No-nonsense nostalgia: The “I was there” moments that define my relationship with football

(Image courtesy of George Murray)

Podcasts. Football Manager. Premier League Years. Isolation has led to the necessity for distraction, dedication to long-term virtual managerial projects and replays of mid-90s screamers, as it feels like decades have passed since live football last graced our lives. Given that we don’t yet know when it will return, now seems a better time than ever to reflect on the past. I decided to jog the memory and ring in the warm, fuzzy nostalgia of my favourite matches I have attended, tracking my life as a football fan to date.

The first live game

White Hart Lane. Tottenham Hotspur 1-1 Liverpool. August 14, 2004.

I have vague memories of my first game. Despite the fact that that Michael Owen — the man who made me fall in love with football — had just left for Real Madrid, my loyalty held firm. Spurs hosted my team, Liverpool, on the opening day of the 2004-05 season, which the Reds would end as Champions of Europe in Istanbul.

Nine months prior to that famous night (on which I was similarly bullish in response to my Dad that the game was, in fact, not yet over at half time) we travelled to White Hart Lane in anticipation. It was Rafael Benitez’s first Premier League game as Liverpool manager, but one engrained snapshot in time remains in my memory.

It is one of football’s great clichés, but I will never forget the walk up the stairs, the glowing green turf getting closer with each step. That revelation felt like an ascension into an otherworldly realm. My journey as a football fan had begun.

The game was fairly forgettable, but that’s beside the point. On a day of firsts, Djibril Cissé scored on his debut before Jermain Defoe equalised for Jacques Santini’s Spurs. I don’t remember much else, although in truth it could have been the direst 0-0 draw ever and the importance of that day in my life wouldn’t have been diminished. It was a seminal moment and one which every football fan remembers — their first experience of live football.

The day I met my hero

Kenilworth Road. Luton Town 3-5 Liverpool. January 7, 2006.

The day I met and walked out alongside my boyhood hero, Steven Gerrard, as mascot. He still holds a god-like status in my mind, and it is a measure of the enormity of the day within the context of my footballing life that it is the go-to story when I meet new people. The game that followed — in which my new mate with the armband opened the scoring with a trademark whipped strike into the top corner, complete with understated celebration and a nod of approval — wasn’t bad either.

A frantic FA Cup classic ensued, as Luton burst into a 3-1 lead in front of more than 10,000 fans at Kenilworth Road. Two goals from Florent Sinama Pongolle each preceded memorable long-range efforts from Xabi Alonso, the second of which was from his own half, as Luton pushed for an equaliser and his effort rolled into the empty net behind which me and the other Reds fans were held.

Before the madness, however, came the unbridled excitement. I remember the drive to the stadium full of eagerness about meeting the man who I had already begun trying to emulate. We passed the ball back and forth before the game, and my night was already made. The incredible events that followed were merely a bonus, allowing me to remember a special night with an extra level of fondness.

The FA Cup semi-final

Old Trafford. Chelsea 1-2 Liverpool. April 22, 2006.

This pushes a couple of my other favourite live games close for one outstanding quality: the atmosphere. It was the peak of this rivalry, one which was at the heart of English football in the mid-to-late 2000s. It was Jose vs Rafa. Blue vs red. Chelsea vs Liverpool.

On this day, Liverpool got the edge at the home of one of the other members of English football’s old school top four, Old Trafford. The Theatre of Dreams was bouncing — particularly in the red end in response to Luis Garcia’s exquisite volley over Carlo Cudicini to make it 2-0, a strike eerily similar to his effort against Juventus at Anfield just over 12 months prior.

The tension was palpable throughout and existed in a variety of forms. It was about the recent history of transfer rumours surrounding Steven Gerrard, the controversial clashes such as the Champions League semi-final a year earlier, and the ongoing battle between two managers who had shared the biggest trophies available in football at the end of 2004-05 campaign.

It was pure, unadulterated hatred and as a seven-year-old I felt right at home. I think that may explain why the Liverpool fan — who fell a few rows of seats amid the celebrations at the full-time whistle — lifted me ecstatically into the air. It was a remarkable occasion and this time, Rafa prevailed.

The genius of Ronaldinho; the reception for another maestro

Camp Nou. Barcelona 1-0 Cadiz. April 30, 2006.

This was the Ronaldinho show and a clear reminder of why he is undoubtedly worthy of a mention among the all-time greats, if nothing else for his effortless ability to spread a smile across the face of his viewers as wide as so often was his own. Ronnie was a starring figure during a period of global Brazilian dominance, this time scoring a beautiful goal which I remember quite vaguely and have had to remind myself of since, given that we were situated in the ‘up in the gods’ category of available Camp Nou seating.

If anything, this simply added to the mystique and the gratitude I felt at having witnessed possibly the best player of a generation joyfully skipping around, controlling an elite level game and beating helpless opponents at will. Watching a game from that height gives you the ability to not only marvel at the football itself, but to admire a stadium resembling the Roman Colosseum in all its glory.

Another lasting memory of this game — which would soon make a lot of sense given the years of controlled success at both club and international level for the man — was the reception a young Catalan midfielder and product of La Masia would receive when entering as a substitute with around 10 mins left. Xavi Hernández. 

It would be no exaggeration to describe the bellowing echo of applause that greeted his arrival as an eruption, as if the 80 mins preceding this moment had all been about leading up to his introduction. Xavi had already established himself as the hub of the team and a central figure in Barcelona’s new era, approaching the peak years of his illustrious career in the half-decade to follow.

The new Wembley

Wembley Stadium. England 3-2 Scotland. August 14, 2013.

The night when international football’s oldest rivals met for the first time in 14 years, and the first time at the revamped home of English football. It wasn’t, however, my first time— that came in 2007 when we went to a test event featuring a tournament made up of celebrity teams. It was an incredible stadium to rival any in world football, let alone those which I have been lucky enough to visit.

On this night, Roy Hodgson’s England were disappointing, clearly readying themselves for the World Cup in Brazil the following summer. They fell behind twice and were grateful to Rickie Lambert, on debut, for saving them from a humbling defeat to their bitter rivals.

Two minutes into his substitute replacement of Wayne Rooney, Lambert rose and crashed a header into the corner to spark jubilation for himself and all the English fans present. This was about as good as it got, both for Lambert as an England player and for Hodgson as the national team’s manager…

Me and my brother, Will, ready for action at the new Wembley Stadium on March 17, 2007, the day of the first official test event below the arch. The 126th FA Cup final and the first at the revamped arena was played just two months later, with Didier Drogba’s extra-time goal enough to see Chelsea past Manchester United. (Image courtesy of George Murray).

The Austro-Hungarian Battle of Bordeaux

The Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux. Austria 0-2 Hungary.  June 14, 2016.

Another historic rivalry, this time at Euro 2016 in France. My memories of this game are dominated by the antics of the Hungarian fans — naturally, perhaps, given that this was the first game the Magyars were playing at a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup. In every aspect, they returned in style.

In a stadium so wonderfully modern in its design that it rises as a box in its urban surroundings the closer you get to it, the occasion was befitting of the location. Bordeaux, a city famed for its wine, witnessed the efforts of an exciting looking Austrian team led by David Alaba and Marko Arnautović prove fruitless, the former driving forward from midfield before seeing his strike hit the post in just the second minute.

In direct opposition to Alaba in midfield was the outstanding Ádám Nagy, who impressed hugely yet has subsequently not gone on to achieve what I expected him to on the basis of his all-action performance on this particular day. At the other end of the spectrum, Adám Szalai — who was arguably the worst player on the pitch — simultaneously broke the deadlock and his country’s 30 year wait for a major tournament goal to make it 1-0, before an incredible Hungarian second on the breakaway sent the vociferous Magyar supporters into raptures behind the goal.

Such is the stadium’s design, it was able to contain a unique fusion of palpable, passionate rivalry with bright red excitement, initially on both sides before the Hungarians (wearing white on the pitch but an intimidating shade of red in the stands) took over. Their goalkeeper, the then 40-year-old cult hero Gabor Kiraly, added another dimension to the occasion in his tracksuit bottoms and overtook Lothar Matthäus’ record to become the oldest player ever to appear at a European Championships. It was a bonkers afternoon, well worth its place in this list.

Pre-game preparations take place before the Euro 2016 clash between Austria and Hungary in Bordeaux. It was the opening match of Group F at the tournament. (Image courtesy of George Murray).

The Madrid derby

Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. Real 1-1 Atlético. April 8, 2017.

This was a bucket-list moment for any football fan, accompanied by the soundtrack of drums and police whistles, coloured by the smoke bombs and stark opposition of Real white against Atléti red.

In fact, the show before the game ran the events it preceded on the pitch close for entertainment. Flares lit the way for a carnival-type atmosphere, the like of which you can imagine the citizens of Madrid come to expect twice a year on derby day. Given the all-time classic matches that these two have served up in recent years since Atlético’s Simeone-fuelled revival, this was a slight disappointment in terms of football.

Antoine Griezmann cancelled out Pepe’s opening header with a slick finish and signature dance to match, while fans on both sides of the city’s divide traded chants throughout. Los Madridistas unfurled a huge banner boldly claiming that “El Trono es Nuestro” (The Throne is Ours) prior to the game and, on the balance of things; even since Simeone has partly halted the dominance of Real in their own city, it would be hard to argue otherwise.

Real fans unveiled a tifo reading “El Trono es Nuestro”“ (“The Throne is Ours”) prior to the Madrid derby against Atlético in April 2017. The game ended 1-1 and Los Blancos went on to win both La Liga and the Champions League a few months later. (Image courtesy of George Murray).

The New Year classic on the Trent

The City Ground. Nottingham Forest 4-2 Leeds. January 1, 2019.

The City Ground is, undoubtedly, one of the best places to watch live football. This time around, with the arrival of a new year and the Championship leaders heading to Nottingham with Forest making a push for the play-off places, a classic unfolded on the banks of the River Trent.

The game epitomised the Championship and had everything you could ever hope for from a match: an early goal, defensive errors, a red card, incredible finishes and genuine needle between fan bases.

The pace, which you notice more when watching a game at pitch-level like I was this day, was frantic. Tackles crunched in — overzealously so from Kalvin Phillips to earn himself a dismissal — and the back and forth flow of the game was exhilarating. One of the hallmarks of a great game, in my opinion, is that you can’t sit still and feel both physically and emotionally invested in its outcome. This was a prime example of that, and the sort of game I can’t wait to watch again in the future, when football finally returns to our lives.

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