More than champions

The date was not as dramatic as a writer would have liked it to be. Nevertheless, for dramatic effect, it was (almost) on the Ides of May.

Having finished fourth under manager Jurgen Klopp and a chance to compete in the Champions League- the Mecca of European footballing glory -as a Liverpool fan thousands of miles from the city of the football club I have loved and supported since I was 14, I was hopeful that glory beckoned us; that next season we will begin a serious mount to challenge the trophy that had eluded us for 29 years and what Manchester City’s owners had been able to crudely claim in a handful of years.

With money pumping in into the English Premier League, the amounts of which had never been witnessed before, the top prize in the English game was no longer holy but it was still the grail to aim for.

On the 12th of May 2019, on a visit to a once-familiar city- New Delhi -at a friend’s home, I wept like a little child when Manchester City slotted in one goal after another to secure 98 points- one more than Liverpool -to lift the trophy once more.

I was, in one hyphenated word, heart-broken.

The club had come so close to claim its first Premier League and domestic top-flight championship after almost 30 years that you could almost smell it, touch it, see it.

But it was not to be.

The 2017-18 season was one that was a footballing master class demonstrated by two teams of world-class players who were perhaps only bested by their own managers.

Having had success in the top European leagues, I will run out of pages singing praises of Pep Guardiola and his managerial acumen. He is, as the English say, a top, top manager.

Claiming not just the league title for two consecutive years in style by breaking points records, the Spaniard is bound to go down in history as one of the best.

Because we are judged against those whom we compete against, a certain German in the form of Jurgen Klopp is not far behind.

Since the time that Klopp took over the managerial reins of the Red part of Merseyside, confidence in him amongst supporters has grown exponentially, far and wide.

After clinching the Champions League trophy last season, the Premier League seemed like a foregone conclusion. And I say this despite of hearing the repeated clichés of “if Liverpool don’t win it this year, they won’t for a long time”.

I heard it in the 2014 title chase when Mr Liverpool, Captain Fantastic, Steven Gerrard himself slipped in the game against Chelsea, effectively handing over the trophy to Manchester City that season.

In fact, I heard the all-too-familiar line again last season when after just one defeat we still did not manage to lift the domestic trophy as City went on to claim another.

Yet, here we are.

As a journalist, I must admit that I’ve repeatedly made and read the clichéd headlines in my head:  A STORY THREE DECADES IN THE MAKING; 30 YEARS A WAIT; etc.

Perhaps some part of me almost wanted things to be this way; that a headline saying a 29-year wait comes to an end doesn’t sound as good as a three decades’ one.

One of the first rules of journalism is to ensure that you never write the headline first because if you do, your story will take the narrative accordingly.

For once, I had to disagree.

This past year in the English Premier League, the script and the headline began writing itself three months in.

When Klopp came in, he said that it was his plan to change Liverpool supporters into believers. Three years into his five years, that belief was only grew from strength to strength, victory after victory.

One could write pages and pages waxing eloquence about the tactical mastermind of the manager or the mad resolve of the players on the pitch wearing that red jersey as was evident in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona.

This is not about that; it is not about stating the obvious; that the Liverpool squad has reached the heights of greatness is for everyone to see. No one can take it away from them and they deserve every bit of the praise that comes their way.

This is not even about singing praises about my personal love affair with the club or finding an excuse to put myself on a pedestal of fandom (that’s already been done here).

In a strange year where a pandemic has made everything around us feel surreal, it is about finding the joys of life in the smallest of things we do. It is about digging deep and finding inspiration when it seems like there is none to be found.

This is about understanding that life is fragile and that we must take the pleasures of life as and when they come in whatever small measure- like Manchester United fans gloating about their points tally after the restart of the league.

With the Community Shield officially marking the start of the new football season, it is a time of reflection of the months lost this year, and the days that remain. Covid has taught us that while we must remain in isolation and socially distant from one another, to fight the good fight we must stand together; that as human beings, You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Loving Liverpool

Like most supporters of Liverpool FC alive today, the defining moment in the sun for us was that magical night in Istanbul. It was the most devastating start for the Merseyside team. In under two minutes, AC Milan had taken the lead.

Before the much-needed halftime whistle had been blown, we were the down three goals.

I imagine that like many others around the world, I turned off my tiny 14-inch Aiwa television set and called it a night because the sight of the team I loved being humiliated in that fashion was overwhelming. But for some reason, I couldn’t sleep. And so, around the 55th minute(?), I got up and pushed the physical power button on the telly. To my surprise, the score read Liverpool 2- AC Milan 3.

Captain Fantastic, Mr Liverpool himself- Steven Gerrard -had incited an otherwise impossible task of mounting what would undoubtedly be one of the greatest comebacks the sporting world had and will see. We levelled and took the game to penalties where Jerzy Dudek, our goalkeeper, our sentry, carved his name deep into the annals of Liverpool legends. For your service, sir, I thank you.

It wasn’t, of course, the doings of two men alone that made the impossible, possible. The outcome of a football match is very hardly decided by the performance of one or two outstanding individuals alone. If that were the case, in recent memory, then Portugal should have won the Euro several times over, the Copa America would never leave Argentina, and the World Cup final would always be between those two teams.

That is not how football works.

Watching Gerrard lift that trophy over his head was a moment of immense joy and unparalleled adrenaline rush.

I remember I was alone in that rented apartment in New Delhi’s Mukherjee Nagar when the match was on. I only personally knew two other friends who were Liverpool supporters (who lived in different cities) as most of my other friends had long ago joined the tropes of becoming Manchester United, Arsenal, or Chelsea fans -great clubs, all of them. (Back then, Manchester City hadn’t been pumped with Arab oil money and so didn’t have the fans it does now outside the city itself.) So unlike the many victories and moments, I didn’t have too many people around me to celebrate with. But that hardly mattered. It still doesn’t.

That night, we were, at best, a mediocre team up against a mighty AC Milan side that had players who were already legends of the game and it showed in the first half. But Liverpool FC showed that legends can fail too. They did.

After that night, we went on a slump. Yes, we won the FA Cup the next year and the League Cup, and as prestigious as they are, any and every serious football fan will tell you that the in European game, only the domestic and the Champions League matter. Everything else falls on the sidelines.

We did come close to ending the wait for a Premier League trophy. The most notable of them was in the 2013-14 season, which, unfortunately, is best remembered for Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea which gave Manchester City the advantage to go on and win the league that year. And here we are, a few years later with the same two teams fighting for the league.

As I write this, City have taken the lead against Burnley. I’ve stopped watching the match. It’s just too painful at this point. I can say with confidence that anyone associated with Liverpool were pinning their hopes on Burnley to do us a favour. A big and unfair ask to be honest but Burnley did defend extremely well to keep the City players at bay for as long as they did.

At this point, there isn’t any realistic chance of us ending a 29-year wait. But when you can possibly take 97 points and still not win the league, you have to tip your hat to the team that got 98 points.

Will that change anything for me personally? Not in the least.

I didn’t become a Liverpool supporter when the team was winning back-to-back league titles and European Cups in the 1980s and never even actually saw the likes of Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Steve Mcmanaman, and Robbie Fowler play. I only learnt about them in later years. Thanks to the internet, it also became easy to learn about some of the other events linked to the club.

On 15 April 1989, during an FA Cup semi-final football match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium, 96 people died as a result of injuries sustained mostly from suffocation as a massive crush injured 766 others. The Hillsborough Disaster, as it came to be known, changed the way football stadiums should be built. It changed the lives of everyone associated with the club in any way.

It was only years later that I read about the disaster and began to feel a sense of pain that I can only imagine the families have had to undergo. Thirty years later, legal proceedings relating to the case continues.

I didn’t become a Liverpool supporter after the Miracle of Istanbul, although am pretty sure many did.

If I didn’t become a Liverpool supporter at the height of the team’s glory days, I sure as hell am not going to abandon it now.

To me, Liverpool is not just a football team. It’s so much more than that.

Through the ups and downs of life, through all the uncertainties of life, when everything else was falling apart, and when change is a constant in life, the only other constant for me has been Liverpool.

I’ve cried for a lot of things. I’ve cried publicly for Liverpool. I’ve sung songs for Liverpool.

The 2017-18 season was especially hard for me. I was personally experiencing some horrors of life and was at an extremely low point. But turning on the telly or watching a Liverpool match from a projector always brought me joy. Even on the nights the team didn’t play well or lost, those moments made me smile as they do now remembering them. All except the final of Champions League, of course.

If by some miracle City slip and we go on to win the league, I can’t think of a single moment or a single event that will bring me the amount of joy that will match that euphoria, personally. All I can do now is keep the faith.

People say many things: that it’s just a game; it’s only a sport; it’s not as if you were born there to feel so strongly about the club. To all of that, I say no.

Many may not agree but I will leave you with the paraphrased words of the legendary Bill Shankly who managed Liverpool for 15 years: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”