By SACHIN NAKRANI
A good friend of mine is getting married next week. At moments like this, when someone you have known since the age of 13 enters a monumental stage in their life, it is natural for the memories to come flooding back, to reminisce about how things used to be.
In regards to my mate Marcel, there is one memory which stands out in particular; of us aged 21 going out for a summer’s night of drinking, toasting our happiness at being young, free, single, and how it ended with me getting so drunk that I literally could not stand up straight.
Embarrassed does not even begin to cover how I felt the morning after.
What, you may understandably be asking, has this got to do with Liverpool?
Well, whenever I think back to that night and attempt to comprehend how I got so hammered on what was a relatively small amount of booze, I question whether my excitable mood was partly to blame.
You see it was Friday 16th August 2002, 24 hours before the start of the new Premier League season and one in which I felt near convinced my club were going to reclaim their status as English league champions.
Cast your minds back and you too should be able to remember the heightened hope that surrounded Liverpool’s prospects a decade ago.
Under Gerard Houllier’s management the Reds had finished the previous season in 2nd place, their best league standing in over 10 years, and had it not been for a rampant Arsenal side that went on to complete a second double in four years, the title would deservedly had been theirs. In their first ever Champions League campaign Liverpool also reached the quarter-finals, only for some slightly curious tactical decisions by Houllier to culminate in a 4-3 aggregate defeat to the eventual runners-up, Bayer Leverkusen.
This, then, was a strong side, based around the talented spine of Dudek-Hyppia-Hamann-Gerrard-Owen, and with some shrewd investment would surely only grow as a force ahead of the 2002/03 campaign.
What instead transpired was a lost summer, one of two in my opinion Liverpool have endured in the past decade; moments when a club on the verge of achieving something special have dealt poorly in the close-season transfer market and ultimately paid the price. For Houllier’s men that meant transforming from serious contenders for the championship to a team that could not even qualify for the Champions League in the space of 12 months.
The real frustration was that this wasted opportunity took place inthe pre-Abramovich era, when large sums were being spent on players (Manchester United signed Rio Ferdinand for a British record £30m in July 2002) but no single leading club was obliterating the others when it came to fees and wages.
Liverpool were certainly competitive in that regard and Houllier had made it pretty clear at the end of the 2001/02 season that Liverpool would be flexing their financial muscles in the months to come.
That they did but what came into the club was, quite frankly, a load of rubbish. El Hadji Diouf (£10m), Salif Diao (£5m) and Bruno Cheyrou (£4.5m) are names to make any Kopite shudder.
Each had their own particular faults, with Diouf a toothless bully, Diao a clumsy non-presence and Cheyrou, arguably the most talented of the trio, a perpetually terrified soul, rarely if ever looking comfortable in the frantic conditions of the Premier League.
At a combined fee of nearly £20m, which was a hefty amount in 2002, they were a signal of intent by Houllier, who, it should be
remembered, had decided not to sign Nicolas Anelka on a long-term deal that summer despite the striker impressing during a loan spell at the club the previous season.
Diouf and Diao had shone at the World Cup in Japan & Korea, while Cheyrou, we were told by the manager, was the new Zidane.
Expectations were high then; flair and international class added to a strong if slightly rigid side would propel Liverpool back to the summit. But instead the club crashed out of the Champions League at the group stages and finished fifth in the Premier League.
The three additions had been woeful and, ultimately, the beginning of the end had been reached by a manager many supporters felt was destined for greatness at Anfield.
What took place 10 summers ago really was a crushing moment in Liverpool’s recent history. Having rediscovered their swagger after the destabilising Souness-years and the wayward era of Roy Evans’ time in charge, the club genuinely felt poised for a genuine assault on the title.
Arsenal were a serious force to be dealt with but Manchester United’s gloss had faded while Chelsea were a club in near-crisis,
heading towards bankruptcy and only saved after a certain Russian landed his helicopter in London and changed the face of English football for a generation.
Manchester City, meanwhile, had just won promotion back to the Premier League under Kevin Keegan and were as
close to a takeover by Sheikh Mansour as Charlton Athletic or Wolves.
Liverpool, then, had a chance to climb back to the summit, but they blew it by adding quantity not quality to a developing squad and after Abramovich purchased Chelsea in the summer of 2003, the club were always going to struggle to challenge for the title again.
They did, of course, come close in the 2008/09 season but what followed was, in my view, the club’s second lost summer, albeit in very different circumstances.
Rafael Benitez needed to add depth to an excellent side but he instead had the carpet pulled from under his feet by Hicks and Gillet, lost Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid and never truly recovered.
This summer expectations are very different to those of 2002 and 2009. Liverpool have a new manager, one every right-thinking fan appreciates cannot compete for the very top names across Europe and, in any case, needs time to imbed his principals at the club.
Excitement is curbed and I for one will not be losing my mind and balance prior to the start of the new campaign. A decade after standing on the brink of glory, this Red is refusing to get carried away and can instead only wonder about what might have been.