IN English football Liverpool have very few yardsticks, writes JOHNNY MILBURN.
In terms of success, only one club comes close — very close. In the final analysis it comes down to the weight you put on things like Charity Shields and World Club Championships versus Champions Leagues and League Cups. But our only real domestic rival lives 35 miles down the road.
So, when listening with interest to the two part TAW Player Rivals Podcast featuring my mate Ste Armstrong, Mancunian, long-time fanzine writer, seller and all round chimpanzee of a man. Ste talked of a calmness in 1992 when Liverpool – languishing close to mid-table, going nowhere fast, managed by arguably our greatest midfielder, our best captain and one of our worst managers in modern memory, played a role in denying United their first title in 25 years.
He could see, he claims, that Manchester United were going places under Alex Ferguson and that, in the Graeme Souness era, Liverpool were no longer the formidable all-conquering side they once were. He spoke, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, of the Anfield crowd revelling in beating United in a one-off game, though the Reds trailed them massively in terms of league points and placings. A role reversal, if you will, of the previous two decades.
I have thought a lot about that and I plan to quiz Ste more on his ‘zen-like’ calmness next time we have a pint, as I trust him implicitly but find it hard to fathom how he could retain his faculties – especially when you think about how you or I might react today under similar circumstances.
I cannot imagine our crowd getting anywhere near that level of calmness with the prospect of getting so close and falling short.
United famously waited 26 years between top flight league titles and were actually relegated in between. They were runners-up in 1979-80, 87-88 and in 91-92. In 1985-6 they had an amazing start to the season for which they would have been forgiven for uttering the much-maligned phrase ‘it’s our year’.
The first part of the aforementioned Rivals show was put out as a free podcast. Have a listen and if you like it, why not SUBSCRIBE?
In the last 27 years Liverpool have finished second in 90-91, 01-02, 08-09 and 13-14. I would argue that under Roy Evans we were also in a title race that ultimately ended in falling short of even the runners-up spot.
So, in terms of barren spells there have been similar characteristics and we have not suffered the ignominy of relegation. Big Ears also kept our spirits and, arguably, expectations high.
Football has changed a lot since 1993 and United’s first league title under Ferguson. Liverpool, on all reasonable commercial measures, are currently about fifth best equipped club in the Premier League. We are not just waiting for one rival to stumble or fall from grace, we arguably need the four teams above us to simultaneously underperform and we need to overperform to bring home the bacon. Not only has football changed but society in general has also changed.
The internet, and social media in particular, has bred a society where fans feel the need to record their opinion immediately. In the heat of the moment, when the defeat is at its rawest or when the serotonin of a victory makes you believe anything is possible. The team’s performances are broadcast globally and the opinion you are reading is just as likely to be from a guy watching on a stream in New Zealand as someone sat in the Upper Centenary stand. The internet version of supporting your football team is very different to the pastime I enjoy with my mates. In the pub pre and post-match tactical discussions are rare – in fact talking about the actual football is rare. Our day out is infinitely more about the day out than it is about 90 minutes of elite sport.
I like the internet, I like Twitter – I participate in all of the above — and I am as prone to a knee-jerk proclamation as the next man (by the way this isn’t a holier than thou article, I promise you).
I am concerned, however, that the internet and the culture around it is not healthy nor is it helping our ability to make reasoned evaluations of where we are. This combined with a culture of trying too hard to go one better, the desire to be first to proclaim a young player or to condemn a footballer or a manager leads us to a place where the frenzy around the sport makes contemplation difficult, and to some extent can drain the fun from such an expensive and committed pastime.
Liverpool is an inherently emotional and sentimental football club. But, can it be argued we take it all a bit too seriously? It’s easy to find levity when you are 4-0 at home against Everton or when you score in the 94th minute at Goodison. But laughs are often in short supply, as Swansea regain the lead at Anfield after a Roberto Firmino brace has dragged us back into the match.
Our fans are from an extremely broad church — geographically, demographically and culturally — so making any generalisation about our fans as a group is likely to lead to wildly inaccurate conclusions.
Let me be clear, winning the league is my only KPI for Liverpool Football Club, it is all I am in it for.
But I need it and want it not because of my desire to engage in ‘bantz’ with opposition supporters or to crow to Reds that I was right about such and such player. I want it because all of my life – as long as I have been conscious of this thing called football — I have been a Liverpool supporter.
They are my team and I was raised during an era of constant success. I recall the day my dad returned from Rome in ’77 and we went down the drive to welcome the open top bus waving a scruffy red and white teddy wearing a white satin Liverpool scarf. ‘We exist to win trophies’ and all that good stuff.
I was 16 the last time we won the league, and I cannot recall even celebrating. It was a routine occurrence and, in the same way you never expect the sun not to rise the next morning, my 16-year-old self could not countenance that we would wait three years for a league title, let alone nearly 30.
So, what’s my point?
My point is that IF — and it’s still a big IF — I believe Armstrong. That he could remain sanguine, see the signals that United were rising even in the pits of despair, getting beat by one of your biggest rivals to hand the title to another club you despise. He could still see the progress and the likelihood that the promised land was near. He managed to drown out the doubters and believe, and he was rewarded.
He didn’t have Twitter and Facebook. He didn’t have 24-hour sports channels. He didn’t have YouTube fan channels dissecting every managerial and tactical decision – screaming at him. Echoing his doubts and amplifying his concerns about cover at left-back. He had what he saw with his eyes, his mates and what he picked up in the papers.
Now, I am not suggesting for one second we go dark on the internet completely – if you did you wouldn’t be able to read pieces like this, or the excellent podcasts I referenced earlier.
But, maybe to take a moment before you leap to slaughter a player because of an off-day. Breathe and count to 10.
We have 16 league games to go, starting against Chelsea on Tuesday, and we need to create belief that this title is still up for grabs (just) and if it’s not we can create significant progress towards it coming in the next season or two. Let’s try not to lose our heads and try and see the progress the club has made.
I’m all about Premier League seasons with a points total in the mid-to-high 80s. Once you get there anything can happen. We can potentially match last season’s total by March 4 and if we can overcome Chelsea again, and Arsenal can draw against them we will be within five points with 14 games to go.
If we fall short, we need to be able to summon up the calm to push this team on. To breathe and enjoy the knowledge that we have moved closer and that it will come sooner rather than later.
Can you want it too much? I don’t think you can. But, you can behave in a way that is counterproductive to the enterprise. I’d rather direct my energies into things that help. Like cheering the team especially when they aren’t hitting the heights. I bet it has more effect on days like that than when we are cruising 3/4-0 up.
Winning leagues is hard, and as a fanbase we can definitely do our bit.
Up the Zen Reds.