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I dream of Istanbul

By the time our ESPN minibus left the Atatürk Olympic Stadium at 2.07 am on Thursday, we were emotionally spent. Matches like this Champions League epic, have a way of taking their toll on commentators as well as players.

During the 20-mile drive back to our hotel in the historic district of Istanbul, it came almost as a relief to see that the Liverpool supporters were equally exhausted. After singing their hearts out for days in Taksim Square, Sultanahmet, Sirkeci, and then in the stadium itself, here were red-clad diehards by the coach load, fast asleep.

By 4.30 am, back in the city centre, with the early morning call to prayer audible from the nearby Blue Mosque, some Liverpudlians had re-discovered their singing voices. There were just as many who were too hoarse to offer anything of vocal substance.

Sitting at a pavement café, munching on my seventh döner kebab of the week with fellow ESPN commentators Tommy Smyth and Janusz Michallik I looked around at the Liverpool supporters again. The expressions told you that they still couldn't quite bring themselves to believe what had occurred for fear that they might all have been dreaming.

By 4.45 am, Turkish television were replaying pictures of Liverpool's triumph. Tommy raised a laugh by likening the snowy-haired local anchor man to the white-wisped Dickie Davies.

Those of you around my age will remember the esteemed Mr Davies, ITV's slick sporting front-man back in the days when Alan Kennedy and Bruce Grobelaar were painting Europe red, rather than Steven Gerrard and Jerzy Dudek.

As the clock struck 5am, we decided to get some kip. After all, we would have be at Atatürk airport in a few hours. I dozed off with images and sounds of the final still buzzing around my brain, only to wake with a jolt at 7.35 am. Liverpool voices were singing again outside, and I could hear them on the street, toasting my ESPN colleague Mario Kempes (yes the one and only Mario Kempes) whom they had recognized.

Perhaps they just needed a few hours to let everything sink in.

Reflecting now, home again more than a couple of days after Wednesday's final, I can say this. In nearly twenty years of football commentary, I can't recall anything that comes even remotely close what we experienced at the Atatürk Stadium, as regards shifting sensations. Rarely are we treated to such theatre, in a major final.

Milan v Liverpool is now the benchmark, the showpiece event for future Champions League finals to match.

The fates conspired to give us a game for the ages; a match nineteen year-olds from Birkenhead who saved all their pennies to make the long trek there and back, will tell their grandchildren about one day; a final Milanese will wish had never taken place.

To be fair to the Milan supporters I encountered at the airport on Thursday morning, many of whom were in Istanbul for just twenty four hours, the majority were fairly good natured about Wednesday's turn of events.

Milan v Liverpool is now the benchmark, the showpiece event for future Champions League finals to match. Istanbul will become a code word for glory amongst the Liverpool contingent. The beauty of it is that the videos and DVDs will be there for future generations to enjoy. One suspects this swashbuckling football marathon won't look the slightest bit unsophisticated or old-fashioned, twenty or thirty years from now.

It was fascinating to listen to former Liverpool defender and fellow Scot, Steve Nicol back in the studio, speaking to our international audience on ESPN long after the final whistle and trophy presentation. Nicol remember, was a linchpin of the great Liverpool side of the eighties, yet here he was arguing that this 2005 Champions League triumph, topped 1977, 1978, 1981 and 1984.

He's right of course. Compared to the sparkling Liverpool teams managed by Paisley and Fagan, who were favourites in most European finals they played in, Rafa Benitez had a side with an element of rag, tag and bobtail about them. This has been part of Liverpool's charm this season. On quality, they had no business even getting to the final let alone winning it. Yet, to have beaten Leverkusen, Juventus, Chelsea and Milan, makes them worthy European club champions.

An improbable scoreline on one of football history's most improbable nights.
An improbable scoreline on one of football history's most improbable nights.

It also shouldn't be forgotten that in the old days, there were fewer matches to worry about. By winning your first two ties in the autumn, you could put Europe to one side until the quarter-finals in March.

The Liverpool of 2004-2005 enjoyed no such luxuries. But in retrospect, from the moment Steven Gerrard engineered that stirring 3-1 win against Olympiakos at Anfield in December, there was something in the air.

Now, UEFA must use the next few weeks to find a way to ensure Liverpool are back to defend their crown next season.

In the meantime, I can't get Istanbul out of my head: the carpet salesmen on ever corner, the magnificent architecture, the Bosphorus in all its splendour; and of course, the Liverpool fans congregating in every square, on every lane.

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