James Lawton: It was not just on the pitch that Liverpool reacquainted themselves with greatness

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The Independent Football

Nothing in life is quite perfect, as the Liverpool fans on a flight back to Manchester from Istanbul discovered this week. Not a single Mancunian customs officer demanded to know if they had anything to declare.

It was a little as if Mark Antony had sweated all that blood over his tribute to Julius Caesar, then found the Forum closed for the day. For four hours they had polished their responses for when they walked through the green channel. The common theme, as you may have guessed, was, "Yes. The European Cup, wack, and it's ours for keeps."

Plagiarists among them could have reasonably borrowed from Oscar Wilde, who declared, "Only my genius." They might have said that because in this age of fan culture, when it seems every minor celebrity has an irrepressible urge to identify himself with a football club, the Liverpool support had reannounced an old genius... a brilliant capacity to back its team with wit and passion and, also, a knowledge that the wonder of football, the reason why it has claimed every corner of the world, is that every so often it flies beyond the force of mere logic.

This is no doubt why one of the younger Liverpool fans peered at the screen of a laptop, as its owner misguidedly launched into a half-time obituary on a failed fantasy, and said, "Hey, mate, you're making a terrible mistake... we're going to win this game."

Whether he and his 35,000 companions truly believed it is now beside the point. As the Milanese celebrated in their dressing-room, the Liverpool fans sang throughout the break. They sang, what else could it be, "You'll Never Walk Alone" and as they did so only someone made of stone could have been unmoved by this peculiar force of emotion.

However, Liverpool were dead, and you had to consider the reasons for it. Rafael Benitez, the brilliant pragmatist, had gambled, unaccountably, shockingly, on Harry Kewell, and Kaka, the brilliant Kaka, had run free. But Benitez saw his mistake and he rectified it and he told his players that at the very least they had to score a goal. They had to do it for themselves and for that great army on the terraces singing in the face of humiliation.

Almost all the rest is instantly recorded and surely unforgettable football history. Except, perhaps, for the astonishing announcement made by the Istanbul police department on the morning after which came with a sense that reality was still in a state of suspense. The police said that there had not been a single arrest. A body of men, who in the past have shown the reflective powers of a pack of hungry and enraged wolverine, had had no cause to feel a single collar or red T-shirt. Twenty years after Heysel, and deep into the age of institutionalised English binge-drinking, this was not least of the miracles.

It is one that should not be allowed to pass without a certain awed comment, and perhaps least of all in this quarter, where on the eve of the game grave suspicions were raised.

The cynical may say that the post-game mood might have been different if Milan had maintained their vast first-half superiority, but the sense here - judged on that half-time demeanour, when the game in all rationality had been lost - is that sorrow rather than hate would have been the prevailing response. We will never know for sure but it is not unreasonable to believe that this week we had on the terraces and the old streets of Istanbul a closing of one of the darkest chapters in English football.

What happened at Heysel can never be forgotten, but we can say that the sins of the fathers should not be passed on to the sons.

Fathers and sons were much in evidence in Istanbul and this too provided a wonderful sense of a return to the best of the past. Fathers and sons exchanging jokes and bursting into the ditties of the Kop. Fathers and sons believing, in a good humoured way, that they shared ownership of the world.

Of course there are bad apples and it was not overly pessimistic to worry that some of them would reach Istanbul, but if they did the sheer force of a benign gravity kept their noses pinned to the bottom of the barrel.

That, surely, is one of the big reasons to celebrate Istanbul; that, and the re-emergence of the classic identity of the Liverpool fan, the supporter bred not just on winning football but a game of values, and with the gift of both humour and knowledge.

When Don Revie's Leeds United won their first League title in 1969, the triumph was confirmed, of all places, at Anfield. The reaction of the Kop is a memory treasured by all the Leeds players, and it is one undimmed by the fact that a brick flew through the window of the team bus as it pulled away from the ground. No one is perfect, and if that status was achieved in Istanbul there are no guarantees that it will be maintained. However, nowhere have we perhaps seen such a tour de force of passion and wit.

Give unto Caesar what is his, demanded a higher authority than Mark Antony, and today it is no hardship to do the same to the Liverpool fan. This week he deserved the highest praise - and at least one Manchester custom guard with enough basic decency to ask him precisely what he had to declare.

j.lawton@independent.co.uk

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