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Liverpool Damien Smethurst

I got the call 6 days before the game. Vladimir Smicer had come through for us, and I was going to the 2005 Champions League Final in Istanbul. I'd only decided I wanted to go on the day of the semi-final second leg against Chelsea, and now I had a ticket. All I had to do now was get there.

Flights were ridiculously expensive, so my Czech friends and I decided to do it on the cheap. So 4 days before the game I flew to Prague, spent the night there, and then the next morning took a train to a small town on the Czech/Slovak border where I was supposed to meet my friends.

Of course, being Czech they didn't have the same sense of urgency I did, and as I sat in the bar waiting for them at lunchtime I got a message saying they were still in the UK. I met up with a guy I knew, and by 5pm we'd moved to a tiny village about 10 kilometers away. My friends had by now landed in the country at least, and told me they'd be with me within the hour.

So I sat at the bar and waited, and waited, and waited. One thunderstorm and 16 beers later they finally showed up, at 1am, and told me we had to go and see a friend in a wine cellar before we could set off.

Off we went to the wine celler, where I was handed a pint glass full of whisky and another full of wine as I walked inside. The next thing I remember was waking up on the border of Hungary and Serbia and thinking I'd been kidnapped!

It took about 15 seconds for me to work out where I was, in a car, driving to Istanbul with my friends, and then I was instantly wide awake again and ready for a beer. So I had one, and then another, and another.

All in all it took us 32 hours to drive to Istanbul, and we got to our hotel at 1am on the day of the match. Hotel rooms, like flights, were ridiculously overpriced, so we'd booked a double room for our group. All 7 of us.

The hotel staff obviously picked up on the fact that there were more than two of us pretty quickly, but we told them that everyone was going to have a shower and then go to the bar for a couple of beers, and apart from two of us the rest were going to sleep in the car.

By 2.30am we were all in the bar, and of course they wanted to close the bar at 3am. But we weren't having any of that, constantly cajoling and asking for one more beer and making promises of scarves, signed shirts, and other stuff that we had no intention of keeping just to keep the bar open a little longer. By 6am we were hungry, so we asked about breakfast.

"Breakfast starts at 8am", came the reply. We knew the guy behind the bar also had to cover the breakfast rush, so we came to a compromise...

"Open breakfast early for us and we'll go to bed, then you can at least shut your eyes for an hour before starting work again."

He thought about it for a while, but he could see our logic so opened up breakfast, only to have seemingly every guest in the hotel suddenly appear and sit down to eat. We all ate our fill, then had a final beer before heading to bed. It was 7.30am.

We got up at 9am and headed to Taksim Square, where the party was already in full swing. Lots of beers, lots of singing, and a distinct lack of AC Milan fans seemed to be the order of the day. And the locals, to their credit, either acted as though this was an everyday occasion or decided to join in with the madness.

We went to the stadium at about 4pm, on free buses provided for the fans. As the bus made it's way out of the city and started going up winding, mountain passes, we couldn't help but notice people standing on corners, applauding the bus and the fans on it as it went past them. It was an awesome touch by the local people, and it made us all feel really good about the day.

Despite getting to the stadium early, it was touch and go whether we'd actually make it inside before kick-off. The organistation and stewardship was a shambles, but eventually we got in and found our seats a few minutes before kick-off, and just in time for You'll Never Walk Alone.

The game itself I wont bore you with. You've all seen it. One of the greatest, if not THE greatest games of football ever played. At half-time I turned to a friend and said what I'd said to him months earlier against Olympiacos, when we needed three second half goals to get out of the group and into the knock-out stages.

"If we can get a goal early in the second half, we still have a chance."

I didn't really believe it though if I'm honest. We'd been battered in the first half, and we'd be lucky to come away with the scoreline under 10.

That didn't stop three quarters of the ground from suddenly deciding to sing '4-3, we're gonna win 4-3, gonna win 4-3, gonna win 4-3' though, followed by the most amazing chorus of You'll Never Walk Alone it has ever been my privilage to hear and be involved in.

We didn't win 4.3, but we DID win, and now all I had to do was get home in one piece.

It took 6 hours for the bus to make its way down the mountain side back into Istanbul, and another 2 hours before the bus my friends were on finally made it. We met up in Taksim Square and had a couple of beers, then went back to the hotel, where we had a few more beers. At 8am we finally dragged ourselves to bed, and at 10am we checked out of the hotel again and went looking for our car.

We'd left it in a secure car park, which was great. The only problem was that lots of other people had ALSO left their cars there, and we were blocked in. It took an hour to get the car out of the car park, and then we hit the road, heading back the way we'd come and aiming for the Czech Republic.

The Bulgarian border was chaos, with queues stretching back hundreds of metres and only 2 posts open, and seemingly EVERY car was being searched thoroughly. So we got out of the car, and suddenly a border guard was running towards us shouting.

Not having a clue what we might have been doing wrong, but guessing it might be the beers in our hands, we jumped back in the car, only for the guard to tell us to pull out of the line and go into the adjacent, closed lane, and he'd wave us straight through. It seemed he was a Liverpool fan, and one look at our shirts was enough to make him want to help us out.

When all the other cars tried to follow us, of course, he screamed at them that we were VIP's and they all had to stay in the queue. We were made up.

The rest of the journey back passed without much of note, except my unending quest to drink the car dry of beer, something which proved to be impossible. To this day, I have never been in another vehicle with as many hiding places for alcohol as that one!

I finally got home in the early hours of Sunday morning, 4 days after the match, and although exhausted I walked through the streets of Manchester wearing my Liverpool shirt, banner tied round my waist, scarf around my head, and flag waving with everything I had singing You'll Never Walk Alone.

The pubs were just kicking out, and I think any other time I'd have been beaten half to death. But that night everyone just stared at me in awe. I was coming back from the greatest game of football ever played, and although they might normally hate Liverpool in Manchester, on this occasion they couldn't help but show respect!

Damien Smethurst

 

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