“Sorry guys, no interviews. I have to protect this.”
Alisson Becker wasn’t stopping for anyone, and with good reason.
He had the European Cup in his hands, and a party to get to. You could have lit up Mathew Street with his smile.
More than two hours had passed since the final, the glorious blast of Damir Skomina’s whistle, and Liverpool’s players were finally ready to say goodbye to the Wanda Metropolitano. They’ll never forget their first visit to this wonderful arena.
Most had stayed on the pitch, soaking up the feeling amid the glitter and the litter. One more minute, five more minutes, one more picture.
First to emerge from the dressing room, and into the chaos of the mixed zone, was Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian had made a promise to one local journalist, that he would grant an interview after the final.
“If we win?” he had said. “WHEN we win!”
Salah kept his promise, his first chat with the UK media all season. He’d righted the wrongs of a year ago. From despair in Kiev to delight in Madrid. Why wouldn’t he want to talk?
“I have sacrificed a lot for my career,” he had told TV reporters earlier. “And to be an Egyptian at this level is unbelievable.”
A few moments later, Alisson would zoom through. He’d captured the scenes in the dressing room on his Instagram page, and would do the same from the comfort of the team bus. The trophy with the big ears was in safe hands with the man from Brazil.
His compatriot, Roberto Firmino, would come through soon after. In his hand was a bottle of beer, round his neck was a shiny gold medal – the first of his professional career.
This is new ground for so many of this Liverpool squad, new feelings and new experiences. Who could begrudge them, this team of unlikely heroes, recruited from Newcastle and Sunderland, Roma and Hull. The Glaswegian and the Wearsider, the Brazilians and the Dutchies. The local boy and the grumpy Yorkshireman, the piano-playing Belgian. The Senegalese prince and the Egyptian king.
They’ve all suffered to get here. They’ve been relegated, they’ve been discarded, sold, written off. They’ve dealt with critics and doubters. Haters. They’ve been told they’re not good enough, not fit to lace the boots of those have come before them.
And here they are, chests out, shoulders back. The top of the mountain. The Kings of Europe.
How does it feel?
“Time for a party!” smiled Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, an infectious, relentlessly positive character. “Where’s my captain?” yelled Adam Lallana, his season ruined by injury but his smile wider than the Mersey tunnel. “I’ve lost my voice,” croaked Xherdan Shaqiri, a Champions League winner for the second time in six years.
There are genuine bonds within this squad, and nights like this will only strengthen them. Liverpool needed a trophy, we were told. They needed something tangible to underline their progress under Jurgen Klopp. They needed to prove they can be winners as well as entertainers.
Job done. And the hope, for Klopp, for his players and for his supporters, is that this is just the start. They’ll be disappointed if they have to wait seven years for their next trophy, put it that way.
This is a team, a squad, in its prime. The majority – James Milner being the exception – are in their mid-to-late 20s, and tied to long-term contracts. Milner will get another year on his, Joel Matip and Divock Origi will be offered extensions this summer. Salah, Alisson, Firmino, Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho, Sadio Mane, Andy Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, they’re all here to stay. They’re all among the best in the world in their position, and they’ll all improve under Klopp.
No wonder the manager was grinning like a Cheshire cat as he made his way through the throng and onto the bus. “They all have the best times in their career ahead of them, which is big,” he had told his post-match press conference. He knows there will be more to come from this team.
He had spoken with surprising calmness, given the circumstances – his television interviews were rather more animated – but spoke of feeling “relieved, more than anything.” He dismisses the idea of pressure, but he knew the importance of that first trophy. The monkey is off his back.
“I’m happy for the boys,” he said. “Look, you know what people said about a couple of the players in this team and stuff like that.
“But I can say this. Jordan Henderson is the captain of the Champions League winners 2019. That’s pretty satisfying.”
It sure is. Those who were here in Madrid won’t forget this in a hurry. The stories will last a lifetime.
Some night. Some team.