It was always my intention that this Blog would take a broad view of football fandom and encourage different perspectives. With this is mind, this post outlines the experience of that amazing game at Anfield last Thursday from the points of view of two Liverpool supporters; one of whom is exiled in the South of England, so watched it in a London pub after returning home from a business trip, the other is a season ticket holder on the Kop.
Last Thursday felt like a flashback to those Champions League nights in the mid-noughties; knock out games in the European Cup, as Liverpool fans will always call it, are unique in football. Superior opposition, the most glorious of all football prizes and the removal of the safety blanket of a draw, as games swing from red to green to red without an amber phase due to the ingenious away goals rule.
I have never subscribed to the Europa League being a waste of time; ‘let’s concentrate on the battle for 5th instead’, why? It isn’t the big one, but it is a European trophy and they are few and far between. That said, it doesn’t come close in terms of excitement, nerves and particularly the glory of the European Cup.
So what made Thursday night at Anfield feel more Champions than Europa League? For one we were up against a good team, one that all things being equal, we shouldn’t beat. This was the case with AC Milan, Chelsea, Juventus, Arsenal et al in Champions League campaigns of ten years ago. Then there was the prize, not the European Cup, but a tenuous hope of playing in it next year. Add to this the desperation from all those around Anfield to reassure ourselves that Herr Klopp is the Messiah and he will lead us to the promised land, beating Dortmund, if not quite walking on water would at least be long hair and sandals. The final ingredient was hope, despite little expectation from in and outside Anfield; we had come away with a good result in Germany, not enough to make us favourites but enough to give us a fighting chance.
The match was always going to be an occasion; two sets of fans that respect each other for achievements in the stands as much as on the pitch. I remember a Champions League group match at Anfield in 2001, I was for some reason in the Main Stand near the away fans, when Liverpool scored the colourful swarm of bees in the Anfield Road End started singing “you only sing when your winning” in English. At the end of the game there were warm handshakes and scarf-swapping.
Of course Liverpool also celebrated another crazy European win at Dortmund’s stadium, winning the UEFA Cup, the forgotten final, as Liverpool went from 2-0 up, 3-1 up, 4-3 up before finally winning 5-4 with a Golden Goal. The Westfalen Stadion is unique; four steep Kop-esque banks. It was this affiliation between the people of two industrial towns in the post-industrial era that showed an Anglo-German unity rarely seen when the supporters marked the 27th anniversary of Hillsborough.
So to the game, Klopp went on the attack, why when I felt Liverpool would be better served by Joe Allen at the expense of Lallana or Firmino? Probably because he knew we would need goals. The story of famous Anfield nights tends to be one of surrendering a position of strength too easily and then somehow wriggling out of the bag, and so it played out. Did I believe at 3-1 down? No, but I didn’t not believe. My Evertonian mate watching with me certainly believed. But I knew they would make a fist of it, they always do, even on the occasions they haven’t pulled off the amazing comeback, they always get close.
A feeling of euphoria as a London pub erupted as the final goal went in, although a word of caution to the stranger next to me, who I was now on hugging terms with, that with our defence we may need another. I left the pub, had the excited phone call with my mate, as is customary on these occasions, and then got a quiet suburban train home itching for someone to share the experience with.
It was the next morning that a tinge of hollowness came into the occasion, it wasn’t the Champions League, it was the Europa League, and all we had won was the right to prolong the most mediocre of seasons a little longer. That said in the times we live in, it was a sizeable achievement, beating high class opposition and showing that none of the Liverpool spirit or the magic of Anfield’s European atmosphere has faded despite the plight of the team; and yes we did get our ‘Birth of the Messiah’ moment, time will tell if it turns out to be the ‘Son of Shankly’ or the ‘Life of Jurgen’.
Driving to Anfield, you could tell it is a special game as the traffic is building up in the Mersey tunnel two hours before kick-off. As I take my place on the Kop, it is already buzzing. The atmosphere reflects the importance of the game, but is also stoked by special factors. The crowd is subtly different on these European nights. Many season ticket holders are replaced by fans who cannot attend Anfield regularly. They bring a freshness and a determination to enjoy the occasion that sometimes is missing from the long-suffering regulars. The Dortmund fans are making their own idiosyncratic contribution with their mass of yellow banners and carefully choreographed bobbing waves. Klopp seems to be a master-of-ceremonies, as he stands motionless on the half-way line watching both sides warm up. George on the PA system is making his own contribution by playing all the old favourites, including a German version of ‘Please, Please Me’. The ‘Fields of Anfield Road’ is sung continually. And by the time the teams emerge and both sets of fans sing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, the atmosphere is at fever pitch, given a further emotional twist by the 27th anniversary of Hillsborough.
And yet, there is something a little false, something not quite genuine, something a little forced about the Reds fans. We know that Liverpool are not the power they were. The team is worthy, but does not have the special talents of yester-year; no King Kenny, Rush, Souness, Hansen and the host of others. They are not storming the heights of Europe, as they once did. That is now the playground of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, and Liverpool no longer belong in this elite. In some ways, the Reds fans are taking part in an historical re-enactment; taking a vicarious pleasure from earlier triumphs: trying to keep the memories alive in the hope that the good-times will return.
And when the game starts, the atmosphere is instantly punctured by Dortmund’s two goals. We try our best to bring up the spirit of Istanbul or the St Etienne game when Super-Sub scored his famous goal. We try to respond to Klopp’s continuous entreaties. But somehow we do not really believe. In our heart of hearts, we expect the evening to end with another weary journey home, discussing what might have been. Real belief does briefly flourish when the Reds get the score back to 1-2. The Kop is in full cry, seemingly trying to suck the ball into the net. Smooth Dortmund now look rattled. Hummels is no longer the imperious general but suddenly an overweight, slow centre-back trying vainly to repulse the waves of red raiders. And then Dortmund score again, and it is back to reality.
We cheer Liverpool’s continual fight back during the second half. Marvel when the score gets to 2-3 and then 3-3. We think that there might be a chance. But the hope is circumscribed as Dortmund monopolise the ball, and the clock ticks down. And then it happens. Lovren heads in. The unbelievable has come to pass. Liverpool are making history as they used to do. We are enraptured. Bodies fly everywhere. It is not just an explosion of joy for the moment of triumph, but a quasi-religious renewal of faith. Maybe, just maybe, the flame has not gone out. Maybe, there is a way back. Maybe Klopp is the new Shankly. Maybe ‘Scousers will rule the world as they always did before’. The Kop does not want to go home. They stand on seats to salute the team, and shake hands to confirm their shared membership of an exclusive clan. At last, a real Liverpool night that deserves its place alongside the deeds of yesterday.