AFTER Liverpool beat West Ham United 2-1 at Upton Park on 6th April 2014 I recorded a show at the top of the tower. While recording the show I was getting texts about where the drink was happening. The Saddle on Dale Street. I couldn’t believe it. With Steve Graves I walked across town. “I mean, it’s not a good pub this, Steve. There must be some mistake. Maybe it is a holding position boozer.”
When we opened the door it hit us. The heat. The sweat. The glow, the effervescent glow of smiles on faces, the joy making the light shimmer. And the noise. The wall of noise. Adam Melia and his brother Daniel glorifying “This Is How We Do It” by Montell Jordan on the karaoke and an entire room of Liverpool supporters and lesbians chanting the chorus back at them. South Central does it like nobody does. People on tables, roaring, laughing, dancing, carousing.
This was the happiest I’ve ever been in my whole life.
When Liverpool made Brendan Rodgers manager I didn’t really know what to think. Let’s see, I thought. Let’s just see. And, I thought, it will also be nice to have a manager I don’t wake up in the night anxious about, you know, like the bloke who nearly died or the bloke who fought for the soul of the club or the bloke who closer than anyone else alive personified the soul of the club. I thought maybe this will help. A bloke coming in from outside who no one knows much about. Someone not infected with our nonsense. Maybe he’ll get us playing. And if he doesn’t, well we just get rid of him. Which ever way it goes, it’ll be nice to get a full night’s sleep.
In the February of his first season we went to Bray and the night before I spoke to Tony Evans and said I thought Rodgers might have to go in the summer. Just too inconsistent. Tony was adamant that he should be allowed three years. He talked me round.
What transpired to be the key positive transfer window of Rodgers’s time had just happened. Liverpool had signed Phil Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge. The latter, especially, inspired an upturn in form and by the time the campaign had finished Liverpool had been able to look genuinely dangerous and had gone just shy of two points per game for the second half of the season.
Rodgers then spent the summer highlighting the importance of improving the goals scored column but very few people anticipated what was to follow.
Because of what has happened since Daniel Sturridge got injured on international duty in September 2014, the 2013-14 season has suffered a ton of revisionism. Hopefully now that Brendan Rodgers is no longer Liverpool manager that will stop and the most remarkable league season of my adulthood can be remembered for what it was. An incredible collective effort across the entire season that very nearly became Liverpool’s most remarkable title win since 1947, if not ever. Not one big push (Liverpool were top on Christmas Day) and not due solely to one player.
Footballers will always be the most important part of any football team, especially across 38 games. In 13/14 Luis Suarez was remarkable. From having been desperate to leave he was entirely committed and played the best football of his Liverpool career by a mile. His form from October to December was the finest sustained spell I’ve ever seen any Liverpool player hit. After the turn of the year he dropped off a couple of rungs to being simply incredible.
But he wasn’t the sole reason for Liverpool’s success, the season before had shown the way. Rodgers brought the best out of both Suarez and Sturridge, he gave them able support in Gerrard, Henderson and Sterling from whom he also coaxed the very best and he committed wholeheartedly to an attacking approach which allowed all to shine and Liverpool perpetually improved.
If you take any run of five games from when Rodgers arrived in 2012 up to when Gerrard fell over, the performances, results or both were better than any other given five. This, more than anything, is indicative of Brendan Rodgers’s remarkable abilities as a coach. This, more than anything, marks him down as the sort of momentum manager which would be part of this eventual failure at Liverpool. No backward steps wasn’t just an attitude, it was a lifeblood and since they were taken Liverpool haven’t been able to stride freely again.
Rodgers created something which could be got behind. Liverpool were about something in a way they arguably hadn’t been since September 2009. In the first month of Rodgers’s reign John Henry was having to pen open letters to the support. The stench of Hicks and Gillett, Purslow and Hodgson, and yes, in part, Parry and Moores still lingered about the place and even Kenny Dalglish hadn’t been able to wipe it clean and him being sacked had dirtied the place up again.
Liverpool’s football was zipless, seamless, mustard. The approach, watching young lads play and play and play, lightened everyone’s mood. Lightened everyone’s life. The purpose of the enterprise suddenly back.
Liverpool Football Club was suddenly unfettered.
For too long, since 2007, possibly 2005 and perhaps even before then, Liverpool Football Club had been fettered. Supporting Liverpool, going the game, talking about the game had been to have an argument, a perpetual argument. Over ownership, finances, protests, Benitez, our place in the world and our direction of travel. Supporting Liverpool had been supporting a thoroughbred race horse beladen with baggage. Suddenly, through the approach of Rodgers and his men, as much as anything else, that baggage had gone and the horse was striding.
Suddenly everywhere you went in the city, everyone you spoke to, everything that happened had a buzz. Everyone was talking football, talking The Reds. It helped that Everton were playing well too. The whole city was alive with the sound of togger.
Suddenly Liverpool was having a pint. Even more of a pint than normal. The Saddle tableau wasn’t unique. All over the city parties were being had every weekend. Boss were putting on Boss Nights which were boss. The whole city bounced to the weekend’s rhythm, boozers packed for almost every game which had any sort of an impact at the top, boozers spilling over before, during and after when The Reds played. This wasn’t limited just to the city of Liverpool. The worldwide diaspora were going out and watching it together. Suddenly it was football that made you want to be with your mates, football that made you want to make new mates. Because these Reds.
Suddenly it was a joy to be alive.
It is important not to forget what 13-14 felt like. There is a history of football which is handed down to us through record books and television. It’s a history which is predominantly written by the grey-bearded and the distant and by the cynics. Some of these dwell within our own parish, a darkness in their souls uncleansed, consistently unable to forgive Brendan Rodgers for not being the bloke who nearly died or the bloke who fought for the soul of the club or the bloke who closer than anyone else alive personified the soul of the club.
For many of these the hard facts of the matter will always prevail. Hard facts can’t dance. Hard facts have no rhythm. No one wants to get off with hard facts. The football history that really matters is about the stories, the collective experience, the days and the nights, the coaches and the buzz. Remember not the hard fact of the 3-3 draw, your side losing a three-goal lead, but instead remember that they were trying to score 10. Remember they were trying to do the impossible. Remember how proud you were of how close they came.
And at Liverpool, there are others factors, other issues. Those who can’t get beyond having seen behind the curtain, can’t get beyond the back room and the gossip, can’t get beyond what has gone before. Football minds melded beyond what happens on the green thing to obsess only over what happens everywhere else. I know this. It’s hard to get your innocence back. I recognise that. Because that is 2008-09.
Liverpool’s title charge in 2008-09 mostly wasn’t an enjoyable experience. It was fraught. It was stressful. It was about sticking it to people. Not about the adventure and not even really about sticking it to people who didn’t support Liverpool. It was about sticking it to people internally. It’s an amazing thoroughbred, Benitez’s 08-09, because it was carrying all sorts. Mostly weaponry either stuck in it or thrusting weaponry back. Even now too much of Liverpool’s support is about sticking it to people internally.
I’d never go back to 08-09. Not for a second. Not for a moment. Not even for 1-4 at Old Trafford. It was thoroughly unpleasant, waking at 3am wondering if tomorrow is the day Benitez ridiculously gets sacked, arguing in the ground every other week. But I’d do 13-14 again, knowing what I know now. I’d live that nine months over and over and over again if I could. Groundhog season. No one was looking to stick anything to anyone. Not when you could give them a cuddle instead. I’d go back in an instant, back to waking at 3am excited that it is Saturday, Saturday, Saturday. I’d go back in the blink of an eye. I’d do it mostly so I could see my friends that happy again, faces moist with sweat, improbability and delight.
On the 20th September 2014 Liverpool returned to Upton Park. Liverpool played the diamond. Borini and Balotelli up front, a million miles from Suarez and Sturridge. Gerrard dominated by Downing, a million miles from the previous season. Liverpool beaten. Liverpool broken. And from that point Liverpool have been nothing but fettered.
Brendan Rodgers can point to external factors. The loss of Sturridge on England duty arguably hurt more than the loss of Suarez but both together was a bitter blow. The reality of extra games meant there had to be an influx of new players and it can’t be underestimated what the run in 13-14 did to the footballers — no one has managed to retain the title this decade and most defences have been very poor. Liverpool didn’t have the depth or the experience of the other three sides that have competed for the title in the last five years; what they did have was the emotional energy. And if that turns…
Yet there was more than just that wrong. It seemed the grey-bearded, the distant, the cynical had got to Rodgers and Liverpool. From a clear, stated commitment to add to the goals scored column in the summer 2013 Liverpool had manifestly gone into reverse. The backwards steps had been taken too early, they were there in the summer with talk of consolidation before Daniel Sturridge gets his knock.
And Rodgers himself seemed like a man who had to prove he was a responsible leader, not a manager who just sent lads out to rip into teams, spoke like he felt had to add more steel. More substance. Martin Fitzgerald likened Liverpool of 2014-15 to a band who made a terrific punk pop debut album but who are looking for a more grown-up follow up, looking for less dancing and better reviews in the broadsheets before releasing something turgid, something the broadsheets wouldn’t applaud and something leaving fans of the band wondering what on earth had gone on — can you just play it faster?
The desire for mainstream acceptance, the startling drop off in quality in attack and the collective physical and mental exhaustion after 13-14 did for Rodgers. He struggled to get his side going and then when he finally did, when they got on their run, it was when they got off it that the rot for his reputation set in. If he wasn’t a man fighting with himself at the start of 14-15 he most definitely was by the end and the thing about fighting with yourself is that you will always lose.
Liverpool lost. They lost and lost and lost. United, Arsenal and Villa with its three formations in 45 minutes, showing a manager unsure of his team, unsure of himself. Crystal Palace. And then Stoke. In many sense Stoke was the final straw — how can you trust the man who oversees losing 6-1? For those who were there Stoke would live long in the memory. What do you do about that? How do you rebuild those bridges?
Rodgers kept his job and he tried — this season started with three consecutive clean sheets but then West Ham happened and West Ham looked so much like Crystal Palace. And if Crystal Palace can happen again, then can Stoke?
In the end Rodgers stayed for only eight league games too long. To have removed him from his post earlier than Stoke away would have been very harsh on the man who managed the side to the most unlikely title challenge since Roman Abramovich turned up. To have kept him beyond that point now feels tougher on him than on us, frankly, and points are on the board.
What have we learnt? That our darkness, that our nonsense can infect anyone? That the job is a very hard job indeed? That we want/need everything — all the everythings, more than one man can provide? Perhaps. But why dwell there? That’s one for another day.
The key aspect of Brendan Rodgers’s reign as Liverpool manager is that he came closest to doing what has become structurally more and more difficult since 1990. Closer than the bloke who nearly died or the bloke who fought for the soul of the club or the bloke who closer than anyone else alive personified the soul of the club. And he came closest to doing it in the most electrifying, high-wire act way that none of them could have done, that perhaps no one else in the world would have done.
I’ve learned to love footballers again under Brendan Rodgers, because at his best he so clearly does. Footballers doing amazing things, making children of us, is a wonderful thing. Learned that goals are paramount to proceedings and learned that without them nothing can be achieved. These might seem like straightforward and obvious enough virtues but it had been a dark place for far too long.
It is time he goes because Hope has gone and he’s shown what Hope can do. Hope and her responsible elder brother Belief, her irrepressible younger brother Delusion. This is the holy trinity that any future Liverpool success will be built on and so I’ll say it now: I believe the next Liverpool manager whoever he will be will win the league. You should too. Because if you don’t what’s the point of it all?
Regardless though, this is for tomorrow. For today, I can close my eyes and see Sturridge juggling it on the goal-line against Stoke, Steve Graves on Gibbo’s shoulders after Arsenal, Henderson forcing it in against Swansea. I can see Skrtel rising against Arsenal, Mike Nevin falling off the kerb hectoring me after West Ham, Flanagan rattling into Soldado.
Gerrard with his top off against Fulham, Gerrard with his top off against Fulham, Gerrard with his top off against Fulham.
It can’t be taken away and it emerges in odd places. If I ever need to think of 13-14 I put on “I’m On My Way” by The Proclaimers and think of Ben Johnson and Adam Melia singing it after one of the wins, nailing it, absolutely perfect in every sense:
I’m on my way from misery to happiness today
I’m on my way from misery to happiness today
I’m on my way to what I want from this world
And years from now you’ll make it to the next world
And everything that you receive up yonder
Is what you gave to me the day I wandered
At Glastonbury last year we went to see The Proclaimers all together and they played it. I took this photo of Adam and Ben singing along.
Just look at them there. It’s Suarez hitting the post against Arsenal isn’t it? The best 20 minutes of your life.
These are my memories. If you were doing 13-14 right, you’ll have your own, your own photographs, your own stories, your own moments. (If you weren’t doing 13-14 right, you’ll probably be wondering when I’m going to mention defending). You’ll know immediately the ones I mean and you’ll be able to substitute in your own. You’ll have everything and you’ll know that those days couldn’t have happened without Brendan Rodgers.
It was the happiest I’ve been in my whole life.
All the best, Brendan. All the best.
Pic: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo