IT feels a bit strange to say that a club with 18 domestic league titles is defined by their European success, but that’s the case for Liverpool. It’s also the case for a whole host of top clubs. Off the top of your head, think about how many European Cups Real Madrid have won. You know the answer. How many league titles have they won? You haven’t got a clue, have you? Neither have I.
It’s the same case for Bayern Munich, isn’t it? Barcelona too, and probably even the now lesser sighted AC Milan fit into this category as well. You know who these clubs are because of their European history and Liverpool is a club that fits right into that bracket. It’s good to be back.
Since Rafa Benitez left Liverpool a little less than seven years ago, this club has played once in Europe’s premier club competition and that ended in an embarrassing group stage exit with Rickie Lambert trying to score goals. How did that happen? Liverpool were playing Champions League footie with a domestic appliance from Kirkby upfront. I think we can all be thankful that that won’t be repeated this time.
That was the first season back in after a four-year break that was preceded by what really was a European golden age for Liverpool. The name Liverpool was synonymous across Europe with being a real power. It didn’t matter that we could get knocked out of the FA Cup at home to Barnsley on a Saturday because on the Tuesday Internazionale would come to Anfield and be sent back to where they came from with their tails between their legs. Europe would see it happen, they’d see the power of Anfield, and they’d collectively be cowering behind their sofas with no desire to come and put themselves through it.
People look back on that period — well, bar those anti-Benitez weirdos anyway — and remember what we were capable of. It didn’t matter that Liverpool would only mount one title challenge under Benitez, or that there would only be one domestic trophy, you look back at that period as genuinely being a special time to support Liverpool.
European football defines this club, you see. Anyone who’s my age (30) and a little bit older can’t say that they’ve seen a league title carried around Anfield and that it’s what we want to see, but deep down I think we all know what this club is really all about. It’s Tommy Smith’s header to put Liverpool 2-1 up against Gladbach, it’s Graeme Souness’s slide rule ball to Kenny Dalglish at Wembley, it’s Alan Kennedy breaking through in Paris to slam it past Agustin Rodriguez (I googled the name but the point stands), it’s Bruce Grobbelaar’s mad legs in Rome, and then it is of course the magic of Istanbul.
They’re the moments in this club’s past that stand out. They’re the most poignant, famous, footballing times that have come in the last 125 years.
I’ve got a pretty good knowledge of the history of Liverpool, without blowing my own trumpet I’d say it’s above average for someone of my age, but I couldn’t tell you how Liverpool sealed a single title win with the exception of Dalglish at Stamford Bridge in 1986. 17 league titles and I’ve no idea how they were won. How many did we win on the last day of the season? Not a clue. How many were sealed at Anfield? I couldn’t tell you. I know there was one won at Molineux but I couldn’t tell you when.
It isn’t that these things aren’t important, they just don’t feel anywhere near as iconic as Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson, Souness and Steven Gerrard lifting that trophy above their head.
If I think about the games I really remember at Anfield as standing out I’ve got Barcelona in 2001 (granted it wasn’t Champions League, but it really was the start of something amazing thinking back), Roma in 2002 when Gerard Houllier walked out after being ill, Olympiakos, Juventus and Chelsea in 2005, the 2007 semi-final, and then even the bad times like John Arne Riise heading the ball into his own net in 2008. I think that one affects me more than a certain slip.
We all want the league title, but it doesn’t have the same romanticism about it, if we’re being honest. Maybe it’s because I haven’t seen a title winning season and there isn’t anything to truly remember, but then not all of the great European nights have yielded a trophy at the end of the season.
I would be absolutely staggered if trophy lifting moments like those mentioned above were to be created next season, but this is hopefully the start of that journey. A false dawn would be an appropriate way of describing the previous season in the Champions League but it isn’t one that you can see being repeated this time around. I like Brendan Rodgers but we have a better manager that also won’t lose confidence in himself, it doesn’t look in the slightest bit likely that our best player will be sold, or that the next man up who we were to rely on would never be the same footballer and it looks unlikely that there will be a game of one-upmanship between a manager and transfer committee who don’t see eye to eye.
With hindsight, between May and August 2014 everything that could possibly go wrong did. But now we have everything in our favour to really kick on and try and get back towards where exactly where we want to be as a club. I want us striking fear back in Europe, teams turning up at Anfield and taking 25 minutes to figure out where they are.
There was an argument about Benitez not caring about the league and prioritising Europe, I’m not here to debate the wrongs of that argument, but if Klopp did get this side to a point where we’re challenging for European Cups then, by definition, league titles should follow. You can’t challenge for the European Cup now without being an excellent side, after all.
I want us to be competitive next season, but I don’t want qualification to be seen as being something we consider an achievement, it should be a minimum. The achievement should be winning it or having a good crack at it, not qualifying for it and setting yourself the goal of getting back in it as opposed to actually winning it. In the short term, getting in it is a success that we can be happy with, in the future if we don’t achieve it then it shouldn’t feel like anything other than failure.
I don’t know why I’m getting excited though, I’ll just get sent to Switzerland once a year by some fella who pulls balls out of a hat. It’s got nothing to it bar crippling expense, Feldschlösschen for £7 a pint, a panic that involves booking a flight to Geneva and expensive trains that no one really understands. It does look nice though.
The best bit though, is if you think about how long ago Arsenal at home was then that amount of time is roughly when it all starts again. Not that long, is it?