By Karl Coppack
IT’S the day of the home leg against Zenit, six months into the season and I’m still not sure. I’ve sat through 5-0 wins, I’ve seen us be an aberration of a back pass and a walkabout goalkeeper away from beating the League champions home and away but struggle past a non-league side and capitulate against a side struggling to stay in the third tier of English football. I’m still not sure.
Are we any good yet?
Well, we’ve not been any good for a while. With glimpses of decent runs (preferably with more wins than draws) we’ve been pretty average. Indeed, a middling League season is something we’ve had to endure for years so it’s not always easy to tell what a good season looks like. Brendan’s wildest dreams would possibly incorporate a 63 point plus season, eleven points up on last year, which was Rafa’s last total. Good for 2013, atrocious in 2010.
No one disputes that we’ve been a club in decline since 2009 although Rafa’s dismissal wasn’t just down a seventh place finish. Whether you see Rafa’s exit as the start of the rot (I’d pinpoint the actual moment to Carra and Skrtel’s clash of heads at White Hart Lane in August 2009), few can deny that he was fighting more than the other 19 clubs and Europe. Our owners aren’t overly popular and our MD, the Litherland Fonz, certainly isn’t but Brendan doesn’t have to fight his own club. That said, expectation is lower.
The goalposts have moved significantly since then. 4th place is now a Hodgsonian utopia, something that would have been unthinkable back in 2009. Now we must meet lower objectives and our mettle has been severely tested. We have not responded well to that challenge.
We’ve deserved it. The mishandling of the club and its sometimes bizarre transfer policy has led to this fall. Short term managers and long term contracts for fading or faded stars have taken their toll and it needs to stop. You can’t build a dynasty in 18 months, only the early foundations of one. The lunacy of signing Joe Cole pointed to the dictionary definition of short termism as his career had practically ended the year before he signed. Likewise the appointment of a man who was so far removed from entertaining and successful football that he inevitably went on to manage England.
There comes a time when you have to draw a line in the cliché and accept the position you’re in and then, and only then, can you arrest the slide into mediocrity. It’s not easy and there are going to be many barriers to overcome. The first one is the name of the club.
How do you solve a problem like Liverpool? How can you build for a future when the sheer tonnage of history, glory and, that word again, expectation sits on top of you? This is before you factor in a media who gleefully anticipate any slip ups (how many times do you see every FA Cup game against lower opposition televised for an eighth place side? It’s done in case something goes wrong for LFC and we usually deliver at some point). We have a fan base groomed on success. We may not have won the League for twenty odd years but we’ve won everything else and more than once but we’re still seen as a failing club. We want the world and we want it now.
Maybe we should just stop thinking we’re Liverpool. Maybe we should start aspiring to be Liverpool and see it as an ideal rather than the state of our current nation.
There’s lots of talk of Year Zero and ‘there is a plan’ but what does that entail?
Firstly, we need a staff and direction. If the treatment of Kenny Dalglish was FSG’s most controversial hour, the lack of local based CEO is probably the biggest error. The owners are seldom at the club and although there may be contact between FSG and Ayre/Rodgers many of us would like to know about that plan and how it delivers us back to the top. We know only that they like to recruit young players cheaply and sell for higher later. That’s it. The Dempsey debacle underlines the butting heads of a manager who wants experience and a quick fix and a board who want a sell on fee. There has to be a compromise.
There’s an over-reliance on youth so it was refreshing to hear the manager to talk about buying ‘men’ as opposed, presumably, to boys as the FSG model looks only to recruit lads of barely shaving age. We need leaders on the pitch and players who can stand up to any situation. Seniority is important. It’s a rare kid who will take the mantle and bollock his elders. It’s not welcomed. Ask Jack Robinson. Gerrard had Gary Mac, Owen had Fowler, Fowler had Rush. We don’t want to end up with a situation where Wisdom has Coutinho.
A glorious return is going to take time but we have to face it without sulking. You can’t fight a battle with slumped shoulders and point at an unjust past (and carpetbaggers for owners) every time you lose. At some point you have to realise the good old days of 2009 are a long, long away in both directions. Sometimes you have to start again.
The chief burden carriers for this are, of course, the players and I’m not convinced that they have arrived at the realisation that they are now mid-table standard. Obviously motivation is key and you don’t want them weeping in their cars after training but these lads are internationals and have won trophies before and should be embarrassed about the League table.
The senior players have lived through the good times and know how hard it is to stay there. Agger, Skrtel and Reina should be good enough to act as mentors but where are they? What have they been doing? These are players more than capable of finishing higher in the League. Is it sulking? Is it a comfortable lifestyle that’s made their hunger and desire evaporate? The word ‘Liverpool’ still looks great on any CV and there aren’t many players who improve upon it but that shouldn’t be the pinnacle. Liverpool plus trophies, plus success, plus turning the club around – now you’re talking. You can’t rest on your laurels, lads. You got us here.
Personnel is crucial and our strike rate in that department isn’t great. Even taking out Hodgson’s diabolical teams which included such luminaries as Cole, Konchesky, Poulsen and Jovanovic (a Rafa signing) as the absolute nadir of scattergun buying we’ve turned out some shockers at times. Rafa had his odd moments on that front but they were always tempered by world class signings (Torres, Alonso) and quality surprises (Arbeloa, Crouch). One myth that must be expunged is that of ‘we can’t compete with the bigger clubs.’ Yes we can! We’ve spent a colossal amount over the last decade but you need more skill and judgment than a willing board, a more than willing bank and a copy of the Rothman’s Yearbook to build a side. Even a year after Kenny’s profligate spending and time of austerity the club have still given Brendan £50m to spend. Hardly peanuts.
The club seems schizophrenic, stuck between a magnificent name and an average side, or at least a 6-8th place finish side. In old money that would be Aston Villa. One directs the other and some harsh truths have to be faced. How many times did the website have ‘xxx issues rallying cry’ only to see them limp off the pitch wondering what’s happened? Too many times. In Houllier’s last season it was practically a fortnightly occurrence. Rallying cries are fine but only if it’s backed up.
To use a football adage the club needs to put its foot on the ball and look around. Where is Liverpool FC at the moment? Well, we’re a mid-table team with players who are a little above that level in a few cases and vastly better than that in others. We have to learn to climb. If the club thinks that we’re still a top English and European team who are just going through a blip then further decline is inevitable. To move ahead you have to know your starting position no matter how hard it is to digest. Progress comes in small steps. Whether you think that we’ve taken those steps is subject to debate, I have my doubts frankly, but one thing is clear – the sense of entitlement has gone and everyone, the club, the owners (not that trophies hold much glamour for them) need to start again. The fans need to do more too.
Hold on. He’s blaming us now?
Well, yes I am to some extent. The difference between home and away crowds is marked and I still don’t know why. Yes, away days are more fun and usually involve more alcohol and hard-nosed, hard-faced support but Anfield used to be a cauldron. Now it’s like watching a film about a Liverpool home game. There was a moment in the recent Swansea home game where we peppered shots, often wild and silly but always entertaining. Grown men were seen to stand and shout, some of them for a full minute. Glances were exchanged, glances that told of ‘I remember this’ and the sheer joy of it all. The atmosphere was charged and for a minute we all remembered why we were here and why we bother with it in the first place – to roar the team on and frighten the opposition into submission. Course, eventually the ball went out and we went back to what we were doing beforehand – chatting to our mates, shouting at Downing etc.
The player/fan relationship is a binary one. Each relies on the other. Playing at Anfield with that bird on your chest should be the absolute highlight of their careers and running onto a deafening noise should tell them just how far they’ve come but that’s where the real work starts. For our part we need to go to the match to work, not to watch. Okay you’re not going to get a Chelsea 05 or a St Etienne every week but it’d be nice if they knew we were there. We’re all resentful to some degree and we all have our least favourite players (Afternoon, Joe) and administrators (Morning, John) but ultimately we’re all in this together. We’re not the best fans in the world anymore. We can be, but we’re not. The club isn’t the only thing that’s fallen away in recent years. I don’t mean that as a criticism, just as a starting point.
The past is the past and there’ll always be grievances. I’ve got enough to fill John Henry’s calendar for a month but there comes a point where we have to accept who we are. Capable of greatness, yes. Great? Occasionally. Do enough to be great? Hmm…
Of course, the lion’s share of the hard work begins with the club rather than us and we can’t be in a position where the owners and senior management thinks that the current situation is okay. It’s not. It’s not expected to be yet but this isn’t acceptable. The manager took criticism for his ‘great little run’ comment post West Brom as it was anything but. I hope he just meant that we failed to build on two good performances against better sides as one win in five and an embarrassing Cup upset is nothing like good enough.
Overall, we have to start from scratch and not be afraid of the word ‘Liverpool’. Brendan Rodgers isn’t Bill Shankly. Ian Ayre isn’t Peter Robinson and John Henry isn’t Sir John Smith and they will not be just because they’re men who have inherited their job titles.
This isn’t about lowering expectations. These men should feel the weight on their shoulders as much as the pride of our history. It just needs hard work and a harder attitude from all of us. That’s all.