I’d been at Heysel at the age of 17.
It was a dream – my first European Cup Final against Italian opposition and a continental flag-waving fan culture that was beginning to pervade the Liverpool scene – that turned into a nightmare. The game that night was a sham. All that resided was shame and regret.
When the draw for the 2005 quarter-finals paired Liverpool with Juventus, naturally the memories and emotions carried forward from that fateful day in Brussels May 1985 came flooding back.
The prospect of that perfect colour contrast of the all red of Liverpool opposing the black and white stripes of the Bianconeri was enough to enough to stir the passions, not to mention the possibility of a last four clash with Chelsea. But most of all, a chance to renew acquaintance and offer the hand of friendship on and off the football pitch 20 years on from Heysel seemed the ideal way to at least heal some of the wounds inflicted on Liverpool’s reputation.
Reality suggested that this was where the Reds’ European adventure would meet its end.
This was a Juventus team, managed by Fabio Capello, decorated with diverse talents of the world’s most expensive goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, cultured stoppers Lillian Thuram and Fabio Cannavaro, midfield guile of Pavel Nedved, the scheming Alessandro Del Piero and a mercurial Zlatan Ibrahimovic in his pomp.
The calibre of opposition made Juventus overwhelming favourites with only Benitez’s renowned organisational and tactical nous and the raucous backing of the Kop to Liverpool’s advantage.
Regardless of the result, of paramount importance was that, as a collective, Liverpool supporters could communicate a message of regret, of apology and of friendship to our visitors from Turin.
This was no time to be absolved from blame – after all, 14 fans had served prisons sentences for involuntary manslaughter – but instead to acknowledge that the actions of some of our followers contributed to the causes of the tragedy at Heysel.
In short, it was about building bridges through the shared language of football and saying sorry.
However, the atmosphere at the ground was edgy.
On the pitch Liverpool supporters paraded a black and white banner bearing the conciliatory message “Memoria e Amicizia” and the names of the Heysel victims.
Such detail was a painful reminder for both sets of supporters. Ian Rush, whose transfer to Juventus was thought to be an olive branch offered by Liverpool FC to the Turinese club, and former Juve icon, Michel Platini met in the centre circle carrying a plaque which echoed the message of memory and friendship between the clubs.
As the teams appeared, a particularly resonant renewal of You’ll Never Walk Alone filled the spring air, before giving way to a minutes silence in memory of the Juventus supporters who perished 20 years previously.
The Kop displayed a mosaic projecting the word Amicizia as the promise of an enthralling football match momentarily took a back seat.
Sadly, though understandably, the most fervent contingent of Juventus Ultras who gathered at the front of the Anfield Road Stand turned their backs on the ceremony, some shouting and making obscene gestures to cut the silence short.
The Kop’s attempt at reconciliation, shunned by significant Juventus minority, saw sentiments of regret and remembrance quickly traded for a visceral, tribal roar.
The decibels on an already electric night were elevated to a new plane amid acceptance that in football as in life, some wounds are difficult to mend. Unlike at Heysel, at least there was meaningful sporting contest to delve into while the festering sores of the past remained largely unhealed.
Buoyed by a seething crowd, Liverpool’s makeshift line-up tore into Juventus from the off. Normally unflappable technicians; Cannavaro, Mauro Camoranesi, Nedved and Del Piero were reduced to jibbering wrecks as a rabid crowd fed off Liverpool’s energy.
In the 10th minute, Steve Finnan advancing from full-back, pick-pocketed Del Piero and set the marauding Baros away into the right channel to win another corner. Gerrard’s outswinger was expertly flicked across Buffon’s goal by Luis Garcia into the path of an unmarked Sami Hyypia who showed the precision of a striker in netting with an exquisitely controlled left-foot volley from six yards.
As The Fields of Anfield Road and the signature anthem of this European odyssey Ring of Fire were hollered from the stands, Juve continued to choke in possession in the face of Liverpool’s onslaught. The habitually serene Thuram, with time to dwell, wellied high into the Main Stand and Camoranesi blazed a cross-field ball into the patrons of the Centenary Stand.
After a wasteful start, the inventive Garcia’s influence was growing and on 25 minutes he produced a shred of brilliance that in the swing of a left boot had Kopites rubbing their eyes in disbelief. If there was a single moment in this campaign that changed Liverpool’s mentality from hope to expectation, this was it.
A neat interchange between Finnan, Biscan and Le Tallec saw the French teenager’s lobbed pass – intended for the run of Baros – seized upon by the petite Spaniard.
As the ball bounced, with Buffon marginally off his line, Garcia battered an arcing 30 yard screamer beyond the flailing arms of the immaculately groomed keeper into the roof of the net. “What a goal. What a night!” screamed Clive Tyldesley on ITV’s live feed. Anfield was in tumult as Garcia peeled away in trademark thumb-sucking fashion, as if celebrating Liverpool’s European rebirth.
The rest of course is history. Liverpool went on to win 2-1 and survive a nerve-shredding second leg to prevail.
Chelsea were repelled in the semis and the Miracle of Istanbul crowned the epic tale.
But that Garcia goal, still unbeaten for beauty, still unrivalled for the belief it instilled, still unequalled for the awe with which it was celebrated gave us a football moment that was tragically 20 years too late.
*Odds are subject to change