Istanbul - The Anniversary (Lest we forget)

Hello folks,

There was a competition in that highest quality of publications, The Liverpool Echo, to subject your "Memories of Istanbul".

The idea was that to commemorate the anniversary of that special evening, almost a year ago, you subjected your memories of that night and the winning selections would get published in a special edition.

Having been published in the Belfast Telegraph, I figured what the hell and started writing.

Once I was happy with it, I went to submit it and then realised that you had to have BEEN IN ISTANBUL to qualify and I also found out that my entry was about 6 times too long.

So all that work for nothing. Except, not quite - there's always this corner of cyberspace to dump the crap that spills out of my head an onto my keyboard (not a pretty sight I can tell you).

Anyway, my football (and non-football) supporting chums, in the absence of a much coveted publication in the Liverpool Echo, I give you "Istanbul - The Anniversary (Lest we forget)"

I watched THAT cup final on the terrace of an Irish pub in the "Grote Markt" in the centre of Antwerp, Belgium.

I was surrounded by friends, some Liverpool supporting, some not. There were neutrals of mixed nationalities and there was an impressive contingent of Milan supporters mingling about the old, historic square as well. It made for a colourful sight.

It was a beautiful summer's evening and because the weather was so nice, the pub had organised a big screen outside facing out onto the pub terrace. A few of the other bars and restaurants had decided to do the same.

The atmosphere - and the crowd - was gradually building up, as we gathered, waiting expectantly for the big kick off.

I had already indulged in a couple of coma-inducing strength Belgian beers to calm the nerves having already been on a post-work first date with a really hot Belgian Babe, who shall remain nameless. After the drinks, I convinced her to come and watch the match with me - the old romantic fool that I am. What a first date!

33 years old and 33 years a Liverpool supporter (thanks to my equally Liverpool passionate father) I originally hail from Northern Ireland. We got over to see as many games as we could until I moved over to Liverpool. I met a girl at a Liverpool match and moved over there nearly immediately. She owned a pub 20 minutes from Coliseum Anfield - I was in heaven!

My job has since taken me to Belgium where I am a member of the Belgian Liverpool Supporters Club and still get to see the mighty Reds a few times a season.

Like every Liverpool supporter, I have been sick to the back teeth and green with envy at the success our "nearest and dearest" up the East Lancs Road have been enjoying over the past 15 years. It's annoyed me to see all these ManYoo supporters out there who don't seem to realise that football started before the age of Sky television.

But I digress.

I felt sure that night that the tables were turning. The Rafa-lution was in full effect. It was our destiny. Stevie Gerrard was going to lift “Old Big Ears” that night and I was ready to join in the celebrations.

I tried to explain all of this to a rather non-plussed Belgian Babe and I think she managed to get caught up in the excitement of it all, looking pretty and sporting a spare Liverpool scarf I had brought her for the occasion. It didn't go with her designer clothes, and it was a hot summer's evening but bless her - she wore it anyway.

I was a twitching, nervous wreck, almost to the point of nauseous but I loved every minute of it.

I swelled with pride as I surveyed the hundreds of people all around that square, trying to catch a glimpse of the game.

This was MY team playing in THE biggest club match in the world.

And then - the moment arrived.

20:45, 25th May, 2005.

Our biggest match for 20 years had kicked off.

The first half, as we all know was an absolute disaster.

The Milan supporters all around me were rejoicing, the neutrals were shocked; the anti-Liverpool (read Manchester United) supporters were having a field day at my expense.

I put my head in my hands.

The Belgian Babe politely made her excuses and left, citing "meeting up with a friend" as some form of flimsy excuse, to exit stage left.

At least she kept her scarf on.

We arranged to meet up after the game. I figured I would be in need of some consolation and a sweet-smelling rounded shoulder of a beautiful female - all be it one who could desert us in our hour of need - to cry on was most definitely better than none.

I phoned home and spoke to my brother - another fully paid-up Liverpool fanatic.

"I can't believe it. I just can't believe it. I've waited 20 years for this moment and we are getting hammered! It’s embarrassing!" I complained down the phone to him.

My brother's response in his thick Northern Irish parlance reverberated in my head:
"Catch yerself on! We've scored 3 goals in one half before - we'll do it again! Now get behind the team. We're all in this together!!"*

[* - Conversation might be slightly edited so as to be safe for public consumption!]

I returned to my seat contemplating just how many beers my brother had had and wondered how many more Belgian beers I would need to make me as delusional as he so obviously was.

And then it happened.

Towards the end of half-time, those Liverpool supporters lucky enough to have been there on that magical night, started singing that most special of football anthems - indeed the ONLY football anthem - "You'll Never Walk Alone"

On the screen, the camera panned around the sea of red in that big open stadium in Turkey and we saw – no – more importantly we HEARD every Liverpool supporter singing Our Anthem with all their might.

Maybe. Just Maybe.

The rest, as they say is history.

After our second goal went in – a cracker from Smicer of all people - I got a text from my brother that simply read "I TOLD YA!!!" I hadn't even begun to think up a reply, when we got the penalty and Alonso - at the second time of asking - put the ball in the old onion bag.

I was delirious. I was hysterical. I was kissing, and hugging and groping everyone (well - the attractive girls at least) in my nearest vicinity. We had done it!

The Italians around me had lost all their earlier air of machismo. Surely now at 3-3, the game was ours for the taking.

Of course I should have known better.

It had been an extraordinary cup run to get to that very moment – so of course there were to be a few final twists.

The agony of extra-time, Carragher defending like a rock - even when suffering from cramp and of course THAT incredible double save from Jerzy Dudek.

And then the horror of the penalty shoot-out.

I saw Jamie speak to Jerzy just before the shoot-out and I lip-read the word "Grobbelaar".

I knew exactly what he was saying. "He's gonna do a Grobbelaar!" I shouted out to nobody in particular.

He did and we won.

We were Champions of Europe for a fifth time. “Old Big Ears” was coming back to Anfield for keeps.

The Belgian Babe had returned and the celebrations went on late into the night and it was with the sweetest hangover I've ever had that I walked tall and proud into the office the next day.

After all, we were CHAMPIONS OF EUROPE!!

Thanks lads, for giving me one of the best nights of my life. Later, I tried my best to give the Belgian Babe the best night of her life as well but I'm not quite sure that I was up to the task. We split up shortly afterwards but my spirits would not be dampened for all in all it was the Best Night of My Life.

The moral of the story?

Girlfriends, no matter how pretty, come and go. Liverpool stays forever.