SO that was Year 1.
How was it for you?
To assess any season you have to look at the surrounding context. What are we judging progress as? A better points total? Better play? Trophies? Qualification? What is the background of that progress? Where are we going and from where?
To make it even more difficult we have to place the season next to the word ‘Liverpool’ and all the weight, expectation and connotations that come with that entity. Or do you? That’s up to you. Definitions differ from fan to fan, to generation to generation and, in some cases, agenda to agenda. To argue about direction you have to state where our starting position is and that’s different for practically everyone.
It’s not an easy task but there are some definites with which to guide our thoughts. Let’s start with the basics. Liverpool did not win the League or any other trophy, nor did we qualify for either European competition. Fair enough to some extent. Okay, we should have at least made the Europa League but the others weren’t exactly nailed on as probable so it would be harsh to take up that particular cudgel in these early days. In 1987 we saw Ian Rush off and left the field as runners up to Everton in the League. The sense around Anfield that day was one of failure, a wasted season. Had Brendan had that season he would have been carried up and down Walton Breck Rd shoulder high for the majority of the pre-season. Second place would have been a hell of a start. Context is all. Liverpool now aren’t Liverpool then.
The season started pretty much as the last one ended. Few goals, mentally weak and a playing system completely inappropriate to the players adopting it. We all want to play like Barcelona but, and this will not come as a shock, Jonjo Shelvey is not Anders Iniesta. Nuri Sahin is more Nuri Sahin than Mascherano. Time after time the opposition galloped through the centre of midfield or threw balls into the box unchallenged. Yes, it was all about the ‘philosophy’ (a word that means ‘the way things are done’ rather than something elaborate and golden. Roy Hodgson has a ‘philosophy’but it isn’t dressed up in such progressive language) but pragmatism was called for when we slipped into the bottom half of the League (and lower). Fortunately, Suarez was keeping our heads above water which was just as well as he was our only striking option.
The nadir came at Oldham. There aren’t too many Worst Defence Ever polls but I’d like to nominate Jones- Robinson-Skrtel-Coates-Wisdom in its inaugural year. Not only was the marking cowardly, the positioning awful and the keeping woeful and out of sorts with that of previous Liverpool sides but the silence that enveloped the back five was embarrassing. I was stood very low down in the away end and hoped someone would borrow Carra’s voicebox for the day but it was not to be. Seconds after the goals shoulders slumped, mud was stared at and no bollockings were made. We just sulked at the cruelty and televised shame of it all. It was to be our last chance of domestic silverware as we’d done something similar earlier with the League Cup.
Of course, the back four received no help from a two man midfield in front of it and weren’t ready for an aerial bombardment to their eleven foot striker who had become a talisman for them in previous rounds. That’s ridiculously poor planning and blaming the young players afterwards (since retracted with a chuckle and a ‘No, I didn’t mean it like that’ which will only get him so far in years to come) was a weak move. No, they didn’t perform but it was the manager who put them there and thought they were ready. Criticism must be spread evenly. As should praise, of course, and only two League defeats since then warrants that. Mistakes are fine if you learn from them, that’s what Year Zero is about, but to do it during our last chance of silverware is hard to take. Very hard. Despite the dollar signs rotating in FSG’s eyes, it’s not just about Champions League money and branding. The club belongs to the fans no matter who signs the cheques and trophies matter to them. Rafa made the mistake with the FA Cup in 2005 and put it right in 2006. Let’s hope that that’s a bullet point on a review document somewhere.
We recovered to a decent-ish points level thanks to the winter transfer window. Here the season can be judged in black and white. Anyone below us gets battered, anyone above us faces Diet Liverpool. The mentality changes with every level of opposition. Put us ahead and we’re excellent. Go behind and we’re anything but. The inability to close a game off (United at home, Everton, City and Arsenal away) smacks of insecurity and weakness and it’s here that the senior players have fallen short. Ian Rush wrote in his first autobiography that Souness (the captain) wouldn’t let anyone even suspect that defeat was an option. Christ knows what he would have done had he played in this side.
Add to this the lack of joyous game moments. The harshest critic of Dalglish would accept that we had plenty last season such as the semi final wins, Wembley and wins at Arsenal, Goodison, Etihad etc but we’ve had none of that recently save maybe for the Tottenham win when we were allowed back into the game by a back pass and a pen.
But again context is all. The fall of LFC has changed the parameters immeasurably. Rafa Benitez was sacked for 63 points and a goal difference of +26 while Brendan Rodgers’ first season has been viewed collectively as ‘alright’ with 61 points and +28. Much dirty water has passed under an unsteady bridge since then, so much so that the club smiles on the man with the fewer points. Rafa’s problem was that he dropped over twenty points to get to his figure while Brendan, in the managerial stakes at least, wears the rose of youth and the robes of Year Zero. Will the board be content with that total two years from now? Nope. But for now it’ll do. Sort of.
So what has progressed? The points and goal difference have improved since the season before, we’ve bought well in the January transfer window, have handed out some beatings and several youngsters have been blooded. In the minus column, poor start aside, there’s been the begging-for-fans-and-sponsors brochure that was Being Liverpool, the other transfer window and the embarrassment of being told what Liverpool fans should and shouldn’t do by either a hedge investment fund or their Harley riding mid-life crisis cabana boy amongst other things. I’ve written before about how the club are renowned for taking their eye off the prize with a litany of distractions, self-inflicted or otherwise, so won’t make you sit through it twice but, personally, a focus on 38 League games played like Cup finals would be progress.
That dressing room does not have a winning quality as yet. Houllier once said that success can’t be programmed, it can only be prepared for and the foundations need to be laid down. Whether you think we’ve started that is up to you but as a club we’ve lumbered from distraction to distraction. That has to end. Rodgers’ job is hard enough without his superiors pissing about in the background. If he’s ‘their’ man (while Dalglish wasn’t) they should at least help him out from time to time. Maybe even visit him once in a while. Just a thought.
It isn’t easy, however, even with a friendly media (compared to last season) and Rodgers is prone to the odd bout of Dad-at-the-disco embarrassment. So far, we’ve had to contend with the envelopes, the Andy Carroll U-turn, Joe Allen ‘throwing Yaya Toure to the floor’, the Suarez diving condemnation and even his own son but has yet to receive half of the vitriol delivered freely to two of the last three managers. That won’t last, of course. These may be small potatoes given the club’s multitude of PR gaffes but at some point, if we really do develop a title challenge, the Holts, Barclays and Samuels of the world will discover a new toy and will rip him to pieces. Ours is a media that enjoys failure if you’ve over-reached and they bear a grudge. Kenny was rude to journalists for years, Rafa’s smile masked a contempt for idiotic questions while Hodgson did absolutely nothing to damage the footballing status quo to such an extent that he was invited in. Brendan likes to talk and the more he says the more he’ll be attacked. That has to be budgeted for. Year 1 has been a honeymoon. Now the hard work starts and the silly mistakes end. Talking about ‘fighting for your life’ is one thing, doing everything in your power to ensure that the team exhausts every single calorie in their bodies to get a win is another. If this ‘project’ is going to work, and there are signs that it might, buried under the horseshit of Liverpool Football Club 2009-2012, then there are no days off. There are no more PR nightmares. There are no more instances of misuse of the official website.
I’ll explain this last point and it is only a detail but another one that can be eradicated. The club site is an information service only mixed with a few lighthearted videos of the players messing about etc. Why then must it contain transfer speculation? Surely that’s someone else’s job and it gives the impression that the writers, all good people incidentally, aren’t sure about what the club’s doing. ‘We might be buying x but we can’t comment on it’. Er, okay. This is a trifling matter when weighed next to the manager’s statement of thanks to the fans and club concerning his son’s court case. Don’t get me wrong. This must have been a terrible experience for all concerned and the sense of relief when it all ended must have been palpable but the club’s official site isn’t the place to remind the world that your son was involved in a sexual assault case. I’m frankly amazed that the club let this go on while they’re ‘seeking to extend the brand’ and paint the club as a good wholesome organisation. Even though he was found not guilty, it isn’t the place to remind the world of the accusation. What is more shocking in this case is that the club didn’t so much as utter the letters ‘HJC’ on their site for decades for fear of rocking the boat (hardly Rodgers’ fault, obviously) so to let this on is incredible. Again, I’m sure it was done with the best of intentions but it has nothing to do with LFC and the site shouldn’t have had anything to do with Brendan Rodgers other than his job as Liverpool manager. Again, this comes down to focus. It’s not an earth shattering error of judgement as such – just another silly thing we’ve done. If they want to use the site to flog shirts, fine, if they want to thank us for our support at the court case, which seems to be taken tacitly, in matters like this…well, that doesn’t fit right.
Back to the football.
61 points may be acceptable at the moment but it’s a step along on the road, not the destination. It won’t be easy. Rodgers is hectored by a lack of experience, a half arsed squad with no real voices or passion, more so without Carra, an absent board and the Litherland Fonz. When Kenny was a young manager he had Bob Paisley and Ronnie Moran down the corridor. Brendan has Colin Pascoe, a man equally inexperienced at running a club at this level. Liverpool still has a fractured fanbase and remains in the fallout of the Hodgson-Hicks-Gillett era while splinter factions of Kenny In/Kenny Out/Suarez, pro FSG/anti FSG, pro-pyro, anti-pyro elements means that we’re not the homogenous group we once were and possibly never will be again. We’re not easy to please at the best of times, never mind in transition so the manager will never keep everyone happy. Good. That’s how it should be. Everything should never be enough. This reminds me of a mate telling me that he was once sat next to a curmudgeonly bloke at a game who opined ‘Thirty years I’ve been watching this shite.’ Yeah, real hard times.
This may read like an anti-Rodgers diatribe but it really isn’t. It’s more of a list of things the Liverpool manager has to overcome for, as converse as it seems, football management is only part of the job. Poor Rodgers has to face fans, expectations, Goliath ex-managers, poor administration and an eager press before he even sets foot on the training ground. That’s what makes the definition of progress so difficult to judge. Where do you begin?
Is this progress? Someone on the podcast said that they couldn’t answer that question which tends to mean ‘no, it isn’t’ in other cases but I’m with him in that. The journey is a long one and we’ve barely begun so it’s hard to assess after a few baby steps. At the moment it’s ‘alright’ but the expectation is so great that it won’t be alright after a while. If the owners can sack a club legend from their ivory tower in Boston they’re not going to think twice about ditching the new regime in the interests of Champions League revenue. We’ve done okay, no better no worse, but the honeymoon is now over. I’d say a target of 72 points would be the very lowest we can expect in the next stage. In terms for a marks out of ten I’d go for 6.5/10. See me.
Now the work starts in earnest.