“For Liverpool it’s been the season of Peter Gabriel, Beautiful South and James; Channel 4 News celebrating our chants and we’ve had James Milner as the best midfielder in Europe. And losing to Real Madrid feels oddly exciting.”
Around this time last year I wasn’t myself. My first book came out which I’d spent a year writing, and by a year I mean every waking hour. I’d get up for work and be writing it on the sly from 8am-4pm, then from 4-11pm I’d stay behind and write some more. It took over my life: I never saw my mates, hardly saw my family, and didn’t give enough quality time to my girlfriend.
When it was released I absolutely spiralled. My life went from being overwhelmingly busy to completely empty and I became depressed as a consequence. It’s funny; what was supposed to be the proudest achievement of my life actually sunk me, and the more success the book had, the more it held my head under the water. I’m telling you this because I remember losing all passion for the things I cared about, even Liverpool FC. We drew 3-3 with Watford first game of the season and I missed it because I was at group therapy, but I wasn’t arsed. The result that day reflected my state of being. But football has this incredible way – if you’re truly in love with a club – of mirroring life. That was the start of the season and I was devoid of optimism. By the last game of 17/18 I was in Kiev with the lads roaring the club on – both Liverpool and myself having returned to where we belonged.
That occasion represented my current state of being. Watching all the lads and girls around me in the lower-tier going absolutely mad for Dua Lipa gave me the chills. ‘This is it.’ There will be defeats in life – there will be defeats in football – but you have to make the most of the good times when they come. What football teaches us is that it’s never over, there is always another match, run of form and season to come.
The month of May had been incredible and Liverpool baked in sunshine. I hadn’t ventured down the south end, but the north of Liverpool was painted red. Every car and every house adorned Kiev-inspired memorabilia. My Mah couldn’t open the front windows all month because they were keeping banners held up. She worked for two weeks each night sewing up my new ‘Scouse Republic’ Basque design. I love my Mah anyway, but it was emotional seeing her work away at it each night.
Every day, old women were buying flags on The Vale, while lads were painting banners in the garden. I can honestly tell you that nobody in Liverpool gave a shite about the Royal Wedding the week before Kiev, conversation focused wholly on preparing for the final. It was the same across Bootle, Walton, Huyton, Fazack, Aintree. Even on County Road, supposedly Everton territory, the discount store was hanging up various Salah banners.
My neighbour Dave, an old-school docker, waited in for me as I got my ticket delivered to his house. I went around with some bevvies for him as a thanks later that day and we looked across the road at the four houses facing, as well as our four terraced together. ‘I’ve not seen it like this,’ he said, which made me smile. ‘I didn’t know John was a Red?’ He pointed at the flags over the road. John and him went to every game in the 60s and 70s before being out-priced and ostracised by the internet in the 00s, but even throughout all of that he didn’t know John was a Kopite.
Because he’s lived through it all, I value what he has to say. Around Christmas time, Peter Hooton had his Shankly documentary released and we all came to mourn the values those players epitomised. Dave has always reinforced that Shankly message ever since I was a boy but never, until that day, had I heard him say a player in my lifetime was worthy of the Scot. It wasn’t just one player he complimented, but the entire squad, citing Robertson and Milner as being especially worthy of Shanks.
I’ve felt it too this season. There have been individual players we’ve elevated in the past, like Carragher and Gerrard, but never the entire squad. Now I’m obsessed: I want to know what Firmino got up to after training on Instagram and what Wijnaldum is having for tea. Jurgen has brought old neighbours together with his Brexit-hating values and his collectively lovable squad.
I was also getting messages from mates in a new era, lads I’d met from various clubs and cities around the world. Enzo from Marseille; Alberto the Atleti fan; Dennao from Sao Paolo; Filippo in Milan. All of them with the same line: ‘I hope you beat Real.’ I personally don’t mind Real Madrid but it’s definitely undeniable that they epitomise corporate-driven modern football. No neutral could celebrate the richest and most famous team in the world lifting another trophy in this era of super-club domination.
Liverpool were the underdogs, which suited us. Small dogs bite. It suits the mentality of the city, too. Simon Hughes, a writer I’ve gotten to know since my book came out (Scouse authors union), summed it up perfectly in The Independent after we beat City. His reasoning was along the following lines: “Madrid, Munich and Rome (the other semi-finalists) are massive cities with massive populations, whereas Liverpool has only 400,000 people.” How can a city of this stature outperform so incredibly in music, the arts, fashion, sport and culture? Let’s ask Coventry, Bristol, Middlesbrough and the likes shall we: what makes Liverpool so outstanding?
It’s our location, I reckon. Port cities are influenced by the best foreign trends and as a consequence attain a sense of superiority which, inevitably over time, enters the arts, music and sporting fields mentioned above. Liverpool is in England but not of it.
I was still not myself when we beat Hoffenheim to qualify. When Trent scored, I wasn’t surprised, I’d heard of him at the academy years ago. I scouted there and I’d now like to thank my boss at the time for two things: letting me fulfil a dream of representing the Reds, and scouting Trent Alexander-Arnold (the boy kept Ronaldo where he wanted him).
Ian Barrigan’s father-in-law scouted Fowler and McManaman, and Barrigan is now having a similarly outstanding influence on the academy. Which is why I wasn’t surprised to see Liverpool once more defy all conception and reach Kiev – to become the second best team in Europe and therefore the world.
What Liverpool do – which most other clubs in England do not – is align all aspects of the institution, from the style of play and the type of player developed at U6, all the way up to the first team. There is a vision and an appreciation of local ability at Liverpool now which seeps into the backroom too. The fans witness this, appreciate it and reinforce the cycle through displays of support as witnessed at Roma away.
I was also delighted but not surprised to see LFC invite a Boss Night to provide entertainment in Kiev. The local hierarchy at 20 Chapel St have kept their ears to the ground and have seen the grassroots Boss parties develop. It wouldn’t have happened years ago – they would have gotten Chris De Burgh to sing (as Peter Hooten said on The Echo podcast before the final) rather than Jamie Webster; just like how the academy would have once bought a Dani Pacheco, rather than have nurtured a Trent. But what we’re seeing now, no matter what people believe, is that the FSG-Klopp-Inglethorpe triangle is a superb arrangement which understands what locals can achieve.
Jamie Webster is Kiev personified. I’d seen so many young Scouse lads taking over these European aways throughout 17/18, and listened as Webster belted out their songs. I’d seen them spark up pyros at Boss Nights and sing to Solsbury Hill, before joining in with his version of Common People and other Indie tracks.
For so long local youngsters were squeezed out of regular match attendance – I myself am a Sandon backroom baby – but these lads have fought back and have reshaped the club’s identity, from being a corporate-driven Mighty-Red-loving laughing stock, to a fashionably Scouse movement and a beacon of our identity. Liverpool as a result is being reborn just at a time when things were in danger of becoming stale. To see these lads in Kiev in their Transalpino, Patagonia, New Balance and AirMax gear absolutely warmed my heart. They, alongside that great German (the best signing we’ve made in ten years) have pushed us back into relevance.
They’ve been educated by their parents and grandparents on what it means to be a Red. It isn’t about winning, that is merely a byproduct of what we do (if it was about winning then what is the point in 95% of football fans going to matches?). It is about being part of a community. About reputation; about applauding Bale’s overhead and staying to clap Real as they lifted the trophy. I’ve travelled a lot of this world but am yet to see a community as diverse and beautiful as the Scouse populace. Tough but warm, hard but funny. The most socially intelligent people in the world. I think the behaviour on aways displays the best of that Scouse social intelligence, when Liverpool folk get together en masse, especially in the context of a European back-garden, and appear competent in difficult terrain. ‘Kiev? Middle of nowhere? Almost impossible to get to? Sound.’ Wisened Scouse travellers took over nearby forest cabins and turned Odessa into Ibiza with no stress whatsoever.
UEFA and the airlines did their best to do us over in the final, but I’ll always see Kiev as the time when human-spirit prevailed. Which brings me to Katya. She found me when I was looking for a place to stay and took me around the city for free. She gave up her apartment and slept on the couch. She went shopping and left me there. She gave me the keys to come back late after the match. And she didn’t know me – I was a stranger – but was so pissed off with local hoteliers charging over the odds that she wanted to save her city’s reputation. I get that, I care what people think of my hometown too, but would I have done the same? There are so many stories of kindness like that of Katya, I’d say we’re all leaving a bit of our hearts in Kiev.
The police were taking photos with our banners. The cabbies (some) were ferrying us across the city for nothing. There was even a bizarre moment when a firm of Dinamo ultras came into Maccies at 2am holding up A4 sheets with Liverpool’s badge on it.
To be totally honest, even the Real Madrid fans were spot on and we all mingled together. They’re not tinpot them lot, and neither are we. We’re experienced in Europe and see it as a mate-making exercise, rather than a ‘lets kick seven shades out of the locals and sing England songs’ alternative (like you, Leicester).
I remember in 2009 when we destroyed Real 4-0. Their lads threw scarves into the Main Stand and we threw them back. After the game they all chanted Gerrard’s name as he warmed down with the squad. We took the piss a bit singing ‘Catalonia ole ole’ at them in Kiev, but that’s more of a Scouse-not-English thing than an anti-Real display.
What has been interesting throughout this journey, I have found, is the great number of clubs our success has genuinely angered. City is understandable (RIP bus), but Spurs? We’re not rivals, get a grip. The Ev you can also understand (half of my mates are Blues and they’d never do this by the way), but for some of them to buy Real Madrid shirts and sing for them in The Brick?
Imagine being so obsessed with Liverpool FC that our very existence now shapes and defines their identity. Supporters should support, not revel in the misfortune of other clubs. I for one don’t give a fuck what happens to any other club apart from Liverpool. If United lost a final, for example, I’d be satisfied but mostly envious of them for being there. I wouldn’t get the lads together for a big ole song-song down the ale house.
It took a 14-hour coach journey to get to Warsaw the day after the match. I said terrah to Katya and was filled with a lot of emotions. Sad, because we lost. Proud, because we got there. Tired, because I hadn’t slept, and anxious because the coach didn’t have a toilet. But mostly I was optimistic. That ‘09 game when we beat Real and Gerrard was the best player in the world was arguably the last high point before Liverpool FC began to tumble.
This time, losing to them feels oddly exciting. It’s been the season of Peter Gabriel, Beautiful South and James; when we’ve had Channel 4 News celebrating our chants and have had James Milner as the best midfielder in Europe. I’ve loved it like no other campaign. We’re back on the up and with a manager like this and with fans like these, it’s inevitable that we’ll succeed in Europe for years to come. Jurgen and his team will never know how much they’ve helped me this season – they just go out and play – but I reckon if any Liverpool team in my lifetime were to care about my story, it would be this one.