Me & Istanbul – 15 Years On

On the 25th of May 2005, I was coming towards the end of my first year at Birmingham School of Speech & Drama. Living in the second city at the time, I was far away from family and friends. I didn’t have contacts that could get me tickets for the match and, even if I did, I was a poor student so wouldn’t have been able to travel to Turkey regardless. I couldn’t watch the biggest match of my time supporting Liverpool with my dad, as I had for every final back in 2001. Instead, I found myself in The Bear Tavern, not far from where I lived in Bearwood. I had watched all of the previous rounds there, going with my mate John Jones who was in the third year and, though Welsh, was a big Red. One of his mates, Joe Steyne, was an Arsenal supporter but turned up for the second-half. The manager of The Bear was a Liverpool supporter, so the venue was decorated with flags and banners, You’ll Never Walk Alone blaring over the speakers repeatedly.

There are so many little things I remember from that evening. It was back in the day of the Champions League final being held on Wednesday nights, so there wasn’t the joy of knowing that it was a Sunday the following morning. Instead, the nervousness of the match meant that I drank more than I should’ve and forgot all about the classes I had the next day. I remember timing my trips to the bar for my rounds to try not to miss much of the action. I remember meeting a bloke when I was having a wee and having a chat with him about the match, thinking that I’d be unlikely to ever have spoken to him if not for the common denominator of football. I remember the pub’s manager blasting You’ll Never Walk Alone out at inappropriate times and me being convinced it would jinx us. More than anything else, I remember thinking that Liverpool had a chance to win the European Cup and not really thinking about how good AC Milan actually were.

Football Is About People

There are many lessons I learnt that night. I’d always known that football was a shared experience, but watching that match play out truly drilled home the importance of that. Jonesy and I were in good spirits before kick-off, even if we were both nervous. We chatted, laughed, enjoyed speculating about what might happen. When the match got underway the noise in the pub made that all but impossible, but it died down relatively quickly once the first goal went in. There was a bit of rallying, plenty of ‘it’s only 1-0’ and the like. Then the second went in and suddenly everyone just wanted the Reds to get into half-time with a two goal deficit. When the third was scored, a mixture of anger, humiliation and despondency took over the place. At half-time, I crouched down outside the pub with my head in my hands and called my dad for some words of wisdom. “You never know with football”, he said. “Stranger things have happened”.

I think it was little more than false optimism from him, trying to gee me up when he could hear how down I was. I don’t think even he could have predicted what would happen next. Nor could anyone else in the pub, of course, which became a fever pitch when the referee awarded the penalty. Jonesy and I stood arm in arm, watching with held breath and erupting alongside everyone else when the rebound hit the back of the net. It was an incredible moment but there still seemed like such a long way to go before we were out of the woods. AC had shown in the first-half just how devastating they could be. To this day, I’ve still no idea how Dukek saved that shot at the end of the game. When it was time for the penalties, Jonesy didn’t want to watch them but I said, “We do this together. We stood arm in arm for Xabi’s pen, we do it again”. So we did. The two of us and Arsenal fan Joe, arm in arm watching the Reds win the cup on penalties.

Missing The Parade

When the Reds ran towards each other to celebrate Jerzy’s save from Shevchenko’s penalty, the pub went crazy. You’ll Never Walk Alone went on the stereo once more and this time I didn’t object. I sang along with tears in my eyes, then I went outside to call my dad. Before I did I ran up and down the street, screaming. Some non-football people walked passed me, doubtless wondering what the hell was going on. I didn’t care. I screamed and jumped and celebrated, filled with an energy I didn’t know what to do with. When I eventually spoke to my dad I don’t know what we said to each other. Just both of us in disbelief, I think. I do remember that we ended the call when we saw Steven Gerrard getting ready to lift the trophy, both of us going back into our separate pubs to be with our mates. That’s what football is; a thing you enjoy with those you love, both family and friends. That night was the craziest I’ve ever had as a football fan.

I genuinely can’t remember what happened the rest of the night. I’d like to say that we spent it partying but I’m not sure that’s true. I think sense took hold eventually and I went to bed before things got out of hand. The following day I went in for my classes wearing my Liverpool shirt, barely able to concentrate. We went to our local pub, Raphael’s, at the end of the day and I persuaded the manager, Sarah, to put the parade on the big screens. I was so disappointed that I wasn’t in Liverpool, repeating what I’d done back in 2001 and welcoming the triumphant Reds back to the city. I got to make up for it last year, but looking back I do wish I’d just skipped that day in drama school and caught the train home. I’ve always been too much of a goody-two-shoes to be so rebellious. Jonesy and I watched the FA Cup final together the following year in his home city of Cardiff. We’ve drifted apart since, but we’ll always have those memories. That’s what football gives you.

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