For most Liverpudlians it was the greatest night of their lives.
But for one lifelong Red, the thought of Istanbul 2005 brings only a grimace, the memories those of disappointment rather than delirium.
For Stephen Warnock, the famous fifth European Cup win was the night when everything changed – and not for the better.
“My opinion of the club changed,” the former Reds defender tells Goal as he sits down for an exclusive interview. “When I hear Istanbul described as the greatest night in Liverpool’s history, it leaves a bit of a sour taste.”
If that sounds like a surprising statement from a man who grew up idolising Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen and Steve McManaman, who sat on the Kop despite being born into a family of Evertonians and who joined the club aged 14 having been recommended by the legendary Alan Kennedy, then it is worth considering the context. Warnock’s Istanbul story is a heartbreaking one.
“I was supposed to be in the squad,” he says, a wry smile forming. “The squad used to be put up on the board at Melwood, a squad of 18, and a couple of days before Istanbul the squad went up and I’m on the list. I’ve never got changed so quickly in my life! I got a shower, got in the car and was on the phone to everyone telling them: ‘I’m going to Istanbul, in the squad for a Champions League final!’ I was over the moon.
“Then about two hours later I get a phone call from Pako [Ayesteran, assistant manager to Rafa Benitez] saying they’d made a mistake on the list, and that Josemi was in instead of me. I couldn’t believe it.”
Instead Warnock, who had made 30 appearances that season and who had been on the bench for both legs of the semi-final against Chelsea, as well as the quarter-final with Juventus, was forced to watch from the stands, along with a host of other players who had played their part in Liverpool’s remarkable run earlier in the campaign, such as Neil Mellor, Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Anthony Le Tallec.
“The worst thing for me was it had happened before, earlier in the season,” he recalls. “We had been due to play Tottenham at Anfield and I was not on the squad list. I was due to report for training on the Saturday and I went out for a mate’s birthday on the Friday night. I got to Melwood, put my boots on to train and the squad arrived for their pre-match walk. Rafa says: ‘What are you doing?’ I told him I was training and he told me I was starting against Tottenham!
“I had to tell him I’d been out the previous night and he kicked off at me, saying I was unprofessional. We had a disagreement and I ended up on the bench against Tottenham. So for the same situation to arise with Istanbul, but obviously in a far bigger game, was so frustrating.”
Frustration, though, barely covers what happened after the game, and explains what Warnock means when he says his relationship with the club changed in an instant. As Benitez and his triumphant players made their return to Merseyside, the non-playing members of the squad were left behind, placed on a separate plane so as to accommodate the starters’ wives and families. It meant they missed the chance to parade the trophy through the city, in front of 500,000 joyous supporters.
“That was unforgivable,” says Warnock, who remembers arriving back at John Lennon Airport to be told that “the bus has already left”.
“I can remember watching it on Sky Sports News and thinking: ‘What’s going on?!’ A couple of lads did their own thing, got taxis and caught up to the bus and got on, but the rest of us just went home. We got a half-hearted ‘sorry’ when we went back to training after the summer and that was it.
“For me, that night spelt the end of my career at Liverpool, because of the way I was treated. It changed my opinion of the club because there are a host of people who could have handled things better. We may not have played, but we were part of that squad and should have been treated as such.
“For Rafa, during that season it was all about ‘the squad’ and everyone was in it together. Then after Istanbul, it became almost as if those 18 players had won the Champions League alone. When really others had played their part. Mellor had, Pongolle had, Le Tallec had, Scott Carson had.
“It wasn’t just me who felt that way. I know Neil Mellor and Sinama-Pongolle felt the same. It’s sad that a night like that can be tainted over something that could have been handled much better.”
Warnock would stay another 18 months at Liverpool after Istanbul, though struggled to handle being part of Benitez’s rotation system. “It felt like every time I had a good game, I’d be taken out of the team,” he says. By the time he left for Blackburn in January 2007, he was glad to go.
Despite this, he would still have jumped at the chance to return to his boyhood club four years later. Unfortunately, he believes one of his former Reds bosses scuppered his dream move.
“I was at Aston Villa and Gerard Houllier was the manager,” he remembers. “We had had a falling out and I had been bombed out of the side and told to train with the youth team.
“Then in the January , Kenny Dalglish wanted to sign me on loan with a view to a permanent deal. I wanted to go, but whether I am right or wrong, I always felt [Houllier] made it very difficult for me to go back to Liverpool, almost like there was a jealousy that I was getting the chance and he wasn’t. It was like he got one over on me.
“That was one of my biggest regrets in football. I would have taken a pay-cut to go there, but my agent at the time never relayed that fact to Liverpool. He was just in it for himself. It never happened and I regret it.”
Still, Warnock remains close enough to the club now, regularly appearing as a pundit on their television channel. Having called time on his 16-year playing career in the summer, he is enjoying a new life in the media – even if his ultimate aim, he says, is to go into management.
He admits that watching Liverpool struggle to find a reliable left-back while he was performing well in the Premier League at Blackburn and then Villa was a source of frustration. The likes of Emiliano Insua, Paul Konchesky, Andrea Dossena all tried and failed to fix the Reds’ ‘problem position’, though he is happy to report that the current incumbent, Andy Robertson, has done exactly that.
“Nobody saw it, did they?” he smiles. “But he’s such a good player and he’s been brilliant since he arrived.
“He has made himself indispensable. He’s got everything, he’s good at defending, his delivery is one of the best in the league, he’s quick, aggressive and he suits the way Liverpool play completely. I’m made up for him.
“It’s very difficult to become a crowd favourite as a full-back, but he’s got that. He has won everyone over so quickly. He’s the Scotland captain now, which is great for him. He’s proven he can do it at the highest level.”
As for Warnock himself, retirement is going well. He intends to start his UEFA ‘A’ license soon but says there is no rush to enter into a coaching career at this stage. Instead, he is able to juggle his various media commitments with family life and to reflect on his playing career with fondness.
“I have a few regrets,” he says. “But you can’t dwell on them too much. I look back on what I achieved, the games I played, the clubs I played for, playing for my country, and I can be proud.”