It’s the early evening of 19th April 2015 and I’m walking home from Kingsbury tube station. The sun is on my back and summer is on the way, but my heart is heavy.
I pull my phone out of my pockets and press the necessary digits to find young Sachin Nakrani with whom I am writing the book ‘We’re Everywhere, Us’ – a tome so magnificent that it still resonates in the Red world despite being three seasons old (will sign copies for cash). We had agreed that I would cover the game that we have both witnessed.
I wish I hadn’t.
Aston Villa 2 Liverpool 1 – The F.A. Cup semi-final. Wembley. 3pm kick off. That one.
Half an hour earlier the journalist Rory Smith had tried to cajole me about how life wasn’t that bad. I honestly think he was worried about me lasting the night. I wasn’t too sure myself.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen Liverpool at their very worst as well as at their best, but as I poured my heart out to Sach on the phone this felt different. A year earlier I saw Philippe Coutinho stab in the winner against Man City – a goal which more or less put us in the box-seat for the league title. Weeks later Steven Gerrard was within twenty yards of me when gravity brought that dream to an end. That was the level we were at just a year earlier. Now we were being beaten without laying a glove on a terrible side. That was tough to take. Too tough.
‘If we can’t beat that shite, what are we doing here?’ I squeaked to my co-editor.
Football always brings out the philosopher in a supporter. At one end its talk of unity beating talent; on others it’s the endless drudge of season after woeful season somehow mirroring the futility of life.
That day Liverpool were without ideas. Seven midfielders took the field in places where other clubs had forwards and defenders. Our strikers sat on the bench, perplexed. The manager played three different formations in the first half alone. None of them worked. We were shit.
Five weeks later we went to Stoke and shipped five goals in 23 first half minutes.
Liverpool were back at square one. Again. We would need to rebuild. Another five year plan.
Three years and a week later, Liverpool briefly took a 5-0 lead in the European Cup semi-final.
Three years and a week.
From that to this.
Of course the two late Roma goals take the shine off it a little, but only a tad. Most Reds would wake up the following day and remember that we have just scored five times against a side who are equally worthy of being in the last four of Europe’s premier competition.
I’m old enough to remember all but two of Liverpool’s semi-final encounters (I was minus three years old when Inter Milan cheated Shankly in ‘65) and at no point did we score five. The closest came in 1984 when Liverpool beat Panathinaikos 4-0 at Anfield, but that was a different age. We all knew we’d go through to the final before a ball was kicked.
This Liverpool side can do that now. They can go toe to toe with strong teams and plan for fifth goals.
And it’s not just about Mo or the front three. Jordan Henderson, a man constantly maligned for a fondness for square and backward passes, gave the Roman midfield hell. James Milner took the piss out every football manual ever written while Gini Wijnaldum took the forward midfield position like he’d been teaching it on tour.
But it would be foolish not to mention the three lads up top. Mo Salah gets under their skin with the best strike of the season and then follows it up with a simple stroll through their defence before lifting the ball over one of the best keepers to come to Anfield in a long time.
People have suggested that we went off the boil when he went off, but it was 5-0 at that point. I’d have kept him on. Mind you, I wanted an 11-0 win.
In the next week there will be talk of how we’ve blown the tie thanks to the two Italian goals, but their first takes a hell of a finish from Dzeko and I’ve still no idea how Milner is supposed to stop a ball ricocheting against his arm from his own thigh. It was never a penalty. Roma were allowed back in due to a generous decision. No more.
And, yes, they did beat Nike 3-0 when they needed to, but the Catalans were shell-shocked, thinking that the tie was over. Liverpool know what to expect next Wednesday night and will have the right armour on. Barcelona were not looking for a plan to stop the inevitable happening. Liverpool know better than anyone that there can be no shortcuts.
What’s more Roma will have to come and play. They can’t control the ball and wait for us to tire. They’ll have to go for the throat and commit men forward as City did in the second half at the Etihad in the last round. That’s great. So much space to let the World Player of the Decade to run into.
We may need a goal to go through. Last night we got five.
You know, in some ways, those goals may do us a favour. Liverpool do on occasion get above themselves when things go well and we need a lesson in humility to keep those boots on the Anfield turf.
Liverpool will not take anything for granted in the Italian capital. Roma may not expect to take anything at all.
Three years and one week, my friends. That’s how fast you can sweep from one extreme to another with this club.
Who wants granular progress anyway? Who doesn’t enjoy a rollercoaster?
Three years and a week.