I need to start with a confession. Not many things bug me, but if there’s one thing that does, it’s the idea that my story is a football fairy tale.
I know when people say I’m some sort of Cinderella Man that it’s meant as a compliment. I appreciate that, but to be totally honest, it doesn’t feel like one, because it isn’t true.
No magic wands have been waved in my direction, I didn’t win some kind of lottery to land a spot on one of the biggest clubs in the world. The reason why I’m a Liverpool player is the same reason why I’m captain of my country: I’ve worked my bollocks off to get where I am, and by doing that, I’ve been able to make the most of whatever talent I have.
Why does this matter? In truth, it doesn’t matter to me as an individual. It probably doesn’t matter to my family, either. It only matters because there are God knows how many little Andy Robertsons out there. Kids who are struggling to convince people that their talent deserves an opportunity. Kids who just need a break to get to wherever they deserve to be.
Kids who might give up if they start believing that only a fairy tale can save them.
I’ve never wanted to be a poster boy, but if I’m going to be a poster boy for anything, it should be this ― if you don’t give up, and if you carry on believing in yourself when others are doubting you, you can make it. You can show that you are good enough.
Now I’ve got two kids of my own, that message is more important than ever. I don’t want them to think that their dad got a lucky break. I need them to understand that whatever potential they have can only be fulfilled if they put their minds to it. Fairy tales? That’s bedtime stuff.Paola de Grenet/The Players' TribuneOne of the best things about football is that there are loads of people like me. Most players get to the top because they are so driven. The Liverpool team that I’m a part of has no shortage of players like that.
Take Virgil van Dijk, for example, the best centre back in the world. How many coaches and scouts looked at him and thought he wasn’t destined for the top? He’ll tell you himself that there were plenty.
Mo Salah, one of the best finishers in the game today, was once discarded as not being good enough for a top Premier League side.
Jordan Henderson must have lost count of the times he has had his ability questioned – although never by anyone who has been fortunate enough to work with him – and here he is on the brink of captaining Liverpool in a second successive Champions League final.
I could go on and on, I really could. If these were all fairy tales, we’d have more than Hans Christian Andersen. They’re not, though. They are all examples of hard work and commitment making the difference.
The same applies to us as a team and to Liverpool as a club. We are where we are because of our work ethic and our belief that pretty much anything is possible. That’s the reason we were able to come back from 3–0 down against a great Barcelona team. We didn’t wait for fate to play its hand and hope that it would go in our favour, we forced fate to go our way and not even Lionel Messi, the best player I have ever set eyes on, could stop that.
Maybe there were those outside Liverpool who didn’t believe we would make it to the final. To be fair to them, they had more than enough reasons, especially after we had our arses kicked in the Nou Camp. There was something about that first leg, though, that gave us belief. We had seen enough to know that we could compete against Barcelona. The problem was that all of the decisive moments had gone against us, and we knew that with Anfield behind us, that momentum could be reversed.
If I was a sympathetic type, I’d probably feel sorry for opposition players coming to Anfield on European nights. What they’re up against is almost unfair. That intoxicating mix of history, passion and unshakable belief is a hell of an advantage to have, and that’s why Liverpool have beaten the odds on many occasions, and that’s why our supporters turn up convinced that the seemingly impossible is possible. They’ve seen it before, so why shouldn’t they expect it?If I was a sympathetic type, I’d probably feel sorry for opposition players coming to Anfield on European nights.
We knew that we had a chance when we were in the dressing room waiting to run out. We knew that the manager believed in us because he had told us. We knew that the supporters believed in us because we could hear them. My God, we could hear them. And, probably most important of all, we knew that we believed in ourselves and in each other.
That’s why when Divock scored in the seventh minute, I didn’t just believe. I knew. I knew what was coming — what Anfield was going to create. I hope that doesn’t sound disrespectful in any way, because I couldn’t have more respect for Barcelona, but on that night it wasn’t about them. It was about us. We were fired up by the fans and our hunger was on another level.
It hadn’t been easy to feel like that in the minutes after Messi had worked his magic in the first leg. At that stage, we felt flat, which was probably unavoidable. Although we were in Barcelona, Madrid couldn’t have felt further away. Then the manager came into the dressing room, bouncing and wearing his trademark massive smile.
“Boys, boys, boys!” he says, “We are not the best team in the world. Now you know that. Maybe they are! Who cares? Who cares! We can still beat the best team in the world. Let’s go again.”
It might have taken me a second, or maybe the entire flight back to Liverpool to believe him, but in hindsight that was the moment that changed everything for us. In football, everyone always talks about belief. Every team says they had it after a comeback. But that’s not the case at every club. It’s just not. The manager, he starts it all. He lights the touch paper and then Anfield does what it does.
I remember in the warmup, the place was jumping. It felt like everyone was on top of us, so God knows what it was like for the Barcelona lads. When Div scored so early, you could just see it in their eyes. The fans went insane. I couldn’t hear a thing. I just remember looking at Hendo, Milly and Virgil — those boys barely cracked a smile.
They just waved their arms at the crowd, as if to say, “We’re gonna go again.”
Shaun Botterill/Getty ImagesI suppose that night will go down in history. Anybody who loves this club will remember where they were, and who they were watching with. For me personally, what made it even more special was where I had come from to get there. I knew how hard it had been and I knew how, if I had listened to others, I wouldn’t have made it anywhere near Anfield that night — except maybe as a fan who wanted to understand what all the fuss was about.
I had grown up going to Celtic Park with Mum, Dad and my brother. We had four season tickets. My brother and I had Henrik Larsson posters everywhere. Legend. Absolute legend. I even had green wallpaper. Celtic was a part of our family. That’s just the way it was and the way it still is. I joined the youth team as a wee lad, just bombing around the pitch pretending I was at Celtic Park.
At the start, I actually played up top for a bit. Dad even paid me two quid a goal. I think I made £75 one season — unlike now, when I’d probably end up owing him money, seeing as I’m not exactly Salah in the scoring stakes. Over time, I found my way into midfield, and in my last season with Celtic I bounced between the middle and left side quite a bit. They’d brought in a new technical director that year and apparently I just wasn’t in the plans for whatever reason.
At my end-of-year interview, the coaches let me know they wouldn’t be bringing me back. I was 15. One year away from getting a pro contract. One year from being a proper Celtic player. But it was over, just like that, and it hurt like hell.
Mum hated to see us cry. Still does. But she saw me shed more than a few tears that day. I remember she grabbed me a takeout curry from my favourite place to try to cheer me up. It was midweek, too. I almost never got midweek curry. I couldn’t even eat much of that. That’s how she knew how bad I was hurting.Paola de Grenet/The Players' Tribune
It was just gutting, but thankfully my family really had my back. They let me keep chasing my dream, even when it might have felt unrealistic to keep going. We decided to give it another go at Queens Park in 2010. Bit of a smaller club in Glasgow, to say the least. Life was different there. I was making six quid a night. It was a working-class type of club, and most players were coming from jobs they worked during the day. It was no different for me.
I did all sorts of jobs to scrape by. I got set up with landscaping gigs, I cleaned up after the first team, and I even worked down at Hampden Park during Scotland matches. My parents told me if I didn’t start to find my game that year, it’d probably be best to start looking at Uni options. So I just put everything I had into getting better every day. That was real work, real pressure.
People always ask me about the pressure of playing for Liverpool. And it’s there, trust me, I feel it. But there’s that pressure, and then there’s the pressure of playing for your life — knowing that if you can’t figure it out, you have to give up on everything you love. That’s the harshest pressure I’ve ever felt. And in that situation, I began to truly believe in myself — maybe for the first time in my life. I didn’t really have another choice.
Dundee United approached me a few years later, and that allowed me to train every day while making enough money that I didn’t need the side gigs. But I think in the end it was good for me to see what people deal with day to day, outside of the bubble of football. When I got the chance to play in the Premier League with Hull City in 2014, I had lived a lot of real life. My ambitions were always to be a solid SPL player. When I was landscaping and emptying the bins, I didn’t think I’d ever be playing Champions League football, especially for Liverpool.
It’s funny, actually … a few clubs called when I was in preseason with Hull in 2017, but I wasn’t really that interested. My missus was pregnant, and we were in the process of getting everything ready for our big arrival — that was our top priority, like any expectant parents.
Then I heard Liverpool wanted me.
When you hear Liverpool want you, you call your agent back in about five seconds. I couldn’t sign the contract fast enough, to be honest.
I got a dose of reality pretty quickly, though. The medical took two days, and it was brutal. My diet was weird because the medical staff had to do so many tests to make sure I was fit and was going to stay fit. After I passed those tests, I had to go to Melwood to do a lactate test. I was running it with Danny Ings, and after a few laps around the pitch, I felt something going on with my stomach. I knew things were going to get bad, but what can you do? I just kept running. A few minutes later, I’m on my knees, puking my guts out on the Melwood pitch.
This hallowed ground. This place where all these legends have trained. King Kenny. Rushie. Stevie Gerrard. And here I am, some wee lad from Glasgow, spewing up in front of the Liverpool medical staff.
If first appearances count, God knows what they thought about me.
The next day, I met the manager and I heard his laugh from a mile away. He’d obviously heard about my test. I turn around and he’s walking toward me, rubbing his belly and pointing at me. The staff behind him are having a laugh, too.
Then he gave me a big hug. After that, I relaxed a bit.
The whole squad made me feel welcome that week, but honestly, it took a really long time for it to sink in that I was a Liverpool player. I wore the red shirt. I wore the club tracksuit everywhere we went. I was wearing it around the house. But I still didn’t feel like a Liverpool player.
I was in and out of the lineup for quite a few months. And the system we play is so complex, I was working so hard in training to learn it all, to understand what the manager wanted from his fullbacks. When I wouldn’t see my name on the teamsheet, my belief in myself started to dip. It did. But all my experiences in life, and the tough times I went through at Celtic and Queens Park, it taught me to be patient.
So I would just come back to training every day and try to catch the manager’s eye by working harder than everyone else. Eventually, he noticed. I think he was just waiting for me to get it — to feel like a Liverpool player and have that confidence. And when I slotted into the lineup, I was ready.
Our supporters have been incredible to me since I got here. And last year they really carried us all the way to the final whistle and beyond in Kiev. That night was hard, and I don’t think you ever really get over a match like that. You just live with it. That night, I remember the silence in our dressing room, I remember the painful flight home. And I remember hearing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” after the final whistle.
The supporters still sang their hearts out, and that sticks with you.
We got back to Melwood at four in the morning, and the manager gave us all a hug and told us how proud he was of our team. And he also told us that we’d be back. Somehow, after a very long road … after being down 0–3 to bloody Barcelona … he was right.
We are back.
Laurence Griffiths/Getty ImagesIt’s not lost on any of us what this opportunity means. This has been an incredible season, full of so many ups and downs and emotional moments. But for me, it’s also been a chance to take a step back and see the full picture. From being released by Celtic and sobbing over my curry, to making six quid a night grinding away in Scotland, to signing for Liverpool and putting on that red tracksuit, barely believing it.
It feels good to have another crack at this final. Nobody deserves it more than our supporters, who have backed us through the good times and the heartbreak. But like us, they will know that we are up against a top side in Spurs. Mauricio Pochettino and his players will be just as determined as we are to do something special in a final like this.
The thing that matters most is that our fate is in our hands. We know that. And if there’s one thing I can guarantee about this team, about this group of players, it’s that we will stop at nothing to try to make our supporters’ dream come true.
If that does happen, it won’t be a fairy tale.
It’ll be because we deserve it.