It started as an overheard conversation in Delhi, India and ended up as an unforgettable day in London, England. Specifically, Wembley stadium.
The over-heard conversation was between delegates on a leadership programme in which I was involved. They were chatting about how one of their number had tickets for the soon to be played FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Everton, but the ticket-holder in question was unable to use them. Clearly there could be no doubt as to my course of action. At the next available opportunity I approached the unsuspecting target like a scud missile and confirmed the accuracy of the information. Indeed, it was true: he was the owner of the prized tickets and instantly also my new best friend. What followed was the magnanimous offer to relieve him of his dilemma and take the three tickets from him. He agreed and the deal was done. A couple of calls home and travel plans had been made and thoughts of companions now commanded urgent attention.
Gary came to mind first. Ardent Liverpudlian and Everton diehard, someone not ashamed to wear the vintage pink (I know, I know…what were they thinking!) Everton strip and the person with whom I had a standing bet for every derby game. The bet? The loser has to place an advert in the paper acknowledging the Victor’s team as superior. Needless to say, Gary has become personal friends with the local paper’s classified advertising editor.
Then there was my dear wife Vicky. Two problems here: firstly this was shaping up to be a boys weekend and secondly, Vicky is a Newcastle fan. As such, Wembley represents a strange and foreign place and I considered it unfair to subject her to such unfamiliar treatment. It would be like taking a hungry kid into a McDonalds and having him read the menu, look at the pictures and watch others munching on their Big Macs – but then callously denying him food of his own. It just wouldn’t be right, would it? I might add that this humane and considerate stance has been met with an unexpectedly hostile non-appreciation, the likes of which I simply cannot fathom, try as I might. I have been told that time will heal but I’m just not sure I have enough time left for that to happen!
Then there was my colleague and Manchester United fan, Graeme. Based in London his local knowledge could prove useful and did mean that I could overlook his misguided football allegiance. Besides it might be fun to have him get us safely to the destination then out him as a Manchester United follower in the company of 87 000 Scousers. Being the refined gentlemen they are, I have no doubt that they would take to heart the need to gently re-educate him in the finer ways of football scholarship. It would be entertainment towards a noble end. How can you argue with that?
The three tickets then were accounted for and the matter settled. Or so I thought. Gary at the 11th hour could no longer make it. Whilst offering a semi-plausible domestic excuse I fully understand his limited threshold for punishment. After all, it is a long way to go to get a beating. The unexpected availability of the third ticket surfaced a number of potential suitors – both old and new. The Newcastle fan in the mix erroneously, and somewhat presumptuously, believed this to be the sign for her inclusion. A sister-in-law, and personal disciple in the ways of Liverpool, believed this would be just reward for her devoted following of the Red Men. And of course she had a point. However, as any sane family man would quickly realize, her inclusion at the expense of one’s own spouse would mean years of irrevocable family discord and potential grievous bodily harm. It was simple too great a risk to take and the only fair call was to leave them both behind.
Then there was a Liverpool friend who was aggrieved at being overlooked in the initial poll but was offered a match-day scarf and programme in appeasement. I am optimistic that our friendship will be fully restored with the passing of time. The final choice was to invite Amy (13) – the oldest daughter of Graeme and devoted but uninitiated Liverpool supporter. Rescuing Amy from the familial clutches of Manchurian allegiance and turning her head and heart towards Liverpool I regard as one of my finest achievements. Her inclusion would undoubtably seal a life-long commitment to Liverpool. It was the responsible thing to do. A choice which had an eye on the future generation and the continued following for the great club. I can almost see the great Bill Shankly nod his head in approval at the choice made. His nod was all I needed.
And so the tricky selection issue was sorted although I recognize that it might take several more months before the dust of the selection process finally settles. It was a selection process to rival that of King Kenny’s team selection for the big day. In this regard he and I share much in common and I can now fully empathize with his stress around selection. We’ll chat about this should we meet anytime soon.
What a day it was! The fans poured into the magnificent Wembley, humour accompanying every step as the banter back and forth went unabated. There was also the underlying emotion marking the event: the loss of red and blue stalwart, Gary Ablett; the personal tragedy of Liverpool keeper Brad Jones (who’s five year old son had recently died of leukaemia) coupled with Jone’s own bizarre elevation to the first team; the 23rd anniversary (on the Sunday) of the Hillsborough disaster (a FA Cup semi-final in which 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives); and of course the rich history and tapestry these two great clubs brought with them. Separated by a point in the league and the form table turned on it’s head, opinion was divided as to who carried the tag of favourite into the game. Rumours of King Kenny’s job on the line with the bizarrely timed sacking of his Director of Football days before and David Moyes (the Everton manager) declaring that the ‘whole nation wanted Everton to win’. The stage was well and truly set.
The first goal to be scored was at what was the ‘Kop end’ for the day – and exactly where we were fortuitously (if you believe in such a thing) seated. it was a defending calamity that led to the goal and somewhat indicative of what had been a cruel season for my team. Polite discussion between Liverpool defenders as to who’s job it was to hoof an unclaimed and bouncing ball to safety, resulted in gifting the Everton striker with a simple goal. The rest of the first half is best forgotten as Liverpool struggled to come to terms with having given away such a soft goal and Everton for their part, seemed content to sit things out and strangle the game.
‘Surely I couldn’t have come all this way for it to end like this?’ was my desolate half-time thought whilst scoffing a roast beef bun the size of Surrey itself and enjoying the sponsors liquid.
The taunting of the blue half of Wembley went on unabated and was almost unbearable. I was at once glad not to have Gary next to me and having to endure his gloating (not to mention his singing!). But the critical thing to remember here was that it was only half-time. Our anthem after all does remind us to ‘keep your head up high’ as we walk through the storm. It cajoles us to walk on through the wind and the rain with ‘hope in your heart’. It was a time to remind ourselves and the Red Men on the pitch of this – and did we just! A stirring rendition of the anthem greeting the warriors who made their way out for the second half and we didn’t have long to wait until things were level.
A horrendous defensive error saw that man Suarez swoop for the equalizer and suddenly it was game on. In truth there was always only going to be only one winner from that point on and both set of fans knew it. The fact that it took until the 87th minute for that winner to come mattered not. It was as inevitable as the golden sky at the end of the storm. Staying behind with the red half of Wembley to salute our heroes and sing ‘Fields of Anfield Road’ were moments I’ll never let go of – it was a time and an occasion where a man-tear was appropriate and not at all out of place. It was amazing how quickly the blue half of the stadium emptied. That too was entirely understandable.
The victory glow remains undimmed. The Liverpool kit that makes up my entire wardrobe for this brief visit, is greeted with congratulations from strangers that range from restaurant waiters to flight attendants. I feel as though I scored the winner myself! Then their are the envious looks from those silly enough to declare their misdirected support for lesser teams. I feel like a giant amongst mere mortals.
So, it was a trip beyond financial justification and one that has carried no small amount of personal risk. Was it worth it? You bet! Regardless of how we perform in the final against Chelsea, there will always be the memory of one glorious day at Wembley. A day on which we defeated our greatest adversary (although some might argue that this description belongs to Manchester United) and possibly rescued a dismal season. A day that ensures the continued agony of the blue side of Merseyside who haven’t achieved FA Cup success over the Reds since 1906. It was King Kenny’s day. It was our day – all the Red Men be they on the pitch, in the stands or living the moment from wherever they were.
This all said, there remain some pertinent leadership lessons to be made. No matter what your football allegiance, here are seven timeless leadership reminders from one epic day at Wembley on the 14th April, 2012:
1. Leadership involves risk. Trust your gut.
2. Pick your friends for the journey wisely and know that you can’t please everyone.
3. It is not over until it is over.
4. If you are going to sing, don’t sing the blues!
5. Don’t gloat. Unless it is against Manchester United.
6. To every great victory there is always a cost to be paid. (Don’t ask)
7. And finally, you’ll never walk alone.
As the immortal Shankly once said, “Football is not just about life and death, it is more important than that”. Never a truer word spoken…
Anyone got tickets for the final?