In a week of wild drama, football took fans from helplessness to hope. Defying its tribalism, it also brought together huge swaths of the nation
Eleven minutes into the second half, as Gini Wijnaldum’s header fizzed into the top corner and Liverpool took a 3-0 lead in their Champions League semi-final last week, I just stood there, motionless, staring at my mate Mick Potter with bulging eyes. He looked back, shaking his head. His dumbfounded expression said: “We’ve seen a lot, you and me – but nothing like this.”
I’ve known Mick since 1982. We have seen a lot together – Heysel, Hillsborough, dark, dark days as well as glorious times following our team. As with all friendships – your work, your family – your fate can draw you away, but there’s always that sinew that connects you. Our team; our history. The things we’ve done together, as supporters.
Earlier in the day, a bunch of us met up for a late lunch, something we always do before a European game. I don’t recall when this tradition started. There was never a conscious rationale to it, other than some vague idea that this was the “European thing” to do. Those first, formative trips to Bruges, to Zurich, Munich, Paris gave you a taste, literally, of the good stuff; an education.
These Euro lunches inevitably lead to a nostalgic retelling of trips gone by – things we did, places we’ve been. The time we wore dog collars to get in a bar in Rome. Taking a snooze in a life raft on the Calais ferry and waking up back in Dover. Those stories remind you of people no longer with us – Bobby Wilcox, Young Mick, Yozzer – that lovely, infectious laugh of his.
Remembrance is a huge part of football. I’ve often thought it was hammy the way players point to heaven when they score a goal. But my first thought on leaving the ground on Tuesday night was just how much my dad would have loved that. He was there for the dismantling of Inter Milan by Bill Shankly’s first great team but died without seeing Liverpool win the European Cup. He loved Shankly and would have idolised Jürgen Klopp.
Managers – great managers – are football fans’ lodestars. Who could not be moved by the sight of Mauricio Pochettino, exhausted, disoriented, enraptured and staggering across the Ajax pitch until his legs went from underneath him after Spurs won the week’s other Champions League semi?
This is what football can do to you; in the blink of an eye, it can transport you or destroy you. Spurs were the losers when everyone’s beloved underdogs, Leicester City, won the Premier League in 2016 – they know how those Ajax fans feel. Losing with the last kick of the game when you’re already planning your trip to the final – no worse, there is none.
It seems fitting that Liverpool are fighting for two huge prizes in the season of the Hillsborough disaster’s 30th anniversary. During those 30 years, there was a calcification of parts of Liverpool’s fanbase, a sense of isolation from the country at large. The usual to-and-fro of banter and abuse between rival fans became more toxic. Yet a big part of the Liverpool spirit that other fans can resent, or admire, is embodied in those Hillsborough campaigners – a cultural refusal to lie down and give in.
When the club fell into the hands of Tom Hicks and George Gillett in 2007, a group of disaffected Liverpool fans formed the country’s first supporters’ union, the SOS (Spirit of Shankly). The union was a huge factor in ridding the club of its absentee landlords and was a significant player in bringing about the standardised £30 ticket price for all Premier League away games. Arsenal and Chelsea fans will have woken up on Friday to discover that the “Uefa family” has allocated them 6,000 tickets each for a stadium that holds 69,000 and they’ll only have the phone-ins to complain to.
On Tuesday, that same spirit coursed through the Liverpool team. They harried, hassled, strained and ran and there was cool finesse, too. Whoever we support, all we want is to see and feel that our players crave what we crave. We want to see them fear nothing and try everything to deliver the fans’ dreams. They want to watch a team of Andy Robertsons, Liverpool’s indomitable left-back. And, on Tuesday, in the main, the nation’s football fans accepted they’d just seen something very special – the humbling of the great Barcelona by a team of second-picks and substitutes, driven on by sheer belief.
When our fourth went in against Barcelona, I shrieked like a banshee and went into a demented pile-on with Mick and Ian and Rich and all the people around us, strangers who were there together, when the Beating of Barcelona happened. That sense of communion we have – club, fans, players, manager, all pulling together – was never more vivid than after the final whistle, when the entire squad and coaching staff linked arms to sing back to their adoring flock.
I know we’re prone to self-mythologise; all the songs, the flags, the banners – we think we’re great and we want the world to know it. But we’re not alone: when were reticence and modesty any part of being a football fanatic? And when you have witnessed epic journeys, incredible comebacks, wins against all odds, why would you not stitch those memories into your own folklore?
Spurs fans will know all about that, too – the unreal hysteria of a historic win. The crazed, passionate embraces of dads and sons and daughters – mates, strangers, anyone within mauling distance. Players on their knees; manager sobbing unabashedly. After the Ajax crowd had the grace to applaud the game they’d just seen and left the stadium, shattered, the Spurs fans still stood there, in awe at what their team had just done – shaking their heads in stunned disbelief.
That was their history playing out, right there – the beautiful game at peak insanity. Whether it be north London, Liverpool or Leicester, these moments percolate over time to become our tales of yesteryear, our Euro lunches. Once you taste it, you just want more. It’s going to be some final.
• Kevin Sampson is the author of Extra Time, Awaydays and Hillsborough Voices