Tales From A Shaking Matthew Harding Upper

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 14 April 2009.

In some ways, I am tempted to keep this a really brief one and – tried and tested football cliché coming up – let the football do the talking for me.

What an incredible, pulsating game of football. If anyone of us live to see a richer example of a sporting contest, we should feel very blessed.

I had to pull a few tricks to get away from work at 4.15pm. However, I soon ran into trouble – an eleven mile tailback on the eastbound M4. For an hour or so, I was convinced that I would get in late…very late in fact. In the first 90 minutes, I had covered just 40 miles. Luckily, I had my wits about me and diverted south at Marlborough and was back on the M4 at 6pm. As I drove past Heathrow, Radio Five’s Mike Ingham was reporting from The Bridge with the great news that Steven Gerrard wasn’t even on the bench. I forwarded this info to a few people and two replied exactly the same way…

“Sweet.”

Believe it or not, I parked up at 7.15pm, and – programmes purchased, rush, rush, rush – I entered the seating area with the Liverpool players hovering over the ball at kick-off. I sat down and the game began. Perfect timing. The place was buzzing from the start. How familiar those Liverpool scarlet red banners are. This was the twenty-fourth time the two teams had met since the start of the 2004-2005 season. By any stretch, that’s a lot of familiar contempt. Arriving so late, I had no time to acquaint myself with the team. I had to grasp at some notion of who was where. Riccy in for JT, a solid midfield, Malouda and Kalou. What fates would befall us all over the next two hours? Well, we didn’t have to wait long.

A free-kick, not sure why…all eyes on Torres, offside, onside, offside, onside, leading Ivanovic a merry dance. The focus was towards that cluster of players on the penalty spot. Then Arbeloa’s strike and Cech woefully beaten at the near post. Game on.

Chelsea struggled in the first-half…we weren’t at it. Despite a head cold, I was bellowing at the midfield who were allowing the visitors untold space. We all agreed Drogba should have been carded for rolling – “injured” – back onto the pitch. What a loon. Then, an intelligent ball was played into the box – right in the danger area, but Cech gathered. Relief. Then – NO! – the referee pointed to the spot. We were dumbfounded. Alonso scored the penalty and my jaw dropped. This was a horror story being enacted right in front of us all. I glanced at the Scousers celebrating. It was a terrible sight.

All was doom and gloom at the break. I chatted to a few fans and we were doubting our ability to limit the damage to just two. We began the second-half in much the same manner. One particularly poor passage of play left us fuming…miss-placed back-passes, balls being miss-controlled, no unity. Then the ball found Anelka just as I commented to Alan about “the one way to get our confidence back is to run for everything and work harder.” Bless him – Anelka must have heard me. He held off a challenge and played in a great ball, hard and low. Drogba was lurking – in fact, his run was perfectly timed. To my eyes, Reina appeared to palm the ball into the net.

Mayhem – oh you beauty. We all got up and yelled our support. I gathered myself and reached down for my camera and took a few telephoto shots of Drogba, alone, yelling at the MHU to get behind the team…he was in his element. That posturing gait we all know. With the crowd rejuvenated, we got back into the game and our confidence grew. A Drogba free-kick flashed past the goal.

Soon after, it was Alex’s turn. I held the camera still and caught him in mid air, just after the ball was smacked. It flew into the net and the stadium bounced. I took nine photos of the players collapsing in a beautiful pile on the pitch right in front of me.

Carnage. What a game. It was now 5-3 on aggregate and we heaved a collective sigh.

Now the crowd was rocking. The noise thundered around the four stands and it was a bloody lovely sight. The Shed were singing “One Man Went To Mow” and even the West Lower was animated. A lovely shuffle from Malouda made us all gasp – was that really happening? Then, as memory serves, a sublime reverse ball from Ballack found Lampard. I can’t remember exactly what happened, but Frank scored a third. He came over to celebrate on the same piece of turf where he had pointed to the sky after the penalty against the same team in the semis last year. More photos. As Frank pointed skywards again, I crouched down on the steps and felt myself “going.” I wiped away a tear.

Bloody hell – don’t do this to me. What a game – what emotion. I was right…words simply cannot do it justice.

“We’re going to Rome, we’re going to Rome – F your history, we’re going to Rome.”

Soon after, Drogba unselfishly set up Ballack, but the shot was weak. Amongst the goals going in, a few of us had to be reminded of the score…and what the aggregate was. Get that abacus out, boys.

At this point, I wryly noted that the Liverpool fans had changed their tune. Instead of talking of cup glory, they were singing about “winning the league.”

“Yeah, you won’t win that either!”

Yet more drama and a deflected shot made it 3-3. For there to be so many goals was sensational. I was getting texts from the most unlikely of people. Our good friend Tom – who had a heart attack after the semi-final last May – had decided that enough was enough. He left his seat. I wished him a safe trip home to Sutton and watched him head out just as a Kuyt header made it 3-4.

The Liverpool support erupted again.

For a few moments, the highly unlikely ( after the first game, then at 3-2 a mere ten minutes earlier ) was now looking a possibility. I think it was at this moment that we all aged ten years.

NO!

Then, more Chelsea pressure and another Lampard effort. This really is a blur, but I have a memory of the ball coming off a post or the bar or maybe Peter Osgood’s leg. Who knows? And there was Frank, running away once again, this time towards the West Lower, followed by Malouda and then Ash.

Another point heavenwards towards his dear mother.

Alan and myself were gasping for breath and struggling to find the right words to describe what we had just witnessed.

“Best Champions League game ever. Bar none.”

Daryl joined us – I think he had been in The Shed, but couldn’t take much more and so he decided to come and join us for the last few seconds. Approaching the final whistle, the white and blue flags came out and the place was at its photogenic best.

Click. Click. Click.

The shrill sound of the whistle and then a familiar sound.

“One Step Beyond!”

I was one of the last few to leave the stadium. My eyes were moist and I knew that I had witnessed one of the greatest games I could ever wish to see. Another cliché coming up – it was like a heavyweight boxing match…each brave team slugging it out, exchanging punches. This had to be one of my all-time favourites…in fact, the game at Anfield last week was in my top ten. This one had to be in the top two or three. Maybe the best ever.

I briefly dipped into The Goose on the slow, trance-like, walk back to the car. I attempted to have a meaningful chat with a few friends, but for some reason my brain let me down and all I could utter was a lot of banal babble such as “what a game.” I had been sapped of all strength and intelligence, including the art of communication. I had a little chuckle to myself.

“Go home, Chris.”

I left London at 10.15pm. The texts from everywhere slowly subsided and I drove, silently, peacefully, home, totally mesmerized by this wonderful game of ours. Let’s not fool ourselves, there were many defensive frailties in the game, but sometimes you just have to stand back, take a deep breath, and thank our lucky stars for such a monumental match.

Phew.

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