"Me? I still wasn't ready to believe it," said Liverpool fan Michael Shields after being told he was a free man. "They were going to turn around in a minute and say it had been a mistake."
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.
That night, Liverpool fans had been celebrating the club's historic European triumph over AC Milan that took place a few days earlier.
A drunken fracas occurred in a local seaside resort in Bulgaria, resulting in the assault of a local Bulgarian. 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 offenses.
Following a review of witness accounts, including Georgiev's, 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 saying he could not let "an innocent man take the blame for what he had done."
Sankey refused to be trialed in Bulgaria or by a Bulgarian court via video conference in England. Subsequently, Shields remained in jail.
Shields's release last week sparked the start of an incredible few days.
On Saturday, the television cameras were quick to capture an elated 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.
What has Shields 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 was a question of "destination unknown" for the midfielder.
After missing out on Champions League qualification, the clamor 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 be featured 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. But they eventually crashed out to Benfica in the following round.
Rafa Benitez did guide his side to a second consecutive cup final, this time 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" against West Ham saw the captain cement his reputation as one of the best midfielders in the world. He scored on 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 fairy tale on this occasion, as the Rossoneri avenged 2005 with a 2-1 victory.
Meanwhile, off the pitch, Shields succeeded in having his jail sentence reduced from 15 to 10 years but couldn't get 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.
Shields suffered an even more crushing defeat.
The European Court of Human Rights rejected his appeal. The court dismissed Shields's 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.
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 colors." The same could not be said for Liverpool, who began to stutter on the pitch, ending a second straight trophy-less year, despite the flourishing partnership between Gerrard and Torres.
The 2008-09 season saw Rafa Benitez get Liverpool the closest it's been 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."
At the same time, a judicial review was conducted that reanalyzed 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 built up momentum as Straw had the Merseyside police research 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 pregame warmup 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.
Straw dismissed the proposal of a pardon in July. But the news broke just a week ago that Shields was being released after receiving a royal pardon.
The reason for Straw’s remarkable change of heart 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 thumbs up and a refreshing smile. He received a warm welcome in his hometown 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, Burnley proved to be no obstacle on this occasion, as the Reds ran out 4-0 winners.
It was a sign of better things to come for both Liverpool and Michael Shields.
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