THE fella driving the bus told me he had sparred with Tyson Fury back in the day as I paid for my ticket to the ground yesterday. He was big enough and hard-looking enough to be believable.
“I’m not having him as world champion, mate,” he said. “Just not having it.”
The eminently dislikable Fury was the 4/1 underdog to steal the world heavyweight crown from the head of Wladimir Klitschko in Germany on Saturday night, the Ukranian having reigned supreme for a staggering 11 years.
And yet steal it the bigoted Manchester United fan did, in a result dubbed the biggest shock in boxing since James Buster Douglas beat Mike Tyson 25 years ago.
Which, as the bus wound its way to a wind-battered Anfield, got me thinking about the opponents Liverpool would soon face.
In Swansea City, the Reds were up against a team on the ropes. One win in 10. The manager, Garry Monk, the favourite among his Premier League peers for the chop.
The odds were stacked in the Reds’ favour, The Swans the clear underdogs at 15-4 to taste victory on Merseyside.
Fury, by common consensus not the most stylish boxer to have treaded the canvas, managed it against similar odds regardless. Surely this lot weren’t about to do the same?
The conditions were awful. Walking up to the ground, police and other fluorescent-jacketed men steered fans away from the pavements as temporary cordons were set up. Tiles had been flying from the roofs and posed a threat to the heads of supporters bound for the ground.
And have you read the news today? Oh boy. Trees falling all over Merseyside. Mad Mersey waves battering the coastline… It’s only two miles as the crow flies from the ground to the river, it felt like much less yesterday, especially when a load of horizontal rain got involved.
The conditions could be a leveller, I thought. They’d make things difficult. And as Jürgen Klopp had been keen to emphasise, any team can beat any team on the day.
All a bit negative? Maybe it’s conditioning.
As the favourable results happened all around at the weekend, Everton (hilariously) dropping points at Bournemouth, Manchester United drawing at Leicester, Spurs and Chelsea seeing out a stalemate and even Arsenal being held while the ball blew round at Anfield, it all felt like added pressure; another one of those games when Liverpool *should* capitalise on everyone else’s failures but conspire to shoot themselves in the foot somehow.
There have been countless instances of this. Take your pick. You’ll have your own. Roy Evans’ Liverpool battering bottom-of-the-table Coventry City in a game they needed to win to go top and yet somehow losing 2-1 after failing to defend two corners, resulting in the Sky Blues’ first victory in nine games.
Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool drawing 0-0 with West Ham at Anfield, going top of the league but in the most deflating fashion, chalking up a second 0-0 home draw to mid-table opposition in succession as Robert Green and a string of goal-line clearances denied the Reds.
Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool blowing chance after chance to close the gap on Manchester United after losing to them at Anfield, letting poor opposition claim points every time our rivals for the Champions League places slipped.
Then, of course, there’s the slip itself, and the Palace game that followed.
Add to all that a previous penchant for handing promoted sides the points, and you get the picture. It feels that too often down the years when Liverpool have needed to, they haven’t. And that’s why yesterday was so important. As important as the whirlwind performance at Manchester City or the come-from-behind victory at Stamford Bridge.
Not only was it vital for Jürgen Klopp to win at Anfield, it was important for Liverpool to win in a situation when it’s almost more than three points; to capitalise on mistakes elsewhere, to get that Europa League Thursday-Sunday monkey off backs and to make everyone else sit up and take notice.
The Reds just had to win yesterday. By luck. By judgement. Just win. Style, performances, swashbuckling football; that can all come later. Any side would have struggled to summon the spirt of Brazil 1970 in those conditions anyway. It was the three points that counted.
Now, things look rosy. It feels good. Liverpool are sixth, six from the top, as Neil was keen to emphasise yesterday.
A glance around at the table to see who the Reds are now rubbing shoulders with shouldn’t hold too much to fear. Arsenal seem to be on the cusp of the Arsenal implosion that has become their trademark, with Alexis Sanchez joining a list of injuries that now numbers 10 (and we know how that feels).
Manchester United fans, at least the ones I listen to, think Lous van Gaal is clueless. They’re now regarded as a good team who are difficult to beat rather than the swashbuckling sides of yore. The Dutchman is accused of “Moyesean mannerisms” by the local press, which should warm the cockles of any Liverpool fan.
Chelsea are 14th. Manchester City? Well, yeah. But 4-1. Leicester? Fair play, but fear them? And Tottenham? Going well. But again, a million miles ahead of this current Liverpool side? Or up against a full-strength Liverpool side, which Klopp is still yet to have the opportunity to field?
Given that Liverpool have struggled in front of goal so far, managing just 18 goals in the league (four against City, three against Chelsea, only eight at home in seven league games at Anfield…) what happens if Daniel Sturridge finds a run of fitness and form? What if Roberto Firmino consistently operates in tandem with Philippe Coutinho to produce the devastating results he did at the Etihad?
They are ifs, they are buts. But they are ifs and buts to get excited about. To offer hope.
Look at the next six in the league: Newcastle — 10 points from 14 — away on Sunday, West Brom at home, Watford away, Leicester at home, Sunderland away, West Ham away. How many points can Liverpool take from the 18 on offer? Full-house?
In every respect, there is nothing to be frightened of for Liverpool there. And, vitally, whatever ghosts have haunted the minds of the men in red down the years to sink at the feet of lesser sides, it feels right now like we have the perfect manager to exorcise them. Would you run through a wall for Jürgen Klopp? I think I would, you know.
So perhaps Tyson Fury shouldn’t be the metaphor for sides visiting Anfield and fancying their chances. Perhaps instead, unfancied Liverpool —16/1 for the title, 11/10 for top four — should be the one punching big between now and May and baffling the bookmakers.
Committing that to a screen as recent as September would have been a sure sign of madness. Now? Crazier things have happened in sport. Ask the big bloke with all the belts.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo