Anfield's new American regime chose a perfect night for a first taste of European glory.
The changing of the guard went almost unnoticed amid the thunderous din which greeted Liverpool's eventual progress last night, although those who will shape the club's future could not help but be swept along by the ferocity of this occasion. Up in the directors' box, George Gillett and Tom Hicks sat entranced by the football phenomenon. "I've seen a lot of sporting events all around the world," said Hicks, "but nothing comes close to that."
Even in defeat, their first taste of a game as co-owners of the "Liverpool Reds" could not have been more enthralling on a momentous night in more ways than one. As the hosts scrambled into the quarter-finals, dethroning Barcelona en route, power was symbolically changing hands in the boardroom. Gillett and Hicks had already purchased some 62.2% of the club's shares and anticipate securing a 75% stake by March 12, a financial commitment effectively amounting to £435m. But, with the side not due to play at Anfield again until the visit of Arsenal on March 31, this was also David Moores' last match as chairman and, therefore, the end of an era.
Moores had seen it as a chance "to go out with a bang". It might have become a whimper after Eidur Gudjohnsen hauled the Catalans level on aggregate. Yet, for all that it was excruciating, this remained a game to savour even as Barcelona pushed for the decisive goal. As those around them chewed on their fingernails through the final exchanges, the Americans simply lapped it up.
Already, their investment appears enticing. The pair had emerged into the directors' box some 15 minutes before kick-off to be struck by the wall of noise already flung down by the Kop. They have spent the past 20 years accumulating sports clubs across North America, but had now ventured into new territory. Gillett had stood dumbstruck during the bellowed pre-match rendition of You'll Never Walk Alone, and again when it rang out in stoppage-time. "That was like nothing I've ever seen or heard," he said in the aftermath. The deafening noise also had his co-owner beaming in disbelief.
They had watched the first leg from a Canadian ski resort, and Saturday's defeat by Manchester United from the Rangers' spring training camp in Phoenix. Satellite television coverage could not have done those games justice. There was more to enjoy in the flesh, even if frustration lingered that a lead was never gleaned. Liverpool had had 10 shots by the time Barcelona mustered their first, a horribly awkward volley spooned over the bar by Ronaldinho met with howls of derision from the stands. The millionaires erupted in laughter at the crowd's reaction.
"Will I always have this much fun when I come to Anfield?" asked Hicks. "I'd heard so much about the fans, but that was spectacular. The Kop was just special." Twice in the first half the party in the directors' box joined the fans by rising as one as John Arne Riise and then Mohamed Sissoko rattled the Barcelona bar. Quite how Craig Bellamy, Dirk Kuyt and Riise were denied by Victor Valdes and Carles Puyol was a mystery.
But there were messages to heed in such profligacy. Liverpool have now lost their last two home games 1-0, despite generating a glut of opportunities. The first time the Americans demonstrate their clout in the transfer market, it will surely be to sign a striker. "Everyone involved with Liverpool wants to be the very best," said Hicks. "The new stadium's going to be very critical to that. People tell me about Chelsea's spending, but the team east of here [United] is the club we have our eye on. They've been competitive over a long period of time and that's what Liverpool has the opportunity to do."
That much had not escaped Moores. "The only regret is that we never won the Premiership under my chairmanship, but with the new owners I'm sure the club can win No19 soon," said Liverpool's chairman of 16 years. "In football nowadays, it's not enough to be rich. You need to be super-rich to own a club as big as Liverpool. I feel I'm leaving it in safe hands. I know I got the best possible deal."
It earned him £88m for his 51.6% stake. "But I made the decision for the good of the club, not myself," he insisted. "You have to think about the next 50 years. I told the Barcelona president, Joan Laporta, that I couldn't have picked a better game with which to bow out. Maybe it was meant to be this way."
He could have done with a goal to calm his nerves. His head was in his hands when Ronaldinho wriggled away and fired against a post, and then again when Gudjohnsen eked out a reward. Moores could hardly watch even if the new guard remained transfixed, perhaps still attempting to comprehend the away-goal rule. Drunk on the atmosphere, the last word was left to Hicks: "I wouldn't want to draw us in the next round. Would you?"
Copyright - The Guardian