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.

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