When you walk through a storm, hold your head, up high, and don’t be afraid of the dark…
They’re singing it, now, half-heartedly, some thousands of miles away at Istanbul’s Ataturk Stadium. A couple of weeks ago, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” brought tears streaming down my cheeks as I watched quietly, headphones connected to the TV on my desk while the daily New York office routine continued around me and I, silently, celebrated our epic triumph over Chelsea. Chelsea, flush with the ill-gotten cash of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, had assembled a team of polished gladiators, but their players and their striped-shirted City of London fans can’t represent anything other than the fruits of crooked globalization and Yeltsin’s crony capitalism. And we, Liverpool FC, somehow, in our scarlet-standard red shirts, the people’s club from the heart of England’s traditional cradle of labor militancy, whose legendary manager Bill Shankly had proudly proclaimed himself a socialist because it meant people working together for the greater good — we somehow, in my mind represented the values of the old Labour Party against those of Chelsea, which somehow to me seemed to be the ultimate Blairite club. Cash-strapped and so wracked by injuries that for most of the season the combined value of the players in our treatment room was greater than that of those out on the pitch, somehow, against all odds, relying on the tactical genius of our newly-arrived Spanish boss, Rafael Benitez, a couple of wonder goals from our dinky Catalan midfielder Luis Garcia and the gritty yet watertight defending of local boy Jamie Carragher, had bested Chelsea (and before them Juventus) to make it to Istanbul for the Champion’s League final against AC Milan, Europe’s finest team.
The mass choir of Anfield celebrates victory over Chelsea
At the end, of the storm, there’s a golden sky…
The victory over Chelsea was two weeks ago. Here, now, in a darkened pub on East Ninth street, surrounded by sombre scousers, and my nine-year-old son Gabriel, who I’d taken out of school a few minutes early — religious observance, I told his teacher with a wink — the atmosphere is gloomy, and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the Gerry and the Pacemakers rendition of the Broadway showtune that has, since the 1960s, been the anthem of the fans of Liverpool FC, sounds more like a dirge. The TV cameras show fans in Istanbul singing half-heartedly, and who could muster any passion now? We’re three-nil down to the best team in Europe, our Champion’s League dream turning into a nightmare at the final hurdle, and it’s only half-time. Suddenly the limits of our threadbare squad, cruelly dismembered through an outrageously persistent crop of injuries, are plain to see. The perenially wounded Australian Harry Kewell limped off after 20 minutes, to be replaced by Vladimir Smicer, and while the Czech midfielder has been a marvelous servant to the club, he’s missed most of the season through injury, and has been told he’ll be released in the summer. From the first minute, we’ve been outclassed, the Brazilian Kaka, the Argentinian Crespo and the Ukranian Shevchenko running our defense and midfield ragged.
Elvis Costello, also a lifelong Liverpool fan, wrote after the event that the specter of humiliation at half time prompted him to give up on the game and go on stage. His roadies were setting up and he was backstage warming up his voice, away from the TV.
It’s a salvage operation now, all that can be redeemed is our dignity. Don’t know if I can stay to the end. Jann’s coming to fetch Gabe soon, maybe I’ll go too. Can’t stand to watch the lads humiliated after all they’ve given to get here. My heart goes out to Djimi Traore, the Malian midfielder from a family of seven on a housing estate on the edge of Paris, whose plastic man tackles have kept us alive more than once on this wild, Cinderella ride. It was his mistake that gave Milan the free kick for their opener, within the first two minutes of the game.
Though your dreams be tossed and blown…
I guess the “we” requires some explaining. Many young South Africans of my generation simply adopted a team from England when they became interested in the game, and who they chose was simply a reflection of great runs or great players of the moment. I began following British football in 1973-4, when it was more fashionable to back Leeds. But I was drawn to the magic of Liverpool’s great Kevin Keegan-John Toshack duo, and their thrilling 3-1 win over Newcastle in that season’s FA Cup Final made them my team. But Liverpool, somehow, is not like other teams; it’s more. It’s a culture and a deeper story — it’s fans and players take off for away games in distant lands out of John Lennon International Airport. None of the great individual talents of the glory eras — Keegan, Kenny Dalglish, John Barnes, Ian Rush, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard — was ever deemed bigger than the club. It was always a collective effort. Our fans had invented stadium singing as a means of spurring on the players, and in the late 1970s, when the only access I’d have to live games was trough the BBC World Service on my shortwave radio, their contribution was unmistakable. Through the whoops and whistles of shortwave interference, you’d hear the commentator’s voice — “Neal brings it forward, looks for McDermott, inside to Sounness…” — over the mass choir of the “Kop,” as the home fans favorite stand at Anfield was known.
The values of the club, and the sense of solidarity conveyed by “You’ll Never Walk Alone” somehow came to fit with my political values as a young leftie student in the anti-apartheid struggle. (At least I fantasized that they did.) Of course the Celtic fans sang it in Glasgow, too, cementing our fraternal alliance with the Clydeside proletariat — an alliance personified by Kenny Dalglish who’d come from them to us. The song was a standard of every game, and you thought nothing of it most times — like the singing of Land of Hope and Glory at the FA Cup Final or the reciting of The Lord’s Prayer at my school’s assemblies. And the only other time I’d wept as freely on hearing it as I did the night we beat Chelsea last season was in April of 1989, when 96 Liverpool fans died in a crush at Hillsborough Stadium: At games all over Europe, that week, a minute of silence was held to mourn the dead of Hillsborough. And I’ll never forget the TV clip I saw of the fans of Barcelona FC, the glorious repository of elegant and exciting football (and both Catalan anarchism and, unfortunately, Catalan nationalism also). They didn’t extend their condolences through silence that night at the Nou Camp: Tens of thousands of voices rang out in an impassioned rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” (Apparently, the AC Milan fans did too, although I never saw that.) The song became, in my mind, a kind of Internationale for all that was good and right about football.
Walk on, walk on, with hope, in your heart
The second half kicks off, and suddenly we’re looking a little more in charge in the middle of the park. Didi Hamman has come on, our German midfield anchor there to protect the defense, break up Milan’s attacks, win the ball for us and turn defense into attack. Wait a minute, here we go. Stevie plays in Riise behind the defense and then starts making for the near post; no one’s tracking him and he gets a free header on the Norwegian’s cross.
Pulled one back! Stevie, you beauty. He’s all bottle, our skipper, refuses to lie down and die. (The kind of man, to quote right-wing nut job Senator Jesse Helms on right-wing nut job UN ambassador John Bolton, you’d want standing alongside you at Armageddon.) He’s a fighter, and he’s recaptured something essential about our game. But he’s hardly pausing to celebrate. With that furrowed brow of determination, he’s running back for the kickoff, but he’s waving his arms at the crowd — like a cheerleader. Sing, you bastards, come on! The fans have long been the club’s secret weapon, their passion capable of getting that extra measure of commitment out of the player unlike any other club. Both managers freely admitted that the home fans and the wall of sound they created had made all the difference against Chelsea. And now Stevie wants the fans to bring his team back into it.
It’s been a difficult year in his relationship with the club. Bigger bankrolls have come calling, with both Real Madrid and Chelsea coveting his services. All that’s kept him here is scouse loyalty, a local lad through and through who grew up on the terraces dreaming of donning the red shirt. But it only goes so far, and Stevie has a big ego. All season long he’s been warning us, through the media, that the club may not be able to match his own ambitions. And the whole sorry soap opera will be played out again in the coming summer. But right now, his iron willed ego is all that stands between us and humiliation.
Within minutes, Vladimir Smicer, only recently back from a long term injury, finds himself in space on the edge of their area after good world by Hamman, and fires a perfectly placed shot past the diving Dida in the Milan goal. I’m on my feet, in the pub, roaring “Game on! Yaaaaah!” There’s only one goal in it, and we’re all over them right now. Gabe has come to expect these sudden outburts, now. The first time he saw one — in our tiny East Village apartment on a steamy summer morning, an hour before I had to walk him to school, when Papa Bouba Diop scrambled the ball across the line for Senegal’s historic World Cup winner over France in 2002 — he was shocked, momentarily frightened, even. Now, he just mocks me. Settle down, dad.
But thousands of miles away, Elvis, too, has started to believe. As the fans wait for him to sing, he can’t leave the TV.
Jann arrives to fetch Gabe for an arrangement he had, but I know he hears the roar as Xabi Alonso, our Basque wunderkind, finds Milan Baros, the Czech striker with the golden boots who has driven the manager and the fans mad with his reluctance to look up and pass the ball to better-positioned teammates. This time Milan, with two defenders bearing down on him, backheels the ball into the path of the charging Stevie, who goes down in the area under a push by Gattuso. Xabi steps up to take the penalty, looking nervous. Dida guesses right and manages to parry, but Xabi is there first to slam home the rebound.
Xabi scores the rebound
3-3! A recovery of this magnitude, against the best team in Europe, only ever happened in the Roy of the Rovers comics I read as a kid.
We’ve done the unthinkable. But Milan are a quality team, and they throw everything at us, subjecting our defense to the test of fire for the next hour. (And on the replay I watch later, Djimi more than redeems himself.)
Now, I have a problem. So does Elvis Costello. He’s supposed to be going on stage now, but each goal we clawed back had made it harder for him to leave the TV. Now he’s going to have to sing through the shoot-out. My problem is that I’m supposed to be in Williamsburg at 5pm to fetch two-year-old Milla from school. I hadn’t bargained on the game going into extra time. So I leave as the whistle blows for 90 minutes, half running, to the L-Train, to take me over to Brooklyn. While I’m walking, I phone my friend Victor in Montreal. “Talk me through it, Vic, I’ve got to know.” We manage only a couple of minutes before I lose reception in the subway. The ride is interminable. As soon as I’m out, I phone him again. It’s still 3-3, but only because of a wonder save by Jerzy Dudek, our Polish keeper who met John Paul II (also a Polish goalkeeper in his prime) and reported back that the pontiff was a confirmed Liverpool fan who watched us on TV whenever he could. On the replay, Dudek plainly knew very little about that save, his hand just happened to be in the right place as Shevchenko struck. But he’s smiling this knowing smile, as if thanking someone, and sure enough, after the game he said the Pope, who died only weeks before the game, had been right there with him.
I grab Milla, hot right ear still glued to the cell phone. Full time, it’s 3-3. That means a penalty shootout. I have no idea where I’m going. Run into the little Pizza joint next to the subway. No cable TV. Wait, that pub across the street. A tiny little bar frequented by old timer Italians rather than the artists and hipsters that dominate “Berliniamsburg”. And yes, they have ESPN2.
I prop Milla up on the bar, it’s just the barmaid and a young man, in his late teens, who asks me who’s playing, then says “Milan, that’s Italian, right? I guess I’ll have to support them.” Yes, I answer, whatever. These identities are all only ghosts of a distant past — tonight, the players that have most tormented us have been Brazilian, Argentinian and Ukrainian. And there are only two Englishmen in our own side. The barmaid had produced some crayons and paper, and Milla is enjoying her company. Up steps the Brazilian Serginho to take their first spotkick. Jerzy is on the goal line, reprising a great moment from Liverpool’s storied European past: In the 1984 final against AS Roma, we’d won in a penalty shootout — not least because our Zimbabwean goalie Bruce Grobbelaar had done a weirdly disturbing rubber-legs type shimmy every time one of their players stepped up. So as Serginho runs up, Jerzy is waving his huge hands about, windmill style, making the open goal all around him look a lot small than if he’d been standing still.
It worked! Serginho skies it into Row H. Up stepds Didi Hamman, hero of the midfield battle, and makes no mistake as he drives it low into the corner. 1-0, and the pressure’s on them. Didi only reveals after the game that he struck his penalty with a broken foot. Up steps Pirlo for them, and this time Dudek makes a glorious save. They’re in trouble. Our next one is from Djibril Cisse, our lightning-fast Malian-French striker who broke his leg earlier in the season and wasn’t expected to be fit until next season. His recovery has been nothing short of miraculous, and he caps a fairytale end to the season by sending Dida the wrong way and making it 2-0. The Danish striker Tommasson makes no mistake with their third strike, and then Dida gives them hope with a marvelous save from our Norwegian midfielder John Arne Riise. This is getting awfully tense, although Milla is cooing away with the barmaid, and the local lad in the otherwise empty pub doesn’t really care.
Kaka brings them momentarily level, but Smicer, with what everyone knows will be his last kick in a Liverpool shirt coolly puts us back in front. And then its Shevchenko vs. Dudek again, the man generally regarded as Europe’s and possibly the world’s best striker against the goalkeeper with Vatican connections. And whether helped by the late Pope or not, Jerzy does it again. And with that, the cup is ours.
Jerzy stops Shevchenko–again!
I gather up Milla, and thank the barmaid, heading out into the gloomy rain of early evening Williamsburg. And holding her in my arms, I serenade her with a lullaby she’s come to know well in recent weeks.
Walk on, walk on, with hope, in your heart, and you’ll never walk alone, you’ll ne-e-e-ver walk alone…
She’s singing it with me, although she sings “You’ll never walk again,” which might be more appropriate as a Blackburn Rovers anthem.
And now I know, that three thousand miles away on a college campus in Norwich, Elvis Costello was singing it too. He was on stage during the shootout, finishing a song just as Dudek saved from Shevchenko, which he could see on the TV at the back of the venue. And for the first time in his professional career, he married his work and his passion, launching into a cover version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
As the G Train rattled its way through grimy tunnels back towards my end of Brooklyn, there was no quiet moment to reflect on the game; I had to read Milla a Madeline book. But looking across the car, I saw a guy wearing an Irish Liverpool supporters jersey. We smiled at each other in acknowledgment. Stevie had restored the hope in our hearts. And I knew, and the guy sitting opposite me knew, and Elvis Costello knew that, in that moment, for what it was worth, none of us walked alone.