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Dec 31, 2005

Happy Old Year!

I'll be the first to admit that there's usually something psychologically uplifting about scrapping one old tattered calendar and replacing it with a shiny untouched one. I think it has a lot to do with upbringing.

We Scots like to believe we have a special relationship with the ringing in of the New Year. 'The bells' are still a bigger deal in our tiny part of the world than in most other countries.

After all, not so many decades ago, it was quite normal for a Scottish worker to put in his shifts on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, while viewing New Year's Day as the big holiday. The long trek home was a feature of this time of year for Scots exiled in England and beyond.

Fair enough. Christmas has become a wee bit more popular since those grim early post-war days (before my time I must add), but the New Year traditions live on. I'm talking about first footing, delivering the traditional black bun, and in the case of some communities in the North East, the swinging of fireballs through the air to ward off evil spirits related to the old year. (I'm not joking by the way, as residents of Stonehaven can testify)

All this is another way of saying we're pretty relieved to see a new calendar year come in. Things can't get any worse, can they? (An optimistic lot we are!)

However, this year, I'm in a bit of a quandary, football wise at least; torn by conflicting charms.

One the one hand, there's the promise of a magnificent 2006. It's a World Cup year for goodness sake, and in the country that (thanks to 1974 on the box), got me hooked on international football as a lad.

Plus, there's the prospect of an absorbing African Cup of Nations in Egypt, a mouth-watering last sixteen in the UEFA Champions League. The list goes on and on.

Nevertheless, we must be careful not to burn away all the good vibes from 2005, which will, for me at least, go down as one of the best football years in recent memory.

Traditionally, these odd years are considerably less tasty than their even counterparts, devoid as they are of World Cup and European Championship fare.

However, two special moments elevated 2005 to its superior year status. Confused about what events I'm referring to? OK, I'll give you a clue. A certain Harry Kewell had a part to play in both.

Got it now? Istanbul and Sydney will take some beating in years ahead.

I was privileged to be commentating for ESPN on that May night in Turkey, as Liverpool came back from what looked like certain Champions League final death against AC Milan. It's a final we'll still be harking back to and using as a benchmark thirty years from now - the Real Madrid v Eintracht Frankfurt of our time.

In Sydney in November, without the pressure of having to find instant words to complement the action, it was easy to sit back and, quite frankly, feel a bit like an Aussie for the night, as the 32 year jinx was finally broken.

Guus Hiddink told me the following week in Holland, as part of an ESPN documentary, he feels a crowd should never underestimate its importance. The 80,000 plus at Telstra Stadium did Australia proud against Uruguay.

The Liverpool fans in Istanbul, by the way, deserve credit too. It's hard to imagine any club side having better support in a Champions League final. So many arrived in Turkey looking for tickets. By kick-off time, they all seemed to have got their hands on them.

And then we come to Harry Kewell, a player regular viewers of this column will know I have a lot of time for.

It was, of course, a big surprise to see the Aussie's name on the Liverpool teamsheet in Istanbul. Injuries had plagued his season and he had never been a regular under Rafa Benitez. To see Kewell trudge off the park midway through the first half, made some of us wonder if he would ever be the same again.

But in Sydney against the street-wise Uruguayans, Kewell, not long back after another groin operation, proved to be the trump card Australia needed. Hiddink, ever the master of timing, brought him on at exactly the right moment, knowing full well that 120 minutes would be beyond him.

That night at Telstra might just have represented a turning point in the career of this gifted player. Kewell's performances for Liverpool have been excellent of late, and now he's getting a regular run in the side.

Good news then for Liverpool and Australia, the teams that lit up 2005 for this observer.

Happy New Year!


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