By PAUL McCABE
A LOT can quickly change in football. Nine years ago, Liverpool were on course for winning the Champions League. Five years ago it looked like the League was a possibility, and only four years ago the club flirted with extinction. Success, following success. Progress leading to betrayal. Leading to Hodgson.
We all know the story and bear the mental scars. Now, after so much upheaval, the good times appear to be on their way back. In fact, to a large degree, they are back. But in all this time, and after a string of broken promises and false dawns, the club is finally winning a battle that might even transcend what happens on the pitch. They are conquering their demons.
The next dozen games will define what this Liverpool side is really all about. The 26 league games have really shown a Liverpool team capable of playing some scintillating football, leaving the likes of Spurs, Everton and Arsenal in their wake.
Some of the football has been mesmeric, sublime and, well….pick your superlative. At other times, the squad has had to be dogged, and hard-fought away wins against Fulham and Stoke underline the character that Brendan Rodgers has helped to instill in the players. There seems to a real stomach for battle now. It borders on cliché, but there have been so many occasions this season where Liverpool have pulled out a win or even an undeserved draw where you think “they’d have lost this last season”.
That is when you wonder whether maybe – just maybe – this might be Liverpool’s year. It seems that fate is finally shining on Liverpool.
What makes you wonder is not blind faith – it is the real fact that Liverpool are a very good football side. They seem to be harmonious and the style of football at home has been a joy at times. Also, the small matter of a four-point deficit raises yet more hope. It can be done, and Liverpool have the talent to achieve this. That is what Rodgers will be convincing his players. It may be, deep down, what he is convincing himself.
The extent of Rodgers’ achievements thus far cannot be understated. A largely unproven manager before he joined Liverpool, he seems to have managed to improve every young player in or around the first-team squad. Jordan Henderson has been superb this season, Flanagan has looked much more solid than in previous years and Raheem Sterling has been brilliant. That is not to mention the genius of Suarez or the underrated predatory instincts of Sturridge. While Rodgers does not have an in-prime Steven Gerrard to call upon, he nevertheless has a committed and inspirational Gerrard. This is a captain who is just 12 wins away from achieving his lifelong dream. A League title is something a player of his brilliance, class and loyalty richly deserves.
Rodgers has not just enabled the players to play with more belief and conviction, he has also managed situations brilliantly off the pitch too. There are subtleties, like the way he did not let a terrible transfer window dampen his public shows of faith and optimism. He heaps praise on his players and speaks of the “group.” His praise is measured yet specific. He evokes memories of the Gerrard of old, he uses the word “brilliant” a lot and he will casually throw in comments about how Sturridge could be one of “the best strikers in Europe.” Some may attribute Rodgers’ enthusiasm to cheesy pop psychology or feel his praise is transparent, but the proof of his methods is laid bare on the pitch.
Rodgers is building something very promising. The last 14 months have shown a highly positive trend. A string of routs highlight some of the brilliance in Liverpool’s attacking play. Whereas you used to watch Liverpool’s famous wins wistfully – the 5-0 against Forest in 1988, or those “Best of the 70s” compilations – you only have to go back less than two weeks to witness similar, perhaps even more significant brilliance: 5-1 against Arsenal. And then, just a little further back, and you have 4-0 against Everton and 5-0 away to Spurs. Magical stuff. It is an exciting time to be a Liverpool fan.
What initially went against Rodgers was that his appointment came at the expense of Kenny Dalglish. It left a sour taste in the mouth of many fans, and smacked of betrayal. Yet it was not Rodgers’ fault Kenny was fired. FSG wanted an ambitious young manager with a clear philosophy, someone who could improve the talent in the squad and shrewdly pick up brilliant raw talent on the cheap. Not only that, but they have a manager who speaks passionately and is not afraid to exercise flexible thinking. It is part Moneyball, part motivation, and part Rodgers developing into a brilliant manager…and so far it is working very well.
I am keen to use the word “so far”, as I remain nervous. No silverware has been won, no Champions League place has been secured and lingering doubts remain. So often “modern” Liverpool teams have stumbled when the finishing line has been so close. And you cannot help but look at the fixture list and think that the likes of Palace and West Ham away represent your typical banana skins. There remains that sense of dread, that worry that it can all end in tears again.
What might be helping Liverpool over the line is the use of the psychiatrist, Steve Peters. He gets a lot of credit for helping the Team GB Olympic cycling team and has worked extensively with the likes of Bradley Wiggins and Ronnie O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan spent a great amount of time in his autobiography, Running, explaining all of the positive effects Peters imprinted on his psyche.
Peters’ approach is to discuss how we need to “manage your inner chimp.” He argues that we all have a “chimp” jeopardising our mindsets, leading us astray, and this explains why we act impulsively or destructively at times. Peters provides strategies for managing this nuisance and, while it may sound like mumbo-jumbo to some, the man has a proven track record of helping enigmatic sportsmen.
Subtle changes in attitude have supported the notion that Peters’ influence is a positive one. For one, the team never seem to give up. For another, players like Suarez appear to be managing their chimp or, to put it more simply, behaving. Suarez “so far” (that phrase again, lest I jinx it) has not been the impulsive Suarez of old, yet retains that desperation to win. Rodgers has also reined in some of his verbal excesses, and it is commendable that he has not gotten involved in Mourinho’s amateur and nauseating bouts of mud-slinging. If Liverpool’s form continues, the mind games will intensify and Rodgers will need to retain his composure.
In fact, with just 12 games to go, we all need to maintain that composure. Being a Liverpool fan can be nerve-wracking at times; Rodgers and Peters may need to work on managing the defensive capabilities away from home. It will be tough, and I predict some nail-biters to come. Yet we are close. So close. And the fear is palpable.
It is the fear that we might jinx it or suffer more heartache. 24 years is a desperately long time to be without something you have held 18 times and was your “bread and butter.” I was nine years old at the time. A lot has happened in that time – fatherhood, grey hair and Fergie. 24 years. No wonder people are scared to believe.
And maybe we all need to “manage our chimps”, and stop worrying SO much about everything that might go wrong and focus on what might go so brilliantly right.
An election campaign was run on the “audacity of hope”, and that is where Liverpool’s team is now, running on hope and making the fans believe again. There are always areas on which we can improve, causes for concern and transfer windows that do not quite produce the business we would desire from our ivory towers. But, right now, we are in a race.
FSG did promise a return to winning ways, and we may have stumbled along to this point. It may have taken some luck and quite a deal of pain, but forget the new stadium, forget the redevelopment, forget Hicks and Gillett, forget what should have been. Just know that, so far the team have performed outstandingly and right now the players are 12 wins away from immortality.
I, for one, see the wonder in that.