Liverpool’s famous European nights are so embedded in our footballing culture that two distinctly different connotations have grown from them. The first is a sincere acknowledgement of the passion and the glory that has led to umpteen unforgettable evenings and eleven continental cups.
The red half of Merseyside undeniably have an almost unique (only Real Madrid can rival it) emotional connection to European competition that goes back several decades; a heritage and affinity that transcends their many success stories to the drama and faith that made them manifest.
The other connotation places the ‘famous’ part in those opening few words within heavily sarcastic quotation marks. It is written or spoken with a figurative or literal curling of the upper lip.
That’s because when any aspect of our lives – involving sport or otherwise – becomes embedded in culture inevitably cynicism becomes the equal of sincerity as clichés abound and the simple fact is that unless you’re the beneficiary of a cliché they can intensely annoy. The Kop sucking the ball in. The banners and the flags. The anthem and the miracles. These are tropes that Liverpool supporters are justifiably very proud of. These are tropes that rival fans mock. And of course those two things don’t square up. This is football and only results make sense.
So which connotation runs through this: cynicism or sincerity? Unquestionably it is the latter, and how can that not be the case after what we witnessed last Tuesday as Barcelona rocked up to Anfield three goals to the good and arrogantly believing that their supreme passing game and world conquering talent trumped a depleted opponent fired up by a frenzied atmosphere.
They left like others have before them; like Manchester City’s centurions-in-waiting last season and Herrera’s indomitable Inter Milan in 1965 and countless others in between. They left broken and defeated with thousand yard stares. What just happened? How did it happen? And why do our insides and heads feel like they’ve just gone several rounds with a 20-year-old Mike Tyson?
Some fairness is required here because the Catalan giants cannot be blamed for thinking their supernatural ability in possession would have the measure of desire and song. How often have Messi and his disciples displayed their wares on foreign soil and every time the malevolent hosts scream the place down and raise the decibels all to little affect. They are as immune to fiery environs as you or I are to music being played a tiny bit too loud. This was Anfield though. This was Europe. More so, this was fifty thousand plus Scousers with their backs against the wall. Even the best succumb to that.
When trying to make sense of Liverpool’s relationship with European football it is necessary to begin with their pedigree but only quickly because in the main their pedigree is the end product, not the genesis.
On five occasions a Liverpool captain has lifted the jug-eared trophy, twice in Rome, and in Paris, Istanbul, and at Wembley and the tales and memories these adventures brought to vivid life prompted a love affair between club and tournament that partly explains what unfolded last week. Additionally, the enormous success also led to supporters inherently believing they were continental ‘royalty’ and this too has played a part in some incredible fixtures down the years. It means when Barcelona come to town the general consensus is something like this: you may be the better of us but you don’t get the better of us.
Such self-assuredness coupled with powerful ardour is one hell of an intoxicating combination but even these can only take you so far, they only turn the lights on. The electricity is faith and for the origins of that we must go back to a see-saw quarter final clash with St Etienne in 1976 with Liverpool desperately in need of a late decider. When it arrived, courtesy of David Fairclough in the 84th minute Anfield went ballistic and an enduring strand of folklore was born. Phil Neal later said of that memorable encounter: “When the ball was up the other end of the pitch I couldn’t help but look up in amazement as the crowd. The whole stadium seemed to be moving, even the people in the stands. They were bobbing up and down, swaying and bouncing, You couldn’t better that night.”
They did, though, in Istanbul nearly thirty years later and despite the fact that nine members of that side who somehow over-turned a three goal half-time deficit to AC Milan were not even born when Fairclough the Supersub struck against the French don’t discount the lineage that began from it. The inherent credence that anything is possible if you want it hard enough.
That credence – shared by club and fans alike – has propelled Liverpool through all manner of storms. It was behind their three goals against Olympiacos in 2004, putting extra fizz into Steven Gerrard’s thunderous late shot that almost exploded the net. It was behind their extraordinary four goal second half performance that undid Borussia Dortmund three years ago, a comeback that had a shell-shocked Thomas Tuchel saying later: “You can describe a game like this, but you can’t explain it.”
Self-belief, love and faith. There’s the explanation.
Yet still there is something more. Because we can eulogise about the ferocity of Liverpool’s support – the swaying and bouncing – but still something doesn’t sit right. In reality how much louder and intense is Anfield for a visit of Barcelona in the Champions League than, let’s say Manchester United in domestic competition? Slightly. That would cover it, and slightly doesn’t sap all strength and learned behaviour from the greatest side in the modern era. So instead we must look at the nature of that support and here we discover something interesting.
Even now, even these days with Messi and Suarez so familiar to us all a visiting team from abroad is ‘other’. They are eleven – exceedingly skilful and dangerous – props. It’s nothing personal in beating them. They’re a name. A famous shirt. A well-known face.
So it is that Anfield is not distracted by taunting an enemy, out-singing a rival, while desperately willing the opponent in question to be bested. Every effort, sinew and vocal chord instead focuses on raising their own players; inspiring them to victory. It is a celebration of self rather than the negating of others.
There is a lesson there for all of us.