For the connoisseur of soccer, Madrid did not host the most memorable European Champions League final. For the Liverpool FC fan that hardly mattered. The trophy returns to Merseyside after a 14 year absence and is the first silverware to make its way to a barren Anfield trophy room in 7 years. Although not as exciting as the 2005 final in Istanbul, this current Liverpool side is a much better group of players than the team that last won the trophy. A more important distinction is this: the Istanbul team played above itself, whereas the Madrid squad played beneath itself. For much of the game the performance was like that served up during those excruciating Premier League draws that ultimately saw the much-coveted title go up the road to Manchester. Spurs were not the walkover many presumed they might be. But for a penalty decision, which for Tottenham was gratuitous and for Liverpool fortuitous, the first half would have been much more evenly poised, the outcome anything but assured. For most of the game Spurs looked the better team.
It was the ninth European champions final for the Reds, a journey which started out in 1977 with that memorable 3-1 victory over Borussia Monchengladbach in Rome. I watched the match in Cage 10 of Long Kesh, but years later would sit swilling beer in the bars of Monchengladbach, telling my friend about the importance of the city in the soccer history of Liverpool! That 1976-77 side was in my view the best Liverpool team ever. The following year the title was retained in the most boring final to have plodded across the Wembley turf. If life in Cage 11 was monotonous, the match did little to alleviate it. It was as bad if not worse as watching The Virtues and fed into a prejudice I have never quite abandoned about boring Belgians. By the time I got to swilling beer in Brussels, I probably had long forgotten the Bruges game. It was 1981 before the trophy would make its way back to Liverpool courtesy of a win over Real Madrid in Paris. I never got to watch it as we were on blanket protest at the time. Four of the republican hunger strikers had already died that month, so soccer would not have been to the forefront of our minds. Bobby Sands might not have been conscious enough to realise that his team, Aston Villa, won the English league title for the first time in 71 years three days prior to his death. Irishmen with a passion for English soccer. The culture vultures would be appalled.
Three years later Liverpool would defeat AC Roma on their home turf on penalties. Never a satisfactory way to clinch a trophy, the game was watched in a jail canteen on the then customary black and white television. Prison managers made it their mission to stay behind the times in just about everything. Colour would come in 1986. The year following Rome was even less satisfactory when the game (which should never have been allowed to continue) was completely overshadowed by the Heysel Stadium disaster when 39 Juventus fans lost their lives. By the time Liverpool had lost the match, my interest in it had all but vanished. Banned from Europe for years after that, two full decades would elapse before the magnificent victory in Istanbul. A friend and I decided to switch bars in downtown Belfast at half time, where Liverpool were already down 3-0. As we walked in the door of the second bar Alonso was preparing to take a penalty to the bring the sides level. It was beyond belief. Turkish Delight.
Two years later AC Milan would get their revenge when they beat Liverpool 2-1 in Athens. That one I watched from home, drawing little solace from a very late Kuyt goal. Were it not for Gerrard having missed a sitter before Milan’s second, things could have been very different. Last year I had planned on watching the final in Kiev with my son and his friend. For the previous three or four years the two of them have made a day out of the final, alternating the sleepovers between our home and his friend’s. Events intervened and I went up to Belfast to spend the night in the hospice with my brother and watch it with him. There was no televised coverage so we ended up listening to it on radio. A game perhaps best not watched given the howlers inflicted on the side by the unfortunate keeper, Karius.
Last night, my son had scarpered off to his friend’s, leaving me on my own. I asked my daughter would she like to watch it with me. She suggested the pub but the match was about to kick off so I declined. My wife decided to keep me company and refill the wine glass at crucial moments. She even cheered when the goals went in.
Jurgen Klopp’s team did the business in Madrid, but the night belonged to the fans whose rendition of YNWA is as tear inducing as ever since the unlawful police killings of 96 fans at Hillsborough. Now the ringtone for my phone, its meaning is simple, like the words from the Catholic mass ceremony: do this in memory of me.