A chance to be heroes
The Champions League final was the football story of 2005. In this extract from his book, A Season on the Brink, Guillem Balague talks to all the key men in the Liverpool dressing room about what happened at half-time, the men who, in 15 minutes, amazingly persuaded a team who had traipsed off the pitch in despair to pull off the most stunning triumph in the European Cup's 50-year history
Sunday December 18, 2005
European Cup final. Ataturk Stadium, Istanbul. 25 May 2005. Seven minutes left in the first half. Milan, already 1-0 up through a Paolo Maldini goal in the first minute, launch a counterattack with Liverpool distracted by an appeal for handball in the Milan area. Kaka sweeps forward, feeds Andrei Shevchenko on the right, his cross is turned in by Hernan Crespo at the far post...
'I immediately started to note down in my handbook what we were going to do in order to overturn a 2-0 deficit,' recalls the Liverpool manager, Rafa Benitez. 'My thoughts at that time were that we were still alive in the game. I reckoned that at only 2-0, just one goal in your favour can grab you the momentum. But of course while I was busily writing down my notes Milan went and scored their third.' Sure enough, two minutes before half-time, Kaka evaded Steven Gerrard and played a wonderful ball forward to Crespo, who chipped Jerzy Dudek. Milan 3 Liverpool 0.
'Kaka played a magnificent first half,' says the Milan midfielder Gennaro Gattuso. 'With the football we had produced, it crossed my mind the final could become another "Athens", like that 4-0 that Milan produced against Barcelona in 1994. We really thought this could become a big goal-scoring match because we don't have the usual Italian mentality. The match would have died if we closed the doors, if we decided to defend, but that is not what Milan is about.'
What happened next?
Lee Marten (fan at the Liverpool end): 'When Crespo put number three away, Turkish lira notes of varying denominations began to cascade down on us from a supporter in the upper section. This guy had obviously seen enough and must have just thrown away all his money in disgust. Quite a few people around us went away richer than when they arrived. A friend of mine reckons he managed to salvage the equivalent of about £50. I came away with a 10 lire note, which was on the floor between my feet.'
Paco Herrera (Liverpool Chief Scout): 'In football everything is just a repeat of something which has happened before. The key thing is to understand what you've done wrong and learn not to repeat errors. So when they score a second goal against you and then a third with similar mistakes, you reckon that it's all going to end in tears. Truthfully, at a time like that, it takes a moment or two to start assimilating what has happened and what to do about it because you are so pissed off.'
Gennaro Gattuso: 'I went to the changing rooms mad with rage because I had seen Andrea Pirlo doing a nutmeg just before the break. I let everybody know that was definitively not the way, that we couldn't forget there was 45 minutes to play'
Djimi Traore: 'Leaving the pitch, I thought, "It's dead, it's finished."'
Jamie Carragher: 'Walking to the dressing room, I was thinking about the supporters, my family and the great name of Liverpool. It was embarrassing, really. In a cup final, normally, no matter if you're the worst or best team, it's always a tight, tense game, 1-0 or whatever, no matter who's playing. To be 3-0 down at half-time in a cup final was embarrassing for us and for the name of the club. I didn't want it to go to 5-0 or 6-0. At this point, some of my mates were getting text messages from Evertonians.'
Rafa Benitez: 'I walked into the dressing room rehearsing what I was going to say to them, but also how I was going to say it. It's really difficult to come up with all the things you want to say in a foreign language. It's five minutes thinking about the tactics and changes. I was walking down the tunnel trying to find the right English words.'
Djimi Traore: 'It is not in the English mentality to gloat if you are 3-0 up during the game. In England you learn that you stay focused till it's over. But that night the Italians "enjoyed" themselves too much at half-time. I saw different things, clapping, hugging, as if they had already won the game. I never said they were actually celebrating, but I saw signs.'
Xabi Alonso: 'Celebrations? I didn't hear any.'
Rick Parry (Liverpool Chief Executive): 'It's a good story, but it doesn't sound like Milan at all. You can see some clubs doing that, but Milan are a proper club, professional and respectful. I mean, I wasn't down there, but obviously I was surprised at that being said.'
Paolo Maldini: 'We are experienced players and there were no celebrations in the dressing room during the interval. We are a side that accepts the result on the pitch. But we do not accept what Traore was reported to have said, which was given a lot of prominence.'
Carlo Ancelotti (Milan Coach): 'To see that story published hurt more than the defeat. Our captain has denied it and deserves to be listened to because he's an example of loyalty all over the world. Our dressing room was completely separate from Liverpool's.'
Gennaro Gattuso: 'It's an insult to hear someone, whose name I don't remember, say that people like Maldini or Costacurta were celebrating at half-time. In fact, Ancelotti in the half-time team talk said he was worried and talked about continuing playing together, with the same intensity, just as it happened in the first half, because if an English team scores a goal, with their support, that leaves the game open again. I love English fans, they can help you change the most impossible situations.'
Rafa Benitez: 'People told me that the Italians did make some comments among themselves. But I didn't hear the gloating that some have spoken about.'
Jamie Carragher: 'No I never heard anything. I think the media jump on things and make a big deal out of them. I don't know if Djimi heard something but I certainly didn't. We're talking about a top professional team. I can't see them doing that. Although I heard Gattuso was meant to have done something when he came back out, gesturing to their fans or something? Anyway, who could blame them? I would have been doing cartwheels myself with 3-0 at half-time.'
Steven Gerrard: 'When we got to the dressing room, my mind went walkabout. I was sitting head-in-hands. All sorts of things were going through my head. It was weird.'
Rafa Benitez: 'We had talked on the way to the changing rooms about what we were going to change and how to cheer the players on. Problem is it is already tough enough motivating a team losing 3-0 when I'm speaking in my native Spanish - in English it is much, much tougher. But we had already talked so much about what to expect in this match and how to deal with either a positive or negative turn in the game that the words came more easily to me than I could have hoped for. You cannot plan for the extreme, though, so the most important aspect was to lift their spirits after such a situation. So I started with a motivational speech to get them fired up.
'I demanded that they start working again and try to solve some of our problems. I emphasised that there were still 45 minutes left and, above all, we had to come off the pitch proud of ourselves at the final whistle because we had done, literally, everything within our power. I reminded them that it had been a hard, hard battle to reach such a massive game and that we owed something pretty important to all the Liverpool people around the world but most particularly in the stadium who were expecting much more from us than what we'd shown so far. I told them that if we scored a goal then we would totally change the course of the game. They had to understand that the key to turning everything back in our favour was to score that first goal... and quickly. I emphasised that this was the most important challenge they faced. I've seen posters that have been printed and pinned up on pub walls in Liverpool, which claim to have my exact speech set down word for word. Well, even I can't remember exactly, but I said something like it. It was the general idea anyway ...'
The pub version is:
Don't let your heads drop.
All the players who go on the pitch after half-time have to keep their heads held high.
We are Liverpool, you are playing for Liverpool
Do not forget that.
You have to hold your heads high for the supporters.
You have to do it for them.
You cannot call yourselves Liverpool players if you have your heads down.
If we create a few chances we have the possibility of getting back into this.
Believe you can do it and we will.
Give yourselves the chance to be heroes.
Rick Parry: 'I don't think his speech was Churchillian or anything massively inspirational. That's not Rafa's style. He is still a leader for sure, but he's not generally one to shout. He is more tactical. He focuses on people's jobs and things that have to be done, rather than on grand emotional exhortations. He'll say, "Hang on, you are good players, let's change things." He gives people confidence. You don't have to shout to do that.'
Xabi Alonso: 'Rafa didn't raise his voice at all. All he said was that we had 45 minutes left and he was automatically looking for tactical solutions which would help us in the second half. Nobody got blamed, nobody got a bollocking.'
Rafa Benitez: 'After giving them this motivation talk I started to write the new team formation on the whiteboard. I told Traore that he had to get changed and that Hamman was coming on for him.'
Djimi Traore: 'I took my boots off after I was told I was not going back on.'
Pako Ayestaran (Liverpool Assistant Manager): 'We had to achieve two things. First we had to change the pattern in the middle of midfield where Milan were doing the most damage. So we had to put on a player who could hold a good line and control the flow of the ball. Since we hadn't had enough power and movement in that area it was obvious to go for Didi Hamman. The second thing was a basic - the players had to believe in themselves again. If Rafa has to give somebody a bollocking he'll do it and when he has to bawl and shout he'll do that, too. But it's rare. Above all, he is an analytical man. These types of situations call for more than just hammering the players until your aggression and your attack on them gets their character and spirit going again. We had to convince the players that the situation was merely a result of our errors and the fact that Milan had taken advantage of them so well.
'We needed to examine the problem, come up with an answer and then make the players both understand it and believe in it. From then on it would be vital to score a goal within the first 10 or 15 minutes after the break.'
Jamie Carragher: 'The next big commotion was that the boss had brought Djimi Traore off. Djimi had his boots off and was just about to get in the shower, when the physio, Dave Galley, announced that Finnan was injured.'
Paco Herrera: 'The physio told us that Stevie Finnan was injured and shouldn't go back out but the player thought otherwise and demanded to carry on. He was very upset and screamed he wanted to stay on. Being the boss, Rafa needed to take a speedy decision.'
Jamie Carragher: 'Finnan could have carried on because he'd had that injury before the game, but just out of the blue the manager said, "No, we're changing. I'd have to take him off in 20 minutes anyway." So he took him off, and Traore stayed on. The physio probably played a bigger role in the changes than the manager.'
Paco Herrera: 'All of this happened in the first six or seven minutes of the break. There were a load of changes and a lots of commotion.'
Vladimir Smicer: 'It was pretty chaotic for a few moments in there. I was asking, "What do I have to do boss? Where will I be playing? Am I going to be playing wide? Will I be the right-back, or what?" Then we realised that the boss had written his second-half scheme with 12 players in the team.'
Rafa Benitez: 'Yeah, it was a total mess for a while. After I gave the speech, I first wrote on the board that Traore was coming off and Hamann on. First I took Didi up to the whiteboard so he understood what I wanted from him and then, after telling Didi to go and warm up with Pako outside, I explained the tactical changes to the rest of the side. During my explanations, and with Hamann outside, I was told that Finnan was injured. We were about to leave the dressing room and everybody else was getting up and walking around. "Come on boys!" someone screamed. Then I was reckoning on Cisse on the right side of midfield, which I had put on the board. But someone told me, "No, boss, if Hamann is coming on and Kewell has already been replaced then, bringing someone else on would leave you with no more substitutions." I agreed. I never make three replacements at half-time, it mortgages your future. So all of a sudden I had Cisse and Hamann written on the board, but I had taken only Finnan off. It's true, I had left 12 players in the team! So I took Cisse out of the line-up, but I also deleted Luis Garcia from the board because I wanted to move him to another position in the formation. All of a sudden I had 10 players in the team!
'With Finnan on the pitch the idea was to play 3-4-2-1 with Riise tucked in a bit deeper. But then, with the realisation that Finnan was not fit to stay on, the logical thing was to tell Traore that he wasn't being taken off. He had the boots off and was on his way to the shower. One of our major offensive problems in the first half had been the fact that we weren't threatening in and around their penalty box. So our idea was to change that pattern by using two players in the hole between midfield and Baros, who was in the centre-forward role on his own.
'The vital tasks for these two support strikers was to produce terrific movement, which helped us creatively but which also put massive pressure on them building the play out of defence through Pirlo in particular. If we prevented that then we guessed that it would slam the brakes on the damaging work which Gattuso and Seedorf, but most of all Kaka, were doing further up the pitch. The next point was that using three centre-halfs needed to make us much more secure at the back by staying tight on the runs of their twin strikers. Meanwhile Hamann also had the role of making Kaka's life much tougher for him. You can try anything in a match, tactically, so long as you've worked hard on such ideas in training and we had done.'
Paco Herrera: 'The tactical change was explained and we told the players not to storm out there and lose their heads in the first few moments. Then one of us pointed out that we needed some sort of extra rallying point, something to lift the spirits and help the team believe that winning was still possible. Not so much a chat, as Rafa had already said what he needed to say, but a pick-me-up. There were too many players who were as groggy as a boxer after being flattened by a sucker punch. The team desperately needed some kind of rallying call. Then it came. "Hey! Come on, remember the night we were losing 1-0 to Olympiakos at half-time and then we stormed out and scored three goals in the second half? So why not tonight - why not do it again?"As soon as that was said, one of the players picked up on it and started to urge everyone on in the right way, and little by little you could see and hear everyone's spirits rising.'
Rafa Benitez: 'Normally it's Xabi or Carra or Gerrard who'll be shouting "Come on boys" as an encouragement when it's needed. But in those first few minutes at half-time there wasn't really any of that from them. Only in the last couple of moments before going out did the animation and the noise hit a more normal level.'
Pako Ayestaran: 'When we came out, the fans applauded and we heard the sound of "You'll Never Walk Alone" echoing around. These fans have a deep belief - they have faith in the team and bring a tremendous boost of energy. They are more than just fans.'
David Moores (Liverpool Chairman): 'I was distraught at half-time and my main concern was for the fans. They had come all this way and I thought, "Christ, I hope we put on a better performance in the second half."'
John Aldridge (spent half-time in the press canteen): 'At that stage I wished I could have gone home. It was such an anticlimax, I was thinking, "I can't watch." I felt sick in my stomach - all that way just to be humiliated.'
Kenny Dalglish (at this stage, on his way home): 'We all thought that was that. No one thought we had a prayer. I was so glum I left the pub where I was watching the match in Formby to see the second half at home.'
Rick Parry: 'The fans were very low. We heard all the comments, and some fans left. But there came a moment when they started rallying and saying, "No, we can still do something. Let's score a goal, let's make it respectable, but let's go out with our tails up."'
Tony Barrett (Correspondent for the Liverpool Echo): 'I saw people crying at half-time. All of the guys from the same pub, the Holt in Kensington, left the stadium, they just couldn't stand it any more. Others, I'd say 40 more, went, but, after the start of the second half, tried to go back in. Amazingly they were allowed to enter the stadium.'
Sir Michael Bibby (a fan, at the Liverpool end): 'I decided to teach the words of "You'll Never Walk Alone" to a Turkish friend of mine who was seated with us. That is why I was singing it. We all thought it was a good joke when, before the start of the second half people chanted, "We're going to win 4-3, we're going to win 4-3."'
Xabi Alonso: 'From the dressing room we simply couldn't hear anything that was going on with the fans. Everyone has told me about how the support was getting behind us during the break but I have to say I didn't hear a thing.'
Rafa Benitez: 'I didn't hear "You'll Never Walk Alone" from the dressing room. On the way out to the pitch I did hear it, but I was totally within my own thoughts.'
Chris Bascombe (Liverpool Echo): 'When "You'll Never Walk Alone" began it appeared to all like an old friend in an unbearable scene. It was the closest you'd get to Liverpool's followers unifying in collective prayer. But really, although the sound had stunned the AC Milan fans, the line about "hope in your heart" sounded hollow. It was not a rip-roaring rally cry. It was the fans' way of telling their players we know we're going to get battered, but thanks for the trip anyway.'
Jose Manuel Ochotorena (Liverpool Goalkeeping Coach): 'On our way out to the pitch I heard one of their subs, I'm not certain who it was, saying, "Let's see if we can play a bit of football now and enjoy the final." I was walking out behind Gattuso and Nesta who were saying that the match was "already won" and that all they needed to do was knock the ball about and keep hold of possession.'
Gennaro Gattuso: 'When I came back on to the pitch, I felt the atmosphere had changed completely. Italian fans are so different to the English, they have a different mentality. And I made a gesture to my fans to wake them up - it was not a victory sign. They weren't singing!'
Chris Bascombe (Liverpool Echo): 'Then Steven Gerrard reappeared to a roar which would have made anyone arriving late believe it was still 0-0. Seconds later, as a means of clarification, the Kop-on-tour sang, "We're gonna win 4-3".'
Jose Manuel Ochotorena: 'On the way out to the bench Paco Herrera told me, "If we get one goal then we are right back in this."'
Adapted from A Season on the Brink - Rafael Benitez, Liverpool and the path to European Glory by Guillem Balague (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £16.99)