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.