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.

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