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SPURRED ON BY THE DOUBTERS

by Gareth Roberts // 31 March 2014 // 17 Comments

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Football - FA Premier League - Liverpool FC v Tottenham Hotspur FC

STERLING BOSS: Man of the match Raheem Sterling torments the Tottenham defence at Anfield. Pic: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda

SHERWOOD wasn’t the only one.

We bristled with indignation at the very suggestion. Asked who he was, with his comedy cob ons and misplaced arrogance, to question Liverpool’s title credentials. Brendan Rodgers spoke publicly to turn the tables back on a club that had recently spent wasted £110million or so on new players. “I suppose the likes of Tottenham are a team who were maybe looking to be challenging for the league this season. You spend £100m-odd – it’s a group that’s set up to challenge.”

Standard fare for managers at this time of year. And while Rodgers’ reaction was fair enough – fighting the corner wins out over baffling reverence every time (take note, Roy) - a smile would have sufficed. Wind back to August and it was Tottenham tipped for the title in many quarters, while the Reds were expected to struggle to break the top four cabal. Again.

Now we’re reacting with arms spread wide and brow furrowed to anyone that dare suggest the class of 2014 can’t lift number 19. Quite the turnaround, and one few predicted so quickly, if ever.

But Sherwood wasn’t alone in suggesting Liverpool might crack. Since the bum-clenching Sunderland victory, plenty opined that Liverpool – fans and players – would struggle with the pressure of being genuine title contenders for the first time in five years.

In the end, Sunderland were beaten. And the positive, aside from the three points, was that Liverpool had proved they could dog out a result when it mattered. A win is a win is a win, and all that. But the start of that game was a legitimate cause for concern. It was a different Liverpool. At Cardiff City, despite the early goal against, the Reds had been calm and considered, searching for the chance that counted rather than gambling on pot-shots or snatching at half-opportunities. It was a swagger that spread to the stands. Chests were puffed out and ‘We are Liverpool’ rewound. We’ll be OK, was the general feel. And we were.

Midweek, Liverpool looked over-eager and a bit edgy from the off. There were pot-shots aplenty. Shrugs and shakes of the head and arms held aloft. It quickly transmitted to the crowd. The team had been given a fantastic welcome outside Anfield but the atmosphere inside didn’t always match it. It was pin-drop quiet at times. Sunderland scoring didn’t help. But the collective intake of breath when the Black Cats came close to equalising on Wednesday was seemingly stored in the lungs for Spurs. Forget nerves. Fuck pressure. We’re having this and we’re shouting about it.

You’ll Never Walk Alone was loud, defiant and meaning business. And the players picked up on the mood to force an own goal within two minutes. That helped and the defiant atmosphere continued throughout. If Spurs supporters sang, it was hard to hear them. How it should be. The Kop looked magnificent before kick-off, a sea of scarves and banners. And this time the sound matched the vision.

Football - FA Premier League - Liverpool FC v Tottenham Hotspur FC

SPION TOP: The Kop was in fine voice against Spurs. Pic: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda

Saturday’s results could easily have fuelled introspection. Chelsea and Manchester City’s failures made us dream. It could have made us moan. It might have affected the players. But there was none of that. The players wanted it. Anfield wanted it. And they made it happen together.

The Kop sang itself hoarse and the players played the football we’ve been salivating over all season. Nerves? Pressure? None of it. Liverpool played their relentless game; chasing, harrying and launching attacks from all angles, while Spurs simply rolled over and screamed ‘not the face, not the face’. Actually, that’s unfair. Because on the few occasions Tottenham did climb from the canvas to swing at the Reds, the back-line, collectively, was in no mood for a bloody nose. Skrtel, Agger, Johnson, Flanagan and Mignolet all played their part when it mattered.

Aside from nerves, the other snippet of received wisdom that has been doing the rounds about Liverpool in recent times is that this side lacks experience. We don’t have the players who have been in this situation before. We don’t have a manager who has gone the distance in the Premier League.

It’s an easy argument to rail against. Steven Gerrard has won everything but. Glen Johnson won it with Chelsea. Luis Suarez has won titles in Uruguay and Holland, Skrtel in Russia, Agger in Denmark. Sturridge was a (underused) player at Stamford Bridge when Chelsea won it in 2010. And, while Rodgers may not have the big trophies yet, he’s clearly done his homework. And then some.

But who needs experience anyway? Just win. Just score goals. Play your game. Express yourself. Raheem Sterling is 19 with 71 first team appearances to his name. He was the best player on the pitch, closely followed by the Aaron Lennon-crushing 21-year-old Jon Flanagan, making just his 29th Premier League appearance. Goalscorer Phillippe Coutinho is another 21-year-old, while Jordan Henderson, a key figure in how Liverpool play under Rodgers, is still only 23.

You don’t win anything with kids. You don’t do go from seventh to first (or from first to seventh *cough*). Anymore? Not many would predict a squad featuring Djimi Traore and Igor Biscan would win the Champions League. Their medals prove predictions mean nothing. ‘They’ can do the predicting, we’ll do the winning.

Statistical norms and the history books can suggest what’s normal in this situation. But this Liverpool team is far from normal. And this club is far from normal. This is a Liverpool team playing with supreme confidence, a goalscoring machine featuring the league’s best pairing and a world-class number seven which 88 times has produced the goods, even when individual components aren’t firing on all cylinders. It’s a machine which has outscored Manchester City, and reined in a goal difference now to just three goals in favour of the financially-doped.

This is a Liverpool team that has won eight Premier League games in a row. There are six more to come, three home, three away: West Ham, Man City, Norwich, Chelsea, Palace and Newcastle. Five hundred and forty minutes of football to end a 24-year wait for the title. Can we do it?  The more people say we can’t, the more likely it seems we can. If we don’t? It’s been a season to savour anyway, a campaign that has already exceeded reasonable expectations. Liverpool are back.

Now we’re top for the first time since Boxing Day. Yet still the manager is calm. He might not have been the people’s choice to succeed Kenny Dalglish but, much like his team, he has adapted, learnt quickly and all of a sudden he looks a match for anyone.

And us. The fans. Anfield. The Kop, and the loyal away following. That’s special, too – when it’s right it’s worth something. That spontaneous primal roar that emerged from the depths of The Kop and rolled down the stand to the pitch as the team stood applauding the fans after the final whistle was intoxicating. If it made us stride out of the ground with a clenched first and a permanent smile just imagine how it made the players feel? They must be walking around like Ron Yeats after Bill Shankly’s famous words.

“Now they have to believe they’ve got something that might fall through their grasp and slip away and – believe me – that’s a real bad feeling to have because perhaps you don’t play with the freedom you’d played with earlier in the season. I know what it’s like myself.”

That wasn’t Bill Shankly, that was Tim Sherwood. He was wrong about Liverpool. He’s joined a list that is getting longer by the week.

Doubt this Liverpool side at your peril.

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17 Comments

  1. Brilliant, Robbo
    You can doubt the champions-elect to be sure but if you do : ‘All the best! ‘

  2. This gave me tingles.

    The good kind.

    Six potential heart attacks to go.

    Let’s fucking ‘av it.

  3. “Not the face! Not the face!”

    Quote of the season Robbo. Let’s hope Chelsea and City need a magic sponge and a good corner man before this season’s over…….

  4. Fantastic article, Gareth. Loved reading it, and you backed everything up with the simple fact that the club deserves to be where it is: top of the table, playing the best football in the league, tactically flexible and on course for 100 goals in the campaign.

    You are also spot on that the season has already exceeded our expectations. Given comparative squad strengths and BR developing into the role, hitting 70 points was probably the “realistic” best-case scenario before the season kicked off. And here we are on 71 with six games to go ☺

    I can tell that some in the media are trying to jinx it, and would revel in Liverpool falling short. I fear what it might do psychologically if the club did fall short. Every big hurdle so far has been jumped in some style and no shortage of grit.

    To win this now would be my personal high point as a fan. I wasn’t around in the seventies and I took the success in the eighties a bit for granted. I thought 2005 could not be topped, but this would do it. It would most definitely do it.

    • There’s a lot of goodwill in the media towards Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool right now. A young, progressive, media friendly celtic (he’s not British, strictly speaking) manager and an English core will do that, our press are easily swayed. Plus a lot of people are genuinely enthused by the football we’re playing and the history of the club: Liverpool are a big club and should be in the mix year in, year out. A lot of journalists grew up when Liverpool were the best team in the country and are pleased to see us competing again. No-one’s trying to jinx us really, apart from the rival fans, it’s all in our heads: we’ve got to used to falling at the final hurdle that we can’t quite believe we might actually win this thing, hence the neurosis around jinxes.

      I’m not having a go btw, I’m just as susceptible to paranoia and jinxes as anyone.

  5. Awesome stuff Gareth. That gigantic roar at the end sent a shiver down my spine. For a few seconds we all turned into fist clenching cavemen – it was fantastic!!! The best atmosphere at Anfield for a many a year! I’ve got one word to describe us at the moment: Unstoppable!

  6. Cheers for that Robbo, great read!

    ‘not the face, not the face’

  7. Each match feels like an event at the moment, a spectacle, I can’t remember ever feeling like this before and I started going to Anfield in 1978!

    I can’t wait until next Sunday. We are fucking ACE!

  8. Great article Gareth and I’m a huge fan of your work both here and on the magazine. However I would also add that you were one of the biggest doubters of Rodgers. Constantly questioning his tactics and his ability to adapt, you weren’t alone but you were certainly wrong. Anyway fantastic to see Rodgers has finally won round all the doubters, and regardless of what happens in the next six games this is the man to take this club forward for years to come.

  9. Matt, I can’t quite understand why you feel the need to *constantly* remind me that at a time when Rodgers was failing to convince, I said he was failing to convince.

    The manager has said himself he made mistakes early on his Liverpool reign. Was I supposed to be punching the air at going out of the FA Cup to Oldham? No one is more delighted than me that he’s turned it around, but to suggest he, and Liverpool under him, have always been unquestionably brilliant is simply not true.

    Oh, and I wrote this when he was appointed: http://www.theanfieldwrap.com/2012/06/this-is-brendan-rodgers/

    Negative? I just wanted to be convinced rather than offering some weird blind faith in a man whose track record ordinarily wouldn’t have secured him the Liverpool job. Now I’m convinced. I’ve moved on. I’m enjoying it. And if I was ‘wrong’? So what?

    • I don’t feel the need to constantly remind you, I merely read this article and left a comment. Is that not what this section is for?

      It was obvious from midway through last season what Rodgers was working towards and I feel you’re being slightly disingenuous Gareth. You were still questioning the very tactics that have taken us top of the league before Christmas, for example following the defeat to Southampton. The fact is Rodgers has proven that his approach described as naive by yourself , that looks to boss games from the start works against even the very best opposition. But it’s taken time to implement. He’s also proven he’s flexible when it comes to tactics and the way he sets up his teams. But at all times he looks to attack.

      Finally I think it’s unfair to misrepresent my argument, I’ve never claimed he’s the next Shankly or Paisley merely a young, talented but inexperienced coach who looks to have huge potential. I have no problem with you being wrong, I was merely voicing my opinion in an article labelled ‘Spurred on by the doubters’. My intention was never to offend you Gareth, if I have in any way then I apologise.

  10. Fantastically written article. Absolutely spot on.

  11. Wonderfully written, touches the heart deeply indeed. That things around us are illogical is logical.

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