John Green reviews the song You'll Never Walk Alone the performance of a Polish goalkeeper named Jerzy Dudek on May 25th, 2005.
John Green reviews the song You'll Never Walk Alone the performance of a Polish goalkeeper named Jerzy Dudek on May 25th, 2005.
Hello and welcome to The Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review different facets of the human centered planet on a five star scale. I’m John Green, still recording at home. And today I’ll be reviewing a song called “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and the performance of a Polish goalkeeper named Jerzy Dudek on May 25th, 2005.
But let’s begin with a song. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a real one-star month, not least because I do not have a brain that is very well-suited to this. I find more and more, incidentally, that I refer to it as “it” and “this” without naming or needing to name, because we are sharing the rare human experience so ubiquitous that the pronouns require no antecedent.
Horror and suffering abound in every direction, and I want this podcast to be a break from it, for you and for me, but still it makes its way in, like light through window blinds, like floodwater through shut doors.
It occurs to me that you are listening in my future, a fact that has always been true but now seems relevant. Maybe you are listening in a future so distant from my present that this is over. I mean, I know it will never fully end--the next normal will be different from the last one. But there will be a next normal, and I hope you are living in it, and I hope I am living in it with you. But in the meantime, we have to live in this.
It occurs to me that the phrase “in the meantime” seems a pretty good one for this moment. We really are living in the meantime. And here in that time, I have found comfort in a song.
It started in Budapest in 1909, when the Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnar debuted his new play, Liliom. In the play, Liliom, a troubled and periodically violent young carousel barker, falls in love with a woman named Julie. And when Julie becomes pregnant, Liliom attempts a robbery to provide financial support for his burgeoning family, but the robbery is a disaster, and Liliom dies. He ends up in purgatory and then sixteen years later, he is allowed a single day to visit his now-teenage daughter, Louise.
The play flopped in Budapest, but Molnar was not a playwright who suffered from a shortage of self-belief, so he continued trying to stage productions around Europe and then eventually in the U.S., where a 1921 translation of the play attracted good reviews and moderate box office success.
The story might have ended there if it hadn’t been for Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. The composer Giacomo Puccini wanted to adapt Liliom into an opera, but Molnar refused to sell him the rights saying, “I want Liliom to be remembered as a play by Molnar, not as an opera by Puccini.” Instead, Molnar sold the rights to Rodgers and Hammerstein, the musical theater duo who were fresh off the success of Oklahoma with an Exclamation Point, and who reworked Liliom into the only version of it now remembered, the famed musical Carousel, which debuted in 1945.
In the musical, Rodgers and Hammersteins’ song “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is sung twice--first to encourage the newly widowed Julie after her husband’s death, and then by Louise’s classmates years later, at a graduation ceremony. Louise doesn’t want to join in the song--she’s too upset--but even though her father is now invisible to her, Louise can feel his presence and encouragement, and so eventually she starts to sing.
The lyrics of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” contain only the most obvious metaphors: It tells us to walk on through the wind and through the rain, which are among the most common obstacles one might face when walking. It tells us to walk on with hope in our hearts, which is just aggressively cheesy. And yet, it works. Maybe it’s the song’s repetition of those words, “Walk on.” I mean, I think two of the fundamental facts of being a person are 1. Whether we can walk or not, we must go on. And then also 2. None of us ever walks alone. We may feel alone--in fact, we will feel alone--but even in the crushing grind of isolation, we aren’t alone. Like Louise at her graduation, those who are distant or even gone are still with us, still encouraging us to walk on.
The song has been covered by, like, everyone--from Frank Sinatra to Johnny Cash to Aretha Franklin. In 2020, a version of the song partly sung by a 99-year-old World War II veteran shot to the top of the charts in the UK, where “You’ll Never Walk Alone” has become a kind of anthem for this moment. But the most famous cover of the song came in 1963 from Gerry and the Pacemakers, a band that like the Beatles, were from Liverpool, managed by Brian Epstein, and recorded by George Martin. In keeping with their band name, the Pacemakers changed the meter of the song, increasing the tempo, giving the dirge a bit of pep to it, and their version, sung by Gerry Mardsen, was a #1 hit in 1963. And fans of Liverpool Football Club almost immediately began to sing the song together in the stands during games.
That summer, when Liverpool’s legendary manager Bill Shankly heard Gerry and the Pacemakers play “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” Shankly famously told Gerry Mardsen, “Gerry, my son, I have given you a football team, and you have given us a song.”
Today, the words “You’ll Never Walk Alone” are etched in wrought iron above the gates of Anfield, Liverpool’s stadium. Liverpool’s famous Danish defender Daniel Agger has YNWA tattooed on the knuckles of his right hand. Whenever Liverpool fans gather, the song is sung at the beginning and end of every game--sometimes in exaltation, often in lamentation. When Bill Shankly died in 1981, Gerry Mardsen sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at the memorial service--as it has been sung at many funerals for many Liverpool supporters. And part of the genius of the Pacemakers’ version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is its adaptability; former Liverpool player and manager Kenny Dalglish said, “It covers adversity and sadness and it covers … success.” It’s a song about sticking together even when your dreams are “tossed and blown.” It’s a song both about the storm and about the golden sky that dawns afterward.
At first blush, it may seem odd that the world’s most popular football song comes from musical theater, since “theater people” are often imagined in opposition to “jocks” or sporty types. But football is theater, and fans make it musical theater. The anthem of West Ham United is called “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” and at the start of each game, you’ll see thousands of grown adults blowing bubbles from the stands as they sing, “I’m forever blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air, They fly so high, nearly reach the sky, then like my dreams they fade and die.”
Manchester United fans refashioned Julia Ward Howe’s U.S. Civil War anthem “Battle Hymn of the Republic” into the song “Glory, Glory Man United.” Manchester City fans sing “Blue Moon,” a 1934 Rodgers and Hart number. All these songs are made great by the communities singing them--they are celebrations of unity and togetherness--in sorrow and triumph, through the wind and through the rain. When the bubble is flying, and when the bubble is popping.
I know the lyrics are cheesy, but the thing about “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is that the lyrics aren’t wrong. Like, they don’t claim the world is a just or happy place. They don’t minimize suffering or fear. But still, we find ways to walk on with hope in our hearts. And just like Louise at the end of Carousel, even if you don’t really believe when you start singing that you’ll never walk alone, you believe it a little more when you finish. And because the song is addressed to “You,” in singing it, you are preaching this good news not just to yourself, but to everyone who can hear you.
A couple weeks ago a video made the rounds online in which a group of UK paramedics sang through a glass wall to their colleagues on the other side, who were working in an Intensive Care Unit.
You’ll never walk alone.
The stadia are empty. But even now, especially now, we must find ways to sing to each other, and to encourage each other. What a word that is, en-courage. Though our dreams be tossed and blown, still, we sing ourselves and one another into courage, and we walk on.
I give “You’ll Never Walk Alone” four and a half stars.
After the break, we’ll turn our attention to Jerzy Dudek. But first . . .
Here in the second half of the show, I’d like to tell you a story of joy and wonder and stupidity. I miss sports. I miss them terribly. I know sports don’t matter in the scheme of things, but I miss the luxury of caring about stuff that doesn’t matter. The late Pope John Paul II once supposedly said that “Of all the unimportant things, football is the most important.” I yearn for the unimportant things at the moment. So here is a football story that begins in southern Poland, only about 60 miles from where Pope John Paul II was born.
It’s 1984, and a 10 year old coal-miners son named Jerzy Dudek is living in the tiny mining town of Szczyglowice, a word incidentally that gets all the way to its eighth letter before arriving at a confirmed vowel. That year the mining company has organized a trip for miners’ spouses to go underground and see where the miners work. Jerzy and his older brother Dariusz wait outside the mine with their father, as Renata Dudek journeys thousands of feet down into the mineshaft. When she returns, she starts kissing her husband, crying. Dudek would later recall, “She called us over and said, ‘Jerzy, Dariusz, promise me you will never go down the mine.”
Jerzy recalled that he and his brother just laughed, “because we were thinking to ourselves, ‘Well, what else are we going to do?’”
By then, Pope John Paul II, whom young Jerzy idolised, was living in the Vatican, a couple miles away from Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, which that year hosted the finals of the European Cup, a big soccer tournament where all the best teams in Europe play each other. It’s now known as the Champions League. That year, the final of the European Club pitted the hometown club Roma FC against Liverpool Football Club.
At the time, Liverpool’s goalkeeper was a guy named Bruce Grobbelaar who was, even by goalie standards, rather eccentric. He warmed up via walking on his hands and hanging off the top of the goal, often drank--I’m quoting him here--“a dozen or so” beers after a Liverpool loss. He also was credibly accused of match-fixing.
But Grobbelaar is best known for that European Cup final in 1984. The game went to a penalty shoot-out where for some reason, Grobbelaar decided to feign wobbly legged nervousness as one of the Roma penalty takers ran up to shoot. Put off by Grobbelaar’s spaghetti legs, the Roma player skyed his shot over the crossbar and Liverpool won their fourth European Cup.
Back in southern Poland, young Jerzy Dudek loved football, although leather balls were very hard to come by in his impoverished community, so they usually played with rubber balls or even with old tennis balls. He ended up a goalkeeper mostly because he was tall, but he didn’t start out especially skilled at the position. His first coach told him, “You dive like a sack of potatoes.” By seventeen, Dudek was in training to become a miner, and as part of his vocational training, he worked in the coal mine two days a week.
In many ways, he liked the work. He liked the camaraderie in the mine, the feeling of mutual reliance. That’s also what he liked about football. Dudek couldn’t afford real goalie gloves as a teenager playing for the mine company team, so he wore his father’s work gloves. To make him feel like a real goalie, he drew an Adidas logo on them. At 19, he was making just over a hundred dollars a month as the goalkeeper for a semipro team while still working for the mine company. By 21, he would later say that he felt himself melting “into the grayness.”
By then, Liverpool Football Club were melting into the grayness too there in the north of England. By the 1990s, most years Liverpool weren’t good enough to play in the Champions League, let alone win it.
In 1996, when Jerzy Dudek was 22, he caught the attention of a first-division Polish team, who signed him to play for a salary of around $400 a month. Six months later, he was transferred to a Dutch team, Feyenoord. And then, after a few years in Rotterdam, Dudek signed a multimillion dollar contract with Liverpool.
But he was miserable. Of the time, he wrote, “The first few days in Liverpool were the worst ones of my life. I felt really lonely. I was in a new place with a new language, which I couldn’t speak.” That, by the way, is taken from Dudek’s autobiography, which I am delighted to inform you is entitled A Big Pole in Our Goal. That’s the song Liverpool fans sang about him, to the tune of “The Whole World In His Hands.” We’ve got a Big Pole in our Goal, etc.
Before we get to May 25th, 2005, I just want to note one more thing, which is that professional goalkeepers spend a lot of time practicing trying to save penalty kicks. Like, Jerzy Dudek had faced tens of thousands of penalty kicks, and he always faced them in precisely the same way: He stood stock still in the middle of the goal until a moment before the ball was kicked, and then he dove one way or another. Always. Without exception.
The 2004-2005 season saw Liverpool go on a magical run through the Champions League, and by April, they were preparing to play the famed Italian club Juventus in the quarterfinals when Pope John Paul II died. Dudek ended up on the bench for that game--he couldn’t think straight after the death of his childhood hero, and found himself near tears as he confessed to the team doctor that he couldn’t play that night. Liverpool won the game nonetheless, and eventually made their way to the Champions League final, where they would play another Italian giant, AC Milan.
The final was played in Istanbul, and it began horribly for Dudek and Liverpool: Fifty one seconds into the game, Milan scored. They scored two more goals just before halftime. Dudek’s wife, at home in Poland preparing for their son’s first communion, recalled a “deathly silence” descending over the town.
Of the Liverpool locker room at halftime, Dudek wrote, “Everyone was broken.” Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher said, “My dreams had turned to dust.” He could hear the 40,000 Liverpool fans singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” in the stands above, but he knew it was “in sympathy more than belief.”
The rest I know by heart, because I’ve seen it so many times. Nine minutes after the second half begins, Liverpool’s captain Steven Gerrard heads in a goal. Liverpool score again two minutes later, and then again four minutes after that, and it’s 3-3. The match goes into thirty minutes of extra time. Milan are pouring on the pressure. It is so obvious that they are the better team. Liverpool’s players are exhausted, just hoping to get to a penalty shootout. And then with ninety seconds left in extra time, Jerzy Dudek makes a double save on two point-blank shots that happen within a second of each other. The save is so good that an entire chapter of A Big Pole in Our Goal is devoted to it. The save is so good that even now, fifteen years later, when I see replays of it I still think the Milan player is going to score. But instead, Jerzy Dudek makes the save every time, and the game goes to penalties.
So you’re Jerzy Dudek. You’ve been practicing saving penalties since you were a kid. You have your way of doing it. You’ve laid awake at night imagining this moment. The Champions League final, down to penalties, you in goal, standing stock still until the moment before the ball is kicked.
But then, one of your teammates, Jamie Carragher, runs up to you and jumps on your back and starts shouting at you. “Carra came up to me like he was crazy,” Dudek said. “He grabbed me and said, Jerzy Jerzy Jerzy, remember Bruce Grobbelaar.” Carra was screaming at him: Do the wobbly legs! Move around on the goal line! Just like in 1984!
But that was 21 years ago--with different players and a different coach and a different opponent. What could that moment possibly have to do with this one?
There are times in your life when you do things precisely as you have practiced and prepared for them. And then there are times in your life when you listen to Jamie Carragher. And so in the most important moment of Jerzy Dudek’s professional life, he decided to try something new.
His spaghetti legs didn’t look exactly like Grobbelaar’s had, but he danced on the goal line, his legs wobbling this way and that. “I didn’t recognize my husband,” Dudek’s wife Mirella said. “I couldn’t believe he … danced so crazily in the goal.”
Milan’s first penalty taker missed the goal entirely, and then Dudek saved two of the next four penalties, and Liverpool completed what came to be known as “The Miracle of Istanbul.”
Someone tell ten-year-old Jerzy Dudek that he is going to save two penalties in a European final by making the weirdest possible choice. Someone tell 21-year-old Jerzy Dudek playing for $1,800 a year that he is a decade away from lifting the European Cup. You can’t see the future coming--not the terrors, for sure, but you also can’t see the wonders that are coming, the moments of light-soaked joy that await each of us. These days, I often feel like I’m Jerzy Dudek walking out for the second half down three nil, feeling as hopeless as I do helpless. But of all the unimportant things, football is the most important, because seeing Jerzy Dudek sprint away from that final penalty save to be mobbed by his teammates reminds me that some day--and maybe someday soon--I will also be embraced by people I love. It is May of 2020 now, fifteen years since Dudek’s spaghetti legs, and this will end, and the light-soaked days are coming.
I give Jerzy Dudek’s performance on May 25th, 2005 five stars.
Thanks for listening to The Anthropocene Reviewed, which was written by me, edited by Stan Muller, and produced by Rosianna Halse Rojas and Jenny Lawton. Niki Hua helped out tremendously with research. Joe Plourde is our technical director, and Hannis Brown makes the music. Thanks also to Courtney, who wrote to suggest a review of “You'll Never Walk Alone”. If you’d like to suggest a review, or just say hi, you can email us at anthropocenereviewed at gmail dot com. Lastly, I’d like to thank Jerzy Dudek, for stopping Andrei Schevchenko’s penalty and by doing so giving me an intractable belief in the possibility of actual miracles.