Shields back at Anfield – what has he missed?

Kieran Beckles
By Kieran Beckles
Photo via WikipediaWhy has Michael Shields been released and what has he missed during his prolonged absence from Anfield?

Photo via Wikipedia

“Me? I still wasn’t ready to believe it. They were going to turn around in a minute and say it had been a mistake.”

The initial reaction of Michael Shields after being told he was a free man.

In a remarkable week, Shields went from mopping a floor in a young offenders’ institution in Warrington, to receiving rapturous applause as he took his seat for Liverpool’s Premier League clash with Burnley.

On July 26 2005, Shields was found guilty of attempted murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The conviction was subject to much controversy in Bulgaria and inevitably England.

The night in question Liverpool fans had been celebrating the club’s historic European triumph over AC Milan which took place a few days earlier.

A drunken fracas occurred in a local seaside resort in Bulgaria which resulted in a local Bulgarian being assaulted. Witness accounts claimed that Shields struck Martin Georgiev on the head with an object.

Two Liverpool fans who were unconnected to Shields were convicted of minor offences.

Following a review of witness accounts including that of Georgiev, Shields was hauled into custody. After a contentious trial he was found guilty.

But just days later another English fan Graham Sankey admitted to the assault. Sankey was cited as saying he could not let “an innocent man take the blame for what he had done.”

Sankey refused to be trialled in Bulgaria or via a video conference in England held by a Bulgarian court. Subsequently Shields remained in jail.

His release last week sparked the start of an incredible few days. On Saturday the television cameras were quick to capture an elated Michael Shields at Anfield watching his beloved Liverpool comprehensively thrash Burnley.

Shields was imprisoned just after his club’s first European triumph in 21 years. It marked the first success of the Spanish revolution which was building momentum under charge Rafa Benitez.

His last Liverpool memory before commencing his jail sentence would have been that unforgettable night at the Ataturk Stadium where he will have witnessed one of the most captivating European finals of all time.

So why has Shields been released and what has he missed during his prolonged absence from Anfield?

Early in July 2005, Steven Gerrard penned a new contract at Liverpool. The talismanic club captain spurned the advances of Chelsea in a frenetic 48 hours where it really was a question of ‘destination unknown’ for the midfielder.

After missing out on Champions League qualification, the clamour for the reigning champions to be handed the opportunity to defend their crown resulted in UEFA granting special dispensation to Liverpool. It ensured the club would feature in the 2005-06 Champions League preliminary stages.

The players successfully overcame the Welsh side TNS and the subsequent qualifying rounds to reach the group stages. They however eventually crashed out to Benfica in the following round.

Rafa Benitez did guide his side to a second consecutive cup final, this time it was the FA Cup. A running theme under the Spaniard seemed to be reborn as his side once again came from behind to defeat West Ham United at the Millennium Stadium.

‘The Steven Gerrard Final’ saw the captain cement his reputation as one of the best midfielders in the world. Liverpool’s number eight scored an emphatic volley followed by a majestic strike to level the match at 3-3. The cup went to Anfield after Liverpool won on penalties.

The 2006-07 campaign climaxed with a rematch against familiar foes AC Milan in Athens. Unfortunately there was no fairytale on this occasion as the Rossoneri avenged 2005 with a 2-1 victory.

Meanwhile off the pitch, Shields had succeeded in having his jail sentence reduced from 15 to 10 years but was refused a retrial. October 2006, saw his transfer from Bulgaria to an English jail after paying a fine of £90,000.

May 2007 was a particularly dispiriting month for Liverpool fans. Benitez’s side fell short in their pursuit of a sixth European cup, but much more importantly Shields himself suffered a crushing defeat.

The European Court of Human Rights rejected his appeal. The court dismissed Shields’ claim that his rights had been violated during the trial in Bulgaria.

The summer months brought renewed hope for Liverpool. They unveiled the prize signature of Fernando Torres. Benitez was gradually building a side capable of challenging for the Premier League.

Overtly Shields began to foster hope of an early release. In November 2007, the Bulgarian government suggested that the responsibility of pardoning Shields lay with the British government.

Support for the prisoner mounted. He passed a lie detector test with ‘flying colours’. The same could not be said for Liverpool who began to stutter on the pitch, ending a second year trophyless despite the flourishing partnership between Gerrard and Torres.

The 2008-09 season saw Liverpool come the closest yet under Rafa Benitez to an elusive 19th league title. A memorable victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford was one particular highlight.

The one criticism fired at the Liverpool squad during the last campaign was their inability to beat the perceived ‘smaller teams’.

A judicial review was conducted, reanalysing the Michael Shields case. The High Court ruled that justice secretary Jack Straw does obtain the power to pardon the defendant.

In February 2009, the case builds up momentum as Straw requests the Merseyside police to research into the facts of the case. Support for Shield reverberates around the city of Liverpool.

The club issued their own message of support for Shields. The players wore ‘Free Michael Now’ t-shirts during a warm-up before a game earlier in the season. In addition the club fundraised part of the £90,000 fine. April 2009, saw a parade though Liverpool as part of the campaign to release Shields.

Jack Straw originally dismissed the proposal of a pardon earlier in July. But the news broke a week ago that Shields was being released after receiving a royal pardon.

The reason for Jack Straw’s remarkable change of heart still remains unclear. He is cited as saying that new evidence had ‘come to light’.

Nevertheless the 22-year-old drove out of Thorn Croft prison with a thumbs up and a refreshing smile. He received a warm welcome in his local community of Wavertree.

Indeed his presence at Anfield seemed to inspire the Liverpool players. Whereas last season Liverpool may have struggled to overcome the newly promoted teams, on this occasion Burnley proved to be no obstacle as the Reds ran out 4-0 winners.

A sign of better things to come for both Liverpool and Michael Shields.

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