By Sachin Nakrani
CLOSE your eyes and what do you see? For a little over two decades now I have clung to an image bathed in golden sunlight, of a man in red, the Liverpool captain, holding aloft the championship trophy while all around him a crowd roared and sung in joy. Facing the Kop, with a winner’s medal sparkling around his neck, he would mouth: “we’re back!” before kissing and clutching the silverware held in his hands. As the years roll on, however, and the effects of turmoil take their toll, that image has begun to fade and now, grizzled by age and disappointment, I can barely see it at all. It’s like Marty McFly’s photograph in Back To The Future, fading slowly and surely into complete nonexistence.
It is a question all Liverpool supporters must now comprehend; will we ever see our team climb back to the summit of English football? And if we do, how long will it take? Years? Decades? Generations? All we can say for certain is that No19 isn’t going to be achieved any time soon. The reality is harsh but one we must embrace if Brendan Rodgers is to have any chance of succeeding at Anfield. His appointment as the club’s latest manager, the 10th to take on the mantle since Bill Shankly’s arrival from Huddersfield in 1959, has been met with a fair few furrowed eyebrows and sighs of frustration from Kopites in recent days. ‘He is not a big enough name,’ some decry, ‘bring back Rafa!’ comes another call. The anguish is understandable but in no way helpful.
First, the call for a ‘bigger name’. Without Champions League football and even a hint of genuine title credentials, Liverpool simply do not appeal to Europe’s top guns. The claims that emerged soon after Kenny Dalglish’s sacking on 16th May that the club was interested in speaking with Pep Guardiola was, I’m convinced, a smokescreen, an attempt to appease the supporters and lead reporters tasked with keeping on top of the story down a path which did not lead to the truth. In contrast, the pursuit of Jurgen Klopp and Frank de Boer was genuine but their decisions to decline an invitation to meet with John W Henry equally made the point that Anfield is not the draw it once was.
And Rafa? In some ways he is symbolic of the decline Liverpool have experienced. It is remarkable to think that when he was appointed as Gerard Houllier’s replacement in June 2004 the Spaniard was, alongside Jose whatshisname, the most sought-after young manager in Europe having won two La Liga titles and a Uefa Cup in the space of three seasons at Valencia. That was the calibre of candidate Liverpool could draw eight years ago; now we are reduced to hiring someone whose claim to fame is steering Swansea to 11th at the end of their first season in the Premier League.
Rafa’s backers insist he remains the best candidate for the job and on credentials alone, it is hard to argue with that assertion. But having employed one former manager it would be absurd to do so again. This is Liverpool’s problem; continuously looking backwards, grabbing hold of a golden past which increasingly jars with a less glittering here and now.
But it is that which we must deal with and despite the uncertainty and sense of anti-climax, there is reason to feel optimistic. Rodgers may be raw, completely untried at the very highest level of English and European football, but he has displayed at Swansea a defined sense of vision, a belief in a style of play that liberates players and allows them to over achieve in an eye-catching manner. As long as he holds firm to those principals and does not allow the pressure of managing a club that draws as much scrutiny as Liverpool overwhelm him, than the 39-year-old could prove a long-term, possibly era-defining success. But it will take time. The squad Rodgers is inheriting is shallow in terms of high-calibre talent, especially in midfield, an area fundamental to ensuing the composed, possession-heavy style of play Rodgers deployed at the Liberty Stadium operates as it should do. He is likely to want to play with three in the centre of the pitch and may decide upon looking at his options that one, maybe two new players who are comfortable on the ball and able to play a range of passes are required.
But will there be much money for Rodgers to spend? Unlikely given Liverpool’s absence from the Champions League and the huge amounts invested last summer on players who collectively remain short of the required standard. All of which means the club is only going to slip further behind the likes of Manchester City, United and, following their still mind-boggling victory in Munich, Chelsea. The London club signed Eden Hazard for over £30m this week; a marquee addition that would not been possible had Bayern held out for two minutes longer on their own patch.
Hazard was the type of player Liverpool were once able to comfortably compete for. Now we must look on with frustration as he and others move to our rivals. All we can do is take stock and give Rodgers our backing. His first task is to re-establish an identity at a club that has been in a state of drift for three years now and, once that has been done, look to compete for major honours.
The former objective is a demand, the later an aspiration, one which may take a lifetime and many more managers to achieve. That is the reality of our situation, hard as it may be to take. But the only way forward is to embrace the future, move on from the past and accept that the picture we have, of inevitable glory on a sun-kissed May afternoon, has faded into total uncertainty.