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Ken Early: Liverpool fans, Bamber Gascoigne and a close shave in Istanbul

Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League win was memorable for lots of different reasons

May is the cruellest month for footballing "on this days" in a pandemic; in normal times May means finals, titles and glory. On Sunday it was 25 years since Louis van Gaal's incredible Ajax won the Champions League; on Tuesday it will be 21 years since Manchester United won the Treble.

At the time the United win was hailed as the greatest comeback in the history of European finals, and it seemed it would be a long time before any of us saw anything so crazy happen in a Champions League final. In fact, it took only six years.

Today marks 15 years since Liverpool beat Milan on penalties to win the European Cup for the fifth time, in Istanbul. It remains the most memorable sporting event I have ever attended.

“Memorable” is obviously an understated way to describe the match itself, but I have seen the main events of the night so many times since that I’m not sure which of my memories are real and which are the parts I have only convinced myself I remember. In the moment, did I grasp the perfection of Kaka’s assist for Crespo? I’m not sure. Did I understand how utterly insane was that extra-time save by Dudek from Shevchenko? Not really. I remember a friend texting: “Dudek has the reactions of a cockroach!” At the time I wasn’t 100 per cent sure what he was talking about.

More vivid are the memories of the city itself: the spectacular straits, the teeming bridges, the crowded channel, the lines of fishermen, the sun glittering on the waves, the gleaming spires, the sights and sounds and smells of the Bosphorus megalopolis. And obviously the experiences you have travelling to such a place for such a game.

Arriving on the Monday evening ahead of a Wednesday final, I went straight out in search of the Liverpool fans. My task was to gather some audio of them drinking and singing for purposes of atmospheric build-up on our radio show. I found what I was looking for crowding the bars and lanes near Taksim Square.

Scouse wit

But I had scarcely recorded more than a few bars of Scouser Tommy before some of the Liverpool fans took an unexpected interest in me, and suddenly I was caught in the full glare of their world-renowned Scouse wit. "There's only one Bamber Gascoigne! " they sang, crowding around, dozens of beer-sticky hands reaching in to ruffle the hair which to them seemed so reminiscent of the young Bamber.

“Ha ha,” I said, nervously, as I tried to wriggle free of their grip while simultaneously affecting the air of a good sport, happy to shoulder my share of the banter burden. “There’s only one Bamber Gascoigne,” they screeched, some of them literally crying with laughter. Was it really that funny? I broke free and beat a crestfallen retreat to the end of the street, out of their line of sight, so they might forget about Bamber and I could regroup.

At the corner I was approached by a Turkish guy of about my age who sympathised – he seemed to have seen the whole thing. He spoke good English and was friendly. We talked for a couple of minutes about the match and about Istanbul.

My friend beamed lecherously from across the table and I realised I was already going off him

“Hey, you want to grab a beer?” he suggested. Well, why not, I thought. This guy seems OK, easier company than the Liverpool fans anyway. Come, I know a good place, he said.

We set off down the street, around a corner, down another street, around another corner . . . Just as I was beginning to wonder what was so great about this bar we were going to, compared to all these other acceptable-seeming bars we were walking past, my friend turned down some steps, arriving at a big metal door, and pressed the buzzer. The doors opened into a dark, plushly-carpeted reception area. I was surprised when a burly, suited gentleman glided across and motioned to take my bag, but he was acting as though this was quite normal – maybe it was a Turkish thing? – so I handed it over without objection.

We walked through into a cavernous, red-lit space, a large U of tables arranged around a central raised stage where there were four poles and two dancers. At last, I understood what kind of a place this was.

Beamed lecherously

My friend and I were ushered over to a table where we sat down and were joined immediately by two women. My friend beamed lecherously from across the table and I realised I was already going off him. The girl who had sat next to me introduced herself; she was from Ukraine. I found my mind had become completely depopulated of even the most basic small talk, she likewise seemed to be struggling to think of anything to say.

We smiled weakly at each other for a couple of agonising minutes, until a waiter came over with the menu, which I eagerly snatched and perused. It appeared the cheapest drink was about €300. Okay, there was no easy way out here – it was time to get up and go.

I stood up and made my apologies. “Hey, where are you going, my friend?” said my friend, who by now had turned into a complete asshole. “Hey, my friend. You must buy drinks.”

“I can’t,” I said, for some reason apologetically. “I don’t have the money, I’m sorry.”

By now some burly, suited gentlemen were coming over to get involved. “Look, I have no money, I didn’t realise it was this kind of a place, I’m sorry, I’ve got to go,” I argued, trying not to burst into tears, which seemed like one of the few ways this situation could get even more awkward than it already was.

Now another suited gentleman was coming over, holding the bag they had taken from me at the entrance. They marched me out into a corridor and sat me down at another table, with suits on either side of me. One of them motioned to the bag. “You have a wallet in here.”

I knew I didn’t have a wallet in there, so it was with a sense of discovery that I opened the bag and emptied it out on the table. Among the contents was a small black pouch, to which the suits pointed. “Here, open please.”

Triumphantly I unzipped the pouch to reveal it contained a glucometer, a device used by diabetics such as myself for measuring blood sugar. It was now clear that they felt they had wasted enough time on me. “Okay, get out.”

I hurried away through the dark streets, towards the sound of distant Liverpool chants. Maybe they weren’t really Bamber’s tribe, but in that moment they felt like home.

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