The Liverpool Conundrum
Ever since I was a kid at school, I messed around with all the rules…
Ever since I was a kid at school, I’ve had an interest in football. While Celtic will forever be my team, there are others who have tended to capture the imagination. I’ve enjoyed watching Barcelona since long before La Liga became a permanent fixture on Sky Sports, and even owned a centenary jersey with “F. De Boer” on the back. At least I did until January 2004 when it was consigned to the bin as Frank picked up six months worth of Euro 2004 “bus fare” from Ibrox. Fortunately I was able to replace it six months later with one that had “Larsson” on the back. Specifically, “Larsson 17” as I bought it before Saviola vacated the number 7 jersey! I was wearing that same jersey two years later when the man whose name I had on my back turned the Champions League final around from the bench to deny Arsenal the chance of being the first winner of the tournament from London – and more importantly ensured Henrik got his hands on football’s greatest prize.
I’ve picked up a few other teams I like to see do well over the years as well. Villarreal made a huge impact on me when they met Celtic in 2004 – a round after we’d knocked Barcelona out – and I’m delighted they’re still in the hunt for European qualification this season after having only been promoted back to the top division in Spain last season. I’ve more often than not had a soft spot for my “local” team – but that’s probably a subject for another blog as my “local” team has changed a few times through the years!
Then there’s the story of how the first club football jersey I owned was actually an Aberdeen one – a story I can only put down to the fact I was willing them to win the league back in the early 90s and my parents forgot to factor in that I was only doing this because Celtic were awful and couldn’t mount a decent challenge. You’d think my disappointment after the 1990 Scottish Cup final would have been a better indicator. I was definitely a Celtic fan that day, and to this day I don’t quite understand the mix-up there!
But while the reds north of the border may have been nothing more than a backup plan to stop Rangers, south of the border there was more to it than that. When I first took an interest in football, the big two in England were Arsenal and Liverpool. Yes, I’ll admit here that I jumped on a bandwagon and went glory hunting. I’m sure I could have picked a less successful team to have an interest in, but I was a kid and English football wasn’t rammed down your throat anywhere near as much as it is now. My exposure was limited, and with Celtic heading into a dark period it was a nice change to follow someone that was decent.
So, Arsenal or Liverpool? Easy, you go for the one that’s managed by your dad’s favourite player – Kenny Dalglish.
For me, there was always that link between Celtic and Liverpool. I was just a little late to catch Charlie Nicholas playing for Arsenal, although I reckon I’d still have opted for Liverpool with Dalglish given my dad was never a fan of Nicholas. It may have had something to do with his basketball ability, but that too is a story for another day.
Of course, there was the Hillsborough link as well. I don’t really remember the tribute game at Celtic Park that brought Liverpool back to business of football after that horrible tragedy, and I’m not sure I even remember the tragedy itself. It’s one of those things I’ve been exposed to for so long now that it just feels like I’ve always known about it. My strongest memories of the late 80s seem to be a roadmap of tragedies, from Piper Alpha to Lockerbie to Hillsborough. My memories of any actual football action all seem to begin properly in 1990. A year when we lost on penalties in a cup final, I went to my first Scotland game as a World Cup warm up against Poland, and Liverpool were the champions of England.
It was downhill from there though.
Sadly, Dalglish gave up the Liverpool job the following season. No one could blame him, the aftermath of Hillsborough had hit him hard. He’d been to so many funerals and been a rock for the club and its supporters throughout. He’d earned a rest. When he took up the Blackburn job, I even took an interest in how that went and I was as delighted as anyone when Sutton and Shearer fired them to the Premiership title in 1995… ironically finishing that season with a defeat at Anfield against Liverpool.
But as happy as I was about Dalglish’s success, I still wished it was with Liverpool. Since leaving there they’d gone on the slide. Dalglish’s replacement was Graeme Souness, the beast who came down from Ibrox to manage his former club, and he set about dismantling a dynasty. Bill Shankly built it, Bob Paisley enhanced it, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish kept it going longer and added to it in their own way… but Souness had his own ideas and his pals to play for him. The title challengers soon became also-rans as the old First Division made way for the new Premiership. Title challengers slipped to sixth place, and even sixth placed finishes became eighth placed finishes and Souness was long gone. Good riddance too, for a man who sold his heart trouble story to the devil himself. Or the Sun newspaper, the liars of Hillsborough, as it’s sometimes known. I’m not sure you could do a worse thing in Liverpool even today.
For me, Liverpool have never truly recovered from the mess Souness left behind. As the Premiership money spiralled out of control, Liverpool almost got left behind. Roy Evans was a decent guy who was from the same mould as Shankly, Paisley, Fagan and Dalglish, but he was never manager material. Nevertheless, Liverpool were at least closer to the top of the league again. Third and fourth places were an improvement, but they were still too far behind to be title challengers. For 1998/99, Gerard Houllier was brought in to work with Evans. Joint managers were never going to work and Houllier took full charge the following season after finishing seventh in the league. With Houllier in sole charge, Liverpool finished fourth again the folllowing season. But a decade that had started with the English title saw Liverpool win just two cups, and they had never got anywhere near the title again.
Houllier’s greatest season was undoubtedly the 2000/01 season. A third place finish in the league may have been disappointingly far behind the champions, but sweeping up both domestic cups alone would have helped a lot. But that wasn’t the end of the story, as Liverpool also went on to win one of the most dramatic UEFA Cup finals I can remember. 5-4 after extra time with a golden goal. Liverpool were back on the European map. They followed that up by qualifying for the Champions League group stages for the first time and even beat Bayern Munich in the Super Cup. It was all starting to look promising for the first time in a decade and maybe the damage that Souness had done was finally being undone.
But as Liverpool challenged for the English title, and the Champions League campaign progressed to the quarter finals, Houllier suffered heart problems and Phil Thompson had to run things for six months. Arsenal went on to be champions that season and while Houllier’s health problems were clearly more important and he thankfully recovered, it seemed like momentum was lost. Houllier returned but Liverpool were never quite the same under him.
Of course, it was Houllier’s Liverpool that Celtic met on the road to Seville. I still have the half and half scarf I bought from this tie, and when I had graduated from university the previous summer our grad ball included a five-a-side game. The pictures from that saw me wearing Celtic shorts and a Liverpool jersey. It probably also helped that my girlfriend at the time was a Liverpool fan, and with it the usual arrogance of the English game being better than the Scottish game, so there was great satisfaction when my team dumped hers out of the UEFA Cup in March 2003.
Houllier was gone after 2003/04 though. Miles behind the title race again and the football was getting more and more negative as time wore on. I’m not sure what happened to Houllier’s football. The team that had won the UEFA Cup in 2001 had done so by outscoring the opposition. It was brilliant to watch. Yet by the time he left they were following the defensive attitude so many other teams in England were following. The Liverpool fans agreed, but sadly this is probably the last time the regulars and I would see eye to eye.
If you’ve just got rid of a negative thinking manager, what on earth possesses you to go and get another one? But that’s exactly what Liverpool did in Rafa Benitez. It was odd too, because his pattern seemed similar to Houllier’s. Valencia had started out as a good attacking side, but the team that won both La Liga and the UEFA Cup in 2004 were build on a solid defence that didn’t concede. He brought this to Liverpool… more or less.
Despite trying to make Liverpool more solid, it took a while to do so. In the meantime, Liverpool were still disappointing in the league and ended up finishing fifth. But it was in the Champions League where Benitez made a difference. Having barely scraped out of their group, Liverpool surprisingly went all the way to final. But the final itself showed up all of Liverpool’s deficiencies and they found themselves down and out at 3-0 down at half time.
Fortunately, as I watched the game in the pub and several others decided to leave, I didn’t. I’d already had my fill of disappointment the previous “black” Sunday, so a Liverpool defeat in a tournament I hadn’t expected them to do anything in was hardly going to make me feel any worse.
Of course, the game went to extra time and penalties as Liverpool came flying out for the second half and rallied back to 3-3. Jerzy Dudek was the hero in the shoot out and Liverpool were champions of Europe for a fifth time. I couldn’t help but think this was probably the closest I’d get to seeing my team lift the big one without major changes in the way football is run. The only reason I don’t think like that now is because Henrik lifting it the following year felt even closer. Sadly I still reckon major changes would be needed before Celtic could get anywhere near it again.
The following season Liverpool won the Super Cup and later on the FA Cup – the latter with another dramatic 3-3 penalty shoot out. But as it seemed like Liverpool were heading in the right direction again, they stuttered once more. And it was in 2007 that I really fell out with Benitez.
For the whole season I’d watched Liverpool getting more and more negative, and they were still finishing miles behind the title contenders. He wasn’t making in-roads there and the football was getting worse to watch. Yet they still made it to another showdown with Milan in the Champions League final so he was given a pass. But as I watched that game I found myself constantly questioning his tactics and decisions as I had done all season. The killer was when he subbed off Javier Mascherano with twelve minutes to go. The game was still 1-0 to Milan and I was convinced that although Mascherano was on a booking he was the only thing keeping Kaka quiet. If I could see that, surely the manager could see it as well?
Four minutes later, Kaka had all the time and space he needed to setup Inzaghi with the killer second goal. Dirk Kuyt pulled one back in the final minute but it was too late and Milan won the cup.
I don’t think I’ve ever forgiven Benitez for that. The following season Liverpool won nothing, and other than a rally in the Champions League group stages after a poor start it was a pretty poor season. Fernando Torres banging in the goals at least meant there was something decent to watch in the 2007/08 season even if it didn’t achieve anything. The 2008/09 season at least saw Liverpool challenge for the title properly for the first time since Dalglish had left, but ultimately they fell short by four points and finished another season without winning anything. Maybe I’d have given Rafa a break had they kicked on from that, but by 2009/10 they were back to seventh in the league. Curiously, for a manager whose style of football was so negative, Liverpool still managed to feature in some high scoring fixtures. The 7-5 aggregate defeat to Chelsea in the Champions League quarter finals was probably the biggest of those!
Ultimately I was glad when Benitez left in 2010, but Roy Hodgson proved to be an even worse appointment. Liverpool flirted with relegation for the first half of the season, while there was cup humiliation at the hands of Northampton. Liverpool were in 12th place by the time Hodgson stepped down and that left the club ambassador and head of youth in charge of the team. But at least that was Kenny Dalglish.
Time had moved on for Kenny. As a Celtic fan, it’s hard to view his brief spell back at the club as anything other than failure, but I’ve always been more inclined to blame Barnes for that failure. Dalglish’s biggest failure was leaving him to the job while he worked on other things behind the scenes. Yet Dalglish managed to salvage that dire season with a League Cup – a trophy we habitually make an arse of trying to win – and, perhaps most importantly, he brought Tommy Burns home. I reckon Celtic are still reaping the benefits of that today from our youth system, six years after Tommy’s untimely death.
A decade on from his time at Celtic, Dalglish’s first game back at Liverpool saw Man United knock them out of the FA Cup, but it was an improvement on Hodgson and Liverpool seemed to be heading in the right direction again. The rest of the season was a case of salvaging whatever was left and building for the following season. I thought getting £50 million for the misfiring Torres was brilliant, but couldn’t for the life of me understand why £35 million of that went on Andy Carroll. But I’d seen what Dalglish could do with previous signings – I could remember when £5 million was a mental amount to spend on the unknown of Chris Sutton after all!
Sadly, Dalglish couldn’t rescue the league and Liverpool missed out on Europe altogether. But that was never the goal. He was starting again and I figured that 2011/12 would be the season Liverpool would finally get back on track and challenge domestically again. Sadly, if anything, 2011/12 is the season that did more to try and put me off Liverpool once and for all.
The football itself wasn’t exactly great in the end up and the league was a mess as they finished eighth. Despite that though, the cup record was fine. Dalglish finally completed his set by winning the only trophy he hadn’t won in his first spell in charge – the League Cup. Curiously, the only one he has won as a manager north of the border. But despite making the FA Cup final as well, it went Chelsea’s way and denied Dalglish another double – something no Liverpool manager had done until his first spell in charge.
But by the time those finals came round, I was sick of Liverpool. The defence of Luis Suarez’s racism towards Patrice Evra left a terrible taste in my mouth. If the managers between Dalglish had all managed to push me away to a certain extent as far as the football was concerned, this was the final straw. The fact that Suarez had done it was bad enough, but for the club and the fans to back him publicly was a disgrace when they should have thrown the book at him. I happened to have a clear out of my cupboard around this time and other than the half and half scarf from the road to Seville everything else I had of Liverpool was gone. It was like Dalglish had bookended my time backing Liverpool. The club then made it worse by tossing Dalglish out of the managerial seat as well. He’d improved things and deserved at least another season to keep it going.
And yet, despite that, I still want Liverpool to win the title this season. Why? Because football is fickle.
I watch Suarez play and it’s hard not to appreciate just what a talented football he is. He might be racist, he might be a diving cheat, but when he ditches all of that and sticks to the football he’s still a fantastic talent and one of the best playing in England right now. I look at the Liverpool fans and I still feel there’s a connection there. I can hardly condemn Liverpool fans for backing their man despite his racist comments when I’ve seen Celtic fans in recent weeks come up with everything and anything to mitigate, disprove or otherwise sweep under the carpet the actions of Leigh Griffiths while supporting Hibs against Hearts. At least Celtic haven’t come out and publicly backed Griffiths over it – we’re still waiting to see what happens with that. I’d like to think Celtic will take strong action and use this incident to educate not only Griffiths but a wider audience as well. Pretty much what Liverpool should have done with Suarez – at least try and make the world a better place.
The simple fact is, you can’t just turn off a love of football or a feeling you may have towards a specific team like it’s a switch. 1990 isn’t yesterday, it’s 24 years ago now. That’s a very large portion of my life I’ve spent backing Liverpool on some level. There’s an emotional bond there, even if it’s not as strong as my emotional bond with Celtic.
We over-complicate football at times. If it’s “just a game”, then Liverpool have spent this season playing wonderful attacking football in an effort to outscore what I think is a poor defence and an average goalkeeper. They’re now four games away from winning the league by doing just that. I’m surprised they’ve got this far doing it! Surprised, but delighted.
But then again, football has always been more than a game to me. Which is probably why I’m still backing Liverpool but feeling a little dirty about it.
Still, could be worse. The English league title could be won by some Russian Oligarch or Middle-East Sheikh’s play thing. Again. At least John Henry I can identify with – but then I like my Baseball too!