IT’S been one mother fucker of a season. Horrible really. Apart from the long sustained good bit in the middle. We’ll finish fifth. Triffic. Do you want to know what makes it such a disaster ? I ask because, taking last season out, Liverpool FC’s average position was 7th for the previous four seasons. What makes it the end of the universe — epoch defining, manager becoming sackable — season it has been, is down to one thing: that we nearly won the league last year. We looked into the face of God. The Holy Grail was ours. Until that day it was taken from us. Cruel fate. We’ll never get over it.
Now history needs to be rewritten because we can’t make sense of that event, 12 months on. Fifth place (or worse) is really hurting us. The manager stands accountable for it. He would probably accept that. What he won’t, and shouldn’t accept, is that he has no record to stand by as he faces up to having to make a case for keeping his job. “The first Liverpool manager since biblical times not to win a trophy in one of his first three seasons’. That’s what it may read on his LFC managerial graveyard tombstone.
That media meme factoid is a lie though because it does not reveal the truth. The whole truth. What is a trophy and why is it a measure of anything? In the olden times — in the days before the TV men came — English football understood what trophies were and what they meant as measures of success. All of the trophies were good things to win. The league — the bread and butter — proved you were the best. The European Cup, the world’s most prestigious prize. The FA Cup — the one all fans really wanted. The League Cup — second to the FA Cup, but most understood it was probably just as hard to win it, and was a quietly satisfying one to bag. Even the two lesser European trophies — the UEFA Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup — were worth winning. You could end up beating half a dozen teams who’d finished second in their leagues (the previous term) and were topping them in the current one. There were no bad trophies. Back then.
All this changed when the European Cup became the Champions League and the highest broadcasting bidders set the agenda as to which trophies were worth winning. Them and their bags full of money. That’s what did for the FA Cup. The old FA Cup had two things going for it. One — its final was live on TV, which is more than could be said for the rest of the football calendar back in the 70s and much of the 80s.
There was a time when the only live football on TV was big England games, the FA Cup final, the European Cup final and World Cup games. That was it. On FA Cup final day, from 9am onwards, two of the three to four TV channels available in the UK dedicated themselves to nothing but previewing that day’s game. It was utterly intoxicating. The TV didn’t treat much else with such billing and ceremony. Royal weddings. General Elections maybe. No wonder we all wanted to win the FA Cup more than we wanted anything else in the world.
When I was a kid, there was a lot of talk about there one day being a European Super League. Its time would inevitably come, some thought. Others argued that it couldn’t work around a domestic league programme and would therefore remain a flight of fancy. Well, it did come, but it kind of snuck up on us. It hid inside the coat of the old European Cup, only to reveal itself before anyone had time to debate whether or not we actually wanted a Euro Super League. What the doom-mongers, who had tried to warn us of the perils of the Super League, hadn’t bargained for was that it wasn’t the league fixtures that would have to inevitably pay the price — it was the domestic cups.
By the time live football coverage had moved from rare to near universal, TV didn’t have the inclination to hype the fuck out of every competition out there. It wanted to channel its energies. The Premier League and the Champions League were prize enough. They filled the programming amply between them. There was no need to dilute them with fripperies such as the FA and League Cups, which despite their charms had the habits of bringing fly by night minor competitors into the mix, who had no brand caches. The more midweeks of Barcelona v Manchester United, or super Sundays of Arsenal v Liverpool the sweeter. The less time working hard to pretend Brentford v Everton would be compelling viewing the better.
The net effect of this, although the commentariat rarely rationalise it, is that there are simply fewer trophies winnable in today’s game of the status of the trophies winnable in the pre 1995-ish era. There is no sane argument left to say you’d rather your club won the League Cup than finish fourth and qualify for the Champions League. The only case is one that sees silver as some sort of absolute. Great. Then let’s value the Charity shield or the Super Cup above Champions League qualification. They’re cups, too, right?
Arsene Wenger — a truly great manager — has had to suffer years of idiots pointing out that he hasn’t delivered regular trophies (since he last won the league regularly). There’s silly talk still about how winning a trophy for its own sake catalyses a winning habit. Except when it doesn’t. Witness how League Cup winners usually go on to deliver sweet fuck all on the back of their fun day out at Wembley. Obviously winners win stuff, but Chelsea aren’t winning the league because bagging the League Cup back in February got them in the pot-gathering habit. They’re winning it because they’re better than the rest (and they’ve got loads of money).
Let’s be right — we’d all have been made up if Liverpool had won either the FA or League Cups this year, but neither were the club’s priority at the season’s start, and they haven’t been in well over a decade. There are two trophies left which tower over all others — domestic league titles and European Cups. All else pale by comparison. They are of such status in the modern game that falling just short in either of them is no mean feat. When Bill Shankly talked of first being first, and second nowhere he was talking in an era when there were quite a few opportunities to finish first in a meaningful way. First in the league. First in the FA Cup. First in the UEFA Cup. First in the European Cup. First in the League Cup. First in the Cup Winners’ Cup. All firsts to be truly proud of. All firsts that marked you out as a force in the game.
Now, give me a Liverpool manager who finishes second in leagues and European Cups in his first three years than one who can get us a pot but leaves us lost in the shadows on the bigger stages. The last Liverpool manager to win a trophy got sacked at the end of the season he achieved that feat. And most people didn’t complain too hard at that. That tells you all you need to know about the selective use of success-failure yardsticks.
Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool were on their way to glory last season. They fell short of putting the icing on the cake of the club’s best season in 25 years by the most minute of margins. There is no reason that made Manchester City Champions and Liverpool FC not champions other than the vagaries of fate. In the race they ran, only chance separated them at the finishing line. In a parallel universes the contest was re-run and Liverpool emerged triumphant eight of 10 times. It’s our hard luck that we live in one of the universes where City won it.
Ah but the winning is everything. The courage to actually complete the course, to finish, to hold the trophy high. That is the mark of a true champion. A winner who will seize his day and from there-on in prevail. Like Bill Shankly’s 1964 title-winning side? Want to know where that dream team finished the season after it scaled the summit ? Don’t bother looking it up, because I’m going to tell you — seventh. Bloody seventh. That’s all. So Bill should have been sacked right? What was his pedigree before that one off in the league the year before? Oh he got a side promoted from the Second Division to the top one. Big deal. Where are his European Cups or titles in foreign countries?
Roy Hodgson has a sackful of trophies. He’s got a winning CV. If we’re counting trophies in absolute terms. Kenny Dalglish won a cup and got the chop. Rafa Benitez finished second with more points than Rodgers’ 2014 Liverpool, in 2009 but was still sacked a year later. What makes Brendan different? Why does he get to have another go?
Let’s compare the position with the last time a Liverpool team went close to the title only to slip back a year later. 2009 was nearly a great year but the club were never truly close to winning the league that year. The 86-point haul was an achievement of sorts, undoubtedly. Points totals only tell part of a story because it’s all about the nature of a competition. Rafa won his Spanish league titles at Valencia with points totals that wouldn’t get you third place in many seasons. So what? He won the competitions in front of him. That’s all a man can do.
Let’s put Rodgers and 2013-14 into another context — odds wise. What was the closest the great 2009 side got to the title? 3-1 against? They were never favourites. Last season’s Liverpool side were 1-5 on with three games to go. No Liverpool team, in probability terms then, has got anywhere near as close to the title as last season’s team (since 1991). Also, let’s add, Rodgers’ team scored more goals doing than any other post-war Liverpool side. They were wonderful to watch. As entertaining as the 87-88 team. The ultimate fun machine.
And, last year’s crop did it, not on the back of the club having finished third or fourth for the previous nine years, but on the back of four seasons with an average finishing position of seventh. It would have represented the joint greatest single achievement in the club’s history (in relative terms) had Liverpool finished top in 2014 . Up there with Shanks’ first title. It would have been one of THE great title wins of the modern age.
Detractors will look to Suarez and his Maradona-like contribution as distorting the picture. But Suarez was also there the previous two-and-a-half years when the club finished sixth, eighth and seventh. His season in 2014 was a dream one but he was just one man. Take Suarez, Sturridge, a reborn Gerrard, and the precocious talents of Coutinho, Henderson and Sterling out of the 2013-2014 side and then, yes, you would wonder where Liverpool might have finished. What did the Romans ever do for us, eh ?
Let’s re-iterate that the leap to the table’s summit wasn’t from a base camp of 70-75 point fourth or third the previous campaign. It was from the limbo of seventh place and a mere 61 points. Had anyone been told in August 2013 that Suarez would go on to have his best ever season, then they might have expected Liverpool to have a great campaign moving from seventh to fourth or fifth. But nearly winning the league? Fantasy talk.
So let’s imagine Gerrard hadn’t slipped. Let’s imagine a butterfly didn’t flap its wings somewhere and change the course of history in this parallel. Imagine we were champions of England and Brendan Rodgers our manager. He would be the man. The one that made it happen. The thing we have all wanted more than anything for 25 long years.
Would we be contemplating dumping that guy? Our new messiah. There’s little more than the width of the blade of grass (that upended Stevie G) between that guy and our current manager.
The trophyless one.
— Rob, Sean Rogers, Gareth Roberts and Ian Salmon discussed Rodgers and Liverpool’s direction under FSG on this week’s TAW Unwrapped
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda-Photo