LIAM MACKEY: I promised you a football miracle

“At half-time,” Alessandro Ciotti recalls, “one of our fans was already on his phone looking for flights to Japan for the FIFA Club World Cup. He wanted to get in first so that the prices hadn’t gone up too high.”

“It was nightmare,” is how Chris Hughes remembers it.

“My son Jamie was in floods of tears. I’d seen victory and defeat as a fan but this was too much for a young lad to take. A couple of guys in the next row tried to comfort him but they ended up crying too.”

File under ‘believe-it-or-not’ if you will but the uncomfortable truth is that it’s fast approaching the 10th anniversary of the ‘Miracle Of Istanbul’, the most unforgettable of all Champions League finals, when AC Milan apparently had the whole thing done and dusted only for Liverpool to rise from the dead and claim the glittering prize in circumstances bordering on surreal.

The quotes above are from a commemorative feature in the latest issue of ‘FourFourTwo’ and sum up pretty well the contrasting moods of the respective supporters at half-time on the night of May 25, 2005, with Milan not just 3-0 up but having played Liverpool off the park from the moment when Paolo Maldini opened the scoring in the first minute.

As for your humble scribe, I was perched high in the Ataturk Stadium, using the break to hammer out a good five or 600 words of a projected 1,000-word match report that, on the basis of the apparently conclusive half-time scoreline, I could feel confident would require minimal structural change before what looked for Liverpool the bitter end.

Yet, Liverpool’s mere presence in the final was already something of a minor miracle and might have been the reason why, in my match preview from Istanbul on the morning of the game — the content of which had long since slipped from my mind until I revisited it for this piece — I weighed up all the pros in favour of Milan and all the cons against Liverpool and came, if I may say, to a momentous conclusion.

“On paper then, and man for man, this looks like a no-brainer: AC Milan will simply have too much talent, too much know-how and too much big-match experience for Liverpool. But then, that’s what they said at the quarter-final and semi-final stages, too. And, to their dismay, Juventus and Chelsea now know better. You look at Milan’s quality, experience and near universal status as hot favourites, and you can only come to one conclusion: the European Cup is going home to Merseyside.”

Well, wasn’t I the smart one? Except, of course, that I’d only gone and airily forgotten my own health warning by half-time in the game itself, 15 productive minutes during which I wrote at considerable length about how the gulf in class we had just witnessed on the pitch represented also the gulf in class which still separated football in Europe from football in Blighty. 

And I was even able to insert a handy quote from a Liverpool fan who, passing on the adjacent aisle, leaned in momentarily to tell me: “Don’t forget to say that we’re going to win on pens, right?” Ah, that famous Scouse black humour — that’ll do nicely, sir.

Note please that I wasn’t wallowing in Liverpool’s misery. This was professional, not personal. The fact was that, in the Ataturk that night, I found myself not in the press box per se but rather in what they call “press overspill” — normal stand seats cordoned off for international journalists who would have been deemed well down the pecking order behind those from Milan, Liverpool and host city Istanbul.

Still among the best seats in the house, mind, but given that they came without desk or socket or TV monitor for those helpful action replays, by no means ideal for the working hack with a deadline minutes after the last whistle.

But, for once, no matter. By the time the teams were emerging for the second half, I could savour that rare sensation in a football ground of feeling that my work was almost done with 45 minutes still to play — all that could possibly remain to be reported on in the whole of the second half, surely, was the addition of a goal or two for Milan maybe or, at a stretch, a late consolation effort for Liverpool, leaving me still enough time to apply a final polish before sending the deathless prose winging its way to Cork.

I think you know what happened next — six minutes during which Liverpool turned the game, the night and all logic on its head. Not to mention my carefully crafted analysis-in-progress.

Suffice to say that by the time the game reached the penalty shoot-out, I’d had to delete more than half the article, my laptop was running out of power and, with the whole stand in uproar, I was reduced to standing on tip-toes and squinting hard just to try to make out the number on the shirt of the next tiny figure down on the pitch who was stepping up to the spot.

Since the mobile phone network now chose this moment to collapse, I also had no way of communicating with the sports desk back home and could only assume the presses were being held and the deadline extended to take account of the marathon drama unfolding before me. 

And so, literally within seconds, of Dudek saving from Schevchenko, I added one final line to top the piece, pressed ‘send’ and slumped back into my seat in a lather of sweat, not at all sure that what had turned into a seat-of-the-pants report on one of the greatest comebacks of all time would ever actually make it into print.

But it did. After what seemed an eternity, my phone beeped back into life with a two-word text message from the commander-in-chief which simply read: “Got it.”

Whether ‘it’ could even remotely do justice to the drama which went into the making of the Miracle of Istanbul, I doubt very much but at least I can attest that my last vaguely coherent thought, which I managed to affix to the top of the article, came from the heart. “I saw it with my own eyes,” I wrote, “and I still can’t quite believe it.”

Ten years on, I wouldn’t change a word.

Where’s Alan Hansen when you need him?

There can be no getting away from Himself this week, the world’s emergency reserves of superlatives having been exhausted in a vain attempt to do justice to Lionel Messi in the Camp Nou on Wednesday.

Even the most sober and clinical of pundits got a bit carried away, with Liam Brady, uncharacteristically, making bold to invoke the supernatural when he told RTÉ viewers: “It’s not football, it’s magic.” And, of course, The Dunph couldn’t help but weigh in with that well-worn ‘Smoke On The Water’ riff of his, the one that goes ‘Dun, dun dun, AP McCoy, dun, dun, dun, Henry Shefflin’ and on and on.

A little bit lost in the tsunami of celebrity tweets on the night was a nice one from our old pal Jason McAteer: “Just got off a plane to find out Barca won 3-0, Messi was unbelievable and Boateng is having counselling. Did I miss something??”

Poor Boateng has become the butt of a million jokes after Messi left him for dead before exquisitely dinking the ball over Neuer for his and Barca’s second. And while in no way wishing to detract from the sheer beauty of it all, I surely can’t be the only person who felt there was something a touch, shall we say, theatrical about the way the defender actually went to ground, almost as if close proximity to those spell-binding feet had caused him to swoon.

(Mind, they used to say of George Best that he gave opponents “twisted blood”, so maybe the moment literally did go to Boateng’s head).

In any event, and amidst all those superlatives, I almost found myself hankering for the return of Alan Hansen so there would be at least one contrary voice to be heard informing us that, “Yes, the finish was top-class, Gary, I’m no’ arguing with that, but the defending was absolutely diabolical.”


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