‘Crazy, deafening’: My night in a Champions League final

The trip to Riyadh, to face the mighty Al Hilal, has been branded as travelling to hell. 

But for 27-year-old Alex Grant, it was one of those moments “that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.” 

The former Perth Glory central defender was on the wrong side of the scoreline in Al Hilal’s 2-0 triumph over Pohang Steelers in Asian football’s club showpiece. 

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But as he savoured the furnace of a Cup final in Saudi Arabia, he knew it was a cauldron he wants to experience again. 

“We arrived at the stadium, it was all a bit rushed, I don’t know how the AFC allocate times … but it all felt a little rushed, we didn’t have much time to prepare when we got to the stadium,” he said. 

“I went out onto the pitch as soon as we got there and a lot of the fans had already packed in and the atmosphere was electric to say the least, crazy.

The amount of people and the noise was deafening – I’ve probably never experienced anything like that in my life and hopefully I will again.

“It was an amazing feeling – it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. A good experience. 

“The fans echoed all game, I guess we knew they would play a major part in how the game would be.” 

Grant spoke to KEEPUP from his hotel in Saudi Arabia in the hours after the decider. But as the result sunk in, against a side, in their own backyard, that now has claims to be the mightiest in the continent’s history, Grant was only taking positives from the experience. 

“We can hold our heads high – we have done tremendously well in this competition and outdone ourselves in many respects; probably shushed a lot of people who had written us off from the start.

“To be into final is an amazing achievement and something I am proud of.”

The game

Pohang couldn’t have got off to a worse start. Despite focusing part of their preparation on quietening the crowd, and knowing that Al Hilal have a knack of scoring in the opening half hour, the last thing they wanted was to see Nasser Al Dawsari lash the ball home within … 16 SECONDS!

Grant assessed: “If you look at the goal, sometimes you have to put your hand up and say: there’s no stopping it. 

“It was an amazing goal – took a few touches and drilled it into the top bins. 

“I didn’t even notice at the time, not that it means anything now, if he played it with his hands, I just questioned that one when I was watching it before, if he handballs it in the lead up. But can’t take anything away from the strike itself.” 

Pohang rallied, and struck the woodwork, but two former European stars combined to put the result beyond doubt, with Bafetimbi Gomis feeding Moussa Marega, and “ultimately the better team won on the night”. 

“It is always good to play against top players, especially if they’ve played in the top leagues in the world,” Grant reflected.

I’m not phased playing those types of players, they’re the ones I want to play against to better myself and to get the best out of me.

“I have to perform, step up and I felt personally, I felt I gave a solid account of myself tonight.

“Obviously I can’t take much from a loss but I did alright for the most part. I’m just proud to have represented the team and to have payed in the final.”

Moussa Marega scored Al Hilal’s second goal

The journey & semi-final heroics

Grant, who was part of Glory’s Premiership winning side in 2018-2019, was the unlikely semi-final hero when his goal helped knock out rivals Ulsan Hyundai. The run to the final is one he said no one would have predicted four or five months ago. 

“Probably one of the best (moments of my career), I’d say,” he added. 

He continued: “Last year I felt was taken away from me due to the pandemic. I played with Glory in Tokyo and I knew it was a competition I wanted to play in again. 

“Coming to Pohang knowing they were in it, it was something I was every excited for and to have done this well and come this far, it has been a really proud moment for myself personally and I want to play in it again. “Obviously we won’t be in it next season but definitely a competition I really enjoyed and want to be back in.” 

The family sacrifice

Like many footballers abroad, Grant has had to adjust to being a foreigner during a global pandemic. 

That included leaving his young family in Korea, when having to go abroad for ACL trips or training camps, including one for a couple of weeks in Thailand earlier this year. 

“My wife Lauren and my son Lenny, they have been there the whole journey and I couldn’t have done it without them – they’ve been great support. 

“It is hard being a foreigner in another country especially during the pandemic when returning home is pretty much impossible. Having family and friends coming out to visit has been the same. 

They’ve been my rock. Been by my side and supported me all the way. Nice to get this far in the tournament. Give them back a bit. A reward as well. Makes it worthwhile.

Grant is now looking forward to getting back to some warmer weather at home over the summer, before enjoying life, proper, back in Korea post-pandemic. 

“We’ve definitely embraced the new culture and have adjusted and adapted well as a family, but it is still hard but … Lauren and Lenny had been able to go home when I was away in Thailand for three or four weeks, it was always harder going away having to leave them behind in Korea on their own.

“Little things like that next year, which might be able to happen, in terms of them going home, will make it a little easier to keep going. The people have been lovely, who we have met, the life in Pohang is pretty easy going.”