It was one of the greatest weeks in the history of English football. Liverpool and Spurs pulled off miraculous fightbacks to clinch a place at next month’s Champions League final in Madrid.
ROB DRAPER was at Anfield and then the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam to capture the essence of a thrilling double header for UEFA’s elite competition.
Here are his recollections of two nights which sent a love of the beautiful game reverberating around the globe.
Lucas Moura holds the matchball after scoring a hat-trick in a stunning Spurs win over Ajax
It is close to midnight on a Tuesday evening and a group of young women, swathed in expensive-looking dresses, are enjoying a night out. They make their way past Liverpool Lime Street Station, led by a petite woman in her late teens.
She reaches up to touch her elaborately-styled hair, then smiles and punches the cold night air. ‘Allez! Allez! Allez!’ she roars.
Her companions join the refrain. ‘Allez! Allez! Allez!’
Up the road, the 917 bus is making its way back from Anfield to the city centre. Middle-aged men aboard it have squeezed their portly frames into tracksuit tops and retro football shirts.
They stamp their feet and sing: ‘We’ve conquered all of Europe! We’re never going to stop! From Paris down to Turkey! We’ve won the f**king lot!’
Their stamping, and the rising excitement, shakes the bus and alarms the driver. ‘If you don’t stop stamping, I won’t continue the journey’ he deadpans in the irritated monotone of officialdom everywhere. Apologies are offered. Promises are made to stop stamping. But the song resumes. ‘Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly! The Fields of Anfield Road! We are loyal supporters! And we come from Liverpool!’
In the streets, strangers are embracing and reminding themselves of all they’ve seen and all they’ve felt.
‘Trent’s corner,’ one exclaims. ‘What about that!’
This city has seen pretty much everything football has to offer — it’s been at the forefront of the highs and lows — but on Tuesday it experienced something extraordinary. Something quite dazzling and uplifting that touched not only the city, but the whole footballing world.
Liverpool right back Trent Alexander-Arnold celebrates after Liverpool beat Barcelona 4-0
The story had begun five hours earlier as football fans gathered at Anfield convincing themselves that, despite all evidence to the contrary, their team could emerge victorious. Fans are like that: it’s a ritual they undergo before a match begins … a process of convincing themselves that even when all hope appears lost, there’s still a point to it all … still a chance.
It is modern folklore and an appeal to blind superstition. They delve into the tribe’s history to bolster a false sense of self belief. They talk about a semi-final they played and won in dramatic style against Saint-Etienne in 1977, the first year Liverpool captured the European Cup.
And the semi-final against Chelsea in 2005. Of course, they talk about Istanbul, that same year, and the last time Liverpool somehow won a Champions League final, having been 3-0 down to mighty AC Milan at half-time.
What they don’t talk about is how unlikely victory is against Barcelona. Liverpool are an exceptional side but they go into the game 3-0 down to the greatest club of the past decade with the greatest living footballer among their number. Oh, and Liverpool are missing their best player and their centre forward. The opening to Gerry Marsden’s most famous song is starkly abrupt. ‘When you walk …’ he sings, acapella, pausing and waiting for the piano and guitar to kick in. At Anfield they need no prompt. They pick up the song from the first beat, this sentimental music hall hit from another century that grabs hold of you and shakes you until you shiver.
Barcelona fans join in as well. English football, this song and Anfield remain a touchstone among foreign fans. ‘Walk on!’ they sing. ‘Walk on! With hope in your heart! And you’ll never walk alone! You’ll never walk alone.’
Liverpool fans play their part with remarkable support during a memorable night at Anfield
It stirs the senses and engenders more false hope. This game was lost in Barcelona a week earlier but we must behave as if it isn’t. Then Liverpool score and we can suspend belief a little longer.
The volume is extraordinary at Anfield. The ground literally vibrates. But it isn’t so much the noise that catches you unaware and stimulates senses this Tuesday night. It’s more the roar of collective hope that knocks you sideways, sending adrenaline surging through you.
And so to the second half, two goals by Gini Wijnaldum making it 3-3 on aggregate. Now everyone believes. Then there is Trent Alexander-Arnold whose corner kick for the decisive fourth remains a delight days after the event.
‘It was just instinctive,’ he says later that night, looking extraordinarily composed given what has occurred. ‘I just walked away, took a look back and saw that they’d switched off and Div [Origi] was in the middle of the goal by himself … and I hit it. It’s unbelievable the way he’s just reacted to the ball and put it away.’
Gini Wijnaldum (right) screams in delight after scoring Liverpool’s third goal on Tuesday night
Alexander-Arnold pauses. ‘I probably would have been shouted at if it never came off. But it was worth the risk,’ he adds.
At 20, Alexander-Arnold is young enough to be a throwback to childhood. He is bashful, but also playful and cheeky.
In the 79th minute of the game he performs the kind of move we all tried as kids in the playground, trying to catch out our classmates as they dispute a decision with an imaginary referee. Alexander-Arnold just happens to be playing against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final.
As the roars envelop the ground, Lionel Messi waits in the centre circle, his shoulders drooped and his head shaking with contempt for his team-mates.
Lionel Messi looks dejected as Barcelona are thrashed at Anfield and knocked out of Europe
It is the privilege of this job to witness Messi defy the boundaries of this game so many times. For two years, when he was 18 and 19, I lived in Barcelona and watched him play at Camp Nou every week. Maybe it was because my first child was born at that time, but it felt good to be alive and watching this teenager. And this was in a Barcelona team, before Pep Guardiola, that won nothing.
So often he exhilarates. It had been like that in the first leg. He took a game in which Liverpool were superior and rendered that fact meaningless. But here mortality caught up with him.
He’s 31. No age really, unless you’re an elite athlete. Messi stopped running in the second half. He simply couldn’t keep up. The intensity was beyond him.
When his shoulders slump and his head goes down, it’s a terrible sign. I’ve seen it before and it happened at Anfield. He prowled the centre circle, an observer, willing to do his bit if only the team could get the ball to him. But he had stopped defending, stopped pressing. He had stopped doing the very basic things that afford his genius the chance to shine.
The game finishes with Liverpool not having taken a backward step; mentally or physically. There is a danger within all of this that Liverpool’s win is reduced merely to them having more heart and soul. For the record, Liverpool have run 69.6miles to Barca’s 65miles.
The game was about much more than that: some of Liverpool’s passing from the back was as crisp and skilful as anything we have seen. Still, it’s pretty difficult to compete if your outfield players run almost half a mile less than their opposite numbers over 90 minutes.
Liverpool players stand in a line in front of the Kop as they celebrate their win with Reds fans
After the match, players filter into the dressing room, joyously celebrating as they go. Jordan Henderson, raucously leading the singing of ‘Allez, Allez, Allez!’
But the crowd remain. And Alexander-Arnold, born in Liverpool, raised the city’s suburb of West Derby, stands alone in front of the Kop. All these players are special, of course. But Alexander-Arnold?
Maybe he’s just that little bit more special, like Phil Thompson, Robbie Fowler, Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard before him. Alexander-Arnold doesn’t want to leave. He’s only 20 but he must have sensed that these moments can pass all too quickly. So he stands and applauds the Kop.
And they, of course, rapturously applaud in return. And Alexander-Arnold slowly walks around the stadium, alongside the Sir Kenny Dalglish Stand and the Anfield Road End, acknowledging his own people and drinking in every moment of a special night: a boy weaned on tales of Saint- Etienne, Chelsea and Istanbul, writing his own page of history.
‘I was just trying to tell the fans that we couldn’t do it without them and that it’s down to them that these magical nights happen.’
Alexander-Arnold tries to take in what has just unfolded as he sits in the Anfield dressing room
On a train to London the next morning, the discussion is about whether this was the greatest Liverpool team ever. On the morning after a night like that, successful games need to be ranked. This was the best ever, at Anfield at least, they decide.
At St Pancras Station the mood is different. Tottenham fans queue for their Eurostar to Amsterdam. They are excited, expectant. And unlike Liverpool, this is virgin territory for them. They have been in a semi-final of this competition only once before, in 1962, with their greatest ever team. You would have to be well into your 60s to even have a vague recall.
In small groups they discuss the events of the night before. Naturally, it gives them hope. Spurs are 1-0 down to Ajax from the first leg but unlike Liverpool’s task, this doesn’t look hopeless.
Cans of lager are cracked open. It’s 11am after all. Plenty of drinking time to Amsterdam. An overexcited fan on the phone announces at top volume in the style of Dom Joly, at each staging post: ‘WE’RE JUST GETTING INTO BRUSSELS!’ and then ‘WE’RE PULLING INTO ANTWERP. WE’LL BE WITH YOU IN AN HOUR!’
Tottenham have less reason than Liverpool to be fearful. This Ajax side are wonderful but they have been constructed on a fraction of the budget of their opponents.
Their journey has seen them cross swords equitably with Bayern Munich and humiliate Real Madrid and Juventus. They are a throwback to 1995, when the Dutch club last won this competition with a team moulded by Louis van Gaal, at his peak. They have turned modern football on its head and confounded the elite. This being Amsterdam, the walk to the Johan Cruyff Arena has that slightly sickly smell of marijuana. But there’s not the air of laid-back geniality you associate with that aroma at a musical festival.
Police sirens are sounding. One group of Tottenham fans are locked in their restaurant as rival groups of Dutch fans battle outside. Undercover police, dressed casually, not unlike the hooligans they seek to apprehend, suddenly reveal batons and start arresting culprits. There is a visceral aggression mixed in with the anticipation.
Like Anfield the night before, the stadium fairly shakes with noise. It is a cliche to say football stadia have become our modern cathedral. Rather they resemble a slightly sinister political rally: fans are willingly manipulated into a choreographed display of extraordinary emotion. Songs are sung, flags are waved and the din is overwhelming. It works though. Ajax fly out of the blocks, Tottenham capitulate.
Matthijs de Ligt rises above Dele Alli to head Ajax in front inside five minutes on Wednesday
Harry Kane is angry. He wasn’t even on the pitch. But Spurs are three down and he has seen enough.
Another season is slipping away for Tottenham without any chance of a trophy. There are only so many of these near misses that this group of players can endure.
Terrible in the first half against Ajax at the new White Hart Lane, they are possibly even worse in the opening 45 minutes here. Half-time is welcome respite. Kane knows what he has to do.
‘Harry came in going mental,’ recalls Kieran Trippier later. ‘Is this how you want to be remembered!? After everything we have been through this season!?’
‘We laugh about it now, but not at the time,’ says Trippier. ‘He wasn’t going mental [in terms of] picking individuals out. He was frustrated and rightly so. Obviously he wasn’t playing and would have loved to but he knew we could do better, so much better.’
Indeed. The side had lost five of its previous six games. And scored one goal in five games since beating Manchester City to reach this stage. That victory, extraordinary in its own way, seemed to have finished their season and sucked all energy from them.
Harry Kane celebrates after the match… but he was not at all happy when Spurs were 2-0 down
Tottenham are out on the pitch at the Johan Cruyff Arena for the second half. Kane has said his piece. They wait aimlessly, bobbing up and down, chatting to each other. But there is no sign of their opponents.
They are waiting two or three minutes, highly unusual in these choreographed affairs. There is an element of gamesmanship afoot. Suddenly the familiar opening notes of Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds strike up and the Ajax team appears.
‘Don’t Worry … about a Thing’ sings this largely white European crowd to a throbbing Jamaican beat. ‘Cos every little thing is gonna be alright.’
This is the Ajax anthem. The game starts but the song continues without the backing track, 52,000 people singing: ‘Rise up this Morning, Smile with the Rising Sun, Three little birds, Pitch by my doorstep…’ It’s an astonishing sound, the equal of Anfield the night before, suffused with hope and a tranquillity, which, frankly, seems inappropriate. Perhaps they wanted to send a message to their young players. It comes across as though the party has already begun.
The stadium is not an easy place to work. The first missile to hit the press box lands on Mark Ogden, a journalist working for ESPN. It strikes him square on the back of the head.
Luckily for him it is a plastic glass, but now we are all drenched in beer. The laptop computer of the man from The Daily Telegraph, who sits in front of him, is drenched and malfunctions, which is no small thing with 25 minutes left to play and the desk in London awaiting his report.
More plastic glasses of beer follow as missiles rain down on the press and a small group of Tottenham fans who have been seated here next to us, in this main stand of Ajax supporters.
While the beer bottle attack continues, Lucas Moura scores twice, the second an exquisite demonstration of close technique and footwork to wriggle his way past defenders and get away a clean shot.
Moura had been discarded by the Qatari-backed Paris Saint-Germain last year to pay the wages of Neymar, whose chief contribution to this year’s tournament was to get banned for three matches for abusing an official on Instagram when his team went out in the last 16.
The goals from Moura came in the 55th and 59th minutes, almost a mirror image of the timing of Liverpool’s two quick second-half goals by Wijnaldum on Tuesday night.
Now those Ajax fans need to worry. Beer settles on computer screens and seeps into the keyboards. The stench of stale overpriced lager and testosterone fill the air. It’s the smell of a football crowd turning ugly.
Lucas displays stunning close control and footwork to draw Spurs level at 2-2 in Amsterdam
Still it appears the game will soon be up for Tottenham. It’s as good as over. Their glorious comeback is ultimately nothing but a pointless 2-2 draw — one heartbreaking away goal short. The referee indicates five minutes of added time.
Four minutes and thirty eight seconds of that are showing when the ball is sent long upfield into Tottenham’s half. In the press box, reporters are sending their final copy to newspapers around the world on Spurs’ brave but fruitless fight. A goal-kick is taken, the ball is cleared and fought for then finds its way to the feet of Moussa Sissoko, who is deep in his own half.
It is the silence that hits you. One second the stadium is bouncing and cacophonous in celebration; the next it is totally quiet. It goes beyond a lack of noise. It’s the sound of hope being sucked out of the souls of thousands of people, like one of JK Rowling’s mythical dementors has appeared.
The press box is by and large a neutral place. Reactions are kept to a minimum. But someone shouts: ‘He’s done it … he’s done it!’
There is a distant echo amid the silence. The away fans are purposely placed so high in one corner that they are hard to hear or affect the match. Now there is a faint roar from there and, in the corner, a pile of Spurs players on top of Moura. He has completed a hat-trick. On the touchline, Eric Dier, an unused Tottenham substitute, is clutching manager Mauricio Pochettino in a manic dance of joy, their faces a mix of shock and incredulous delight.
Manager Mauricio Pochettino (right) stares into the eyes of Eric Dier as the Tottenham duo hug
Twitter is a cesspit, a public demonstration of our worst instincts. Yet also, occasionally some of our best. On this night a thread quickly appears of Spurs fans who happened to be filming themselves in their living room as the game drew to a close.
Their reactions to Moura’s goal are, if you have no understanding of football, worryingly hysterical, like some primeval ceremony. They grunt and scream. No one is in control. Adults beat the floor like toddlers. They run around manically. One wrestles his partner to the ground.
This feeling was what Bill Shankly, who built Liverpool FC, was alluding to when he made his famous quip about life, death and football. There are both men and women, as this fever infects regardless of gender. Yet you can’t help but notice that most are still men. Men, who it might be imagined, find it hard to talk about their worries and vulnerabilities.
Men who might find it hard to show emotion in a different context, as most of us do. So what is it about this stupid game that allows us this release from social norms? Is this some kind of a throwback to being in a tribe? A desperate need to belong to something more significant?
How does it feel, people who aren’t sports fans, sometimes ask? It feels as though you are alive. More alive than ever before. That shot of adrenalin and joy is hard to replicate. Maybe the birth of a child surpasses it or the culmination of a love affair in a wedding or similar ceremony. Not much else does.
Lucas lays flat on his back after the final whistle is blown in Amsterdam on Wednesday night
At the end of it all, Moura is being interviewed by Portuguese television. They play him back the commentary of his third goal. ‘LUUUUUUUCAAAAAAAAAAAS’ screams the commentator.
The interviewer fixes him with a stare, saying nothing. The camera pans in on his face. Now the tears flow. He tries to wipe them away and carry on. He’s lost for words.
Pochettino is sobbing too. This unlikely champion of English football, hailing from an Argentine backwater, the supposed hard man defender, is crying big, fat tears.
‘I want to remember my family,’ he says, his voice cracking like an Oscar winner. ‘It’s amazing for them too. Thank you football. Without football, I think it’s impossible to live.’
Nearby stands Kane. He is happier now, a soppy grin on his face. He doesn’t want to be interviewed because there are others more deserving. But he stops to joke about the sprint across the pitch to celebrate at the end. His damaged ankle ligaments have survived, it seems. Will he back for the final?
‘I hope so,’ he answers confidently. As he begins to walk away, he leans back, smiles and adds: ‘I have to get in the team first!’
Tottenham star Kane is hopeful of being fit for the Champions League final in Madrid on June 1
As a football fan, you make a deal. You commit to the result mattering, almost beyond anything else in that moment; gambling with your emotions. If you lose, it is desperate and the hangover indescribable.
But if you win? That euphoric high is hard to replicate legally. That must be why we do it. We want to be happy and to share that happiness with someone.
Amid all the corruption and crookedness off the pitch, the diving and conniving on it, the cynicism and soullessness and the truly wicked clamour for money which the game generates, sometimes it all comes together in a glorious moment, as it did in these 24 hours.
Like an echo of a pure childhood game we thought we had forgotten, it is like a divine moment of communion.
As Alexander-Arnold completed that lone lap of honour on Tuesday night, he approached the area which housed the Barcelona fans. He appeared hesitant initially, not wishing to goad fans at their lowest point. He applauded them tentatively.
And to a man and woman they stood and reciprocated, recognising the scale of this young man’s display and that of his team-mates. There was immense dignity and mutual respect in that moment. And a fair degree of hope.
Amid the tribalism that sustains and infects football, there is a common humanity which can bind people in even the sharpest disappointments. It is only a game, after all. Bill Shankly, despite his most famous quote, would surely concur.