Words: Dan Sandison
Images: Offside Sports Photography
His armband proved he was a Red.
We’d been told that before we knew what it meant. Then it appeared, in the early, hazy days of Twitter, a picture of the former Atlético Madrid talisman securing a fluorescent yellow captain’s armband—emblazoned with the words “You’ll Never Walk Alone”—around his bicep. We were hooked…
Like Manchester United loves someone who “just gets it” and Everton need players and managers who “are Everton”, Liverpool fans have always been keen to reverse engineer a player’s story to fit their narrative. Dirk Kuyt was the working-class hero who understood Liverpool because of his humble roots; Dalglish was the man from a divided port city obsessed with football, whose transition to Liverpool legend simply made sense; and boyhood Evertonians like Ian Rush, Robbie Fowler, and Jamie Carragher? Well, they’d just seen the light. We’d had it before and we’d have it again, but with Fernando Torres it didn’t seem like Liverpudlians needed to perform the required mental gymnastics to make the Spaniard fit in.
He was from a working-class community in Madrid, sure, and he had been a lifelong fan of a team that played in red and white, but it was the armband that mattered. A striker for another club had heard our anthem and felt compelled to take it with him on match days. The story goes that he and some childhood friends had liked the message of the song, his pals had got it tattooed while Torres had elected to wear it on his Atleti armband. He’d later suggest that when the secret message was first revealed, caught by an eagle-eyed photographer as Torres tangled with a Real Sociedad defender in 2007, that was when he “took his first step towards Anfield.”
The armband was just the beginning, though, and Kopites immediately accepted the Spaniard as one of their own. Fernando (and armband) were immortalised in song (and bounce), and Torres began to repay The Kop’s adulation with goals. In his first season with the Reds, he became the first Liverpool player to score 20 goals in a season since Robbie Fowler in 1995/96, he eclipsed Michael Owen’s best tally and matched Roger Hunt’s record for scoring in consecutive games for Liverpool (8). If characteristic sentimentality hadn’t been enough to cement his place in Liverpool hearts, quality on the pitch had done that within his first year at the club. Liverpool had a world-beating striker, for the first time in the best part of a decade.
By the time the end of the season came, the rest of Europe had sat up and taken notice, and ahead of the European Championships in the summer of 2008, Nike helped visualise what everyone on Merseyside had been thinking. Over the course of one minute and ten seconds, with a flamenco guitar soundtrack and Peter Serafinowicz singing in Spanish, we got a glimpse of Merseyside turning muy Español ahead of the tournament. Flags flew from high-rises and the Mersey ferry, Scousers took Spanish lessons, the iconic Cavern Club was hastily transformed into The Caverna Club, and the man himself interrupted an impromptu kickabout in one of the city’s parks, turning its participants into Spaniards.
For a city that had long thumbed its nose at the nationalistic fervour around international tournaments and had always been uncomfortable with the label of ‘English’, this couldn’t have come at a better moment. What may have seemed a cynical advertising ploy to elevate Nike’s biggest asset ahead of a tournament that Spain would go on to win, struck a chord on Merseyside. A team that had been so desperate for a talismanic number 9 now had perhaps the best in the world, and it seemed that he was truly ours. Even Nike had said so.
When Torres returned to Anfield the following season as a European champion, the love affair showed no sign of cooling off. In a season hampered by injuries he still managed to take his tally of Liverpool goals to 50, seeing off his old enemy Real Madrid with a 5–0 victory on aggregate in the Champions League and enraging Manchester United fans by raising five fingers after leaving their world-class centre half pairing in a heap at Old Trafford. Transfer talk was played down, and the only talk of leaving came when he was asked if he would ever return to Atletico Madrid: "I don't know if I will retire there, but I would like to go back and finish some things that are left to do.”
Everyone knows what happened next, and Liverpool fans more so than anyone. A hasty contract extension was drawn up in light of renewed interest from Chelsea, and Torres completed a third trophy-less season at Liverpool—scoring 22 goals in 32 games. Surgery on a knee injury meant he missed the end of the 2009/10 season, and when he returned he was faced by a new Liverpool manager in Roy Hodgson. In January, a bid was made by Chelsea and rejected by Liverpool. Torres handed in a transfer request and forced through a move to London to win trophies. He did just that, claiming the Champions League in his first season in West London.
Liverpool’s golden boy had been snatched away from them. Overnight. What happened in the aftermath on Merseyside was what happens with any loss. Denial was replaced by anger, then by bargaining, then by depression, and then by Andy Carroll, and then, eventually, by Luis Suárez. Acceptance would come much, much later.
Liverpool fans were hurt, and perhaps we deserved to be. Maybe believing that an armband with some lyrics on, and a flashy Nike advert meant that a young man from Madrid was "ours" is ludicrous. It probably is, but in the grand scheme of football, and during those three magic seasons with Torres at its peak, it didn’t matter. He was ours, and he just "got it". Whatever that means.
For a brief, exciting moment Fernando Torres was Liverpool’s number 9. He was ours in every sense.