OPENING day is the best. Anything could happen from here. I always get ridiculously optimistic, but why not? In theory every team has an equal chance before a ball is kicked, no one has lost yet, everyone has the same points. Of course, in practice, some are more equal than others, but for now it’s all to play for. Maybe Crystal Palace will win the first five. Maybe Chelsea will get relegated. Maybe we will win EVERY game. It’s unlikely, but it’s still possible. That’s the beauty of opening day.
Of course, in recent years Liverpool have had a habit of quickly crushing this pre-season positivity. Before 2013/14 Liverpool had only won one of our previous 10 opening-day fixtures. You’d go into the ground dreaming of league titles and walk out wondering if you could hibernate until next August and start again with loads of new lads you could pin your hopes on. We’re already behind them lot, and we’ll never catch them now.
Two of those 10 opening games particularly stick in my mind for providing a journey from optimism to depression in 90 minutes flat. The first is Sheffield United away in 2006-07. The season before, we had finished the league campaign with 82 points and won the FA Cup. It was logical to expect that the next step for Rafa Benítez’s gang of achievers was a genuine title charge. But when the team came through at Bramall Lane, we suddenly didn’t look particularly strong — and we needed a disputed penalty to draw the game.
The second is Sunderland at home in 2011-12. Liverpool had been brilliant in the second half of the season before under Kenny Dalglish, showing genuine top-four form and scoring a ton of goals in the process. We’d spent heavily in the summer and it felt to everyone that we were set for a new adventure under new owners and with the most popular man in the club’s history at the helm. Sunderland at home seemed a perfect game to get the season off to a flier, but after starting well Liverpool could only draw again. Same old Liverpool.
You might argue that the opening fixture shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all. There are 37 games left to turn it around, and plenty of teams have won things after shaky starts (or started brightly and gone down). But not really Liverpool, in the Premier League era at least. Both of the opening games I have discussed were ominous signs of the season to come. The 2006-07 team struggled all season away from home, losing the next away fixture 3-0 to Everton and only winning once in the league away from Anfield before the beginning of December.
In contrast the Sunderland result at the start of 2011-12 was the first of nine league draws at Anfield that season, as the team became specialists in dominating for long periods of play, missing chances, and allowing the opposition back in the game once heads had gone down and Charlie Adam couldn’t run.
But look at the last two times we won an opening fixture 1-0 — away at Sunderland in 2008-09 and home to Stoke in 2013-14. These were also the times we mounted a significant title challenge, so maybe the omens are with us this time, too? Yes, we only won 1–0, and we weren’t particularly great. But we won 1-0 without playing that well the previous two occasions too. Omens again.
You don’t need to be that great in opening week. It’s about the win. It’s about not being behind the leaders already. It’s about keeping that daft pre-season optimism going for another week. No one has beaten us yet. Maybe no one will. Maybe we’ll win the lot. You can’t tell me it definitely won’t happen. Everything is still possible.
– This is an adaption from a chapter in Make Us Dream – The Story of the 2013-2014 season by Neil Atkinson and John Gibbons.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo