Written down, they could be the words of a man answering a prank call late at night.
“Hello? Hello? Here we go…”
In a way, perhaps, they were.
It is 25 May 2005. The Atatürk Olympic Stadium, Istanbul. Nearly 11pm local time. The man is English commentator Clive Tyldesley, jerked from his figurative slumber as he narrates the Champions League final and, specifically, Steven Gerrard’s 54th-minute headed goal.
And the prankster himself? Well, the cameras just caught him in the act. Look, there he goes, racing back up the field, trying to kid the world that a 3-0 half-time lead for AC Milan somehow does not mean game over.
Because how could it not?
Liverpool should be dead and buried. Sure, they have come to Istanbul rich in history, dripping with the stuff, but their most recent European title dates back to 1984. Their last Premier League crown? Uh… “¿Cómo se dice? Not invented yet?” They’re a blast from the past. Darlings of the romantics. Here to please the teary-eyed uncles, the in-my-day grandads –and they’ve been ripped apart.
So much for their pre-match huddle. Paolo Maldini gave his punchline to that particular gesture after just 53 seconds. And must we recount the rest? Yes, we must. Hernán Crespo stabbing in for 2-0 before his sumptuous second, dinked past Jerzy Dudek after a magical through ball from Kaká, operating on a different plane of mystic vision.
And that’s how it ended, 3-0 to Milan, in some vastly more realistic dimension from which we have now diverged forever. Why? Because a distant butterfly flapped its wings, because Dudek flapped his arms to deny Andriy Shevchenko in extra time, because Dudek flapped his legs to foil Milan in the shoot-out… and perhaps above all – no, definitely above all – because of Steven Gerrard.
It is half-time. The Liverpool players trudge back to their dressing room. Rafael Benítez says his piece and resolves to bring on Dietmar Hamann to muzzle Kaká, a crucial decision. Through the walls, his charges can hear their fans singing You’ll Never Walk Alone, a crucial defiance. And then Gerrard, fiddling with his captain’s armband, asks the coaching staff to depart.
“All the staff left, even the physios,” says former Reds forward Djibril Cissé, although his account has been disputed by at least one team-mate. “Stevie gets up and says Liverpool are all he has, his club, all he has ever known, and he does not want to be the laughing stock of the history of the Champions League. That half- time speech will remain imprinted in my mind forever.”
Fine words in theory – but, oh wait, what’s this happening right now? John Arne Riise has the ball out wide on the left. It is nine minutes into the second half. He tries a cross. Blocked. The ball ricochets back to him. He tries again. Better. And his delivery sails into the box, where Gerrard – leading by example – leaps between Alessandro Nesta and Jaap Stam, steering a header towards the far corner.
Dida stands helpless.
The net bulges.
“Hello? Hello? Here we go…”
It is still only 3-1, but something has changed. Everything has changed. The Liverpool players feel it. The Milan players feel it. The fans feel it as Gerrard scurries back, manically waving his arms at them. Even Clive Tyldesley feels it. And must we recount the rest?
Yes, we must. Vladimír Šmicer’s fizzing low strike before Gerrard wins a penalty for Xabi Alonso to equalise at the second attempt. Three goals in seven minutes. A ridiculous comeback then completed on spot kicks. And a miracle that can be traced back to the skipper himself, who ends the game filling in at right-back. Who ends the night sleeping with the trophy in his hotel room.
An inspirational captain not making a call but answering one.