ROY Keane has never been shy of courting controversy.
Furthermore, it seems his inadequacies as a manager – in contrast to a decorated playing career – convince him of the need to pipe up every now and then to stay relevant. However, his recent observations on the struggle for Champions League places, and the teams involved, will chime with older supporters’ views of modern football. The Glory Game has well and truly made way for Sky’s “Race for Fourth”.
“When I see clubs like Liverpool and Man United celebrating getting into the top four, I cringe at it, I really do. Do you think that Real Madrid and Barcelona would be celebrating getting fourth? Come on, get a grip.”
Keane has a point. Having been present to witness Liverpool parade seven of their 18 titles in front of The Kop, I wince a little at the prospect of the Reds – if they make the top four – milking applause for extending what feels like an unbreakable eternity between league championships. I chill some more at the notion of players lapping up cheers and congratulation thinking they have achieved success when all they will have realised is access to a competition synonymous with the club’s history.
Those of us who can remember the days when Liverpool reigned supreme, and many brought up later on tales of glory, still observe by Bill Shankly’s mantra, “First is first. If you are second you are nothing.” More recently, when Gerard Houllier was manager, Rick Parry claimed fourth place was the “minimum acceptable requirement” and later, Rafa Benitez was held to account by the same standard.
If the club still aspires to an equally competitive ethos, this season’s potential qualification should only be viewed as par for the course; a measure of progress, a necessary stepping stone but most importantly a central foothold from which to aim much higher. Jürgen Klopp was hired and is lauded for a track record founded on winning league titles and reaching a Champions League final and his Liverpool ambitions should continue to tally with his Borussia Dortmund achievements.
In recent years, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich have cemented their growing might on the European football landscape. Potential winners of the European Cup, just like in the Premier League – the still-remarkable Leicester anomaly aside – come from a narrowing financial power base. But the efforts of Klopp’s Dortmund a few years back, and this season Monaco, Atletico Madrid and Juventus suggest a club of Liverpool’s similar clout should always retain the prime objective of winning a sixth European crown.
If there is cause for celebration then it should be that Liverpool once again have a shot at glory. Each summer, hope springs eternal that the Reds can muster the signings and the stars align to end the long, painful domestic wait. The same view must be taken of any assault on Europe, to give qualification a currency meaningful to more than just the Fenway Sports Group bean counters.
The modern view is that there are only two trophies worth their salt. Therefore, it has to be the club’s stated aim to win them both without the threat of the guillotine for the manager. If Liverpool manage to secure qualification for the Champions League on the last day of the season, Klopp should be at liberty to play down the achievement but declare that the real intention is to be in it to win it. That in itself would be worthy of rejoicing; that the manager isn’t afraid to put his neck on the line to challenge an increasingly negative mindset; of attachment to near misses and failure, presently pervading the club.
As supporters we have had no choice but to accept, especially for a club morphing into a business like Liverpool – with financial aims at the core of its operation – that game has changed radically over the last 20 years.
We lament that the former lustre of the FA Cup has been consumed by the importance attached to the Premier League and Champions League. We know the EFL Cup is so firmly ensconced in Mickey Mouse territory that the final might as well be played in Disneyland. We acknowledge that the Europa League is the palest imitation of its monstrous relative; a poisoned chalice with none of the kudos of its predecessor.
We know the drill and reluctantly therefore accept the relevance – and critical importance – of the race for fourth. Audible groans, shredded nerves and bitten fingernails over the past few weeks are evidence that Liverpool fans too have bought into a more manufactured, intangible reward than parading a trophy.
Mere qualification might lack the sheen of silverware, but we can still pore over a draw in August and enthuse over the prospect of entertaining the continent’s big boys. Perhaps there isn’t the same mystique attached to the biggest European names as once was the case but Juve’s stripes are preferable to those of Newcastle and Sevilla still hold more appeal than Stoke.
The clichés about the fabled Anfield European nights under the lights abound but the stories, as was the challenge for Houllier and Benitez, need refreshing, exotic tales retelling for a new Liverpool generation not so worldly wise.
Featuring in Europe’s premier competition brings essential revenues and attracts stellar players. In recent years, we’ve been absent from the tournament too often and we need to remind ourselves, and the rest of Europe, that we can have the right and expectation to joust on an equal footing with our former peers. The most recent memory; the boil of our last showing – the cap doffing to Real Madrid – needs an emphatic lancing.
Being truly competitive though is the key. If we qualify, are we there just to pay lip service to a more ambitious recruitment policy and turn a nice profit? Will we be there just to make up the numbers and see how far we go? Do we really believe we can win another European Cup or will “being competitive” and accepting financial rewards towards another staging point on an endless journey represent the limit of our ambitions?
Klopp is intuitive enough, and has the awareness and self belief to embrace the club’s European Cup tradition and aim higher than Brendan Rodgers. The rich culture surrounding European football at Anfield should be a gift to any Liverpool manager and last season’s Europa League odyssey will have already whetted Klopp’s appetite.
Klopp should draw inspiration from his predecessors. Houllier harnessed the novelty of a return to competing with Europe’s big names by winning a UEFA Cup and bettering the likes of Barcelona and AS Roma while Benitez went one better by claiming the game’s greatest prize almost from nowhere. When Houllier’s team limped home in fourth place in May 2004, there was little cause for celebration. Twelve months later the city partied the whole summer.
As we approach the final two matches of a long hard season, there’s no need for talk of achievement and winning bogus “cup finals” but instead to harness a sense of ambition and of what real success might lie ahead. Whether player, manager or supporter unless you can see or dream of the path to glory, then what is the point?
Keane, an inveterate winner, should understand that more than most.