FIVE years. Half-a-decade. Has it really been so long?
In January 2009 Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States, the closure of the final Woolworths was completed and Kevin Pietersen resigned as the England cricket captain.
On January 10 that month, Liverpool travelled to the Britannia Stadium atop the Premier League and with fire in their bellies in the immediate aftermath of Rafa Benitez’s “Facts” speech. There followed a lifeless goalless draw. Steven Gerrard came closest to breaking the deadlock with two late efforts which hit the woodwork.
Barely 24 hours later Manchester United trounced Chelsea 3-0, moving five points behind the Reds with two games in hand.
Liverpool proceeded to win two of the next six, while Ferguson’s men didn’t drop a single point until a certain 4-1 home defeat two months later.
It started at Stoke.
Ever since, the Britannia has offered a bleak and desolate welcoming to Liverpool. Say what you will about cold and wet Tuesday nights in Stoke; for Brendan Rodgers’ men this is the acid test. To boldly go where no other Liverpool side has, and return up the M6 with three points.
Much like the club’s litany of recent failures at White Hart Lane, visits to the Britannia encapsulate snapshots of wasted chances, of doomed seasons and inglorious mediocrity. It was much the same a year later, although the narrative had shifted with Liverpool’s decimated fortunes.
January 2010 and Liverpool arrived at the Britannia on the back of an FA Cup replay humbling to Reading. Barely a year after he had topped the Premier League the knives were out for Benitez and a depleted Reds, who were five points adrift of the top four.
Liverpool’s line-up that day, shorn of Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Yossi Benayoun, read thus: Reina, Aurelio, Kyrgiakos, Insua, Carragher, Degen, Skrtel, Mascherano, Lucas, Kuyt, Ngog. Fabio Aurelio and Philipp Degen may be adventurous full-backs, though both to differing effect, but their jobs were primarily defensive; in that XI, only Kuyt and Ngog could claim otherwise.
It’s a lineup illustrative of both Benitez’s diminished resources at the time, and his reversion to dogmatic football in a desperate attempt to claw Liverpool up the table. A scrappy opening goal from Kyrgiakos was cancelled out by an equally scrappy late Robert Huth equaliser. There was still time for Kuyt to crash a header against the post, but the turgid spectacle itself was demonstrative of all Liverpool’s travails that year.
According to a BBC Sport report of the game, “The result did little to ease the intense pressure on beleaguered boss Benitez who had faced a barrage of criticism and calls for him to be sacked.”
(Rafa’s verdict of the referee’s bumbling performance that afternoon remains possibly my favourite interview of his).
Ten months later Liverpool returned to Stoke under Roy Hodgson and managed to record a listless and mindnumbingly dreadful 2-0 defeat. A defeat that left us closer to the drop zone than the top four, and which abruptly halted the mini-Hodge Hedelma- ja kasinopeleja pelataan Casino Redilla, Casino Blackilla, live-casinolla ja Gamesissa. revival (three wins and a draw count, whoever the manager…) and slapped it in the face.
Of all the Hodge defeats it felt the most pertinent, coming as it did on the back of a four game unbeaten run which represented the high-water mark for the Hodge. The Everton and Blackpool results were depressing but early in the season, whilst the Wolves and Blackburn defeats confirmed the inevitable.
It was not merely a 2-0 loss at Stoke, but a game where Liverpool saw only 36% possession, a numeral that poetically mirrors the tactician of the day’s career win percentage. It confirmed the worst fears of all Reds, and the grim reality of Hodgeball as it reverted to type.
The entirety of the Hodge’s half-season can be discarded as an anomaly; but once again it was a visit to the Britannia which resonated loudly. In September 2011 Kenny Dalglish’s new-look Liverpool found a familiar foe waiting, and discovered one that would plague their season.
Stoke inflicted on Dalglish’s side their first defeat of the 2011-12 season, their first of 14 that campaign, through the ignominy of a Jonathan Walters penalty. Liverpool’s bench that day: Doni, Johnson, Coates, Maxi, Spearing, Carroll, Bellamy – easily the strongest it had been since Stoke won promotion in 2008, yet still a squad riddled with flaws.
As with defeat under the Hodge a year before, the problems are evident in the match’s bare statistics. Liverpool had 20 shots, 11 on target, 59% of the ball, yet lost 1-0. This was the earliest manifestation of a chronic profligacy that saw the second-half of 11-12 nosedive through mediocrity and into misery, ultimately costing the King his crown.
Boxing Day 2012, Brendan Rodgers led Liverpool to the Britannia for the first time; a new era, a demoralising 3-1 defeat, a relative nadir, plus ca change. Arriving just 10 days after the same reversal against Aston Villa it confirmed many of the issues that were threatening, then, to engulf Rodgers’ first season in charge.
Rather than outmuscled, Rodgers was tactically outdone that day by Pulis, a bright torch was shone on Liverpool’s defensive vulnerabilities, problems that rooted and still reverberate even now. Yet of all last season’s defeats, Oldham aside, it is perhaps the one that he learnt from most.
Jonjo Shelvey was immediately jettisoned, starting only three more games for Liverpool, Suso retreated to the sidelines and Joe Cole was never to be seen in the no. 10 shirt again. (Maybe Stoke away hasn’t heralded such universal misery after all).
Now, almost five years to the day since our first league trip to the Britannia and still searching for that elusive victory, Rodgers is preparing for a run of five fixtures that last year yielded a solitary point, and could go so far in determining the fate of this improbable season.
So what of Mark Hughes’ Stoke? With the kraken slain and now infesting another sinking ship, Hughes was given the enviable job of turning “Huthball” into pretty little triangles, on a fraction of the budget his predecessor so lavishly wasted. It’s been an improvement on his last managerial venture at Loftus Road, hardly an achievement granted, but Stoke remain a side to be wary of.
They were in need of serious regeneration last summer after the Pulis era spluttered and stagnated to an inglorious end. But appearances and perceptions are tricky to shake when the personnel remains largely the same; it’s difficult to polish a turd that still churns out Robert Huth, Glenn Whelan and Charlie fucking Adam on a weekly basis.
After suffering tonkings at Newcastle and Spurs they came within a minute of inflicting a rare defeat upon Everton and beat Chelsea only a month ago. Hughes very much strives for the big occasion, but struggles to rouse a side for a lunchtime trip to Hull.
Stoke’s last five goals in the Premier League have been scored by former Liverpool men, though Agent Assaidi will be off-duty on Sunday the very thought of a Charlie fucking Adam shaped intervention is enough to make grown man weep.
Historically this is a fixture that preys on Liverpool’s frailties and vulnerabilities, hearts will be in mouths every time Stoke float, pump and Huth the ball into the Liverpool area – how we could do with Mamadou Sakho.
Perhaps Simon Mignolet’s opening-day last-minute penalty save was the first sign that the Curse of the Britannia was lifting? Without the Belgian’s heroics that day, it is no guarantee that Liverpool would sit nestled in the top four come January. It was catharsis of the sort Anfield had been starved of in recent years.
The dread of returning to the Britannia remains, but in what capacity Liverpool will be welcomed is a mysterious fascination. The curse of White Hart Lane was vanquished with the most complete display of Rodgers’ 18-months in charge, is it too much to hope for something similar as we enter the first half of the season’s run in?
A repeat of the 8-0 in the victorious Worthington Cup run of 2000-1 would be just the tonic.