LIVERPOOL have dominated for 85 minutes away from home. They’ve missed chance after chance. Your doom-mongering mate sends you a Whatsapp message saying “They’ll score now, you know”.
It gets to stoppage time. You’ve been biting your nails for 10 minutes and everywhere around you people are screaming “CLOSE HIM DOWN!” and “JESUS CHRIST LOVREN, JUST LAUNCH IT!”. The nearest domesticated animal goes off to find its safe place.
They get a jammy corner with 30 seconds left. “Here we go” we all think, as their left-back whips the most sumptuous set-piece you’ve ever seen into our six-yard box, our keeper comes for it but misses and three of our lads have let their runners go. The away fans go wild as their centre-back who hasn’t scored since the book of Leviticus meets the cross with his shoulder and the ball trickles into the net. Our players slump to their knees and the ref blows the final whistle.
We lose 1-0 and it was inevitable from the moment we missed that fourth chance. We all knew it would happen because we’ve seen it so many times before. Just one of those days.
On the same weekend, our main rivals pick up fortunate away wins, the first with an exiled player who’s been brought back into the fold scoring two beauties and the second with a bit of luck in front of goal enough to take the spoils.
Our players crack and the title challenge that we all dreamed about in the summer drifts away to join future pub conversations entitled “when we nearly won the league in [insert your favourite title challenge of the last 25 years here]”, to be debated endlessly for decades to come, the manager’s decision not to buy a left-back in the summer taking its place in the folklore of the club alongside the signing of El Hadji Diouf and the failure to sign a lad from a Ukrainian club who would definitely have stopped Jordan Henderson being sent off and Steven Gerrard slipping over.
Or does it?
Whilst we all bemoaned the failure to convert any of our gilt-edged chances on Saturday, there’s a new air around Liverpool FC of late that might well have banished the above tale to its own particular section of Liverpool folklore, given that we didn’t look like losing the game at any point.
“Remember that 25-year period when we used to be really good for ages then concede late goals, lose games and crumble in the title chase?! It was mad that, wasn’t it.”
Those of us who lived through those 25 long years will regale our grandchildren with stories of Diouf and Diao, Meijer and Dundee, and they’ll stare at us in disbelief as we tell them about all the heartache of nearly winning the league, conceding last minute goals to any old Tottenham, Derby or Hull and getting beaten at home by Northampton. They’ll laugh as we show them photos of Roy Hodgson on our virtual reality hologram machine (that they have to show us how to use) and won’t believe us when we insist that he was once our manager and signed Paul bloody Konchesky.
They simply won’t understand how this juggernaut of a club with the stubbornness of a mule and the self-belief of Kanye West could ever have been described as psychologically weak; not quite able to get over the final hurdles during those 25 years without a league title. The psychological strength of the team they’re watching will be unrecognisable from the teams we’ve been watching during the league-less years.
That change in psychology won’t just be in the minds of the players on the pitch.
During the last decade and a half, supporters have gone from being supremely confident that the next league title would be just around the corner, to any little knock derailing our fragile self-belief. The swagger and bloody-mindedness needed to win a league slowly ebbing away over the years when team after team, manager after manager failed to take us back to the promised land. The opposition winning a corner at Anfield being met with knowing groans from all corners of the ground at the inevitability of what was coming next. Christ, it got that bad that The Kop even took to grassing up Martin Skrtel for fouling people in the box.
Since our gorgeous new manager landed on these shores, though, he’s been doing mind tricks on all of us. Those who are lucky enough to go to Anfield most weeks will tell you that it has a different feel this season than it has in recent times. There’s a big new stand, but in years gone by that would have just been filled with more miserable old bastards moaning about playing it out from the back and how we won 5-0 every week in their day, reminding us how Ron Yeats never misplaced a pass.
Instead there’s a new vibrancy around the club. A fresh impetus and belief that this could be our season. The manager doing NLP tricks on thousands of Liverpool supporters all over the world through video messages, interviews and press conferences. It started with telling us that we’d need to turn from doubters into believers, then taking small steps to show us how that’s done in practice. Reprimanding the crowd for having the audacity to leave the match before the final ball had been kicked and reminding his players that it was their job to stop those fans in their attempts to ‘beat the traffic’.
I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t really worried about a late Southampton winner on Saturday. Whilst the thought did cross my mind, it was soon put to bed by the cool, calm and calculated side of my brain telling the chimp part to chill out and enjoy Joel Matip stepping in front of their centre forward to nick the ball back and start another attack. Each time we missed a chance I just expected another one to come.
We drew 0-0 and had yet another opposition player lauding us after the final whistle, not only as the best team in the league this time but as the best team he has ever played against, and he was quick to point out that he’s played against Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Manchester City.
Watch the way Henderson, Can, Clyne and Milner chase back to stop a counter-attack in its tracks. Watch Jordan’s face as he’s chasing down the unfortunate opposition player in his sights. “You’re not going to score against us you bastard” it says. “If you want to win this game you’re going to have to win it the hard way”.
Look at the lad leading the line. The Brazilian attacking midfielder playing as a number nine, his shiny white teeth and funny haircuts misleading everyone into thinking he’s just another fancy Brazilian, whilst keeping the truth about being brought up in a coal mine, living off live animals and scraps of iron hidden from the world. I’ll keep saying it until it’s no longer true, but he could well be the most underrated played in the league, the epitome of the iron fist in velvet glove idiom.
This Liverpool team is different to any I remember in my adult life. Roy Evans’ entertaining team had all the style but lacked some of the substance, too many of its members not being serious enough about the task of winning the league. Gerard Houllier’s and Rafa Benitez’s teams either lacked depth, quality, flair or a combination of all three, and Brendan Rodgers’ team seemed to be a random collection of misfits held together by four or five stars, some of whom didn’t really like each other.
The squad Jürgen has put together has an altogether different feel. It’s got the quality and the depth we’ve often lacked, but it also has a togetherness and collective self-belief, and a steely look in its eyes. We’re seeing lads bailing each other out when they make mistakes at one end, and chipping in with goals to share the burden at the other. It’s a team in the truest sense of the word.
The striking thing for me when watching and listening to this version of the Reds though, is the balanced way in which they analyse their own performances, being self-critical when necessary but not too down-hearted when things haven’t gone quite as planned.
Think of the impact Kloppo has had on thousands of Liverpool supporters in Anfield and around the world through the relatively small amount we are exposed to him, then consider the impact he’s had on the players he’s been coaching on a daily basis for a year and those who have arrived since. Jürgen Klopp won the league with Borussia Dortmund against the might of Bayern Munich. He’s coached Marco Reus, Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski, so if he tells you to believe in yourself because he believes in you, it must be pretty difficult not to walk around feeling 10-feet tall.
I remember an interview very early in his tenure when he was asked about signing Reus for us (to keep Twitter happy, if nothing else), and he responded by saying that he watched Reus every day in training so he saw all the bad stuff as well as the Match of ze Day (German version) highlights reel that everyone else watches. He said he’s got Phil, Bobby and Adam so what makes people think he needs Reus? Imagine being those lads hearing that. We don’t need to buy Marco Reus because we’ve got you lads, and he thinks you lot can be better than Dortmund. He thinks you lot can take over the world.
Then you work with him over a period of time and start putting into practice all of the things he and his coaching staff are teaching you on a daily basis. You start doing it in matches. You draw that game that you might have previously lost. You score a last minute winner and feel the history of Anfield coursing through your veins as you rip your top off and throw it into the Kop. You feel fitter than you’ve ever felt, like you could run forever and never stop. You whisper in the ear of the lad you’re marking every week that his legs had best feel in good shape today because if he wants to keep up with you he’s going to have to run further than he’s done since he was a kid chasing his dog in the park. You finish the game with the other team’s lads asking the ref to blow the whistle, wanting to declare at 3-0, giving interviews after the game about the lads they’ve just faced and a suspicion that your manager might have done some deal involving the Football Devil because it’s just not normal that lads can run this much.
You get in the dressing room, look each other in the eyes and know that it’s working. The manager says you scored six but should have scored 12. No-one argues. Then there’s a blip, but everyone knows it’s just that. Next time Clyney will bury that header. Next time Bobby won’t have been on a long flight and only landed 48 hours ago. But next time you’ll still have Hendo and Joel and Dejan doing what they’re doing better and better. You’ll still have that burning desire to keep running until there’s nothing left to give. You’ll still believe in each other and in the process. You’ll know that if you just keep doing what Jürgen told you, more and more of our rivals will settle for a 3-0 defeat, happy to avoid nightmares of these Reds, Blacks or Toxic Thunders dashing, darting and interchanging until they can no longer be separated into individual players capable of being marked.
The belief these Reds have in what they’re doing separates them from their predecessors. They know things won’t fall apart just because one of the strikers gets injured or a midfielder picks up a silly red card. They believe their manager when he tells them that they’re not even at 50% of what he knows they can do, and they sit together in the back rooms of lap dancing bars drinking water and trying to imagine what it will look like when they’re at 80%, 90% and, God forbid, 100%. “Will it even be legal for us to be that good?” they ask themselves as they fantasise about the passing move that wins them the league whilst they snub another topless beauty wandering past them on her way to complain to a reporter about these Reds being so serious about winning that they don’t like beer or boobs any more.
One of my uncles sent me a message after the final whistle on Saturday saying that he worries about the team’s failure to win damaging its self-belief. My reply was swift and carried as much certainty as I could demonstrate without the use of emojis.
Some fans might still lose belief after one goalless game, but these Reds don’t look to me like the belief they have in each other, in their manager and in the journey they’re on is likely to disappear any time soon.
If Chelsea, Manchester City or any other one of our rivals can beat us to the league title this season, they’ll be the most deserving league winners for a long time because these Reds, these mighty, self-confident, steely-eyed, beautiful Reds with their shiny white teeth aren’t going to fall apart any time soon.
I’m off to the back room of the lappies to spend the rest of the day fantasising about what 100% looks like.
No beer or boobs though, we’ve got a league title to win.