Fretting while the scarlet tide make history
By Elvis Costello
I WAS ON A NARROW ROAD THROUGH ancient woodland when the awful news came over a crackling connection: “He’s left out Hamann and he’s playing Kewell!” My heart sank. I knew we were doomed. Minutes later I arrived at the University of East Anglia, where I have played concerts since 1977. I was booked to perform just as Liverpool were taking the field in their first European Cup final in 20 years.
I had tried everything to re-schedule the concert, remembering what Paul McGrath had once told me about an Albanian trip with Ireland: “I might pull a hamstring . . .” I had suggested a teatime show or even a late-night show but the best we could manage was to announce through the local radio and newspapers that the start would be delayed until the end of the 90 minutes. This way I would still have sufficient time for a complete set. I had remained quietly confident that it would not take very long for Liverpool to subdue an overconfident AC Milan. That was until I heard the team news.
Now I thought it might possibly require extra time. If so, I would have to get on stage and face the unusual torture of having the score relayed to me by semaphore or hand-printed cards. The last time we attempted this was in Glasgow during the infamous Michael Thomas game at Anfield in 1989. I played the longest song in my repertoire, while keeping my gaze from the wings, knowing that by the time I finished the tune, with the score at “0-1”, Liverpool would be champions. As the applause began, I looked round to see my stage manager holding up “0-2”.
The travelling musician often ends up following an important game in unlikely circumstances, listening to the World Service via an aerial hung from the curtains in a Hamburg hotel, or maybe that was in Nagoya. Then there was the 7am rendezvous in the “The Mad Dog in the Fog” pub in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, for Liverpool’s Cantona-inspired defeat in the FA Cup Final of 1996 and realising that Ray Davies, of the Kinks, was sitting at the next table. Perhaps, more pertinently, there is the memory of staying up all night in Australia to watch the broadcast of Bruce Grobbelaar’s “Spaghetti Legs” defeat of AS Roma in 1984.
So, in contrast, a large-screen TV in a university common room was an unimaginable joy. Then the game started. The absence of Hamann was immediately felt as no one picked up Maldini, even though his powerful downward half-volley might have been saved by a goalkeeper who had been on the park for more than 50 seconds. Things went rapidly downhill. Players who had performed superbly during the season — or at least when they hadn’ t been confined to the treatment table — such as Xabi Alonso and Luis García, looked like boys against Milan’s men. Liverpool’s most improved player of the season, Djimi Traoré, was suddenly returned to the nervous and accident-prone form that he had shown under Gérard Houllier.
At 23 minutes, with the midfield being totally overrun and the Reds’ usually resolute defence looking vulnerable, Rafael Benítez’s big gamble finally paid off: Kewell pulled up. Now, Australian Harry may be a very fine human being but he has the misfortune of appearing to many fans as the epitome of the spoilt modern footballer who places his agent’s agenda ahead of that of the club.
The commentator reported that Kewell had “asked” to come off. In Liverpool folklore you do not ask to come off in a final . . . or any game, unless you are dead. For heaven’s sake, Gerry Byrne played 117 minutes of the 1965 FA Cup Final with a broken collarbone and still managed to set up one of the goals. In 1956 Bert Trautmann, the former German PoW and Manchester City goalie, played in the Cup Final with a broken neck. Did he complain or ask to be taken off? Did he heck. They didn’t even discover his injury until three days after the game.
Then there is the matter of the “Alice” band. At the risk of sounding like a fogey reminiscing about the good old days, I honestly cannot remember “Sir” Roger Hunt, the legendary Liverpool striker, ever sporting one of these accessories. Even an Evertonian wouldn’t wear one. If big Duncan Ferguson grew his hair down to his knees, it is inconceivable that he would ever pace the Goodison dressing-room saying, “Wee man, does this make me look harder or just like a bit of a Jessie?” There doesn’t even seem to be any discernible benefit in wearing the “Alice”. Milan Baros has sported one all season and he still cannot find the goal.
OK, for a short while things did go from bad to worse. Milan continued to cut through the Liverpool defence like a chainsaw through a bucket of ghee. By half-time the scoreboard read 3-0 and I felt a horrible repressed memory welling up from childhood: the morning in 1966 when the paper reported that Bill Shankly’s invincible Liverpool side had been crushed 5-1 . . . apparently by a team named after a famous household cleaner. Now this game was also turning into a humiliation too dreadful to witness. I decided to do the unthinkable and go on stage early.
During half-time, as my crew completed the final checks on our equipment, I fielded a commiserating call from my one friend who is Chelsea fan and a stricken text message from a pal in Istanbul. I began warming up my voice and tried to locate the most reverberant location backstage. This turned out to be the stairwell leading to the now deserted TV room. “Oh well,” I thought. “I might as well see the first few minutes of the second half.” I found that Didi Hamann was on the field, as he should have been at the start, and that Liverpool were on the ball, looking far more organised. I pulled up a chair just in time to witness Steven Gerrard’s magnificent header.
I affected a nonchalant air and strolled back downstairs to indulge in the strange rituals and superstitious practices that precede every performance. “Well, they’ve made it look a bit more respectable,” I said, to no one in particular, as crew members hurried by in every direction. My stage manager called out “five minutes” and I decided to use two of them by taking another quick peek at the screen. It couldn’t hurt.
A member of the university staff was the only person in front of the television. He had a startled look on his face. The score read “3-2”. I heard someone bellowing down the stairwell, “HOLD ON” . . . and it was me.
The crew quickly deserted the stage and burst into the room just as Gerrard burst into the box and was flattened. You could see from Alonso’s eyes that he wouldn’t put away the penalty but he is 23 and much quicker to the goalkeeper’s parry than Milan’s veteran defenders. Unbelievably, Liverpool had levelled the score in just over five minutes. The members of the Imposters (my band) now joined the television audience. Collectively they know as much about football as I know about lacrosse. However, they tolerate my football-related monologues with the indulgence of an elderly aunt humouring an eight-year-old attempting to explain the mythology of Star Wars. Soon they were swept up in the drama.
When a substitute was seen pacing the touchline, doing menacing neck rolls like a boxer in a title fight, Pete Thomas, the drummer, let out a comic shriek of “Who is THAT?” I was inspired to a ludicrous bout of deadly serious Motson-like myth-making. “That is Djibril Cissé and he has recovered from a career-threatening double fracture of his leg in record time and he is destined to win this competition.”
Our American bass player, Davey Faragher, remarked that, with his dyed yellow hair and strange tattoos, Cissé looked more like a character from a superhero comic strip. Frankly, if the commentator had told us that he was part-amphibian and had webbed feet, it would have seemed quite credible then. However, by the time the striker was introduced, Liverpool’s most talented playmaker, Gerrard, was filling in at right back and García and Alonso seemed too exhausted to lift the ball over the head of Jaap Stam, who would have otherwise been left in the dust by Cissé’s astonishing acceleration.
Normal time concluded without a conclusive result and we could delay the show no longer. Steve Nieve, the pianist, who had just had the rules explained to him, confidently predicted that Liverpool would prevail in any penalty shoot-out. An ominous rumbling finally penetrated our theatre of football. We approached the stage to the sound of a slow handclap and catcalls. The promoter had spent the second half cowering backstage rather than taking responsibility for any coherent announcement explaining the ongoing situation. This was left to one of my soundmen, who is an Arsenal fan, and you know how they like to lie doggo and then win with the last kick of the game.
I can’t say that our entrance to the stage was greeted with wild acclaim. The lights finally went down and the booing actually increased. The lights came up and at first glance the people of Norfolk seemed to be divided into two sub-groups. Those who like to eat biscuits and go to bed early after a little light jiving and a handful of the kind of untamed flatlanders who are sometimes portrayed in Seventies horror films brandishing flaming torches at a lynching.
It had been suggested by my Chelsea-supporting friend that I might further ingratiate myself with a Norwich crowd by echoing the recent emotional outburst of Delia Smith. So my opening remark was “Let’s be having you” and I promptly received a glass of water across the neck of my guitar.
Now I have had many things thrown at me over the years but none of them has been less terrifying than half a glass of lukewarm water. At least it could have been some beer, preferably still in the bottle. I’ve had people seriously intent on killing me, and not just in the late Seventies, when a man wasn’t dressed without a hatchet in his head at couple of our more lively gigs. As recently as “Woodstock 3” , in 1999, Nieve and I faced down what looked like an irate mob of method actors auditioning for a remake of Apocalypse Now. Once the audience have their faces painted green and twigs in their hair, you know you are in deep trouble. Those crazy kids seemed to want to maim us for no other reason than that we were older than them. They were throwing full cans of lite beer and Diet Coke at us, but we pressed on regardless and managed to get out of town unscathed before they started to enact any of the more grisly scenes from Lord of the Flies.
Back in Norwich, it started to become apparent that some people had not got the message about the late start. The drunk who threw his glass of water was ejected by security but not before I identified him, in strictly literal terms, as “a tosser”, along with a couple of other adjectives that might have offended some Daily Mail readers, even if they are not usually that prominent at my shows, because I hate their guts. The offender was promptly taken outside and beaten to a pulp . . . by his girlfriend, who was angry about missing the show.
Once we got rolling, the boisterous start gave a different flavour to the show, although the Imposters played with their customary swagger and panache, not unlike the Liverpool team of the Hansen/Dalglish era. I tried my best to keep my eyes from the TV screen over the bar at the back of the room but the words “Oh s***, he’s missed” might have accidentally crept into the lyrics of Good Year for the Roses .
And suddenly it was all over. I could see people in the bar area punching the air and a rolling cheer overwhelmed the applause for Kinder Murder. Our security man, Paddy Callaghan, capered in the shadows at the edge of the stage with a balletic grace that belies his frame and this was all the confirmation I needed to cue You’ll Never Walk Alone, a song that we had never performed before as a band.
The audience took up the anthem like a mini-Kop and saluted the Liverpool victory with the massed illumination of their mobile phones. It was a bizarre and moving sight. I managed to make only a couple of football-related dedications during the rest of the two-hour set. I’m not sure that Benítez would really appreciate The Delivery Man but you can guess what I meant by it. We had already played I don’t want to go to Chelsea, so I couldn’t dedicate that one to Gerrard but we did end with The Scarlet Tide.
The next day I had to check the headlines to see that it wasn’t all some kind of crazy dream. Liverpool made the first edition and our antics made the late night final after a couple of “Angry of West Runton”-type people decided to get their names in the paper. Our promoter demanded £400 to compensate for the 16 souls who had asked for their money back, the cheap swine. He’s never had more publicity in his life. On the other hand, I was happy to offer free tickets for our next Norfolk show, if such a thing should ever occur, in the event that a ticket-holder had to catch the last bus home or relieve a baby-sitter.
Now I’ve seen kids wearing Liverpool shirts everywhere from Addis Ababa to Anfield and maybe, years from now, some of them may be able to reel off the names of this team, as I can still recite Lawrence, Lawler, Byrne, Strong, Yeats, Stevenson, Callaghan, Hunt, St John, Smith and Thompson. If so, they should start with the name of Jamie Carragher, even though Jerzy Dudek was the hero of the shoot-out.
Or maybe it will be another glorious trail that leads nowhere, like Houllier’s treble-winning season in 2001. Still, I wouldn’t trade that famous afternoon in Cardiff or one insane evening in Dortmund any more than all the Liverpool fans in Istanbul and around the world — which still includes Norwich, when I last checked — are ever likely forget last Wednesday night.
Bill Shankly’s famous aphorism, “Football isn’t a matter of life and death. It’s much more important than that”, was made macabre by a shameful night in Belgium 20 years ago and utterly stripped of its almost innocent power to inspire by the terrible crimes surrounding the Hillsborough disaster. Some of those crimes were committed with words in newsprint and they should never be forgotten or forgiven.
Football may not be more important than life and death but this match unexpectedly proved that, despite the greed, vanity and vile bigotry that lurks within and sometimes overwhelms the game today, it can still be magical, confounding and create a dramatic scenario that would be rejected as too fantastic if written as sports fiction. For those two hours or so it was certainly more important than rock and roll and getting to bed early.