The Unexpected Champions

The Unexpected Champions: Ten years ago, Liverpool once again rose to the pinnacle of European football. Very few people thought they’d get there.

By Alex Moshakis

This is the third in a week of articles dedicated to Liverpool FC between 1985 and 2005, to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Heysel stadium disaster and the tenth anniversary of Liverpool’s last Champions League victory in Istanbul. For more Liverpool-related reading, head to the Decider all this week.

On May 3rd, 2005, the English screenwriter Daniel Fitzsimmons sat down to watch the second leg of the European Cup semi-final. Fitzsimmons was in Los Angeles on a business trip, 5,000 miles from home, and his team, Liverpool, were just about to play Chelsea for a place in the competition’s final. Convinced there’d be only one outcome, Fitzsimmons put a tenner on Liverpool prevailing 1-0. He’d been given odds of 50-1, and he stood to win £500.

Liverpool had drawn 0-0 at Stamford Bridge a week earlier, and the second leg was to be played in front of Anfield’s fierce crowd. The mood in and around the ground was good, underpinned by cautious optimism. Rafael Benitez had assumed managerial control of the club in June 2004, fresh from Spanish league and UEFA Cup success with Valencia, and players the Madrid-born manager had brought in were beginning to affect outcomes in an increasingly exciting Champions League campaign. Liverpool had thrashed Bayer Leverkusen in the second round, then pipped Juventus in an emotive quarter-final contest. Chelsea were the newly-crowned English champions – a physically competitive side resurgent under former Porto boss José Mourinho – and yet Liverpool had just held them to a draw, away, without conceding a goal. Fitzsimmons sat with his uncle, a Liverpool-born salesman who’d lived in America for 20 years and who’d witnessed all four of the club’s previous European Cup triumphs. He wore a red Liverpool shirt tucked into light blue jeans, and, like his nephew, he believed he’d soon see the club he’d supported since childhood reach the final.

“So Luis García scores in the fourth minute,” Fitzsimmons recalled recently in an east London pub, “and then [in the second half] Djibril Cissé goes up the other end and he’s one-on-one with Petr Čech and everyone’s screaming for him to put the game to bed and I’m there thinking, ‘Just don’t lad. Just fucking don’t.’” Cissé didn’t; neither did anyone else. The game finished 1-0, Liverpool reached their sixth European Cup final, and Fitzsimmons claimed his winnings. “My flight home wasn’t supposed to be until two days after the final,” he said, “so that £500 basically bought me an early flight back to Manchester, and then another to Turkey. £700 the whole thing cost me, and I was skint at the time. That wedge got me from California all the way to Istanbul.”

For Fitzsimmons, as for most fans in the north west, football is a family affair. “A big load of us used to go to games,” he told me, not without pride. The 2005 European Cup final, held at Istanbul’s Atatürk Olympic Stadium on Wednesday May 25th, was no different. As a business perk, Fitzsimmons’ father owned four corporate season tickets, the sort that guaranteed him and three others a seat at every game Liverpool played, even the very big ones. He immediately offered the first to his wife, the second to his son, and the third to his brother, the California-based uncle, who’d followed his nephew halfway across the world. The fourth he took for himself, and before long he’d organised the trip – flights from Manchester airport, transfers, a five-star hotel. “We got in all fine,” Fitzsimmons recalled. “My dad, my dad’s brother, their mates, me mum… got to Istanbul, got our passports stamped, got the bus to the hotel.”

Like Athens or, to a lesser extent, Rome, Istanbul is a sprawling metropolis. A coarse city lacking ostentation, Turkey’s former capital is split in two by the Bosphorous, a 3km-wide strait that links the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and which separates Istanbul into European and Asian halves. Two bridges link a total population nearing 14 million people. When Fitzsimmons arrived the day before the game he expressed alarm – Istanbul is loud, gritty and unmanicured, a hustle-and-bustle type of place that, when reviewed favourably, visitors tend to describe as raw or energetic. “Parts of Istanbul are not nice,” Fitzsimmons remembered. “Our bus was doing drop-offs, and you’d get to each new hotel and think: ‘Please, not this one.’”

When the group eventually reached theirs, Fitzsimmons was happy, but only initially. “We got there and the lobby was beautiful,” he says – “marble floors, a great-looking bar. Then we went up to our rooms, which were a total disgrace. They’d renovated to get the five stars, but they’d only done the entrance. It was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Terrible. The shower was one of them trickly showers you just hoped to God got you wet. And we had a mini-bar that didn’t even have a back. It was basically a cupboard, warm, nothing in it, just shelves. You could see through to the wall!”

On their way to the hotel, a larger group of fans had discussed pre-match arrangements for the following day. They were to meet in Taksim Square, a central point popular among tourists for its cafés, restaurants and bars, where coaches would be waiting to transfer supporters to the stadium. Fitzsimmons checked in, briefly bemoaned the accommodation situation with his family, and then went both in search of something to eat, and to predetermine the route they’d all have to follow the next day. “We went out and had a kebab,” Fitzsimmons remembered. “Everywhere you went was kebab, kebab, kebab – we ate kebab for three days straight – and then we caught a taxi to Taksim Square, must have been about four or five o’clock, and everyone was piling in. There were four bars in the square, full of Liverpool fans, proper Liverpool fans – the sort that go to away games, not the bad element – and the banners were out and everybody’s singing songs and it’s a really sunny day.”

Despite the buoyant atmosphere, Fitzsimmons and his family didn’t stay long, keen instead to find somewhere as equally ebullient but, if possible, a little less crowded. “Someone text us and told us there was a bar nearby that was empty,” he said, “so we decided to walk around the corner, and as soon as we got onto the main road these little kids ran in front of Paul, one of my dad’s best mates, stopped him and then quickly got off again. One of them shouted while the other one stood behind and took his wallet, and then they were gone. Paul felt his back pocket and realised he’d been dipped. It was like something out of Oliver Twist.”

The whole event took less than a few seconds, but the ramifications were nearly unbearable. “Paul’s first thought was: ‘Shit, me ticket’s in me wallet,’” Fitzsimmons said. He phoned his wife to check, who confirmed the tickets were safely stored in the couple’s luggage in their hotel room, and then, cautious but relieved, Fitzsimmons and the others moved on to a pub around the corner, to another bank of Liverpool fans chanting, singing, drunk on Turkish beer as well as the prospect of being the champions of Europe come the morning.

“Paul felt his back pocket and realised he’d been dipped. It was like something out of Oliver Twist.”

Liverpool’s route to the final had been unexpected, and not without trouble. They’d beaten Austrian side Grazer AK in the third qualifying round, but not altogether comfortably. They’d lost to Greek champions Olympiacos in the group stage, and then later to Monaco, who eventually won Group A with a total of 12 points. Liverpool snuck through to the knockout stages on goal difference, and fans had held little hope of their team prevailing against much better sides in the competition’s later rounds. Now, here they were in the final, facing an AC Milan team who’d dominated Group F and who, after impressive wins against Manchester United and local rivals Internazionale, were overwhelming favourites to win their seventh European Cup.

In Istanbul, Liverpool’s fans were mostly segregated from their Italian counterparts by the Bosphorous – “they put the Milan fans in the trendy area,” Fitzsimmons told me, “and they put us in the shithole bit” – but supporters mingled in the city, and spirits were high. “It was just so friendly. The Turks loved us, probably because we were the biggest payday they’d had for months. On the day of the final everyone we saw had a Liverpool scarf around their neck.”

On May 25th, Fitzsimmons woke up hungover – too much Efes beer, he said – and began to replay the previous day’s scouting trip all over again. “We got taxis to Taksim Square, these little yellow spray-painted things, like wacky racers, with Turkish music blaring full blast. Four of us piled into the back of this cab, and the music’s on and the driver’s singing along and waving to his mates and weaving in and out of traffic. We’re thinking, ‘This is brilliant, but we’re probably all about to die.’” Fitzsimmons made it to the square, by which point a group of Liverpool fans were reporting on the surprisingly long distance between Istanbul’s city centre and the Attatürk Stadium. “Rumours started to filter back,” he said. “People were telling us to leave early or miss kick-off, so we left when it was still light, around five o’clock, and it was a trek!”
Completed in 2002 following a five-year construction programme, the Attatürk Stadium was built to stage prospective events at the 2008 Olympics, but Turkey failed in their bid to bring the Games to the country and, in 2005, the $140m stadium sat barely used on the north western fringes of Istanbul. Galatasaray had played home games at the venue over the course of the 2003–04 season, but the club had quickly returned to the newly renovated Ali Sami Yen Stadium, in the city centre, when fans complained that the 20-kilometre distance from Istanbul proper was too awkward a route to travel.

“There’s only one road in and out of the stadium,” Fitzsimmons explained. “It’s a dual carriageway, and it runs through these really poor housing estates, through mass urban sprawl at the absolute edge of the city.” The Attatürk was built with a capacity of close to 81,000, but that included some 5,000 seats from which fans couldn’t see the whole pitch. In 2005, those seats, and others, were removed, so on May 25th just over 72,000 football supporters travelled together along the dusty highway. “It was like a desert wasteland,” Fitzsimmons said, “and it bottlenecked when you got closer to the stadium. Once they got there, every bus had to turn around and come back – there was literally nowhere else to go. The stadium sat at the end of the road, surrounded by rubble.”

Frustrated by the stand-still traffic, fans decided to get off their buses and walk, lest they miss kick-off. Outside the stadium, in what was dubiously dubbed a fan’s park, Cast’s Liverpool-born lead singer John Power played a brief live set, then so too did Ladytron’s Daniel Hunt. Nearby, a small litter of stands sold match day programmes and hot dogs, but stock was in short supply and, by the time Fitzsimmons and his family arrived, most of them had been sold. Fans took photographs, mingled with fellow supporters, then had little else to do but head into the stadium to take their seats.

“This is when UEFA were really lucky something serious didn’t happen,” Fitzsimmons told me. Keen to reach their positions before kick-off, fans headed quickly for the stadium entrance nearest to the point at which they’d been dropped off. There, supporters passed through a row of full-length turnstiles by pressing barcoded tickets against electronic readers. Fitzsimmons and his family reached the front of the line at the exact moment the readers stopped working; behind them more fans came in waves. “Bear in mind everybody’s had a bevvie,” he said, “and people have Hillsborough in the back of their minds, and it’s getting to the stage where people are starting to panic, people are getting angry and defensive, people are shouting and pushing. Everyone’s screaming at this little Turkish lad to let the gates go but he wouldn’t. He was a kid, no more than 18 years old, with a UEFA bib on but no walkie-talkie, and he’s got 50 Scousers getting pushed against a metal gate shouting in a language he doesn’t understand.”

A small section of fans began to climb over the gates to safety, and then more supporters did the same. “Our Peter climbed the gates,” Fitzsimmons said, “and then me mum climbed over, and then the lad, fair play to him, just let the gates go. I was the first through, then my dad, and then more and more people. I was never physically squashed, but it was the most scared I’ve been in my whole life. We all know the history.”

Liverpool had last reached a European Cup final in 1985, during an era in which the club was rightly regarded as a major footballing force both at home and abroad. In the decade between 1975 and 1985, Liverpool had claimed seven domestic titles and four European Cups. The club had won at least one major trophy every year for ten years straight.

In 2005 things were different. Liverpool had won the UEFA Cup (and then the UEFA Super Cup) in 2001, but they hadn’t claimed the league championship since 1990, and neither had they made any serious headway in Europe’s premier competition. Liverpool’s legend had begun to falter – no longer was the club the footballing powerhouse it once was.

Fitzsimmons, now in his thirties, had supported Liverpool since he was a boy, had gone to every game he could while he lived in the city, had followed the side while working in Manchester, in LA, in London. But he knew how good AC Milan were, knew all about the skill of Kaká and Andrea Pirlo, the workmanship of Gennaro Gattuso, the movement and sublime finishing of Andriy Shevchenko and Hernán Crespo. And he knew Liverpool were a team in need of development, a side filled with players not all talented enough to play on European football’s very highest stage. Progression had been sure under Rafael Benitez, but he’d been in charge for less than a year, and few expected the Spaniard to excel immediately. Fitzsimmons went to Istanbul to support his team, to witness the spectacle, but not once had he honestly envisioned his side winning.

When he reached his seat, news that Harry Kewell had been selected to start the game had infuriated nearby fans. Kewell had arrived at Anfield in 2003 following a successful eight-year spell at Leeds, but injuries had sidelined the talented Australian winger for much of the 2004–05 season. To most, his inclusion had come as a surprise; not to Fitzsimmons. “I thought it was understandable,” he said. “Benitez rated Kewell. For all his faults, he was a very intelligent footballer, and he was tall, around six foot, an arial presence. The idea was to play him behind [Milan] Baroš, so he could act as Baroš’ brain.”

The real shock, Fitzsimmons said, came in learning Dietmar Hamann had been left on the bench. “Benitez had discovered a formation where he’d have two sitting midfielders in front of the back four,” he explained, “which gave Steven Gerrard license to do what he wanted. Didi Hamann and Xabi Alonso would normally sit, protect, but he decided not to play Hamann, preferring to play Gerrard next to Alonso. There’s a feeling among Liverpool fans that Gerrard isn’t disciplined enough to sit. And he couldn’t do it [in the final]. Alonso and Gerrard got absolutely roasted. The movement of Seedorf and Kaká was absolutely phenomenal. It was easy for them.”

Milan stalwart Paoli Maldini scored within the first minute of the first half, and striker Hernán Crespo added two more just before the break. “We actually did alright between the first goal and the second,” Fitzsimmons remembered, but then Milan scored the third. “That goal was a peach. Kaká turned Gerrard and threaded this inch-perfect ball between [centre-backs] Sammi Hyypiä and Jamie Carragher for Crespo to run on to. Crespo didn’t even need to have a touch. He just dinked it in. First touch – dink – over Jerzy Dudek. That’s the point where we’re watching and thinking: ‘These are every bit as good as we thought they were going to be, probably better.’ We never actually thought we were going to win.”

“I was never physically squashed, but it was the most scared I’ve been in my whole life. We all know the history.”

Legend has it Liverpool’s players heard their Milan counterparts celebrating at half-time; that shouts and gloats streamed out of their dressing room; that, as far as Milan were concerned, that was it, game over: the outcome of the 2005 European Cup final had been decided a mere 45 minutes in.

A similar viewpoint was held in the stands. A section of Liverpool fans booed, angry and embarrassed. “At half-time it was despair,” Tony Evans, football editor of The Times, told me recently. “The only thing I wanted was for the team to cling on to a bit of pride.” Others were more optimistic. Rather than mope or sulk, Fitzsimmons began to eke out the positives. “We hadn’t eaten since 1pm,” he said. “We all had hangovers, we were all dehydrated, malnourished, a bit fed up. But I said, ‘Look, this has been absolutely brilliant. We’re a bit shit, we got beat by Burnley in the FA Cup, but this Benitez is a genius, and we’re building something, everyone can feel it.’” To Fitzsimmons, this final represented the exciting dawn of a new era, not the disappointing culmination of an old one. “I said, ‘Let’s celebrate these players. Most of them aren’t good enough to be here, but let’s congratulate them on where they’ve got to. Let’s enjoy it.’ That was the attitude, and I think it started to prevail around the ground. Everyone started singing when they came back out.”

Two players in Liverpool’s starting line-up didn’t make it back onto the pitch for the second half. Harry Kewell, hampered by a groin injury, had been replaced by Vladimir Šmicer in the 23rd minute. And injured right-back Steve Finnan was replaced at half-time by Dietmar Hamann, who sat deep next to Xabi Alonso to allow Gerrard, who’d been moved to cover Finnan as a full-back, to roam freely down the wing. “Gerrard was absolutely fantastic in the second half,” Fitzsimmons said. “He scored the first goal, a brilliant header, and then he won the penalty. No one remembers he was nominally right-back because he was all over the pitch.”

Gerrard’s header came in the 54th minute. Two minutes later, Vladimir Šmicer scored from outside the area to make it 3-2, and four minutes after that, when Gerrard was brought down under a heavy challenge in the penalty area by Gennaro Gattuso, Xabi Alonso made it 3-3, not from the spot (Milan’s Brazilian goalkeeper Dida initially saved to his right) but on the second attempt, with the rebound, thrashed high into the roof of the net. 60 minutes in, Liverpool had reduced a three-goal first-half deficit to nothing and, according to Fitzsimmons, it was all down to the genius of Hamann. “Hamann allowed Gerrard the freedom from right-back to go where he wanted,” he said, “and he could see everything, could see it all, could see things before they were happening.

It was unbelievable, but the effort we’d put in in those 60 minutes meant we were on our last legs by that point. And we didn’t have a strong bench.”

For twenty second-half minutes Milan looked glum and shellshocked, far from the team that had dominated the first 45. But Liverpool quickly become cautious, wary of once more going behind, and soon Milan became reorganised, began to strangle possession, started to create scoring opportunities. “We couldn’t keep going forward,” Dietmar Hamann told me recently. “If we’d conceded, I’m not sure we would have had the strength and the belief to come back from another goal down, so we held on.” Milan did get chances to win the game, notably in the second period of extra time, after the game had finished 3-3, when Ukrainian striker Andriy Shevchenko was denied twice in quick succession by a point-blank Jerzy Dudek double save with three minutes to go. But no fourth goal came, for either side. “When Jerzy made that save we thought, ‘it’s our day today,’” Hamann said. “Once it got to penalties I was pretty confident we were going to win.”

Fitzsimmons doesn’t remember much about extra-time. He doesn’t remember the final whistle going, or what the atmosphere was like when Rafael Benitez ambled onto the pitch to designate his side’s penalty takers. He doesn’t really remember the shoot-out, either. He can recall Jerzy Dudek mimicking the antics of former Liverpool goalkeeping great Bruce Grobbelaar, who, when facing a penalty, would attempt to distract opponents by wobbling his legs as if about to faint. He can remember Milan’s keeper Dida repeatedly diving to his right, a fact Liverpool’s penalty takers had noticed, and (with the exception of John Arne Riise, whose penalty was saved) exploited. And he can remember Schevchenko’s final penalty, a nonchalant strike Dudek saved comfortably with his left hand. But other details escape him. He was tired, hungry, dehydrated, emotionally drained. When Steven Gerrard lifted the European Cup, as both Liverpool’s captain and the final’s man of the match, Fitzsimmons sang, chanted, celebrated with his family, but his mind was otherwise blank. Liverpool had just won Europe’s premier club competition, for the fifth time in their history and 20 years after their last triumph, but what Fitzsimmons wanted most was to get back to Istanbul, to bed, to recuperate, to reflect.

He does have one very clear memory. At half-time, on the way to buy food for his family, Fitzsimmons’ father stopped off at the toilets where, among a group of devastated Liverpool fans, there stood an Italian man, his Milan kit-wearing eight-year-old son in tow. Embarrassed by his team’s first-half dominance, the Italian supporter stopped Fitzsimmons’ father on the way out of the toilet and, without gloating, but rather chagrined, told him he was sorry. “Me dad just smiled,” Fitzsimmons recalled. “He told him not to be daft, and then went off to get some burgers. But he’s always said he would have loved to have seen him after the game.” Fitzsimmons’ father wanted to repay the favour, he said. He wanted to find the Milan fan and apologise, too. Not to crow or flaunt or show off, but to acknowledge the situation, to salute the marvel they’d just witnessed, to share a moment neither had imagined, nor would likely ever experience again.

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