After reading that cracking post from Spam Monkey Deluxe that put some perspective on things as well as raised a few memories for me some of our eventful last few years came flooding back.
A couple of things in particular stood out looking back, both involving one player; Didi Hamann and in particular his effect on two games. I apologise for the ramblings and hope the points aren’t lost in the self indulgent nostalgia or you fall asleep before you get the gist of it or to the end of it.
Firstly the references to the first Leverkusen Champions League tie under Houllier where I attended both legs. After winning 1-0 at home and with the way we were capable of defending away I was quietly confident of progressing as I walked from the train station through the park towards the Bay Arena for the second leg. I got chatting to a Belgian guy who used to travel to watch Leverkusen home games who I found very knowledgeable about football. He like most Europeans put us to shame with his command of the English language. With lines of communication established we both agreed that if Liverpool got the away goal that it would probably be the end of Leverkusen's CL campaign. This was a Leverkusen team that boasted Ballack, Lucio, Ze Roberto, Nowotny and Berbatov to serve as a reminder.
We started the game very well playing our usual counter attacking football and Leverkusen looked a bit nervous until Ballack picked the ball up 25yds out and unleashed an unstoppable drive to cancel out the first leg advantage around 15mins in. Not to worry we didn’t concede many under Houllier, our shape was good and Didi was doing an excellent job just in front of the back four.
We started to look comfortable under pressure (similar to many visiting teams to Anfield these days) and very dangerous on the break with the usual Michael Owen pace tearing through the Leverkusen central defence. But unfortunately on this trip he had left his shooting boots behind and formed a close relationship with the Bay Arena woodwork.
Abel Xavier of all people cropped up to score the equaliser just before half time. This was the goal that should’ve sent us into the semi finals. We could defend a one goal advantage better than anyone in Europe and that goal left Leverkusen needing to score twice. I imagine my Belgian friend wherever he was, was thinking his Champions League travels were over for another season.
We were in control from what I could see from the stands of the cosy but noisy 22,500 capacity Bay Arena until the decision that finally had me questioning Gerard Houllier. In fact it smacked of a man who had grown bored of the ultra defensive boring tag he had been labelled with by boldly deciding to show how he could play a different style. With about 30mins to go Houllier made the decision that cost us a place in the semi finals; he replaced Dietmar Hamann with the offensive Vladimir Smicer. At the time it made me nervous and I was convinced that Didi must have picked up a knock although if he had he wasn’t showing it. We were a swift counter attacking non possession football team in the image of our manager; he couldn’t change, we couldn’t change.
Within minutes of the substitution Leverkusen scored to make it 2-1 but still needing another to win the tie. The game changed from a tactical chess battle of attack versus defence to a boxing match of end to end football and within 5mins of their second Berbatov made it 3-1 and looked to have knocked Liverpool onto the canvas.
Not quite out for the count and with the introduction of Paddy Berger to replace our opening scorer we crafted a fine second goal that was expertly finished by the other cool headed Fin on the books, Jari Litmanen. 3-2, we were up off the canvas before the count of ten to deliver Leverkusen a sucker punch with ten minutes to go. We had now reverted to our traditional defensive football but with the missing link and unfortunately there was still one round to go. We were still punch drunk and I’ll never forget the Leverkusen 4th goal. Lucio (centre half) picked the ball up deep and driving forward exchanged passes in the box to slot home and although we tried for a third goal it was out of reach.
After the final whistle I made my way back to the train station for the 20min return trip to Cologne and couldn’t believe how angry I was feeling about how we had scored twice away from home and still lost the tie. I was still replaying the game walking back through Cologne station totally oblivious that our fans had had a welcoming party from some Cologne fans outside and were running back in the opposite direction; probably to escape arrest or attack from some of the meanest looking Police Alsatians I have ever seen. I queued for a drink in the station and by the time I had got to the exit most of the fuss had died down.
Back at the hotel I didn’t fancy any ale and retired early. I couldn’t sleep though, I couldn’t believe that Houllier had made the decision to trade blows with a very dangerous Leverkusen. I was still unaware that substituting Hamann was tactical until the following day when returning home otherwise I would have climbed the walls. That was it for me, Houllier had cost us a place in the semi finals of the most prestigious club competition in the world; he had deprived me of the feelings that were beginning to stir after a slumber of almost seventeen years when we last lifted ol’ big ears.
That was the first of many increasingly startling decisions made under Houllier including the decision to sign Diouf and Diao ahead of Nicolas Anelka. The writing was on the wall, he couldn’t make the transition tactically or transfers necessary to take us to the next step. In fact he collected players like stamps continually trying to find the elusive Penny Black. He had though taken the club forward, won trophies including the amazing treble and dragged us on from being Spice Boys to a professional outfit and for that Mr Houllier I thank you.
Three years on and I couldn’t believe it. Less than twelve months earlier we had appointed our second foreign coach in the guise of Rafael Benitez, the perennial thorn in the side of Real Madrid and Barcelona, who had taken the unfashionable Valencia to two La Liga titles – no mean feat.
I had a smile as wide as the King’s Tunnel as I soaked up the atmosphere of a vibrant Taksim Square. The second leg of my pilgrimage had begun from a Southern Turkey hotel several hours earlier. This was it I could taste the polish on the biggest trophy in club football. Against the odds we were in our sixth final beating the likes of Juventus, buy-a-title Chelsea and a now blunt Bayer Leverkusen who’s stars of 2002 had moved on to bigger and better things, along the way. We had been on a roller coaster ride against Olympiacos and beaten La Coruna away in the group stages and the belief etched in the faces of fellow reds could be seen a mile off.
I’ll never forget that square mile of land on the European side of Istanbul, like I’ll never forget the square in Dortmund. They both represent the end of a long journey, the closing of a gap that saw Liverpool’s re emergence at the top of Europe’s elite. The only one to better Istanbul was Rome ’77 because you never forget your first as they say. ’77 was the pinnacle of a journey started by the great Bill Shankly and continued by Bob Paisley and Istanbul was the continuation of a journey started by Gerard Houllier. Gerard Houllier closed the gap that was looking unbridgeable in terms of European success and now Rafa Benitez had picked up the reigns and moved us on a gear. The only difference between the Shankly, Paisley continuation and the Houllier, Benitez transition is that I believe Bill Shankly would have won the European Cup if he’d stayed on, unlike as I inferred earlier, Houllier had most probably found his summit.
I have many vivid memories of Istanbul but none more so than the coach journey to the Ataturk Stadium. Unlike Leverkusen where for various reasons I was the sole representative of the BCCC (Belgian Cross Country Club formed off the back of cheap flights to Charleroi on Ryanair then onward train travel across Europe via the modern day Transalpino rub out – A 4 € anywhere ticket but that’s another story) there were three of us. The coach was full to the gunnels and with what seemed to be a four pack of Efes to every passenger. The journey must have been over two hours through the Istanbul traffic with relentless singing (take note Kop day trippers) throughout the journey, the joy, the passion, the privilege and the expectation oozed out of that song repertoire. This coupled with watching the people of Istanbul watching us, us watching reds hanging out of taxis (including the boot) and something I’ll never forget – the shop selling wheel trims, thousands of them decking the walls and windows, with the old Turkish guy outside in a Liverpool scarf. I bet there wasn’t a full set between them.
The Ataturk came into sight in the middle of the most baron and desolate land that looked like the surface of Mars. The traffic still at less than walking pace urged reds to disembark from the coaches and make the final half mile on foot. The scene resembled something from biblical times as the end of the pilgrimage came into view with hoards of reds descending on it. We were there; journeys end now just one more battle away from victory.
The party atmosphere at the Liverpool Fanzone was amazing, the stage was invaded, and the queue for the bogs was only marginally bigger than the queue for programmes. This coupled with the European football fan’s travelling urge to mingle with his compatriots on the other side saw us walk round to the Milan Fanzone. It was at this point I realised we outnumbered Milan fans 3-1 or more. At least we found some bogs, beer stalls and food so we could re-fuel. No trouble with the Milan fans not that you would expect any; travelling away with Liverpool is more about forming friendships and sharing mutual respect in comparison with other clubs and the national team whose fans seem to think they must belittle and conquer. We also saw the giant black and red Forza Milan flag rolled up like a giant carpet being taken into the stadium needing about thirty Milanese to carry it with military precision.
In reality the next I knew is that we were 1-0 down; fuck. In a game where the odd goal was going to win it and whoever scored first would more than likely hold on for the boring 1-0 win we already had an uphill task. As the game developed in the early stages though we started to look more settled and started to ask a few questions of Milan so just maybe? You never know. The game settled into the pattern I expected with Milan happy to defend then hit us on the counter when in good possession. This wasn’t going to be easy.
Then, in the blink of an eye, I’m off my seat. I had a clear view of Nesta’s handball to deny Luis Garcia a shot at goal. PENALTY it had to be, where’s the ref, the linesman, the fourth official anyone someone just blow a fuckin’ whistle we are back in it. Meanwhile with the efficiency of a Japanese production line Milan in the form of Kaka, Shevchenko and Crespo were manufacturing a goal with clinical precision. 2-0, we’re done for; its amazing how at the point when all seems lost the effects of the day suddenly weigh heavy. I suddenly felt tired, hung over and a million miles from home. My dream had died and the sense of injustice was massive.
Still in shock just minutes later the dream football of Milan put the final nail in our coffin as Kaka’s pass and Crespo’s finish finally convinced me that we couldn’t live with a team playing this type of fantasy football. Game Over, text messages flooding in.
The half time whistle saw my mate and I (the other 3rd of our party was seated elsewhere) launch a quest to find something to drink; the day had taken its toll and I was in the midst of a full blown hangover with maximum dehydration. The only words being spoken anywhere under those stands was to order beverages otherwise silence. Walking back up the steps a chant of, 4-3 we’re gonna win 4-3… broke out. It raised a smile from me and I joined in now re-lubricated with the most expensive water in Turkey (sorry Steve I think I still owe you for that). Back at our seats we were now joining in one of the most emotional renditions of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ that I can remember. It was total support, it wasn’t a war cry to urge on the troops it was just a show of defiance towards the opposition and appreciation for the manager and players who had taken us this far with just a tint of hope thrown in.
As I was stood on my seat scarf aloft and in full voice I noticed the lonely figure of Dietmar Hamann warming up. It didn’t really register as it normally would; I would usually be trying to second guess the manager’s tactics but they didn’t really matter at 3-0 down to probably the best club side on the planet. It was obvious that we didn’t want to be humiliated and this was a damage limitation exercise.
Shortly after the second half kicked off we were looking much better, more comfortable and we had stopped the attack at will Milan front line from tearing us apart. Didi Hamann was instrumental in this as he had been throughout his career and it never ceases to amaze me when people cannot see the value of this type of player.
We were starting to look dangerous and before long we had our consolation goal with a fantastic header from the captain. It was great having something to celebrate so we made the most of it. Within minutes the game changed, all I saw was Didi Hamann step over the ball and let Vladimir Smicer unleash a shot that nestled into the bottom corner. Ecstasy it was sheer ecstasy, we could all sense the momentum building and the irony, lost on me at the time, that a neat step over by Hamann lead to the goal from Smicer, the player who replaced him in the quarter final second leg in the Bay Arena three years earlier. Two tactical decisions three years apart that helped change the outcome of a game, one tactical genius one tactical folly.
The equaliser was inevitable, we were all over Milan and they were shell shocked, the mood had changed and when Gattuso brought down Gerrard for the penalty we were back. Alonso misses; heart stops momentarily, then the rebound hit the net. Pandemonium broke out; I was miles away from my seat reminiscent of the days on the terraces when the mass just moved around and you found yourself in a completely different part of the stand from where you started.
Milan reacted, they had to, we were tired and it showed and nothing short of heroics from the likes of Carra, Sami even Djimi Traore and the unforgettable Jerzy Dudek. When the famous double save from Shevchenko was made I was taking a time out, sat on my seat and surrounded by the legs of everyone stood on theirs. The only thing I saw was the ball loop up and behind for a corner; just as well or I might have had a heart attack right there and then. It’s a funny feeling but when we went to extra time the longer it went on the more comfortable I felt about it being our year. When it went to penalties I’ve never been more confident in my life and it was just a matter of time before the captain lifted the cup.
We were back were we belong, the best team in Europe and for the rest of the week in Southern Turkey we dissected the game time and time again and lauded the tactical genius of Rafa Benitez, yes you need luck but I’m a firm believer in making your own luck. Didi Hamann is now at Manchester City and currently in his place we have Javier Mascherano the player I believe will go on to be as influential as Dietmar Hamann, I just hope it is at Liverpool and managed by Rafael Benitez. I have faith that he will deliver our 19th League Title but more importantly I have the patience.