The date was 23rd May 2007, and the venue was the Olympic Stadium in Athens. At 23.37, the referee blew the full time whistle meaning that AC Milan were Champions of Europe having avenged their defeat in Istanbul two years prior by beating Liverpool 2-1.
That was a Liverpool side containing modern day greats that time will remember as such – goalkeeper Pepe Reina, defender Jamie Carragher, Spanish maestro Xabi Alonso alongside Javier Mascherano in midfield. They were supplemented by the strength of character and experience of Agger, Kuyt and Zenden. Jermaine Pennant had his best game in a Liverpool shirt. Arguably the best player in the club’s history, the man who inspired the Istanbul comeback, Steven Gerrard captained the side.
It was the start of the Hicks and Gillette era that ended with the club hours of way from administration after years of catastrophic owernship that plummeted the club towards the bottom of the Premier League under the negative management of Roy Hodgson.
From the highs of a European Cup final, to the lows of wanting to walk out at half time during a home defeat to Blackpool.
Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.
John W Henry’s Fenway Sports Group bought the club, releasing it from debt. They began rebuilding though the management of Kenny Dalglish, Brendan Rodgers and now Jurgen Klopp, investing not just in the present day team but in the future and club infrastructure. When they get it wrong, they put it right.
Yesterday, Liverpool arrived in Kiev to contest another Champions League final, this time against a Real Madrid team trying to win their 13th title, their 3rd in three years and 4th in five.
Liverpool’s road to the final had been exhilarating. After a slow start, the club became the top scorers in the competition, blowing away Porto, Manchester City and Roma in the knockout stages to top off a couple of 7-0 wins in the group.
They were to face their toughest test yet in Kiev. Under Klopp’s leadership, the team had become exponent’s of “heavy metal” or, more latterly, “balls out” football. Zinedine Zidane is building a Real side not as appreciated by its fans with a far more controlled approach – flair provided only by individuals, but those individuals including Isco, Karim Benzama, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo.
This was a game that Liverpool should not have won, but as fans met first at airports, then at Taras Schevchenko Park and then at Olympic NSC, hope and expectation began to rise with the volume of the songs being sung. This was a match of anarchy versus control, hearts versus heads and chaos versus order. Where insanity exists, who knows what can happen.
As it happens, Liverpool did fall short to a 3-1 defeat. Luka Modric controlled a game that will be headlined by two glaring mistakes from Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius and remembered for a moment of majesty from Welshman Bale.
The mood was changed when Liverpool’s most chaotic influence and talisman, Mohammed Salah, was forced off the pitch with a shoulder injury mid way through the first half after a cynical tackle from the game’s finest unconscionable exponent of the dark arts, Sergio Ramos. Adam Lallana was introduced in Salah’s absence but, as fine of a player as he is, he is different from the Egyptian by providing organisation to a position in which the game plan did not require it.
Even after Bale’s wonder strike had put Liverpool back behind after Sadio Mane’s equaliser, it still felt that there was hope. When Klopp joined the club, he said that he wanted to turn Doubters in to Believers. In full flow, there are few teams better to watch than Liverpool, and even fewer as effective. They were not able to achieve those heights, but this defeat felt different.
After Athens, there were thoughts about whether Liverpool would ever have such a team again. Defeat in the Europa League final in 2016 was attributed to a lack of leadership and a team that didn’t look up for the fight. I went to the match yesterday with my Dad and my brother under the thought that this might be the last time we get to go, a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Leaving the stadium last night, I’m not sure that this is the case. The Liverpool team last night was at its bare bones. Players were either injured or coming back from injury meant that depth in the squad was not there. But it was a team with character beaten by one that was better. Karius was signed from Mainz last summer and is young in goalkeeping terms. Trent Alexander-Arnold is an Academy graduate while fellow full back Andy Robertson was on the brink of giving up football 5 years ago. Dejan Lovren is much maligned and a midfield of Henderson, Milner and Gini Wijnaldum is functional rather than particularly inspirational. Only the front three and record signing Virgil Van Dijk are mentioned about getting in to other top sides. The players aren’t club legends yet, but they can be.
It feels like a club together, which is what Klopp does. He’s got a a team that needs to work with the fans and vice versa. As John Henry followed the players round the pitch at the end, it gave the sense that everyone is pulling is the same direction.
It feels like they can push on. They shouldn’t have got here, but they did and they deserved to be. The ingredients are there. A bit of investment, a bit more experience and a bit of time, and this side is here to stay and here to challenge and here to win.
The defeat in Kiev was deflating – they always are. It was a sad end to a fun and inspirational journey. But it feels like it’s only the end of the first beginning. Now to move on the second one. It’s going to be exciting.