I DON’T like it when players leave.
I don’t mean any specific player either. I mean just any player. It saddens me that something hasn’t worked out and whoever it is lacked what we need to win things.
Well, okay that may not be completely honest – I did breathe a sigh of relief when El Hadji Diouf went wherever he went (on that glorious day I’d stopped reading after the words ‘DIOUF QUITS REDS FOR…’ as I suddenly had an urgent appointment with several flagons of intoxicants and a table to dance on), but, in the main, I’m left with an air of disappointment when a door closes.
I was gutted at Steven Gerrard going. Not because he was pulling up trees for us at the time as he’d grown past that stage, but because of how it ended. He gave his stupendous ability to this club only to see us get battered at home by Crystal Palace at his swansong. It wasn’t supposed to end that way. It should have been at Wembley surrounded by trophies and an array of Titian goddesses, not Peter McDowell and a microphone.
Equally, my last memory of Luis Suarez was during the lap of honour after the Newcastle game in 2013/14 when a title-winning day became a round of applause and wishing him a ‘Don’t do anything stupid’ summer.
I say this because there’s been talk this week of Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge going to Barcelona and any club a journalist can think of, respectively. While both rumours have been denied, and Phil Blundell and Johnno have pointed out this week, it’s something we’re going to have to get used to and over. One of the pitfalls at being a title-challenging side is that clubs are going to start eyeing your assets and making kissy faces at them. It happens and we tend to get by most of the time. Eh, Michael Owen?
Players leave clubs all the time and no matter how much chest pumping and badge kissing they do, there will be a time when either they, or their employers, decide it’s time to move on. Sometimes it’s with a heavy heart, sometimes it’s a relief, sometimes it’s with an overwhelming sense of indifference. Not for me though. I always frown when they go.
Saying goodbye becomes easier with age. When you’re a kid, footballers are heroes – not just some bloke we’ve picked up on a free somewhere who might do a job. If they get a squad number and get to talk to Steven Gerrard/Jamie Carragher/John Barnes/Robbie Fowler/whoever, they too wear the cloak of stardust simply by a process of osmosis.
For example, he may have played in the 1986 FA Cup final, but my favourite thing about Kevin MacDonald’s fairly unspectacular Liverpool career was that Kenny liked him. Kenny picked him. Kenny instructed him. Kenny picked him again and you know what that means? He had had conversations with the Supreme Being himself. Maybe he even had his phone number and would use it occasionally. Maybe Kenny would slap him on the back and call him ‘mate’. Jesus, how great must Kevin MacDonald have been to be on those sort of terms with Kenny Dalglish?
Similarly, Richard Money and Frank McGarvey, who had barely any appearances in the blood red shirt, must have had meetings with Bob Paisley and got lifts home from Terry Mac and stuff, so they were the cat’s cajones as far as I was concerned.
However, that level of hero worship comes with risks. ‘Never meet them lest you be disappointed,’ goes the adage. I suppose that’s easily done now that access is all but removed and Melwood is a fortress. It wasn’t always like this.
In the mid-80s, I once had a conversation with Craig Johnston in the Main Stand car park. He signed my book and asked me my name while, unknowingly to both of us, a BT van slowly reversed at us. We leapt out of the way at the last possible moment. I with shock and Skippy with fury. Once recovered he slammed his hand on the back door before running around to the front to question the driver’s eyesight and the marriage status of his parents during his birth. That entire episode seemed surreal to me. A few months earlier he had scored at Wembley and now he was defending me to a myopic engineer.
Equally, my mate Fiona was once told to ‘watch your fucking arm’ by Barry Venison as she thrust a programme to be signed through his car window. Not much media training there.
They may have been heroes – Gods almost – but you could approach them and, if you’re especially lucky, nearly be killed with them or at least lose a limb.
As you get older the mystique evaporates and they become human. A shame in many ways.
The worst scenario for a player departure is the long goodbye. Every match becomes the smallest curtain call until the end comes — like a band doing a farewell tour. When Gerrard left it became heavier each week, as sorrow became incremental. ‘That’s the last time he’ll ever play Craven Cottage,’ ‘I’ll never see him at Old Trafford again,’ ‘That’s the skipper’s last derby’. Sometimes it’s kinder for a guillotine close. That’s it. He’s gone.
Ian Rush leaving in 1987 was particularly hard to take. We knew throughout that season that come May it would be all over. I was 18 at the time and couldn’t handle the thought of someone else wearing the number nine shirt he had donned for much of my match-going life. Hard to take, yes, but I wasn’t in tears or anything as I was a grown man of drinking age. A decade earlier would have been much different. In fact, it was.
Just as Liverpool were about to kick off the 1976/7 season, Kevin Keegan announced that he was going to try his luck abroad. Worlds collapsed. I can still remember the TV reports, my Dad’s relief (a Blue) and everyone in the playground wanting to be KK – even those who normally were usually Toshack because they were taller. No-one was ever Richard Money or Frank McGarvey, but they were still my lads.
Keegan was my world along with Action Man and Panini sticker albums (Euro ‘76 being my first). As with Mark Lawrenson, it’s hard to divorce the man during and post-career. There was the player and the personality. Keegan may be seen as a figure of fun due to his ‘I’d love it’ rant about Alex Ferguson and his silly hair and cleft chin, but as a footballer he was unmistakably brilliant. He was LFC in the early ‘70s. He chased everything down and loved a lost cause. He made Dirk Kuyt look like Charlie Adam. He had a great celebration too, which is always important at that age. He even had the most football name ever. He was my first footballing hero until Ray Kennedy came along.
But now he was off and while I was horrified at the idea of life without Kevin, some didn’t like that he was leaving the then UEFA Cup winners purely for the money (how do you claim your move to try something new when you’re playing for the greatest side in the world and Bob Paisley both knew and used your name?). Others – notably my Dad – were elated.
My Dad liked a lot of our players, who he would often see dotted around the city in various pubs, but had no time at all for Keegan. He referred to him as Captain Cornflake, as our number seven wasn’t above product endorsements — be it Brut aftershave, computer games and footballs. I certainly had a Spain ‘82 Keegan ball and craved a pair of Patrick Keegan boots for my birthday. Little Kev liked a bit of brand building too – from his films on road safety to falling off his bike in an episode of Superstars while still playing for the Reds.
September 1976, that.
I didn’t care about his reasons for moving on. It was playing for someone else that really hurt.
But time heals all wounds. As I got older and Keegan became more ‘England captain’ than ‘former Liverpool striker’. My enthusiasm waned. Then he was pictured kissing Thatcher (along with Emlyn, sadly) when the England team visited Downing Street before the 1980 European Championships and I’d joined my Dad in his cynicism at the grand age of 11. In any case, I had Kenny by then.
In many ways, Keegan’s legacy was diminished by the man who replaced him. Dalglish poured a soothing balm onto all of those post-Keegan wounds. He too wore a number seven and scored millions of goals and looked great in that kit, just as KK had done. Oh, Keegan was still great but you could see why the club turned down the chance to sign him when he returned from (West) Germany. We just didn’t need him.
Who knows, if Keegan was replaced by the 1977 equivalent of Lambert/Borini/Balotelli maybe it would be different and he’d have a statue outside the ground by now. If anything it’s a shame that his name is barely mentioned these days and he’s known as a former manager and pundit than as the man who tore Newcastle apart in the ‘74 Cup Final.
Liverpool got along without him and this hasn’t changed. Players do indeed leave clubs but as long as their replacements are good enough no-one minds. We didn’t manage to do that with Luis Suarez – in fact, we didn’t even come close – and there’s no obvious replacement for Philippe and Daniel, so why let them go? Makes no sense at all. Luckily, the manager knows that and believes in upgrading his squad, not detracting from it.
That said, I still feel sad when players go – even the average ones. The thought that someone bought them in expectation of plenty, only to find that the period of hope of them being the new Rush/Sami/Stevie has been dissipated by reality is disappointing. We had it with Steve McManaman and, more recently, Raheem Sterling, but it’s part of the game now.
Hopefully, the better lads will stick here.
After all, where else do you go once you’re the Champions and nailed on to win next year’s Champions League?