The past and the present are in a permanent state of war with each other, generally over which is best — and never more so than in football.
When I was a kid, and the FA Cup would roll around, we would be ‘treated’ to snippets of The Matthews Final, that famous day when ... erm ... Stan Mortensen scored three goals and won the cup for Blackpool.
No, I didn’t get it either, nor did I, as a bolshie youth idolising Kevin Keegan, figure out how this could be the same sport as I’d started watching on television.
There was no point arguing though, certainly not with my father who, until his dying day, would insist that Billy Liddell was the greatest Liverpool player of all time. He’d bestowed a bogus knighthood upon Roger Hunt, like all good Kopites, and later salivated over Kenny Dalglish in his pomp, but Billy was the real king, and always would be.
Now that I’m (ahem) slightly advanced in years myself, I’m indulging in the same time-travel conversations and denials with supporters who now label Gerrard as the best of all — not Dalglish, as my generation often cited.
I’ll keep mentioning modern fitness techniques, an entire second team of players as back-up, the snooker baize pitches they play on and the ugly wealth in the hands of a chosen few (thank God we’re still one of them).
All year I’ve been arguing with somebody who insists Van Dijk is our greatest defender of all time, while I stubbornly and belligerently claim he still has some way to go before overshadowing the godlike Hansen.
It’s the same with matches and teams. Every so often though, there will be a game that unites the generations — and such a game took place at Anfield this year. It wasn’t just the opposition, featuring as they did Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi, who themselves have been the subject of many discussions about ultimate greatness and overall superiority.
It wasn’t just the first leg deficit, although of course that played a big part. It wasn’t even that Liverpool didn’t have their best team out, and even got weaker as the night progressed, but all those ingredients combined helped put Liverpool 4 Barcelona 0 near the top of an admittedly steep pile.
“Near”, did you ask? All in good time, my child.
Statistics get used by some to claim Jurgen Klopp’s team is the best Liverpool have ever had, but during a relentless and ultimately fruitless title race with Manchester City, one big question mark hung over them — where were the trophies?
Of course, after the greatest night in Anfield’s illustrious history there was still a bit of work to be done before that question was answered, but the final itself was a damp squib, neither team doing itself justice and after the semi-final heroics of both, it was just a matter of one of them getting over the line.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. It all began with the first leg in Catalonia, and like many great heroic tales, it involves adversity and great danger at first.
Reds often discuss the defensive capabilities (or otherwise) of Trent Alexander-Arnold, with snooty types slapping down critics and citing two European Cup final appearances as somehow disintegrating all doubt.
Yet it’s worth pointing out that for the trepidatious visit to the Nou Camp cauldron, Klopp himself chose Joe Gomez, barely back from injury, as his right-back to counter the marauding Jordi Alba.
It didn’t work. Some claimed later that Trent might have been a better idea, giving Alba defensive concerns and possibly helping Liverpool snatch an away goal which was, surely, the only way they could give the Spanish giants problems in the second leg.
Watching that first game again weeks afterwards, it was amusing to watch the cheery indifference of the home players as they missed a few late chances to make the second leg academic.
“Make”? Make??? It was already academic, surely. Those who tried to give the case for the comeback would for a week be treated like tinfoil-hat conspiracist loons, people who would believe in just about anything. Many people laughed at them. We would come to conveniently forget we ever did so.
Sure, Barcelona had stumbled in Rome the year before, but Liverpool did not have an away goal, and lightning wasn’t going to strike twice.
There was Anfield and its atmospheric reputation of course, which always plays a part, but these were Clasico-hardened veterans who would surely not wilt because of a little noise.
The fate of our returning ex-heroes was discussed. We all (eventually) realised it was virtually impossible for South American players to turn down Barcelona, especially when we couldn’t offer any success as any sort of far-fetched inducement to remain in Liverpool.
I’ve always been baffled by the general serenity towards Suarez and venomous hatred of Coutinho. One had been desperate to leave for Arsenal, while the other at least gave it five years before admitting defeat and wanting away.
It pleased me no end that both were booed incessantly during the second game. Years before, Ronaldo had been applauded off the pitch. Ronaldo! This time, chivalry and generosity went out the window. It was the earliest indication that despite the enormity of the task at hand, Liverpool supporters were determined to give it everything they had. We were all business, and to hell with Queensbury rules.
It would have to be done without Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino, though. Like Harry Houdini handcuffed in a padlocked box underwater, where was the fun if you weren’t going to make it impossible for yourself?
The first real indication of something unusual came when Robertson gave Messi a tidy little crack across the back of his head. No respect here. The Argentinian must surely have been subjected to this agricultural approach a thousand times before, but bafflingly became hissy-fit hysterical about the whole thing.
Mate, you’re 3-0 up – what the hell’s got into you? It was all great fun nevertheless and another tiny indication that they certainly hadn’t come here thinking it was all over, even if many on the Kop may have thought so.
Then we scored. Four minutes gone. Now it was getting even louder. The European night at Anfield is our version of our Sunday best; most of the time we’re as scruffy and plain as anyone else, but we can scrub up when the occasion demands it — and boy, was it demanded tonight.
Watching the rest of the first half on a DVD the other day, it’s remarkable how one keeps gasping whenever Barcelona (usually Messi) go close. You know how this ends, right? How many times have you watched it now? How can you sit there and bite your nails thinking there will be any other outcome? Maybe psychiatrists can explain, maybe what was to follow was so unlikely that even now we don’t believe it could’ve happened.
This game’s only real European competition as “greatest ever” is, of course, Istanbul. That night when we reached half time and needed three goals, when the opposition was carving us open at will, when we had to replace a full-back with a central midfielder who was obviously pissed off he hadn’t been started in the first place. Finnan/Robertson, Hamann/Wijnaldum. Nothing’s new under the sun, is it?
With a point to prove, Gini got the second and we began to hope. There was no harm in it after all and, if anything, Liverpool had already done all we realistically expected; given them a scare.
There hadn’t even been enough time to savour that notion, when it became 3-0. Wijnaldum again. What the hell was going on? Subsequent close-ups on Barcelona players revealed something no-one could have anticipated — fear. This wasn’t supposed to be happening, yet somehow here they were — far from home and far from secure.
Whatever we were doing in the stands, it was clearly working, so we just kept doing it. Now there was real tension, the sense that there was now something to lose. Did anyone think about the possible humiliation? Having been taken so close to glory, would we have it snatched from us so cruelly?
Our team had 94 league points, soon to be 97, and yet they weren’t going to win that. All this after Gerrard falling over five years before. This would be taking it much too far, surely? What had we ever done to deserve this? The modern Liverpool as the new theatre of cruelty.
But Barcelona still weren’t making their breakthrough. We weren’t buckling. Without doing anything miraculous, Alisson wasn’t beaten.
It might have been nicer had the Spaniards not kept getting through to him, but this was as much as anyone could possibly have hoped for.
Then it came. Alexander-Arnold, nonchalantly strolling to the corner flag, taking his time as if this really were Istanbul and we’d just be grateful to cling on for another penalty shootout.
However many times you watch it, the same thoughts arise; is the referee allowing this? Of all the people to fall to, it had to be Origi didn’t it, the big useless do .. “IT’S IN!” Is there such a thing as wary bedlam? That’s how it felt, anyway. Now I’m sure I was as hysterical and nervous as I’ve ever been at any match, but honestly, they did little or nothing after that to make you think they could tear it out of our hands.
There is a famous photograph of Messi, hands on hips, his shoulders notably sagging and the big bright Kop scoreboard looming over his head in the background. The numbers have an unnatural glow, they almost seem like kryptonite. To the greatest player of all time, they must have seemed so. (Actually I still think it’s Maradona, but I’m old, obviously).
He looked beaten, downtrodden, vanquished. Suarez had that maniacal snarling expression that we’d loved so much what seems like a million years ago. Coutinho had long since been hauled off, now a mere financial makeweight who’d facilitated our purchase of new heroes, better heroes — winning heroes.
Milner, wise and wonderful, got the ball near the corner flag. It couldn’t have been for more than 90 seconds, but it felt like hours.
The whistle blew. The celebrations were like nothing before, even better than Chelsea in 2005, because this one just shouldn’t have been possible.
Me and a mate embraced. Northern English males, wary of sentiment and emotion. I’d seen him cry in Turkey, and we had never spoken of it again. This time, I kissed his forehead several times. We will not speak of that again either.
I had to drag myself away for public transport reasons, and 15 minutes’ walk away from Anfield, I could still hear it.
Maybe it was just the ringing in my ears, but I doubt it.
Beating Tottenham in the final dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s. We could tell all other fans to stick it, for a short while anyway. We could also tell our stars that staying here meant that they could be successful — they would not have to leave like Suarez and Coutinho had to.
Not yet… So what is the greatest Liverpool game of all time? Stubbornly, I will continue to believe that happened in 1986.
As a Scouser you can’t do better than pipping Everton to both the league and the FA Cup. This club has grown huge and unwieldy over the years, so factors other than local rivalry will come into play. I understand that completely.
Yet if one night were to eclipse the double year, even for my kind, that 4-0 win in May 2019 might just be the one to do it. Ever since I’ve been telling friends that it’s over; there’ll never be another night to compare it to.
But supporting this club, seeing what I’ve seen over five decades, there’s still one tiny spark of hope that another game will come along to match or even eclipse it.
Why bother to keep going otherwise?