Tuesday, May 06, 2014


So that's what it felt like to be an AC Milan fan after 'that night in Istanbul'.

As I laid in bed last night after another crazy Liverpool match all I could think of was that moment 9 years ago. The gap between AC Milan and Liverpool in 2005 was probably similar to the one between Liverpool and Crystal Palace last night.

But despite my recollections of the greatest final in footballing history I still tell myself that teams don't come back from 3 goals down in crunch matches. They just don't.

It is even more unbelievable when the team that makes the comeback has nothing to play for besides pride. Safe from relegation, after being clear candidates for the drop in the first few months, Palace were beaten. Beaten by a side with something to play for. A first league title in 24 years.

For nearly 80 minutes Liverpool strode around the pitch with confidence, scored 3 goals and probably should have had a couple more.

I'm not going to blame the players or the manager for the resulting collapse. We dominated the match completely and had a 10 minute period in which we simply let the occasion get to us. For AC Milan in 2005 it was 6 minutes. 6 minutes out of 120 in which they let their guard down and the rest was history.

I don't blame the team for continuing to push for goals at 3-0 up. Such is the nature of this crazy season, there was some belief that we could overturn a GD deficit of 9 in two games. And let's be honest here, under Brendan Rodgers we've seen how quickly 3 goals can become 5 or 6. It made sense to keep pushing.

The only criticism I could have is that we didn't react to conceding the first goal. That was the point to drop deep and take control of the match. Instead we continued as before. Pushing for another goal and it cost us. A counter-attack. A sucker punch. And after that second it just felt inevitable. Like AC Milan during those 6 minutes we were like a rabbit caught in headlights. A shadow of the team that had looked completely rampant moments before.

That's one of the reasons I love football. It's just preferable when the team turning things around is my team.

But in a season of laughing in the face of expectations I can't bring myself to turn on the manager and players for trying to wrest control of the title away from Man City. They gambled. They lost. If we had the season to play again, I'd want us to play it the same way. Perhaps next year with a larger squad we can be more pragmatic. This year we played the only way that could work. We played to blitz the opposition, because that's what we do well.

This style of play has pretty much guaranteed us 2nd place in the league. The team that was considered the 6th (maybe 7th) best in the division has exceeded all expectations.

I know it won't console a lot of fans. I'm still in shock at what happened last night. But I've seen enough football to know that regardless of the finish this is not a failure. It's not even a glorious failure. We're far ahead of were we expected to be in August 2013.

So we enter the final few days of the 2013/14 season with Man City firmly in control. They need to lose one or draw both of their last two 'home bankers' to give Liverpool any hope.

The fat lady hasn't started wailing yet, but she's taking a glass of water and clearing her throat for the inevitable.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Les Grandes Équipes

Ce sont les meilleures équipes
Sie sind die allerbesten Mannschaften
The main event

Wednesday 9th December 2009. The last time Liverpool Football Club played in Europe's Premier Competition

Not long before that date Liverpool were ranked as the number one team in Europe. Our record against Les Grandes Équipes was remarkable under Rafa Benitez. The league eluded his team. But Europe was another matter.

In August 2013, most pundits had Liverpool as an outside bet for a return to The Top Four - the target that has become more important to club owners than actually winning the league. Get top 4 and then the money will flow.

Since Liverpool fell out of Europe's Premier Competition we have finished 7th, 6th, 8th and 7th. The pundits said we had a chance. Even most of the fans conceded we were outsiders and that Chelsea, Man City, Man Utd, Arsenal and Tottenham were all ahead of us on paper. Even Everton couldn't be discounted given they'd finished higher than us 2 years running.

Die Meister
Die Besten
Les Grandes Équipes
The Champions

Easter Sunday 20th April 2014. Liverpool beat Norwich 3-2 to guarantee a 3rd place finish in the league. Man Utd - out of the running in 7th - sack their manager to prove that they are no different than every other club in the modern era when it comes to pleasing the money men. Tottenham lie in 6th, already on their second manager of the season, with rumours that a third will be in place come the summer. Everton and Arsenal, vanquished 4-0 and 5-1 at Anfield in recent months, failed to match our consistency. Or in Arsenal's case, imploded in spectacular fashion, having led the league for the best part of half a season. Interestingly, Arsenal haven't sacked their manager... Yet.

Une grande réunion
Eine große sportliche Veranstaltung
The main event

3rd guaranteed. Not 4th and the minefield of an August qualifier against a fancied side. 3rd. Champions League group stage proper. We're back and with 3 games to play.

I know how I sound. Finishing top 4 has become more important than winning the FA Cup, League Cup or even the Europa League (UEFA Cup for people like me!). It's wrong. It highlights everything that's been lost in modern football. Winning no trophies but qualifying for the Champions League (or European Cup for people like me!) is what matters. The Arsenal Trophy. Success without the silverware.

It's how football works. European qualification brings in the big money to allow you to keep up with the rest.

Ils sont les meilleurs
Sie sind die Besten

These are the champions

Brendan Rodgers Tricky Reds. The sixth best team in the league (according to the pundits) lie top of the table, 5 points clear and with guaranteed Champions League football next season.

Chelsea next. A win against them on Sunday will guarantee 2nd place and end Chelsea's hopes of the title for another year. Of all the tests, this is the biggest one. Chelsea under Mourinho, as we saw last night, will not only park the bus, they'll set fire to it and throw fluffy kittens into the flames if we dare to come close to scoring. Mourinho. The self-styled Special One, who wins trophies for fun but does it with about as much class as a pink stretched Humvee. Maybe he'll park one of those in front of the goal too.

Die Meister
Die Besten
Les Grandes Équipes
The Champions

We're back in Europe. The nostalgia has returned with a vengeance. 3 games left. Win them and I'm 12 years old again.

Monday, April 14, 2014

An epic day

I leave Sheffield at 9:57 in the morning. I like to arrive at Anfield early enough to soak up the build up. I knew I wouldn't make it in time for the flags and banners welcome to the coach, but it's early enough for me.

The sun is shining - a proper spring day - so I dust off the bright white summer jacket for its 2014 inaugural outing. As I drive into the peaks it feels like it will be a good day.

Atmosphere is gonna be epic.

Then as I descend towards Manchester the clouds roll in. Big and black. My ritual is well underway. The Anfield Wrap podcast has taken up the first half of the journey, so it's time for Five Live.

London Marathon commentary.

Now don't get me wrong, I have incredible respect for both the athletes and the general public who choose to put themselves through 26 miles of sheer pain and suffering. I know I wouldn't. It's just that as a sport, it really doesn't lend itself to radio commentary. And this is coming from a guy who has listened to golf, cricket and curling on the radio.

So no build up then.

The rain starts. I switch to soundtrack music. It lends itself nicely to the epic battle to come. I imagine the Match of the Day or Sky Sports montage to come. Win or lose it will play out to the music from The Dark Knight or Sunshine or something else that can adequately depict the scale of the gladiatorial battle to come.

I stick the same track on repeat. I do this a lot.

Car parked in the usual spot. The rain has stopped but it's a little brisk, so I put on my neck warmer along with my scarf. I'm conscious that I probably look pretty stupid now in my 80s Wham-esque summer jacket and winter woolies. It isn't even a jacket that George Michael would wear. It would be worn by the other one. You know the guy. The one no one remembers.

Screw it. When you move headlong into your 30s there is very little you can wear without looking a little daft.

My fashion faux-pas is forgotten as I hear the crowd. It's still more than 90 mins to kickoff.

Something very special is happening here.

For lunch I head to my usual cafe. I take the long route round to pay my respects at the Hillsborough memorial. 25 years. I was a kid watching on TV. My Dad had gone out to collect my Mum from her weekend shift. By the time he came back the sport had given way to tragedy.

25 years.

At the cafe it's pie, chips, peas and gravy. As always. I eat in. As always. The place is decked out in Liverpool paraphernalia that I love to stare at. It's a calm moment before the craziness to come.

I head into the ground. 'Get in early' everyone was saying. I always get in early. I don't like to be late. I love watching the stands fill up.

By the time the players come out to warm up it's almost full. Never seen that before. And when they finish, the roar for them is unlike anything I've heard in a football stadium. The epic nature of the event is already living up to it's billing.

The commemorations to Hillsborough are poignant and heartfelt. The Man City fans excellent. The noise at the end of the minutes silence loud enough to let everyone know that this is no ordinary match.

The start is frenetic. Sterling dances and scores. Skrtel rises and it's 2-0. Every time Man City have the ball the whistles pierce my eardrums like a screeching harpy. It's going to be a rout.

But this isn't Everton, Arsenal or Spurs. This Man City team have been title favourites all season not just because they have the most expensively assembled squad in league history. They have a will to win. The desire of league champions. They proved that two years ago.

2-0 is quickly 2-2 and in truth they should be ahead. We're on the ropes. Suarez and Sturridge have been poor and Rodgers changes things. Allen brings some stability. Suarez is still on the pitch but I have no idea how. He's had one of those sudden regressions to the petulant lad of 2012/13. This could go either way. This is the best team I've seen play against us all season. In many seasons. Of that there is no doubt.

Then the little Brazilian strokes in the winning goal. Coutinho-o-o! The kid that can't hit a barn door from a yard out. On the kop we bounce. I'm held up by a man twice my age. He's seen it all before and remained calm the whole match. But now he's almost in tears. Propping me up. In my white summer jacket. The sun now streaming down.

Knew I made the right choice!

The clock ticks down. We're hanging on. Henderson sees red. We'll miss him. He's been vital to our unexpected title challenge.

The whistle goes and players hug in front of us. The roar is louder still.

I've only been regularly going to games at Anfield for a few short years. I wasn't there for the Chelsea semi in 2005 or any of those other great European nights. I have no frame of reference for an atmosphere like this. Against Everton, Arsenal and Spurs the noise has been increasing with the belief.

Now it's unstoppable.

I drive home and already the debates have begun. We'll miss Henderson. Liverpool got lucky. Suarez should have been sent off. Sturridge out? I don't care. Luck comes and goes in football.

Football rarely lives up to it's overhyped billing. But Sunday really was special. We may still not win the title. I tell myself that Chelsea and Man City still have more on paper. In this unpredictable season I know only one thing for certain. When I drive to the Chelsea game in two weeks time I fully expect an even bigger atmosphere than the last.

I'm getting spoiled.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Mathematically clear...

I've mentioned before that I feared playing West Ham and Crystal Palace away far more than Man City and Chelsea at home. That's not meant to do the current 2nd and 3rd placed teams in the league a disservice, and I'm keenly aware that both of them could yet drive a nail right through our title challenge.

It isn't even that there is any specific history with West Ham and Crystal Palace (although Palace did famously shock Liverpool in the semi's of the FA Cup in 1990). Indeed the names of the teams don't matter.

Sam Allardyce. Tony Pulis. They matter.

Two managers who stand for the polar opposite of what Brendan Rodgers is building at Liverpool. They play old school English football turned up to 11. And the depressing thing is that they play it well. That's why as much as I detest their brand of football, I fear it. I fear it because it works. It works especially well against teams with mental fragility or those that aren't used to getting 'down and dirty' (see Arsenal on every away trip to Stoke since, well forever).

Liverpool for the last few years have been poster boys for mental fragility. From the players to the crowd, there are games you just sense aren't going to go our way. The heads go. Then the result follows.

But this is a different Liverpool. The players have shown none of the 'head problems' that have haunted us over the years as we so often failed in our quest for consistency. The West Ham game was handled with the kind of efficiency expected of champions. It was nail-biting for those watching at home, but we dealt with everything that came our way. Most importantly, we didn't crumble when the referee made the ludicrous decision to allow their goal to stand. On the stroke of half-time, that's the kind of event that would have seen the older Liverpool sides cave in, come the second half.

West Ham beaten. Sam Allardyce slain. 3 more points. Time to move on. It's Brendan Rodgers way.

Mental fragility in the fans is, of course, another matter. The atmosphere at home games since the derby has been immense, but that doesn't mean the doubts aren't lingering. We could all do with a session on the couch of Dr Steve Peters to talk about our 'inner chimp'. As fans we are constantly looking over our shoulders. Constantly second guessing ourselves and our team.

What if we don't score early?
What if Man City win their games in hand?
What if they score first?
What if, what if, what if...

That's what years of self-doubt does to a fan-base raised on success but struggling to remember the time when the success actually happened.

One what if we no longer need to worry about is Man Utd. For years it was the barometer of any Liverpool fan - how close are we to Man Utd? It is now mathematically impossible for Man Utd to catch Liverpool. And there are still 5 weeks of the season left. The last time that happened so early was when I was 12. We won the title that year. Looking for signs and portents is another key trait of the Liverpool fanbase.

Man Utd aren't in our thinking anymore. We have bigger fish to fry. There's a title to play for and a different sort of dragon to slay. Man City visit on Sunday confident and still favourites for the title. A draw would be a good enough result for them, and they know it.

What they don't know. What they can't possibly comprehend, is what they will have to contend with at Anfield. Against Everton, Arsenal and Spurs I genuinely haven't witnessed an atmosphere like that in a league game before. People talk of the great European nights, but this is different. This is Liverpool fans hungry for success and believing that it can happen.

It is Man City who will need to guard against mental fragility on Sunday. It is they who will have to rise to the challenge of quieting an Anfield crowd that is no mood to concede defeat now.

In the words of many a fan on many an internet forum all week. It's gonna be epic!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

In Our Own Hands (and Man City's)

On March 30th 1964, Liverpool FC defeated Tottenham to go to the top of the League. It was the first time they'd been top that season since December and with 6 games to go they didn't look back. Liverpool FC, a team that finished mid table (8th) the year previous, won the title. Their first under Bill Shankly in his second year managing them in the top flight.

That season Liverpool also did the double on Manchester United, beating them 3-0 and 1-0. They put five past Arsenal at Anfield in a thrilling display and ended that season with two players having scored more than 20 goals each (Roger Hunt and Ian St John).

I don't believe in fate, but I love quirky coincidences. Exactly 50 years to the day since that defeat of Tottenham and the same team stood before us at Anfield. The victory, a rather simple 4-0, moved Liverpool back to the top of the Premier League for the first time since December. Now, as then, Liverpool have 6 games left. they've despatched Man Utd 3-0 and 1-0 and put five past Arsenal. Their prolific strikers Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge have both scored over 20 league goals, a feat not managed by two Liverpool players in the same year since 1964.

Brendan Rodgers, in his second year managing Liverpool in the top flight, has made our mid table finish (7th) last season a distant memory. Top 4 was the hope in August, now anything less than 3rd would be a disappointment.

There was an odd calm at Anfield today. I sat/stood low down in the Kop, the atmosphere kicking on like the team that have dazzled us all season. No nerves. No heart-stopping moments. No searing doubt. Tottenham came, they submitted within about 90 seconds and that was that.

I've mentioned before that the more we win, the less we can hide from the truth. Liverpool fans, myself included, have been falling over themselves to put caveats onto their belief. We don't want to say "we're gonna win the league" for fear we may wake up and find that Roy Hodgson is still managing the club. There's been too many false dawns. Too many 5 year plans. Too many also rans.

Today I let my guard slip. I sang at the top of my voice "We're gonna win the league" in unison with tens of thousands in Anfield. First time I've ever sung it. Not just this season, but in my life. That's how rarely Liverpool have been "in the equation".

Of course on the drive home the caveats returned. "It's in our hands, but Man City are still favourites". "I hope we'll win it, but nothing is certain". For supporters of one of the most successful clubs on the planet, we can be a very worrisome bunch!

People have compared this season to 2008/09 when Liverpool's dreams were shattered by a different team from Manchester. But the truth is that we were never this close. We went top briefly in the closing stages, but Man Utd had the advantage of games in hand and they didn't falter. At no point in those closing games was the title "in our own hands".

This time it is. Chelsea and Man City slipping up this weekend (the most perfect of Liverpool weekends) make it so. The task is simple now. Win 6 games. Win the title. That's the same number of games a Premier League team has to win to take the FA Cup, a feat last accomplished by Wigan. So how hard can it be?

Time for more caveats. You see it's also in Man City's hands. And on April 13th at 1337 (it had to be Hillsborough commemoration weekend didn't it?), Liverpool and Man City play each other at what will be an emotionally charged Anfield. The winner will certainly be favourites for the title.

How many Liverpool fans truly believed that in mid-April we'd play in a title-decider? When I looked at the fixture list back in July it barely registered. We were hoping to be in a fight for 4th you see.

Typically, I am actually more worried about facing West Ham next week and Crystal Palace in the penultimate game of the season than watching us against Man City. Another quirk of being a Liverpool fan. It's often the smaller clubs that do us the most damage.

And now you're gonna believe us. We're gonna win the league.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Winning ugly and then there were 3

It's beyond a joke with Arsenal now isn't it?

Every year they flirt with the league title and every year they, well they do an Arsenal. The writing has been on the wall for weeks and while they lasted longer this season than normal, their removal from the title race was as brutal as it was inevitable. Heavy defeats at Liverpool, Man City and Chelsea interspersed with damp squib performances against the likes of Swansea and Stoke. It's just so, so Arsenal.

And then there were three. Three teams that can realistically win the most unpredictable title race in years.
  • Mourinho's 'Plucky War Horse' Chelsea - Well financed, just as boring to watch as the Spielberg film, but annoyingly successful. Led by the bravest man to ever exist, England's Brave John Terry.
  • Pelligrini's 'Galacticos' Manchester City - The most expensively assembled squad in league history and self styled 'Biggest Team in Manchester', despite only winning three trophies since I was born. 
  • Rodger's ' Tricky Red Sox' Liverpool - More major trophies than any other team in England, but no title in 24 years. The 'Neutrals' favourite (unless you're from Manchester, or London, or one half of Merseyside, or most of England). Still searching for a perch, last seen on the back of a Man Utd team bus circa 1993.
A title race with no Man Utd and no Arsenal. There are grown adults who may not remember such a time. Indeed Liverpool haven't finished above both Arsenal and Man Utd since they last won the title in 1990.

This season is weird.

There are 7 games to go (9 if you are Man City) and the media are starting to latch on to the thought of a Liverpool title win. It's romantic (perhaps not for Man Utd and Everton fans). A former great, that had long since ceded it's crown, rising from the ashes of mediocrity to do battle with evil (teams bankrolled by men with more money than some African nations). I can see the Sky Sports montages now as numerous pundits fall over themselves to hype up the GREATEST EVENT IN HISTORY with each passing game.

7 games. How will anyone cope?

Truth is, Man City still have it in their hands. They win their remaining games and they can still afford to lose to Liverpool in a couple of weeks and take the title. I do fancy Liverpool at home to the big teams, but on paper you'd have to say it is still a toss up between Chelsea and Man City.

But. What If? In a season when Man Utd collapsed faster than Nick Clegg's popularity and no one saw Liverpool coming. What if?

7 games left. Liverpool have won 7 in a row. Still unbeaten in 2014 in the league with 32 points from 36. That's what they call 'form'. Plus Liverpool have shown they can 'win ugly', a feat that Chelsea manage almost every week (unless they play Arsenal). A team does not win the title on flair alone, and last night Liverpool returned to Anfield after a month away to much fanfare. They proceeded to put in a nervous and quite poor performance, yet still walk away with the win.

Liverpool can win the title. Cats out of the bag, so there's no point hiding anymore. 1 point off the top with 7 games to go, only an idiot would say we weren't in it (step forward Jose Mourinho and his 'mind' games). But Liverpool need help. Winning their games won't be enough. They need help to slay the beast that is Manchester City.

They need Arsenal to have their final say in this title race. Arsenal may be out of it, but they play Man City at home in 3 days time. This is their chance to prove to everyone that they aren't a spent force. This is their chance to solidify their grip on 4th place. This is their chance to help out their old friends Liverpool ;)

Come on Arsenal. 'Av em'

And while we're at it, Crystal Palace, if you'd like to turn up against Chelsea on Saturday, that would be pretty spiffing too.

Monday, March 17, 2014

9 to go, and lessons from history

10 defeats in the last 11 visits to Old Trafford.

17 defeats and only 4 victories in the 24 years since we vacated our perch.

In my adult life, one fixture has defined the term 'bogey'. These days the match is heralded on a Super Duper Sunday with great fanfare. The greatest fixture in English football. Fact!

But the truth of those stats don't lie. Aside from a brief Danny Murphy inspired period between 2000 and 2004 (and the now infamous 4-1 in 2009), Manchester United at home to Liverpool has rarely been a rivalry. It's been more of a procession. A Manc procession at that.

For the first time in over 20 years, Liverpool travelled to Salford as favourites. Odds that only heightened my fear going into this match (despite my bolshiness a couple of weeks ago). Truth is, I had nothing to worry about and my unnatural confidence that we would win this match turned out to be more than just over-excitement.

3-0 to Liverpool, a scoreline that flattered Manchester United, felt routine. Easy. Too easy. I've watched us play at Old Trafford dozens of times and I have never felt this comfortable. Even the 4-1 of 2009 was close for 60 minutes. This was a procession. A Scouse procession.

Sadly, something happened on Sunday afternoon that I feared far more than a Man U win. The cat was let out of the bag. Liverpool are going for the title. Steven Gerrard said so, and no denials from tactical mastermind Brendan Rodgers could change the headlines in this mornings papers.

It's real. The papers said so.

Of course a number of us have whispered it in dark corners of the internet with increasing levels of confidence as 2014 has taken shape. There is something special about this season. The changing of the guard at Old Trafford; the return of the whiney one at Stamford Bridge; the overly confident musings from Arsenal fans assuming a title win just because they now have the longest serving manager in the league. Something just feels right.

Yet, despite the whispers, Liverpool have been allowed to calmly go about their business (5-1, 3-2, 4-3, 3-0, 3-0) without that scrotum shrivelling label of 'Title Challengers' being applied to us.

Thanks Man U. You could have at least tried to beat us and then maybe the press would have concentrated more on our defensive failings, or who Alex Ferguson is sat next to this week, or whether Wayne Rooney stuffs the £300,000 he pockets in the mattress every week, or something else. Anything else. But NOT that Liverpool are 'Title Challengers'

So, now that it's happened and Liverpool fans are facing that other famous tag of "it's our year", I guess we just have to roll with it.

Liverpool are unbeaten in the League in 2014. They've won 8 and drawn 2. 26 points from 30. Better than Man City, Chelsea and Arsenal. During that run they've destroyed Arsenal 5-1, Everton 4-0 and now Man Utd 3-0.

9 games to go. The final quarter season (ish). 5 home. 4 away.

Of course I still consider Man City and Chelsea favourites, but each game is making the unimaginable believable. What odds a true changing of the guard? The retirement of our greatest foe coinciding with the return to our perch. Whisper it (and avoid the newspapers for a few weeks)...

9 games to go.


Football is cyclical. For Liverpool fans, the slow motion car crash that has been David Moyes tenure at Old Trafford has just increased the Monday morning smiles to Heath Ledger levels of awesomeness.

I am a naturally cautious supporter. I've watched the false dawns at Anfield (Houllier, Rafa, Kenny) and also made the mistake of underestimating the regenerative powers of Alex Fergusons Man Utd. I was convinced they were due a collapse 10 years ago. That their era of dominance was over. It wasn't, and I learnt my lesson.

Just as Rodgers gives me hope for a return to that perch, Man Utds current predicament re-ignited my hope that the 20 years of darkness are finally over.

But both are embryonic feelings. I know that for Liverpool this could just be another false dawn that collapses at the final hurdle, before it is able to snatch true greatness. For Man Utd it is the same. One bad season does not mean their reign of terror is over.

Yet there are parallels. And I like parallels. And football is, after all, cyclical.

In 1991, the reigning champions and dominant force in English football lost their icon. Kenny Dalglish, humbled by the pressures of leading the countries greatest club coupled with grief over Hillsborough, walked away from Anfield. His replacement was Graeme Souness, a legendary former LFC player. What followed was a fall from grace so sudden we still have not recovered.

In 1992 Liverpool finished 6th, their lowest finish in the league in 27 years, and their first time outside the top 2 in 11 years. Most felt it was just a blip. The new manager needed time to rebuild an ageing Dalglish side. He needed to stamp his own image on the side.

In 1993 Liverpool finished 6th again. Manchester United won their first title in 26 years and their era of dominance began.

In 1994 Souness resigned as Liverpool limped to 8th, their lowest finish in the league for 31 years.

What followed were a succession of rebuilds and new directions. Roy Evans promised a return to the exciting, passing football that defined the great Liverpool sides. It was fun to watch, but failed. Gerard Houllier brought a resilience we thought we'd forgotten alongside a successful return to Europe. Pride was restored, but the league remained elusive. Then, of course, Rafa Benitez brought us European success beyond our wildest dreams and despite coming closer to the title than at any point since 1990, we still failed. Embroiled in board room warfare, he was ousted and his squad gutted by the money men.

I'm not saying that Man Utd will follow this pattern. It's important to remember that Liverpool's collapse was not purely down to Souness. The club failed to adapt quickly to the new world order of Sky TV and the riches it brought. The club that took advantage both on and off the field was Man Utd. Success on the pitch is aligned with success off it. The best manager in the World will fail if the boardroom doesn't know how to run a football club. Modern football is a business after all.

Man Utd still have huge financial resources to fall back on. They have amazing off field business activities and that cannot be discounted. So this could just be a blip of a year or two.


In 1990 it is fair to argue that the Liverpool that won their last title was in need of a rebuild. The signs were there. In 2013 even the most ardent Man Utd fans would admit that the team that won the title did so against all the odds. The team was living through the sheer force of will that is Alex Ferguson.

In 1990 (and then again in 1991) Liverpool changed chairmen. Noel White and David Moores followed the most successful football club chairman in history. Change isn't always good and David Moores, while an avid supporter, failed to take advantage of the new riches Sky TV deals brought.

In 2013, Man Utd didn't just part with their most successful manager, but CEO David Gill moved on as well. His top level replacement, Ed Woodward, has not exactly impressed with his quite public gaffes.

Like I said, a few parallels do not mean that Man Utd are guaranteed to have 20 years of hurt. But it is important that the people running that club show the kind of progressive attitude to the future of Man Utd that David Moores and his team failed to do post 1991 with Liverpool.

They allow themselves to stumble around, not fully knowing what to do, and one bad season under a manager who is out of his depth can easily become the norm.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

And now you're gonna believe us...

It's on!

And now you're gonna believe us.

Ten games to go in what has been the maddest season I can recall, and I have the fear. It isn’t the fear of failure, of coming up short and then having to endure a summer in which Roy Hodgson is managing England at a World Cup. It’s the fear that my nerves can’t actually take the waiting, the analysis, the post match euphoria/depression.

As Liverpool fans we’ve dreamt of getting back to “where we belong” and now we are here, in the conversation, I’m as nervous as hell.

It’s been 5 years since Liverpool football club last had a sniff at the title and since then the club has:
  • Had 4 different managers
  • Changed owners via the High Court
  • Almost gone into administration
  • Sold the best midfield in the league
  • Finished 7th, 7th, 8th, 7th in the league
To say that the club is “ahead of schedule” is an understatement. Brendan Rodgers targeted getting back into the top 4 inside 3 seasons and that mission is almost accomplished. I say “almost” because the cautious side of me knows there is still that chance that we might collapse and find the world laughing at us again.

Maybe that’s the thing I fear. The laughing. Poor deluded Liverpool fans and their “this is our year” statements.  The last 4 seasons have certainly put us in our place.

Truth is I’ve never been a “this is our year” type. Inside I hope for a title challenge every year, but I don’t make prophetic announcements, especially ones about Liverpool. I prefer stats. I talk lots about stats. Stats make sense and keep my feet firmly on the ground.
  • The last time a team went from 7th in the league one season to 1st in the next was 1981 (Aston Villa).
  • Liverpool currently have more goals in the league than any team in the major leagues in Europe (inc. Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich)
  • Liverpool have conceded more goals than all the other teams in the top 7.
  • Liverpool have won ONE and lost TEN of their last 11 outings at Old Trafford.
In 2009 Liverpool threw the title away. They failed to take advantage in a succession of home matches at the mid point and the result was Man Utd overtaking and building a commanding lead. It was only then that Liverpool threw caution to the wind. 7 points behind and having played a game more they travelled to Old Trafford and hammered the Champions into submission. Even Andrea Dossena got on the score sheet. What followed that match was a title run-in of remarkable quality and consistency. The only problem was that Man Utd didn’t falter. They matched Liverpool’s consistency and ground out the title with a game to spare.
  • Liverpool: 8 – 1 – 0
  • Man Utd:  8 – 1 – 1
That was the last time Liverpool put in a realistic challenge for the title. And it hurt. And Man U fans laughed. A lot. I wrote in the immediate aftermath that Man Utd deserved their title win and, albeit through gritted teeth, offered my congratulations.

But that season, and that run-in hurt more than any football season in my adult life. Even more than watching the embarrassing 1-0 home defeats to Fulham and West Brom in 2012.

In 2008/09, we lost the least number of games, scored the most goals and were arguably the better team to watch (though I am somewhat biased). But there is only one stat that matters. Man Utd: 90 points, Liverpool: 86 points. 

Game over.

Looking back I can see now that from January 2009 the title was never in our grasp. Man Utd had it and showed no sign of letting go. But in the midst of excitement we all let it get to us. When Yossi Benayoun scored an injury time winner at Fulham on 4th April to take us to the top of the table (albeit having played more games), the euphoria of such a moment made many of us believe that fate had somehow decided, “this was our year”. Looking back, and looking at those damned stats would have told us that it was still very much Man Utds to lose.

Maybe this is the fear. That this season is 2008/09 all over again. That if I let myself believe I’ll be ignoring the cold hard facts of the situation. Chelsea are 4 points clear, at the time of writing. They play two more times before Liverpool’s next trip (to Old Trafford). They could be 10 points clear by then. Man City have games in hand that should take them above us, as well.

The fact is that this title is Chelseas (or Man Citys depending on how you look at it), to lose. Liverpool are the clear outsiders.

Yet still I believe.

I don’t believe in fate and that “this is our year”, because the 2008/09 run-in robbed me of that. For every last gasp goal at Fulham that year there was a Man Utd equivalent (see miracle come-backs against Villa and Spurs). We just refused to acknowledge it.

It would be easy to look at Liverpool’s injury time winner at Fulham this season as a turning point or proof that the football gods are on our side. But look at Chelsea’s injury time winner against Everton and tell me that those fans don’t have every right to think the same.

2008/09 put my feet on the ground. It reminded me that there is no such thing as “fate”.

Yet still I believe.

Brendan Rodgers is building something really quite special. I haven’t seen football played in the English league like this before. The character and belief within that squad of players is stronger than any I’ve seen from Liverpool since we vacated our “perch” in 1990.  None of this means we are entitled to win the league and while we are playing the most entertaining football around right now history has taught us that mean defences and grinding out 1-0 wins tend to get you more titles (step forward Jose Mourinho and his dour but trophy-hoarding brand of football).

Despite the fact that I think the most logical conclusion is that the title will head to Stamford Bridge (and it’s something I’ve been saying since Christmas), I believe Liverpool can do something that would amount to a feat even greater than Istanbul 2005.

Like I said I don’t normally make prophetic statements about Liverpool, but I’m enjoying watching football so much right now that I don’t care anymore.

I genuinely believe we will defeat Man Utd at Old Trafford in two weeks (a ground we haven’t won at in 5 years). I also believe we will then go on and maintain title-winning form. That doesn’t mean “this is our year” or that “fate” is on our side. Chelsea may still win the title because it’s theirs to lose, but at least we’ll have kept them honest. Made them win it. And we’ll have done it by playing football that is actually exciting to watch (and I challenge even rival fans to argue it isn’t fun to watch Liverpool right now).

I’m enjoying football this season more than at any time in my life (and I’ve been watching the game for pushing 30 years). This is a sport that for all intents and purposes disappeared up it’s own arse years ago. Swallowed up in the big money, corporate sponsorship, TV rights, agent driven, bullshit media circus that is the 21st Century we live in. And yet watching Liverpool this season has reminded me of what excited me as a child. Football is fun again. And whatever happens between now and May 11th I’m just happy. Happy that I'm able to believe once again.