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Thirty years of pain, ended

28 August 2020

On 28 April 1990, my beloved Liverpool Football Club won the English football championship for the 18th time, with a team headlined by the magnificent Kenny Dalglish that also included stars such as Ian Rush, Alan Hansen and John Barnes.

In many other respects, 1990 was a great year for me. In early summer I started a new job, my son had been born the year before, I was still getting used to the collapse of Communism in the country of my birth and the rest of Eastern Europe…a year full of hope and optimism. The Liverpool championship was the icing on the cake, and of course winning championships was something we Liverpool supporters were used to and almost took for granted.

The years went by, and new powers such as Manchester United and later Chelsea and Manchester City emerged. Liverpool remained one of the top teams, and they won a number of trophies during the next decades, including the FA Cup, the Champions League (that memorable Miracle in Istanbul in 2005), the UEFA Cup, the League Cup…but not the league. Each season they just did not have the staying power or the luck or the consistency or whatever to win the championship over the course of 38 matches. They came second on several occasions, most painfully in 2014, when the arguably greatest Liverpool player of all times, Steven Gerrard, slipped in a home match against Chelsea, allowing Chelsea’s Demba Ba to score on the way to a 0-2 defeat which effectively ended Liverpool’s chances of winning the championship that year.

In October 2015, Jürgen Klopp arrived at Anfield. He had been a successful manager in his native Germany, and now he came to take Liverpool to the Promised Land. It was not instant. Liverpool made it to the final of the Champions League in 2018 where they lost to Real Madrid. The 2018-2019 campaign was the best in many years, and Liverpool, with their pressing, relentless, magnificent style of play, dominated most of the other teams in the Premier League–as did Manchester City, unfortunately. These two teams were far superior to the rest, but Manchester City turned out just a tiny bit more superior and won the championship by one point. The disappointment was made somewhat less painful by Liverpool’s performance in the Champions League: the 4-0 win over Barcelona at Anfield in the semifinal second leg to erase the 3-0 loss at Nou Camp the week before, followed by the win over Tottenham in the final. But still…I had to resign myself to another year of waiting.

Then came the 2019-2020 season. Liverpool just continued at the same level as the year before. Manchester City did not (they ended up losing an unheard-of 9 matches during the season), and by Christmas Liverpool was 8 points ahead in first place. After the New Year, things got better and better. Finally, on 29 February, Liverpool proved to be human after all, suffering their first loss of the season, to Watford (!). By then, though, they were 22 points ahead at the top of the table, and it was only a matter of time before the championship would be theirs and my 30-year wait would be over.

But then…on 13 March, the Premier League was suspended indefinitely due to the Covid19 pandemic. It was unclear whether the season would be finished later, or simply be cancelled as happened in some other countries, for example the Netherlands. It was almost too much to bear. My Liverpool were 25 points clear with just 9 matches left to play, and all this could be for nothing!

After three anxious months, the season was re-started in June, with empty stadiums and some new rules (5 substitutions per match, a short drinks break midway through each half). It all felt strange. But the football was back and it was real. Liverpool came back with a disappointing 0-0 draw against Everton on 21 June, but this was followed by a 4-0 win over Crystal Palace three days later, which meant that the title would be ours if Chelsea took points off Manchester City on 26 June. How ironic! – the same Chelsea that cost us the championship in 2014 could now give it us in 2020.

In the evening on 26 June I settled down in front of the TV to watch Chelsea-Manchester City. It is the kind of match I would watch anyway–two good teams–but this time it was special because of what was at stake. In the 36th minute, Chelsea went ahead on a great goal by their American player Christian Pulisic. With the halftime score 1-0, I was beginning to think…could it happen tonight? But then, 10 minutes into the second half, Manchester City equalised, thanks to their Belgian superstar Kevin de Bruyne, definitely one of the best players in the world. At that point, I fully expected City to complete the comeback, leaving it for another day for Liverpool to win its title. But in the 75th minute of the match, Manchester City defender Ferdandinho handled the ball, a penalty was awarded, and Chelsea now led 2-1. Fifteen minutes left. Ten minutes left. I began to realise that this was it. Manchester City were not going to score twice in those remaining 10 minutes. My daughter was with me in the living room, and she looked at me with a mix of bemusement and concern when she saw that I had tears in my eyes. But those were tears of joy. A few minutes later, and we were in the Promised Land. Finally.

The formalities were completed at Anfield on 22 July. Liverpool beat Chelsea 5-3 and received the Premier League trophy after the match. Fittingly, the winners’ medals were given to the players by Kenny Dalglish himself, nicely connecting this glorious moment with our glorious past.

You’ll Never Walk Alone was played in the warm summer night and all was well in the world. At least for one evening.

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