sweep the barriers away.
Of course, in the stadium when the announcement was made that the kick-off was to be delayed, UEFA’s official spin was that it was due to late-arriving Liverpool supporters. The more football changes, the more it stays the same.
Journalists were threatened with their press accreditations being revoked if they didn’t delete the scenes they had filmed.
I repeat. We set off for the Stade de France four hours before kick-off. Many others did likewise. We should have been able to filter through sedately.
The knock-on effect was rancour at the turnstiles. Gates were closed, reopened, then closed again. I was stopped by a steward at one last barrier before the turnstile, yet people were flooding into queues behind him. It made for a complete breakdown in control.
I was one of the lucky ones.
Inside the stadium, I shook for 20 minutes. I genuinely can’t tell you whether it was a bodily response to what I had just experienced, or due to the dropping temperatures as the sun dipped beneath the roof of the Stade de France.
The horror stories trickled through, both from friends and via social media feeds, with many high profile individuals echoing my experiences.
After the game, on the way out of the stadium, discarded canisters of teargas were kicked underfoot, reactivating them. My eyes stung; my throat burned. The following morning, I can still taste the acrid substance.
For others, just as before the game, they also had it worse than me, afterwards. Friends of mine, Michaela and Fiona, suffered from a barrage of fireworks being thrown by locals.
They were protected by some magnificent fellow Liverpool supporters. Michaela’s young son, who was at his first Champions League final now has no ambition to go to another.
Obviously, none of this will be the narrative of UEFA, the Stade de France, nor the most vitriolic supporters of rival clubs, or right-wing media outlets. We do have allies though, don’t let that go forgotten.
Plenty of witnesses with no reason to back us are backing us. They know what they saw.
Even elements of French radio have seemingly turned on those in charge of the organisation of the Champions League final, rather than toeing the line of the script handed out by UEFA, that it was our fault.
An incredible season wasn’t meant to end this way, the result of the biggest game of the campaign rendered largely irrelevant. Even victory wouldn’t have sugared this bitter pill.
Our once ebullient party now winds its way home. Currently passing Lens, it is simply a relief to be out of Paris.