Of all the indignities suffered by Liverpool fans during the 6-1 defeat at the Britannia Stadium in May, perhaps the most galling was the sight of Charlie Adam swanning around spraying passes at ease, writes NEIL DOCKING.
Everything about a gutless surrender of that magnitude against a mid-table team like Stoke City is utterly humiliating. But worst of all was having to watch the iconic Steven Gerrard spend his last game in a Red shirt eclipsed by the considerable shadow of an overweight Anfield outcast.
Adam’s goal — the fourth of five blows in a truly embarrassing first half — came after he had already gone close twice, including a strike that set up Stoke’s opener.
To be fair to the dumpling from Dundee, he’s always had a wand of a left foot that can punish any opposition, from pretty much any distance. Yet at no stage in the contest did anybody try to put him off his game, or exploit the fact he’s often likely to respond to physical pressure by losing the ball, losing his cool and throwing in a snide tackle.
Much has been made about Liverpool’s players committing only four fouls that dark afternoon and receiving just two bookings — effectively throwing in the towel when the very least they should have been doing was breaking up play and going down fighting.
Stoke by contrast committed 13 fouls and were booked four times, despite the fact they were strolling towards a famous victory.
The fresh memories of that nightmare are why it was so satisfying on Sunday to see James Milner cap off an industrious first half by sliding in and upending Adam with a crunching late tackle.
It earned Milner both a shove from the infuriated Scot while our new recruit was down on the ground and a deserved yellow card from the referee. However, it was exactly what Liverpool have lacked for so long — bite and aggression — and something we need to see a lot more of this season.
On this occasion it was Liverpool who racked up the fouls — 16 to Stoke’s nine — and four yellow cards compared to the home side’s two.
That tally could quite easily have included a red card for Dejan Lovren, after he elbowed Mame Biram Diouf in the head without employing much subtlety and was lucky to escape with a booking.
Going down to 10 men is never going to help the Reds’ cause and there is no need for rash flailing limbs à la Marouane Fellaini. Similarly, I don’t want us to become known for the kind of malicious challenge Chadam reserves for his one-man war against Tottenham Hotspur’s midfielders.
But you don’t get anywhere in sport by being nice and it’s about time we had a fighter like Milner, who understands games and titles are won in part by stopping the opposition from playing their natural game.
An example of Liverpool’s soft underbelly is that in 2013-14 we actually topped the Premier League Fair Play Table — an achievement lauded by Brendan Rodgers after coming so close to winning the title. Was it really worth celebrating? Could a more cynical approach have helped deliver silverware? And I don’t just mean somebody scything down Crystal Palace’s Yannick Bolasie!
Last season we actually led this table again going into May, before eventually coming second to West Ham. Where did the champions Chelsea finish? Fourteenth. Jose Mourinho (of course) ridiculed the table, which also found that his side showed the least respect towards match officials and were second worst when it came to the behaviour of club staff on the touchline, and branded it ‘a lie’.
Let’s be clear. I have no desire to see Gary Mac berating referee Craig Pawson when he takes charge of the game against Bournemouth on Monday, or Rodgers adopting the habitual petulance of his former mentor. But when we’re up against it away at the Emirates or under the cosh at Stamford Bridge, I have absolutely no qualms with seeing Jordan Henderson and company surrounding a referee and demanding that a crucial decision goes in our favour.
Unsportsmanlike you say? What a misnomer. Champions seek every possible advantage to ensure they win.
You actually have to go back more than a decade to Arsenal’s Invincibles in 2003/04 to find a title-winning team that also clinched this fair play award. Quite how they won it remains a mystery. Cursory research reveals the Gunners had three players sent off that season, six charged with improper conduct after the infamous confrontation with Ruud van Nistelrooy when the club was fined £175,000 — the largest ever fine given to a club by the FA — and regularly had to refute accusations of diving thanks to the questionable antics of Robert Pirès.
Maybe it was a particularly dirty season, or the exemplary behaviour of Arsène Wenger and his staff made the difference? Either way that wondrous team had the grit and nous I’m referring to — a savvy, studs-first edge, epitomised by Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp.
Disregarding that seemingly anomalous example, it looks like we’ll never top the table that matters most if we keeping winning the fair play alternative.
I think the true test of whether this Liverpool side has developed the necessary appetite for destruction will come when we travel to Old Trafford on September 12.
Last year in the first half of a critical encounter at Anfield, Manchester United bullied us out of the game. So much so that an enraged Gerrard felt the need after coming on at half time to quite literally stamp his authority on Ander Herrera.
It was foolish and it proved costly. Yet who didn’t cheer when he crashed into Juan Mata seconds earlier, showing what we had so sorely missed until that point?
This kind of raw aggression has to be controlled. United that day showed us exactly how it can be done — bending the rules and pushing physicality to the limit of what will be accepted by the officials. Imposing your will over the opposition without resorting to unfettered violence. Unless like Jamie Carragher on Nani, you can get away with it!
We’ll soon learn in the next six away games whether the Reds now have the necessary steel to ensure we don’t get turned over on our travels again.
Every team loses games. But Liverpool Football Club should never lose 6-1 at Stoke. On Sunday, Milner and his new team mates made that clear.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo