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Four pies, four years, four goals
Four years ago today, the greatest match ever played*.
In many ways, that it was the greatest match - that it was football - isn’t crucial.
Before the first leg had been played, I was offered a couple of tickets to the second leg of the Champions League semi final between Liverpool and Barcelona, the latter the best side in the world at the time.
‘There’ll be a game to watch as long as we don’t get hammered in the first leg and everyone’s fit’ I told my friend, as I paid for the tickets.
We lost 3-0 in the first leg and Salah (Liverpool’s best player) was injured and out of the second leg. It was hopeless. We decided to go as at least there was the prospect of seeing Messi, the best player to have played the game.
I was nervous about the tickets - we were to pick them up in a pub near the ground. Having been involved in judging the Radio 4 Food Programme awards that year, I knew how special Homebaked pies - part of a community owned initiative just outside the ground - were. Each of the four pies I saw off was extraordinary. I might’ve gone for a fifth had time not be short.
No sign of the tickets in the pub.
An exchange of texts: a white BMW X5 would be outside in 5. Outside, the road was a sea of people, with no sign of cars nor much prospect of one with the road effectively a huge pavement. After 10 minutes we were fairly resigned to the likelihood of not getting into the match. After 15, the sea parted allowing a single white BMW to pass. Dark windows lowered just enough to post the tickets through. We were going.
Inside, the atmosphere was the kind of relaxed that can only thrive in an absence of hope.
There was nothing to play for other than a little pride. The pleasure of the evening was in seeing Messi, Suarez and the other greats, as much as our team. We spotted Salah wearing a ‘NEVER GIVE UP’ t-shirt that raised smiles rather than optimism.
What happened in the next two hours was impossible.
I won’t get into writing about the match - it was extraordinary and this film gives you some idea of what happened.
When the final whistle blew there were tears, the open mouthed, open eyed disbelief that the impossible was real. Players fell to the ground, exhausted and crying. People were looking around as if for someone to explain what had happened. Strangers hugged: we were here, something outside anything we knew had happened, yet it was true and we were forever bonded.
Leaving the ground, I saw a man in his 80s sat on the steps struggling to take it in, in tears, telling what I took to be his son ‘Lad, I’ve been coming here for 65 years and I’ve never seen the like of it’.
The air was thick with smoke coloured by car lights, flares and celebration. I’m not sure I’ve experienced undiluted, unanimous joy before or since. It was as if a war had ended.
The walk to the city centre was, in its way, as remarkable as the match. Car horns beeping, people singing, cheering, a sense of belonging to the team, to each other and to a night that I didn’t know to be possible. So many doors open; families stood in their nightwear in the garden to soak it all in.
You might have a similar experience - the team, the sport, or even whether it was a sport - doesn’t matter**; the match was just the wrapper for what it was really happening, which was something beyond us. It felt related to falling in love, to hearing a lifelong friend of an album - Blue, The Colour of Spring, Hunky Dory, Hats - for the first time, except it was everyone and everything that felt it.
Life had been tricky for a year or two, and without knowing it I needed to believe that humans - strangers even - were inherently good, and that life could still hold magic. That night gave me it in spades. This chord, this dummy***, Hardy’s harmonies, and these two incredible snooker shots by a very drunk Alex Higgins are nuggets panned from the same stream. Once in a while, something beyond understanding happens.
And if you listen very carefully, you can hear Higgins whisper before he plays the second shot ‘If you believe, you can do allsorts’.
*I will entertain few rivals for this, notably Barcelona v Athletico, 1997
**while in some ways it didn’t matter that it was football, the night being so close to the 30th anniversary of Hillsborough made it felt completely connected to what unfolded
*** somehow more beautiful because he doesn’t score