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Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Road to Munchengladbach.

Road to Munchengladbach.

May 1973.

The first leg of the 1972/73 UEFA Cup Final. Liverpool had already wrapped up the League Championship, defeating arch rivals Leeds United 2-0 at Anfield. We were on our travels. The faithful Escort Van was on the road again. James 'Knocker' Knox, generally regarded as a tight arsed bastard but nonetheless a committed Reds fan, and me. Newcastle had been the first stop on Easter Saturday. A four hour drive up the A1, the Great North Road as it was still known as then. 'Digs' were sorted out courtesy of my sister in law's sister Pat and her hub Tom. Pat had returned to her home town some six years previously from Corby, met Tom a devoted Leazes End fanatic, and settled in Heaton, a rundown area of the city. The trip was incident free bar for a slight accident at a service station just outside Newcastle. Reversing out of the car park I managed to knock a motorbike over and the terrible thing about it is - we just scarpered - and left the bike on its side. Guilt bugged me for awhile but justice would be done later that summer when some bastard scratched the side of my van one night in Portsmouth. That biker had tracked me down! Liverpool lost 1-2 so the championship was put on hold at least until the Leeds game. An irony that emerged from the Newcastle episode was that Pat and Knocker had known each other back in Corby some ten years before. Knocker suffered with rhinitis, a runny nose, which made him a constant picture of misery. And an unforgettable memory for Pat! He did have a sense of humour though, occasionally letting slip an odd smile now and again.

Leeds were beaten 2-0 on Easter Monday and with adrenalin coursing through our veins we were determined to see the season out and getting to both legs of the impending UEFA Cup Final against the Germans from Munchengladbach. Knocker was up for it. The rest of the gang, Pat, Wilf, Dennis, Jeff, Big Alan and co all had commitments. They were married!

The first leg at Anfield was a wash out, literally. Half an hour into the game the heavens opened up and the pitch quickly assumed a lake. The ball wouldn't travel more than a couple of feet in the monsoon and the referee had no option but to call the game off. Pissed off, let alone for the fact that the game was immediately rescheduled for the following night and would mean us having to miss it - unless we could get away with it by staying somewhere overnight. Pat and Wilf were keen, as I was, but Knocker was adamant, he had to go to work next morning. Respectful of his conscientiousness, he was reluctant to let the Tubeworks down, we returned home back down the M6. And the following night we listened on the radio as Liverpool demolished the Germans 3-0!

Determined more than ever to get to the second leg the following week, this would after all be Liverpool's first European trophy should they hold on, plans were set afoot to organise the trek. Knocker redeemed himself and announced he was going, shame the rest couldn't make it, James was hardly a bundle of laughs but it was company for me. One thing that was deemed necessary prior to the trip was a smallpox jab with the disease sweeping the continent. They told me I should feel some effects about a week later. Which only came to mind after we had returned home. The Escort headed for Harwich where we parked up and embarked on the mid day ferry to the Hook of Holland. Eventful free, the North Sea was like a millpond. Next stop was Rotterdam for an overnight stay in any hotel we could find. Having a beer in a bar we were joined by a Scotsman sitting on his own and who had heard our dulcet tones. '”Whereabouts in Scotland you from?" he asked, to the amusement of Knocker who always laughed at such things because of my Welsh descent and obvious pride in my ancestry. I said he had a zany sense of humour. Rotterdam was dead, 'Jock' told us the place to be was Amsterdam. No doubt about that we figured. The only memorable thing about Rotterdam was having a spat with an old lady outside the toilets at Rotterdam Station. Shaking her saucer it was apparent that you had to pay for a piss on the continent. 'No way' said Knocker. I agreed. 'Fuck me you don't have to pay for a piss in Britain, bollocks to you' which enraged the old bag even further. Shouting Dutch expletives at us, we made a sharp exit, relieved to get away from her.

Finally we were on the Munchengladbach Express. Which entailed a brief stop on the border in which the German customs officials boarded the train looking for reprobates, they frightened the hell out of us, guns in holsters, blue uniforms, and abrasive manner - I half expected to be lifted there and then. Ignorant bastards.

Munchengladach was swathed in sunshine when we arrived on the Tuesday, the day before the big game. Heading up the main road opposite the station a horde of Reds fans were seen sitting around on the grass outside a big hotel. Turns out this is where the team was staying. Phil Thompson even had the grace to stick his nose out of the window and acknowledge us all. No wonder they called him Gonzo! Great lad and player all the same. It was when one of the lads asked us where me and Knocker were staying that it occurred we hadn't given it any thought! 'Fuck knows' I said, open to any suggestions. 'We'll find a hotel or something', Knocker butted in. 'We're all staying in the station, why don't you join us?' this feller asked. That immediately sounded a good idea, free for a start off, guaranteed a good laugh as well, albeit it might be a tad uncomfortable but what the hell. Knocker moaned in his inimitable way. 'Fuck off' I said, 'it'll be a crack'. And it was. There must have been around thirty scousers, full of devilment which came to the fore when a sudden swooshing noise hit our ears and we turned round to see six flags which adorned the outside of the hotel, sailing down to the ground. Two of the scallys were gathering them up as the doormen emerged from the hotel and came running out, shouting and screaming. Everybody jumped up and ran like hell back down the main road with the outraged Germans chasing us and with the sound of police sirens filling the air. Knocker was beside himself! 'Fucking hell, call this a laugh!' As it happened the flags were retrieved and thanks to our scouse friends we were all kept under surveillance from then on in. The Station Waiting Room was our hotel. A foreboding windowless place with a few tables and benches around the walls, dark and unwelcoming, it would have to do.

After being told that tickets for the game were on sale at the ground, which we immediately sorted out, the next few hours were spent idling around the bars and cafes in search of some edible grub. They just didn't know how to serve up a decent plate of sausage and chips! Horrible stuff. Squelchy and tasteless bangers. Ugh! At least the lager was strong and would prove to be a sufficient nightcap. Or so we thought.

Settled down for the night, a pack of cards appeared and a game of Brag ensued. Everyone found their own preferred spot to bed down, rucksacks as a pillow. Or a pair of boots. Me and Knocker claimed a hard wooden table each and tried to get some Z's. All was fine until the night was interrupted by two German police entering and doing a head count whilst nudging and kicking various members of the ensemble scattered around on the floor and furniture. One scouser really cracked us up. A rough and ready looking character, the guy had traveled over from Liverpool in just an army jacket and a vest. Broad shouldered and built like the proverbial brick outhouse, he wasn't taking any shit. Curled up on the stone floor, he told the krauts in no uncertain manner what his thoughts were.That made us giggle. Satisfied, the police moved off. Only to return every hour throughout the night! 'Some fucking hotel this is' our friend on the floor complained, 'you get woken up every fucking hour by these bastards!'

Needless to say, we were all knackered next morning but hey, this was the big day. The night when the Reds would finally conquer Europe!

Weather was great throughout the day, the sun shone encouragingly as the day passed relaxing and enjoying the bevy and banter. Right up until the kick off. An hour before the game, dark clouds appeared and right on cue, the heavens opened up to give us a reminder of Anfield just the week before. The Liverpool end of the ground was open air, no cover and it was all you could do but stand there and get soaked to the skin. Fuck me, all this way for this! Thunder and lightening added to the woes. This was also the first time we'd seen fences around a football ground, a magnet for scousers to tease and wind up the German police and dog handlers circling pitch side to discourage any would be intruders. Skirmishes broke out and the scene was threatening to turn ugly with the police rattling the fences with batons as some tried to climb up and over to take them on. The Alsatians were going mad; maybe it was the noise of the Liverpool fans turning up the volume for their pre match repertoire. Things quietened down when at long last, the teams emerged from the tunnel under the glare of the floodlights. Liverpool, led by Ironman, Tommy Smith, the hard as nails battle hardened veteran of Anfield. Ever since seeing the words Tommy Smith - Ironman, emblazoned on the back of a scousers denim jacket at an away match at Tottenham in 1966, Tommy had been my idol, bearing the same name was a mere coincidence! Thomas - my middle name!

The game kicked off as the rain relented, and within twenty minutes the Germans were back in the tie, two early goals making the overall score 2-3 in an avalanche of attacks, reminiscent of the Luftwaffe itself! Shankly, the Emperor, the ringmaster and great leader of Liverpool FC, strode up and down the touchline, encouraging his men to hang on in there, to stem the flow, egged on by the mass of scouse fervour behind the goal. Eventually, the Germans blew themselves out, the Reds took control. Shankly returned to his bunker, the dugout. The minutes dwindled away, the noise from the Liverpool end engulfing the stadium, Gladbach were beaten, it was they who were hanging on the ropes, a spent force. The whistle went, Liverpool had conquered Europe. Victors by 3-2 on aggregate. Hysteria and emotion took over. The players slumped to the ground. The Reds fans were not to be held back. Over the fences they climbed. The dogs and police had long gone. 'Come on' I shouted at Knocker. A shrug of his shoulders, a silly satisfied grin on his face telling me that he had no intention of attempting to climb over the eight foot high fence and it was 'I'll see you later!' Scaling the fence which was angled inwards at the top was a lot harder than I envisaged but bollocks to it. The Liverpool fans were like lemmings going over a cliff. I got to the top, my jeans got caught on a sharp piece of the fence and ripped a hole in my leg. 'Fuck it!' Momentarily stranded like a fish in a net and dangling, I looked up to see my mate Knocker, walking along the inside of the fence behind the goals, pitch side! With that stupid grin on his face. Calling me a daft twat he informed me they had opened a gate in the corner to allow the fans on to celebrate! Fucking typical!

On the pitch, the ceremony was lost in a maelstrom of ebullient and rejoicing Liverpool fans. Somewhere the players had been presented with their medals and the incongruous large trophy. But where were they? Suddenly, there was the man, Ironman! Surrounded by over joyous scousers, patting him on the back, jostling him along on what should have been a lap of honour. Many were besides themselves with joy, some were crying, after all Liverpool had been waiting for this moment for nearly a decade. And there I was, jogging along next to the skipper struggling with this huge cup. The Anfield Iron, with a grimace on his face, wonderful! Then, without warning, Tommy stopped dead in his tracks. 'Give us some room for fucks sake lads, fuck off will yer!' Stunned for a second, the fans drew back, 'alright Tommy lad', 'take it easy Iron'. I swear Tommy was looking at me when he told everybody to fuck off! I was in heaven. Thank you God I said as I looked up. Tommy's gruff and miserable demeanor was legendary, and everybody loved him for it. He took no prisoners, bowed to nobody. What a hero. And he told me personally too fuck off! Wait till I tell everybody back home! Where was Knocker. Christ knows.

We met up outside the ground as things calmed down and the players had found sanctuary in their dressing room. A great and momentous night still had a twist to it. Making our way back to the town and station, hordes of German fans were on the look out for revenge. Christ we had suffered this in just about every city in England, chased everywhere. And here in Germany it was the same. Only this time, it was important to keep your mouth shut! Hope nobody asks us which way to the city centre!

Celebrations continued into the night but at the station it was something of an anti climax. Me and Knocker were the only ones there! The scousers all had return flights that night, our trip home didn't begin until the following night's midnight ferry from Rotterdam. While we would still be trekking across the continent, the team and supporters would be back home and going crazy in Liverpool. Still, what the hell. We were there. And would never forget it.