The Day We Kept the Cup
Wednesday 25th May, 2005. 2.40am. The alarm went off. In seven hours, I would be due to arrive in Istanbul ahead of Liverpool's sixth European Cup Final.
I'd had an interest in European football throughout the 1990's, and watching teams like Milan, Juventus, Ajax, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid was to get a feel for just how big a competition the Champions League was.
To even see Liverpool competing in it had often seemed like a distant dream, so playing in a final with a chance of winning the tournament was obviously an exciting prospect, and had captivated an entire city. Well, half of it anyway. Like myself, many would have been too young to have had any memories of the club's triumphs during the late seventies and early eighties.
At the airport the check-in area was a sea of red. Even John Lennon was a red for the day, with his statue decorated in Liverpool scarves. And a Turkish Fez.
The flight to Sabiha Gökçen airport, on the Asian side of Istanbul, took four hours and was followed by a 75 minute transfer into the centre of the Istanbul and to Taksim Square, the now famous part of the city where Liverpool fans congregated.
The drop off point seemed random, a square gridlocked with buses and taxis on all sides, with Liverpool fans occupying every other inch of space. The last bus leaving for the Atatürk would be 5.30pm, we were told. A full four hours before kick off. Observing the chaos all around us, it seemed as though four hours would be needed simply to get out of Taksim Square.
Getting out of the city was easier than first feared, thanks to the bus stop being located a couple of blocks away, on a street which fans were seemingly expected to discover by themselves with only the slightest of help from officials, who roughly pointed the direction which we needed to head.
The buses were packed full of fans. A lucky few got to sit, but most stood. Once underway we were soon on the motorway, an indication that it would be no five or ten minute journey, though an hour into the journey there was still no sign of where we were ultimately going. No stadium to be seen anywhere in the distance.
Even after leaving the motorway, there was no sign of the Atatürk Olympic Stadium. Whilst travelling uphill along a quiet road in an otherwise abandoned part of town, suddenly the large crescent shaped roof of the East stand started to appear, as if being unveiled gradually by a curtain, followed then by the sight of the smaller West stand.
On reaching the end of the road, there looked no way of actually getting to the stadium. It was quite literally in the middle of nowhere. Some described the stadium as being like a spaceship dropped in the middle of the desert. A completely accurate assessment. It could have been dropped into a crater on the moon and it wouldn't have seemed any more out of place.
Fortunately there was one completed road making up the final mile or so of the journey. At this point, the roads were lined with young kids selling snacks through the windows of the buses as each passed slowly by.
In contrast to the Milan end, where few fans were gathered and little happening, there was already a huge number of Liverpool fans at their end of the stadium. Entertainment was being provided by the Mighty Wah, performing on a stage constructed as part of UEFA's Fan Festival, the only thing to do once arriving at the ground.
The mood was one of celebration, as if Liverpool had already won the cup, such was the atmosphere generated by the thousands of fans gathered in front of the main stage. Despite being underdogs for the game, there was a belief amongst fans that having come so far, Liverpool wouldn't fail at the final stage. Juventus and Chelsea had been beaten en-route to the final, and Milan would be next.
Pete Wylie only helped boost the crowd whenever he took the microphone between songs. With a couple of hours to go until kick off, he announced that a great time was being had, adding that "In two hours time, it's gonna get even better! And in four hours time, we're gonna be laughin'!" Each line was met with huge cheers.
The timings may have been slightly out - in four hours time we were to be breathing a huge sigh of relief - but he wasn't far wrong.
There was plenty of optimism but even after finding my seat in the huge arena, it was difficult to believe that my local team was about to play in the biggest club football match possible. That same team who had lost so many league games and been humiliated by Burnley in the FA Cup was about to take on a side including Maldini, Cafu, Nesta, Pirlo, Seedorf, Crespo, Kaka and Shevchenko.
Maldini won the toss and opted to attack the end of the stadium where his side's fans were located in the first half rather than the second. Whether or not it helped the Italians to a 3-0 half time lead, it certainly gave the Milan fans a better view of what was unfolding, which started with the 37-year-old captain himself opening the scoring after a minute.
It was the combination of Milan's attacking players which Liverpool struggled most to handle, and the deficit may have been greater had an narrow offside decision not gone against Shevchenko, ruling out a goal which would have made it 2-0 much earlier in the game.
The task of turning around a three goal margin was quite enough though. My half time thoughts went back to Basle in 2002, or to Olympiakos earlier in the same season. Both games resulted in the response which was now required. It was still possible, but while I had unjustified belief that Liverpool could score three times, the biggest fear was that Milan would add even more to their own tally.
With no food or drink on sale at half time most fans remained in their seats, and after a period of shell-shocked silence gradually erupted in a rendition of You'll Never Walk Alone which resembled a battle cry, a call for a response from those on the pitch and it continued until long after the players had made their way back onto the field.
The response did come, but it wasn't instant. Milan could have been further ahead by the time Gerrard netted Liverpool's first. The goal felt as if it had happened in slow motion, but once it was confirmed, the atmosphere in the whole stadium changed. Milan still had a two goal lead. But they looked a team who had been rocked, their fans silenced.
Hope had turned to expectation and when Vladimir Smicer added a second goal, it really did feel as though the tables had been so dramatically turned that nothing would halt Liverpool momentum. Not until Alonso had equalised did the game calm down, and while a few half chances or speculative efforts went each way, only when Jerzy Dudek was forced into surely one of the most miraculous saves in any European final did either side come close to winning the match before it went to penalties.
Not wanting to get too excited too early, only for it to turn to disappointment within moments, I didn't celebrate Milan's first penalty miss, and waited instead until Liverpool had a two goal cushion, which duly arrived after two penalties each. That was the moment when it felt we would definitely be going home with the trophy. Dida's save from Riise's penalty delayed the start of the celebrations, but Shevchenko's failure to beat Dudek with Milan's final kick sealed the win.
As most of the players piled up on top of him in the far corner of the pitch, a few ran straight towards the Liverpool end, in a manner which resembled that of racehorses who had lost their jockey, and decide to do their own thing, running aimlessly in whichever direction they find themselves heading in.
With the celebrations in full flow, the Milan end gradually emptied, revealing the extent of Liverpool's occupation of the stadium. As well as the end designated to the club, most of the two side stands were painted red. All were cheering, singing, celebrating. The local time was 00.55.
Outside the stadium, despite countless dozens of green shuttle buses scattered outside the exit gates, finding a space proved challenging. Most were already twice as crammed as the bus on which I travelled to the game and once on board, most of the journey was spent sat in the step beside the bus' middle door with another fan, and half a dozen people standing above us holding onto the same bar for the two hour trip across the city.
The airport, quiet and near empty on arrival, was by far the most chaotic part of the trip as airport officials failed miserably to cope with the thousands of fans who had suddenly been dropped at the airport's doorstep.
A large tent had been erected outside the terminal and most fans were congregating there as we waited for signs of information on when each of our flights would be departing. A question which over time turned into 'if' our flights would ever be departing, such was the lack of runway activity at a thoroughly under prepared airport.
A few songs rang half-heartedly around the tent, but there was plenty of evidence of fatigue and nothing quite as rousing as the songs which were belted out on the buses immediately after departing the stadium. There was just enough left for a rendition of "Olympic bid, you're havin' a laugh!" as the airport bus transported us from the terminal to our plane just before 8am, five hours after arriving at the airport, but what had seemed much longer.
Sky Sports cameras awaited in the terminal at Liverpool Airport, filming the plane loads of arriving fans. Outside, the t-shirts had already been printed: "EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS 2005". Celebratory songs continued to ring out around the terminal building.
For a fifth time, Liverpool were Champions of Europe again. This time with a trophy to keep.
After one long and unforgettable day in Istanbul.