APRIL 14, 2016, was a terrible day for me.
Driven to the point of insanity with toothache, I’m lying in bed when I get a text which reveals Borussia Dortmund, who we play tonight, are secretly training about 400 yards from my house — at Marine AFC in Crosby.
For a moment this throbbing bastard of a pain subsides a bit, so I throw on a pair of old joggies and a hoodie and leg it round to try and get a glimpse of our glamorous opponents. Even at my age, I’m still obsessed with footballers.
I looked fucking terrible. As I arrive, their uber modern, bright yellow and black space age bus pulls away. I’ve missed Marco Reus and Co by seconds.
I’m left on the pavement, suddenly freezing, back in agony, and looking like I’ve just been discharged from hospital. All that’s missing from the scene is a wheelchair.
I slope off home, quite sad and get back in bed. I google “terrible toothache” and resolve to drive to Boots the chemist a bit later. There’s a match to go to in a few hours. I don’t miss home games unless I’m at death’s door.
When I find the clarity of mind to get behind the wheel, I go out and buy ibuprofen and clove oil. This brings some relief. I’ve got a cotton bud soaked in this pungent analgesic pressed on the inside of my gum on the train into town. I’m after another anaesthetic. I’m getting on the ale. I’m going to tough it out.
About four hours, five pints, and three near arrests* later, a football is in the air at the far post in L4.
Anfield, a cacophony of noise all night, just for a second falls utterly silent. A moment frozen in time, for me viewed from side-on in the Kemlyn about 20 yards from where that footy — as ripe as my bloody gums — is aching to be nodded home. In charges Dejan Lovren, it’s 4-3 to Liverpool and there’s clove oil everywhere.
(*Just for the record, my near-arrests were for suspicion of handling marijuana (I stank of cloves), drinking (medicinal) brandy in sight of the pitch, and being abusive to a police officer. To be fair, I was probably guilty of the latter and should’ve been lobbed out but I looked and smelled mental.)
Dejan Lovren suddenly became Degsy Love. A car-crash of a player; a hitherto expensive misfit had reached the promised land of redemption and now enjoys place in Anfield folklore. His towering header fired Liverpool, via Villarreal, to a European final.
Ironically, after a protracted £20m move from Southampton (rancour from Saints fans still pours out, as seen and heard last Saturday) he marked his Anfield debut back in August 2014 with another towering header — against Borussia Dortmund.
That warm pre-season afternoon Reds fans, still hopeful of a follow-up title assault despite replacing Luis Suarez with half of Southampton and Mario Balotelli, saluted a new leader; a set-piece king in both boxes; the man to finally fill Jamie Carragher’s boots as the boss of the defensive line.
Then Lovren proceeded to spend the opening months of his Liverpool career doing a passable impression of Neil Ruddock. When he wasn’t spraying 60-yard balls from left to right, normally threatening those clad in blankets on the front rows of the stands, he was the king of indecision.
He would race out with abandon when it was time to drop off; showing a remarkable ability to misjudge the speed, trajectory and flight of the ball. When a lofted cross came in, Dejan – the master of the mistimed jump — would be rooted under it giving the Kop kittens.
Lovren wasn’t alone in feeling the weight of the shirt during that debut season. However, while there was still some faith in Alberto Moreno, Adam Lallana and Emre Can, fans were writing Lovren off like a bad debt. Cut your losses and sell the useless c**t to Villa or someone for about “eight mill”, was the general consensus. Harsh, but on the evidence of own eyes at that point, entirely fair.
So, at the dawn of Brendan Rodgers’ stay of execution in August 2015, most of us were amazed, perplexed; even angry that Lovren had been offered another chance at redemption. He lined up at Stoke, did the basics, we kept a clean sheet and won 1-0. Two more shutouts followed against Bournemouth and Arsenal.
Then came the home fixture against West Ham; a three-nil humiliation that did for Brendan Rodgers. Lovren carried the can for an error that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Laurel and Hardy box set.
I’m still not sure how he contrived to usher a ball he was trying to see out back into play, get megged, and fall over all in one fell swoop, but he managed it somehow. Quite the Croatian feat it was, West Ham went two up, Brenno was done for and Lovren was a write-off – and shit — again.
While Jürgen Klopp settled in, Lovren was in and out – out to start with at Spurs, then back in for a few games until his accident prone tendencies resulted in a collision that saw him stretchered off against West Brom with an oxygen mask to his face.
He then missed the League Cup final with a hamstring torn at Stoke in the semi-final. Despite his size and stature, he’s still a bit of a “sick-note”; even this season he’s missed a couple of games through illness.
As last season wore on there was a vague notion that he was steadily improving under Klopp’s watch. He cut out the nonsense and just concentrated on defending. Mamadou Sakho took an increasingly chaotic Martin Skrtel’s place and most of the crowd’s plaudits. Lovren just got on with it, got a bit better and lapped up his goalden Dortmund moment.
This season he’s stepped on to a higher plane; one of actual excellence. This, in the face of very awkward, personal problems away from the game.
He now reads the game well. Maybe he’s also reading Klopp’s coaching manual and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
His assured showing in front of Southampton’s baying “mockney” mob last week said it all. The more they booed, the more Lovren wanted the ball. No silly stuff though, and if anyone’s doing the dribbling out from the back it’s his new cool-cat partner Joel Matip.
Previously, his one madcap moment of the season at Crystal Palace, gifting them an equaliser was atoned for in a matter of minutes. The Lovren of old would’ve gone to pieces but instead he resolved to make amends and did so in the most obvious fashion by restoring the lead straight away. No-one else was getting on the end of Phil Coutinho’s corner. That Matip later did the same only emphasised a burgeoning partnership in central defence.
An increasingly steady back four, featuring Nathaniel Clyne and James Milner, is actually Liverpool’s best kept secret. Klopp is irritated by the media narrative that we still can’t defend. This week he complained, “I don’t care what people say about it…but we are able to defend. We are not weak in defending. If someone wants to say it then do it, but I know we aren’t.”
Dejan Lovren’s rehabilitation isn’t quite complete. But he’s well on the way to becoming the £20m player we thought we were buying two years ago. Lovren and Matip aren’t yet another Hansen and Lawrenson, or even another Hyypia and Henchoz.
No cups or medals have been won yet, but the signs are good for Degsy and Liverpool. Watching the Reds defend is no longer like having toothache and Lovren, as much as anyone, is easing that pain.
See you at Anfield tomorrow.
Up the Reds.