BEFORE I grew up and became a sport journalist, I was a football fan. Football fan is a bit of a dirty phrase now, isn’t it? Everything is about the bigger picture when you’re older and fandom can never be unbridled; it’s all balance sheets, shot-to-goal ratios and transfer tittle-tattle. Simplicity has been lost in a fairly simple game.
Football should be about nothing more than the ball and the foot and the wonderful things that combination produces – the happiness when things go right, the despair when it goes wrong. Three points good, no points bad. No idea what George Orwell’s thoughts on 1-1 draws would be, mind you, though it probably reflects a totalitarian society in some way.
Before I grew up, I was young, naive, and blissfully unaware. I went to Anfield bi-weekly, occasionally travelling to nearby away grounds like Ewood Park, Villa Park and Maine Road. My mood fluctuated along with the Reds’ inconsistent results, but invariably returned to its default setting of pant-wettingly optimistic come Friday evening. I even had a woolly hat, bought from a ramshackle stall on Walton Breck Road on a cold Christmas afternoon. This hat, red and black, had three words emblazoned in gold on the front: Berger is King.
In my simple football world, Patrik Berger was king and Kenny Dalglish was merely a former Blackburn Rovers manager. The intention of the embroiderer is unclear – was this the first shot over the barricade, the first public display of revolt against Dalglish? Or was it the fast-food pun that simply had to be made, captured forever and woven into this £2.99 garment? No matter, because Berger was king – my king – regardless.
Not much was known of Berger when he was signed from Borussia Dortmund in August 1996. His role in the Czech Republic’s Euro 96 campaign – and opening goal in the final from the penalty spot – was the only real indication of what Roy Evans had brought to Anfield, although he had been deployed deeper at Dortmund. His Liverpool debut as a second-half substitute at home to Southampton revealed nothing.
A week later at Filbert Street, all would be revealed. Liverpool played 3pm Sunday and, with Aston Villa’s visit to Chelsea as the designated Super Sunday fixture and a radio awaiting repair, Teletext would serve as the sole source of information. At 5pm, it read thus: BERGER ’58 ’77, THOMAS ’61. I flicked back to Sky Sports to see the goals; Richard Keys promised they would be shown at half-time, though he promised a lot.
And then Berger was king. He picked up the ball about 30 yards out, eased past two players before thundering a left-footed shot past Kasey Keller. His second was also left-footed and thundered past the American goalkeeper, this time in the opposite corner. They were the sort of shots you see in comic books, specks of dust trailing behind the ball, a speech bubble of delight sprouting from the star striker’s lips. Take that, evil Foxes of Leicestershire, the tricky Reds are back in business.
Liverpool, top of the league; Liverpool, with this unknown Czechoslovakian – as the Kop elder statesmen still insisted on calling him until his final game – rampaging towards goal with an anvil left foot. There was something so brutally aesthetic about those two goals, like a Hollywood contract killer who finds the central point between the eyes. It was the manner in which he decided that he was to change the direction of the football match; the efficiency in which he did it; the flowing, shoulder-length hair that bounced along with the supporters behind the goal.
Robbie Fowler was a prodigy who was developing into one of the league’s best forwards, Steve McManaman excited and frustrated in equal measure, but Berger was something else already. He was a scorer of great goals, an exotic player from abroad who catapulted Liverpool to the league’s summit within 45 minutes of his career. Another brace on his full home debut against Chelsea a week later, and then another goal against MyPa 47, solidified that.
So what happened within two seasons that seen him close to leaving Liverpool? The woolly hat remained upon my head that season, even in the milder spring – but by that point, he had only added four goals to his tally, two in the league. The season after his hat trick against Chelsea would prove to be his only league goals. He also refused to be a substitute against Bolton in March 1998.
Worry begins that memories have become as faded and worn as the comic book pages his play belonged upon, that opinion was formed and fastened on that sole afternoon in Leicester. But Gerard Houllier’s arrival in the summer of 1998 reinvigorated his career; in the following two seasons he made 66 league appearances before injury limited his participation in the treble season of 2001.
Heroes should not be chronicled, no matter how flawed they were. It becomes apparent that Berger’s Anfield career is not a linear one anyway, with success – both personal and collective – bookending his time there. Five goals to begin his Liverpool career, five trophies and a second-place finish to ultimately end it, if his sporadic appearances in 2002-03 are disregarded.
The more you ruminate upon Berger, the more you realise he was an anomaly, one of the few constants during the club’s upheaval towards the end of the 1990s. Players were coming and going, academies were stagnating and the culture of the entire club was changing, yet here was Berger – as a striker under Evans, then deeper under Houllier – still moving the ball on to his left foot and shooting from anywhere and everywhere.
It was his roles under Evans and Houllier that mark him as such a curious figure. Evans regarded him as too lazy and lacking the necessary teamwork in a Roy Evans team, yet Houllier – pragmatic, drilled, organised – allowed him to roam on the left-hand side. Both of these achievements rank as improbable: Evans had allowed Neil Ruddock, Jamie Redknapp and Stan Collymore to saunter through 90 minutes as if they were pedalling along the river in a swan-shaped pedalo on a summer’s day; Houllier, most notably, had little time for Jari Litmanen and the whole concept of being really good at football and showing that at every possible opportunity.
Berger may be the one player Houllier granted true freedom to, roaming in-field from the left and doing what he wanted once he got within range. The relationship with Evans and Houllier is a microcosm of how he was regarded by most – he was a player people either loved or hated; a genius or a liability.
That’s what ensures he’s aged well. In a time when there’s obsession about everything bar kicking the football, Berger feels like one of the final relics of that era, the gatekeeper as the direction of the club completely changed.
Resale value, dietary requirements and distance ran didn’t matter when Berger played; he just blasted the ball really hard towards goal and looked to play exquisite through balls now and then. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t; some people loved him, some people hated him.
Like him or not, Berger is a player woven into the club’s tapestry. His goal against Derby County in the 4-0 rout was not driven but caressed towards goal, almost reluctantly, to offer the perfect end to a move of 110 passes. His goal against Manchester United, as outlandish as the green shirt he wore, should have given Liverpool their first win at Old Trafford in nine years. He would also set up that goal in the FA Cup final – yes, that one – as substitute to confirm the double.
More than that, though, was the wonderful noise at Anfield when he shaped to shoot from 25 yards out. This was before the Neanderthal inhabited stadia and their dull cries of ‘SHOOT’ forced their way into the lexicon. Instead, a hum, moan, rumble which contained 5,000 optimistic cries of “go’ed”, 10,000 sighs and 20,000 mutterings of “don’t even think about it, you”. Give me that over a Xabi Alonso-led ‘SHOOT’ any day.
And, indeed, give me Berger any day; give me my youth and my love of nothing but the ball and the foot and all the magnificent things it could do.
Maybe he never fulfilled the promise of his opening month, but that doesn’t change what he was and what he will always be – a reminder of when football was simple, of when treating the ball with contempt and flinging it towards goal was enough to satiate my youthful voracity for football. And that’s something I can hang my hat on.
From issue three of The Anfield Wrap magazine. Issues 1-4 of the magazine are available to download now – FREE – for Apple iDevices from itunes.apple.com/gb/app/anfield-wrap/id583362683. Users of other devices – computers, tablets or mobiles of just about any flavour – can also view the first three issues of the magazine – FREE – here: app.theanfieldwrap.com.