I’VE been meaning to write this for ages.
You may not have noticed, but normally I’m that bloke banging on about things that happened 40 odd years ago, pining for a past that probably isn’t coming back any time soon. The fella more concerned with the aesthetic atrocity that was Phil Neal’s perm than the intricacies of Emre Can’s wax-and-sweep game. But, frankly, I needed to get things off my chest.
The seeds were firmly planted some time last season, probably around the time we went to Wembley to take on Aston Villa, a team that has since plummeted to depths that would scare the living shit out of Jacques Cousteau, and came away humiliated.
I kept quiet during the summer, despite harbouring planet-sized doubts that, post-Gerrard, we would be a team lacking presence, forever searching for its maps and legends.
With every new disappointment, every West Ham and Newcastle and Watford and Leicester, I came closer. I wanted to get it all out there. To expose my misgivings to the light. To shout my truth to the world, like a human version of Donald Trump.
This is how it was meant to go.
I would rail against the mediocrity of this Liverpool squad. Against the repeated failure of Simon Mignolet to assert himself as a worthy successor to Clemence and Reina. Against an interchangeable stockpile of unconvincing central defenders, flanked by a left back with the football brain of a startled kitten. Against a collection of midfield workhorses lacking the vision or dynamism to dominate. Against an attack that, hampered by injury, unfamiliarity and an absence of conviction, made the art of goalscoring look like something it’d prefer not to get too bogged down in.
I was going to be ruthless, for ruthlessness was undoubtedly required. I was ready to see a drastic, comprehensive, all-encompassing overhaul of the playing staff. Because anything less was just tinkering round the edges, a prelude to another three, four, five years scratching around among the also-rans, dreaming of the chance to scrape that elusive fourth place finish.
I’m telling you, it would have been brutal. No-one spared, no-one coming out of it unscathed.
But then stuff happened. Things changed. Battles started to be won. Not all at once, but gradually; not always with flair, but with, at last, a clarity of purpose. And Liverpool started to look like the team we all thought they’d be, once Jürgen Klopp’s methods had taken hold.
The Capital One Cup Final, oddly enough, was my turning point. No-one would claim it was a great performance. Liverpool lacked fluency and struggled to create clear opportunities. But there was heart — bags and bags of heart. This team was desperate to win and, to come over all Alan Shearer, left everything out on the Wembley pitch. I was gutted for them.
Over the next few weeks an evolution of sorts took place. Some real solidity, allied with desire and a renewed threat. Manchester United were outplayed home and away; Dortmund memorably vanquished. The league form picked up, the odd hiccup aside, culminating in a comprehensive demolition of Everton that had even the stoniest of hearts melting like a Cornetto in a heatwave.
I began to think that maybe I’d been overly harsh. That maybe these lads could, with a couple of quality additions, be the ones to take us forward. I was becoming a believer, just like Klopp wanted. And I wondered what might happen next.
What if Lovren continued his transformation from Piechnik to Hansen? What if Lallana added an end product to his prodigious workrate? What if Sturridge had an uninterrupted, injury-free run in the side? What if Firmino complemented his obvious capacity to influence key moments by regularly passing to the people in the red shirts? What if Moreno’s IQ rocketed into double figures? What if Mignolet…well, anyway. Let’s not get carried away.
But that’s what we do. That’s what we’re good at. We look for any reason to get carried away. We crave the signs that show us how wonderful we are, even when we know, deep down, we’re kidding ourselves. I’m not knocking it. I like the fact that we have high expectations, that we demand only the best. But, the thwarted glory of 2013-14 aside, it’s often been hard to square with the reality that we’ve seen on the pitch.
For too long Liverpool haven’t been good enough. For too long Liverpool haven’t been consistent enough. And for too long, Liverpool have had too many players who could not be trusted.
That’s the big one for me. Trust.
While everyone was telling me that they were, like the Chinese, a great bunch of lads, all I wanted was a few players I felt able to trust, to rely on; players that I knew weren’t going to let me down. Once they pulled on their boots, they could be the niggliest, nastiest buggers in the world so long as I could trust them.
And that’s what I wasn’t getting. Our relationship was being undermined by a lack of trust.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out what’s changed. The impact of Jürgen Klopp on both the fresh-faced idealist and the battle-weary cynic like me can not be understated. Ever since Shankly strode into Anfield and transformed things forever we’ve had certain ideas of what a Liverpool manager should be. We want him to represent us, to absorb and reflect our concerns, to fight our corner, to defend us against external attacks and, ultimately, to give us something to believe in. Simply put, we look to the manager to lead us into battle, and we follow, not blindly but willingly and with a keen appreciation of our collective strength.
Almost from the off, Klopp got us to buy into his vision. And, just as importantly, he bought into ours. He understands our need for a figurehead and has the ambition, focus and charisma to fulfil it. I reckon it’s fair to say he has our trust. He has *my* trust.
What about the players, though? Honestly, I’m still not sure. They deserve credit for turning things around mid-season, when there was a real danger the campaign could have nosedived. They have responded positively to Klopp’s presence and, particularly in Europe, harnessed his demands for passion and tempo to memorable effect.
Clearly, the weaknesses haven’t gone away. For only the second time since the Souness days, 50 goals have been conceded in a league season. That is not acceptable. At a time when Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal have battled for the title of ‘Most Shambolic Underachievers’, we contrived to finish behind both Southampton and West Ham in a dismal eighth place.
Yes, the final position was doubtless skewed by the need to prioritise the Europa League in the last third of the season, but it still stands as an indictment of the squad’s strength. Again, unacceptable. Question marks continue to hang over a significant number of players and the need for an influx of quality remains as great as ever.
But, for the first time in a while, there is a real sense of unity. Stage one in Klopp’s masterplan is complete. Unity breeds hope. Stage two. And hope, given the right encouragement, leads to belief. Stage three.
If we ever get to Stage Ten (running down Church Street with our undies on our head, after our third successive Champions League win) they’ll probably name the ground after him. You never know, maybe then people like me might stop banging on about the great teams of yesteryear all the time, like your grandad talking about Buddy Holly while you’re busy downloading your new beard from the internet. Don’t hold your breath, though.
A win in Basel wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Just as long as we see it as the first step on a long road rather than the culmination of the journey. With Klopp at the helm, it’s going to be a fun ride. Buckle up. [*Analogy picks up coat, bows and exits, pursued by bear.*]