We were sitting on the back porch of the rental house just outside of Annapolis, Maryland. The clock read a few minutes past midnight as I finished the last bits of some local craft beer I bought earlier in the day at the local gas station. It would’ve been in my best interests to call it a night and tried to get some sleep, but I knew that was going to happen. Just over 24 hours earlier I drove five hours north from my home in North Carolina up to visit my friend Sean Dotzauer, and this was the first opportunity I’d had to relax and enjoy some time with him. His daughter had graduated from the United States Naval Academy earlier that morning, and Sean spent the better part of the week running himself ragged ensuring the agenda went smoothly. He finally collapsed into a chair on the back porch and cracked open a beer. Sleep could wait.
Sean and I met exactly eight years and two weeks ago to the day. We both were playing hooky from work to watch Fulham play Atletico Madrid in the 2010 Europa League final. The fact that an American footballer named Clint Dempsey had helped lead a mediocre English club to an European final was enough to draw a decent crowd to an American Irish pub for a midweek afternoon match. We stood next to each other drinking pints in front of a television, soon discovering that we both shared a love for Liverpool Football Club.
“What time do you have to leave tomorrow?” Sean asked me. He knew that my trip to Maryland was going to be a short one. When I accepted his offer to join him for his daughter’s weeklong graduation celebration, neither of us actually considered the possibility that Liverpool Football Club could still be playing meaningful football. Then they defeated Manchester City in the quarterfinals in early April, it quickly became a reality. Thank God graduation was on Friday.
“Leaving about 5 AM or so. And I still got plenty of room to take you with me” I teased. It was clearly a joke, yet I could see the thoughts churning in the back of his mind, trying to figure out how he could get away with it. Could he possibly justify getting in a car with me, drive five hours to our favorite pub in Raleigh just to watch Liverpool play in the Champions League Final??? His entire family traveled from all over the country to witness his oldest daughter on the biggest day of her short life, yet I could tell that he was still wondering if he could justify his escape. It would only be less than a day, after all.
Slowly the crowd drifted back to their beds and soon we were left alone. Our focus had shifted. The only two people in the rental house that gave a shit about football were left to talk about it. In about twelve hours, the biggest match of the year was being held in Kyiv, Ukraine. Over a billion people around the world would be watching, and for the first time in exactly 4,021 days our beloved Liverpool Football Club would be playing in this spectacle of sport.
I finished the last of my beer, contemplating whether or not I wanted to grab some stale Stella Artois off the warm keg that was tapped what seemed like a decade ago. My options were limited, but he had my favorite kind of beer on tap. Free beer. I grabbed a red solo cup.
For the next few hours, we talked about the tactics we expect to see. The spectacle of the world’s most popular annual sporting event. The Egyptian King. The evil Madrid and their affinity for the dark arts of the sport. How we couldn’t believe our club’s turnaround. When we first met at that Irish pub in Raleigh eight years earlier, Liverpool Football Club had hit rock bottom under the ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillette. They were damn near bankruptcy and subsequent oblivion. Now they were on the verge of recapturing glory trying to win their sixth European Cup.
I don’t exactly recall what time it was in that rented Annapolis home, but eventually I retired to the living room couch to try and get some sleep. Sean returned to his bedroom and wished me safe travels. Officially he decided that he was staying with his family, but that didn’t stop me from trying one last time.
“The offer still stands, mate.” I said to him. “We leave at 5 AM.”
There was a slight pause as he headed upstairs. He looked back at me and smiled with a nod. I knew that he wasn’t going to join me, but I like to think he went to bed still unsure about his decision.
When the season began back in August, I was excited about the prospects of returning to the Champions League. Liverpool had qualified for the elite European competition only once before since Fenway Sports Group took over ownership in October 2010, and that campaign ended up being a disaster of epic proportions. Having nearly won the Premier League in 2014, the club sold Luis Suarez to Barcelona for a record fee in the summer and used that money to recruit a band of misfits that were supposed to fill the gap. They didn’t. Liverpool failed to advance to the knockout stage in a group that was easily winnable by any other English club in the competition. It left us all with a bitter taste in our mouth and signified the beginning of the end to the Brendan Rodgers era.
Enter Jürgen Klopp. Slowly but surely the German manager assembled a roster of talent which you could tell was growing into something special. At the end of his first full season at the helm in 2017, Klopp had achieved the goal of returning Liverpool to the Champions League. Now he had to make sure this appearance wouldn’t become another footnote in the club history. In order to accomplish that task, the club needed to make a deep run in the competition while ensuring its spot for the next season with another top four finish in the Premier League. Having easily dispatched German club Hoffenheim to get into the Group Stage, Liverpool lucked into a relatively easy group that they ultimately would win.
Many supporters considered the season a success having advanced to the knockout stage, the first time Liverpool had advanced to this point since 2009. Precisely how far they would advance is dependent on many different variables, most notably which clubs get drawn into their path. When it was announced that we would have to play FC Porto in the next round, optimism began to set in. The Portuguese league leaders were considered one of the weaker of the potential opponents. Advancement was expected. Elimination would be a grave disappointment. When Liverpool manhandled the eventual Portuguese champions with a 5-0 defeat in their home stadium, optimism started to swell. It virtually rendered the return leg at Anfield moot. Klopp didn’t want to hear that talk, but the rest of the footballing world knew it. I almost didn’t watch the return leg for fear that the only unexpected result would be one that would infuriate me. Alas I stomached the trip to the pub to enjoy the 0-0 draw produced by two lackluster performances at Anfield. The Reds were through to the quarterfinals.
What could never have been predicted after that result was the subsequent tidal wave of global passion generated from a single weekday in Portugal. It was on the concourse of Porto’s home ground which spawned the now-legendary Allez Allez Allez chant.
Like most great football chants, the actual tune for Allez Allez Allez is copied from another established song. Strangely enough the song that would own European club football for the remainder of the summer was actually stolen from Italy. Italian disco duo Righeira produced the 1985 hit L’Estate Sta Finendo, which translates to mean “the summer is ending.” Trust me when I tell you that the music video is most definitely worth a Google.
The song was originally converted to a football chant by supporters of an Italian club based in the small southern Italian city L’Aquila. A truly classic chant will spread like a virus to neighboring clubs, each putting their own spin on the lyrics. This was no different. Versions of the song were heard at other Italian clubs like Genoa, Juventus, and most notably Napoli.
It was the Napoli version that jumped borders and made its way to fans of FC Porto, who claim that Liverpool fans were simply copying the chant and adapting new lyrics like everyone else before them. In reality, there is a little more to the story. A few weeks after Porto played Dortmund in the 2016 Europa League, Liverpool fan Phil Howard came across a YouTube video of the Porto fans singing at a subway station. Howard enlisted his good friend Liam Malone to help create Liverpool-themed lyrics for the song, which they did over time.
We’ve conquered all of Europe!!
We’re never gonna stop!
From Paris down to Turkey,
We’ve won the fucking lot!!
Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly…
The Fields of Anfield Road…
We are the supporters…
And we come from Liverpool!!!
ALLEZ ALLEZ ALLEZ!!!!!!!!
Both Howard and Malone happened to be in attendance at Porto’s Estádio do Dragão for the Liverpool match. Perhaps they were inspired hearing Porto fans chanting their version, spurring them to start the one they themselves were inspired to create earlier.
When you attend a football match, you might hear dozens of different chants throughout the ninety minutes. Most new attempts are useless and go nowhere special, much like an Iago Aspas corner kick. Good ones catch fire. It starts with two or three supporters. Then the spectators sitting around those two or three singers pick up on it and they start singing. Then the people seated around those spectators pick up on it. Slowly the decibel level increases as it drowns out every other noise in the ground. I imagine that’s what happened in Porto that mid-February evening.
Jamie Webster was at that match and heard the song himself. As an acoustic guitarist that performs regular sets near Anfield on matchday, Webster searched for videos of the song online until he could master his own version for the stage. He debuted the song in Liverpool after the Newcastle match on March 3rd. Some people knew it and sang along, but not everyone. The infectious tune would ultimately continue to grow on the supporters, and when Webster sang it again after the return leg with Porto it became epic. As Webster himself described the moment, “The whole pub was up. I’m talking women in their 50’s on tables. That sort of thing.”
Videos from that night went viral almost immediately, with tens of millions of views on various social media platforms. When Liverpool traveled to Old Trafford only a few days later, the entire away section of supporters sang it in unison from the moment they entered the ground. It was there that Webster and the rest of the footballing world knew that they had helped develop something special. Liverpool fans chanted parts of the Johnny Cash classic Ring of Fire en route to the 2005 Champions League title. Two years later it was Oh Campione that was serenaded to the squad on their march to the Champions League Final in Athens. Now with the help of Righeira, L’Aquila fans, Napoli fans, Porto fans, Howard, Malone, and Webster, we had Allez Allez Allez.
Liverpool advancing to the Champions League quarterfinal was like winning early at a Vegas casino. You feel invincible, playing without fear as though you’ve already won. Short term losses matter less as you’re playing with “house money”, so I wasn’t really bothered when it was announced that Manchester City would be our next opponent. We’ll smash them at Anfield, I thought to myself, like we’ve done every year since 2003. Who gives a shit that they were probably the best team the Premier League has ever seen? We’ve conquered all of Europe.
Shell-shocked is the best description I can give for the looks on the faces of Manchester City players and fans after the final whistle blew at Anfield. Liverpool had just defeated them 3-0 following a stellar balance of attack and defense. It’s one thing for fans to talk shit prior to the match, making outrageous predictions and claims. But when the players back you up with the best performance of the season, you really start to believe that something special may be happening. By keeping Manchester City off the scoresheet at Anfield, one Liverpool away goal would put the Reds in pole position to advance to the semifinals.
To their credit, City did not capitulate easily on the return leg at the Etihad Stadium. A 2nd minute Gabriel Jesus goal made it nervy early, and several close calls (and possibly missed calls by the referee) later I was nearly without fingernails. It wasn’t until Mohammed Salah deftly chipped a rebounded shot over Brazilian goalkeeper Ederson’s diving body into the back of the net that we could breathe again. One magical stroke from the Egyptian’s left boot was all that was required to send millions of Liverpool supporters into collective euphoria. It was such a magnificent iconic moment that you nearly forget about Bobby Firmino’s late individual brilliance to steal the ball from Nicolas Otamendi and score with a kiss off the far post. Just like that we had beaten the best team in the Premier League twice in one week. We’ve conquered all of Europe; we’re never gonna stop.
Italian club AS Roma would be our final hurdle to the finals in Kiev, and once again Anfield would have the honor of hosting the first leg. When Bobby Firmino scored in the 68th minute to give the Reds a 5-0 lead, many people started frantically searching travel options to Ukraine. Even the Roma fans were seen applauding the awesome attacking display shown on the pitch. They would score two late goals, including a dubious penalty call, to keep interest levels high for the second leg. After all, they had just defeated mighty Barcelona 3-0 at home to eliminate the Spanish giants in the previous round. Certainly, they could do the same thing to Liverpool. Gini Wijnaldum’s first ever away goal in the 26th minute would negate the away goal tiebreaker, allowing us to relax with a pint as we watched history. Roma would score two late goals, including another debatable penalty call, to provide a flattering aggregate final score of 7-6. Don’t kid yourself. It was never that close. After eleven seasons, Liverpool Football Club was finally headed back to reclaim that European throne that we’ve held five times before. We’ve won the fucking lot.
I had been driving for over five hours, but finally reached my destination. Downtown Raleigh, home to the London Bridge Pub. Recently named the best soccer pub in North Carolina, the “Bridge” has been home to the Official Liverpool Supporters Club (OLSC) Raleigh branch since both were founded in 2012. It was a natural fit as both co-owners support Liverpool, but they have also created a harmonious environment for all supporters in the Raleigh-Durham area. The American Outlaws, the national supporters’ organization for the United States national teams, also meet at the Bridge whenever their respective nations play a match. When the U.S.A. advanced in the 2014 World Cup to play Belgium in the first knockout round, I went to the Bridge to watch. So did hundreds of others. We were packed like sardines on a hot summer afternoon, and loving every minute of it. I was concerned that this Champions League Final would draw a similar crowd. I was right.
The day started off with brunch at a local café for a pre-arranged brunch buffet for around sixty members of OLSC Raleigh. After fueling the body and lubricating the soul, we collectively began the short march down the streets of downtown Raleigh to the Bridge where our arrival was expected. We were ready to charge into battle with our songs. Sixty grown men and women wearing red shirts danced on the sidewalk, and the chorus “Allez Allez Allez” echoed throughout the streets of Raleigh. We would be the first wave of supporters to enter the pub, only about two hours before kickoff.
Real Madrid is one of the most popular clubs on the planet. Not only have they won this competition an unprecedented twelve times before, but they’ve won three of the last four. They have a payroll that would make even Warren Buffett cringe. They had a roster of stars, including the universally-despised Cristiano Ronaldo. The former Manchester United midfielder had turned himself into the most recognizable star on the planet and exudes a level of confidence rarely seen at any level of sport. And he happens to be a great player as well. Without question Real Madrid were clear-cut favorites in the winner-take-all match. It had been an incredibly entertaining run watching this Liverpool team play. Regardless of the final score, our season would end that afternoon.
Just before kickoff, I estimate over 400 Liverpool supporters had crammed into the pub along with a few dozen Real Madrid fans. Nearly that amount lingered in the back patio outside. It was easily the largest crowd I had seen at the pub since the 2014 World Cup when USA faced Belgium. A few of these “fans” I know are Manchester United fans who decided to come to our pub looking to stir some shit. I guess that’s what you do when you support a club whose entire success from that season will be judged on whether your primary rival wins the title. If only they had their own pub in Raleigh, I might not know that they were imposters. But I know those fuckers all too well from previous matches at the pub, and besides their stench is unmistakable. They can’t hide. Officially the pub was “at capacity” as the bouncer stopped counting the closer we got to the start. Surely one call to the fire marshal would’ve ruined many afternoons. Thankfully that call was never made.
My wife Tori met us at the pub upon our arrival. Having experienced the sardine lifestyle during USA-Belgium match four years earlier, Tori wisely took a spot in the far back of the pub well away from the well of draught beer that seemed to attract the football fan. As the fanfare subsided and the match began, all eyes were on the television sets. Within minutes Ronaldo appeared on screen, and the crowd collectively booed. Then came Mo Salah, and we all started serenading the Egyptian king. It was an incredible moment for Liverpool fans and a long time coming. It was estimated that over 300-million people tuned into watch this match on television. In our little Raleigh watering hole, over 300 people were watching scattered across a bunch of big-screens. And this was just at one soccer pub in the 24th largest television market in America (according to the 2016-17 Nielsen ratings). It made me wonder if that estimated 300-million person included the hundreds of fans at the thousands of pubs globally, or if it was actually a calculation based on the number of televisions tuned into that match.
Liverpool started the match on the front foot, pushing forward and gaining confidence. I had just finished my first pint at the pub, and longed for a second one. Normally at the Bridge I can simply wave at the bartender from afar and they know well enough to start drawing another pint of Guinness for me. Not this time. They were overwhelmed with patrons looking for their next libation. To make matters worse, it was unseasonably hot and humid that afternoon, even for North Carolina in May. People were getting hot and thirsty, and I was in no position to get preferential treatment from the bar staff. I decided to focus on the football and give my bladder the afternoon off.
All appeared well as each team methodically stuck to their plan. Neither team was willing to risk an early mistake and it showed on the pitch. But then there was a sudden attack by Liverpool with a potential break for Mo Salah. All that I could see at the time was what appeared to be a dangerous tackle by Madrid defender Sergio Ramos. Salah didn’t get up. Replays would later confirm the malicious intent of the play, and that would draw the ire of every Red around the world. Tears streamed down his face as Salah was forced to the dressing room for a shoulder injury that took him out of the biggest showcase in his career, and threatened his representation with Egypt in the first appearance in the World Cup since 1990. A shoulder injury? In a sport where it’s illegal to use your arms. That is, unless you play defense for Real Madrid in the Champions League Final apparently.
I couldn’t help but notice the only Madrid player to console Salah as he lay on the pitch in tears was Cristiano Ronaldo. He was obviously disappointed that his opponent had to leave to injury. Most honorable athletes want to win based on their skill, not their opponent’s attrition. Then the television screen flashed over a laughing Sergio Ramos, who apparently wasn’t concerned in the least. Somehow that Spaniard had figured out a way for me to hate another footballer more than Ronaldo.
The halftime whistle blew and we were knotted at nil-nil. The air was saturated with sweat and booze, so while some waited in line for the bathrooms I stepped outside for some fresh air. I found Tori standing on the sidewalk just beyond the door. We chatted for a few minutes before she left to go down the street to another pub. Not because she wasn’t having fun, rather she really needed to use a bathroom and couldn’t wait in line at the Bridge. I slipped back inside before the bouncer started refusing re-entry into the pub. I got back to my spot alongside my friends, wondering if Tori would make it back inside herself.
I don’t see the need to relive the rest of the second half play. We all know how it turned out. Let me summarize with the following (in order): Fuck you Karius, Oh Mané Mané, Holy Shit Bale, and finally Fuck you Karius (again). Instead of Liverpool claiming our sixth European Cup, it was Real Madrid winning their thirteenth by three of their goals to one of ours. Only one word could describe how I felt at that moment: gutted. Truly felt like someone had just landed a heavy impact into my solar plexus. It was hard to breathe for a moment, and I thought I was seeing stars. This after having only one pint too. It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Fuck Ramos and Madrid. They didn’t win the Champions League. They stole it. Hala Liverpool.
As per the norm, the Bridge’s audio feed quickly cut off from the television immediately after the final whistle. The pub fell quiet once again. Regardless of the result, we always do our part as supporters and sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” after every match. Never before has it hurt so much. As Gerry and the Pacemakers started playing over the speakers, each supporter came together for one final time this season. Those who had scarves held them up high. Those who didn’t put their arms around whoever happened to be standing next to them. Even Real Madrid fans remained respectful as they quietly walked outside to celebrate.
As the song drew to a close, I said good-bye to many friends. It was an incredible ride and I didn’t want it to end. I couldn’t believe that I would have to wait three months before meaningful football again. Yeah yeah, I know there was a World Cup in Russia that would begin a few weeks later. But since the United States embarrassingly failed to qualify, that event mattered not to me. While I was extremely disappointed with this result, I realized that I was more dejected that Liverpool wouldn’t be playing next week. Football was exciting again. Klopp had me caring more about everything Liverpool. Where I once lay adrift in a sea of apathy, I have been led by this club safely back to the land where we can dream once again. For the past decade or so Liverpool fans have “walked through the storm.” Now it’s time we “hold our heads up high” in search of that “Golden Sky.”