SHERWOOD wasn’t the only one.
We bristled with indignation at the very suggestion. Asked who he was, with his comedy cob ons and misplaced arrogance, to question Liverpool’s title credentials. Brendan Rodgers spoke publicly to turn the tables back on a club that had recently spent wasted £110million or so on new players. “I suppose the likes of Tottenham are a team who were maybe looking to be challenging for the league this season. You spend £100m-odd – it’s a group that’s set up to challenge.”
Standard fare for managers at this time of year. And while Rodgers’ reaction was fair enough – fighting the corner wins out over baffling reverence every time (take note, Roy) – a smile would have sufficed. Wind back to August and it was Tottenham tipped for the title in many quarters, while the Reds were expected to struggle to break the top four cabal. Again.
Now we’re reacting with arms spread wide and brow furrowed to anyone that dare suggest the class of 2014 can’t lift number 19. Quite the turnaround, and one few predicted so quickly, if ever.
But Sherwood wasn’t alone in suggesting Liverpool might crack. Since the bum-clenching Sunderland victory, plenty opined that Liverpool – fans and players – would struggle with the pressure of being genuine title contenders for the first time in five years.
In the end, Sunderland were beaten. And the positive, aside from the three points, was that Liverpool had proved they could dog out a result when it mattered. A win is a win is a win, and all that. But the start of that game was a legitimate cause for concern. It was a different Liverpool. At Cardiff City, despite the early goal against, the Reds had been calm and considered, searching for the chance that counted rather than gambling on pot-shots or snatching at half-opportunities. It was a swagger that spread to the stands. Chests were puffed out and ‘We are Liverpool’ rewound. We’ll be OK, was the general feel. And we were.
Midweek, Liverpool looked over-eager and a bit edgy from the off. There were pot-shots aplenty. Shrugs and shakes of the head and arms held aloft. It quickly transmitted to the crowd. The team had been given a fantastic welcome outside Anfield but the atmosphere inside didn’t always match it. It was pin-drop quiet at times. Sunderland scoring didn’t help. But the collective intake of breath when the Black Cats came close to equalising on Wednesday was seemingly stored in the lungs for Spurs. Forget nerves. Fuck pressure. We’re having this and we’re shouting about it.
You’ll Never Walk Alone was loud, defiant and meaning business. And the players picked up on the mood to force an own goal within two minutes. That helped and the defiant atmosphere continued throughout. If Spurs supporters sang, it was hard to hear them. How it should be. The Kop looked magnificent before kick-off, a sea of scarves and banners. And this time the sound matched the vision.
Saturday’s results could easily have fuelled introspection. Chelsea and Manchester City’s failures made us dream. It could have made us moan. It might have affected the players. But there was none of that. The players wanted it. Anfield wanted it. And they made it happen together.
The Kop sang itself hoarse and the players played the football we’ve been salivating over all season. Nerves? Pressure? None of it. Liverpool played their relentless game; chasing, harrying and launching attacks from all angles, while Spurs simply rolled over and screamed ‘not the face, not the face’. Actually, that’s unfair. Because on the few occasions Tottenham did climb from the canvas to swing at the Reds, the back-line, collectively, was in no mood for a bloody nose. Skrtel, Agger, Johnson, Flanagan and Mignolet all played their part when it mattered.
Aside from nerves, the other snippet of received wisdom that has been doing the rounds about Liverpool in recent times is that this side lacks experience. We don’t have the players who have been in this situation before. We don’t have a manager who has gone the distance in the Premier League.
It’s an easy argument to rail against. Steven Gerrard has won everything but. Glen Johnson won it with Chelsea. Luis Suarez has won titles in Uruguay and Holland, Skrtel in Russia, Agger in Denmark. Sturridge was a (underused) player at Stamford Bridge when Chelsea won it in 2010. And, while Rodgers may not have the big trophies yet, he’s clearly done his homework. And then some.
But who needs experience anyway? Just win. Just score goals. Play your game. Express yourself. Raheem Sterling is 19 with 71 first team appearances to his name. He was the best player on the pitch, closely followed by the Aaron Lennon-crushing 21-year-old Jon Flanagan, making just his 29th Premier League appearance. Goalscorer Phillippe Coutinho is another 21-year-old, while Jordan Henderson, a key figure in how Liverpool play under Rodgers, is still only 23.
You don’t win anything with kids. You don’t do go from seventh to first (or from first to seventh *cough*). Anymore? Not many would predict a squad featuring Djimi Traore and Igor Biscan would win the Champions League. Their medals prove predictions mean nothing. ‘They’ can do the predicting, we’ll do the winning.
Statistical norms and the history books can suggest what’s normal in this situation. But this Liverpool team is far from normal. And this club is far from normal. This is a Liverpool team playing with supreme confidence, a goalscoring machine featuring the league’s best pairing and a world-class number seven which 88 times has produced the goods, even when individual components aren’t firing on all cylinders. It’s a machine which has outscored Manchester City, and reined in a goal difference now to just three goals in favour of the financially-doped.
This is a Liverpool team that has won eight Premier League games in a row. There are six more to come, three home, three away: West Ham, Man City, Norwich, Chelsea, Palace and Newcastle. Five hundred and forty minutes of football to end a 24-year wait for the title. Can we do it? The more people say we can’t, the more likely it seems we can. If we don’t? It’s been a season to savour anyway, a campaign that has already exceeded reasonable expectations. Liverpool are back.
Now we’re top for the first time since Boxing Day. Yet still the manager is calm. He might not have been the people’s choice to succeed Kenny Dalglish but, much like his team, he has adapted, learnt quickly and all of a sudden he looks a match for anyone.
And us. The fans. Anfield. The Kop, and the loyal away following. That’s special, too – when it’s right it’s worth something. That spontaneous primal roar that emerged from the depths of The Kop and rolled down the stand to the pitch as the team stood applauding the fans after the final whistle was intoxicating. If it made us stride out of the ground with a clenched first and a permanent smile just imagine how it made the players feel? They must be walking around like Ron Yeats after Bill Shankly’s famous words.
“Now they have to believe they’ve got something that might fall through their grasp and slip away and – believe me – that’s a real bad feeling to have because perhaps you don’t play with the freedom you’d played with earlier in the season. I know what it’s like myself.”
That wasn’t Bill Shankly, that was Tim Sherwood. He was wrong about Liverpool. He’s joined a list that is getting longer by the week.
Doubt this Liverpool side at your peril.