ONE of my best mates in the world is a Sheffield United supporter.
We should all have a mate who’s a Sheffield United supporter. Well, not them in particular, there aren’t enough to go around us all and I’m not sharing mine, but a team like them. It helps to put things in perspective when complaining that we haven’t seen our team win a Champions League since 2005.
When your team can’t even win a play-off final, other supporters complaining about not winning enough Champions League or Premier League trophies is a bit of a kick in the teeth, so it forces more self reflection and humility when discussing Liverpool.
I met my mate on the first day of university in 1998 which, firstly, makes me feel old and, secondly, reminds me just how long I’ve been talking about Liverpool winning the league.
Within hours of meeting, I remember chatting to him about how Liverpool were going to win the league that season having just signed the last piece of the jigsaw who, that summer, was Paul Ince. The battling midfielder that The Reds had been missing for years, who had all the experience needed to help the team take that final step.
I’ve been convinced that Liverpool were going to win the league (and told my mate that they would) practically every summer since then, aside from those dark years post Rafa Benitez during which an old man who looked like an owl won a competition to manage the team for a while.
Practically every summer. For most of my adult life. Completely convinced that The Reds were going to win the league, usually after signing the latest last piece of the jigsaw, only to realise that wasn’t the case long before the winter had even gotten into full swing.
The strange thing this year is that I’m not really confident at all that Liverpool will be crowned champions of England in May, and it doesn’t concern me one bit that I’m not. I’ve had plenty of years in which I’ve built up my levels of delusion to such an extent that The Reds’ rivals actually being better in many ways went unnoticed in my mind. At 37, I’ve come to realise that winning the league is really hard, and it’s possibly more difficult to do now than it’s been at any time in living memory.
There are currently six teams who can all make strong claims to being contenders for the Premier League crown, which only one can actually win, so Liverpool start with a one in six chance of topping the table at the end of the season and go from there.
Maybe my lack of deluded optimism is based partly on realism and partly because it feels like the last season only finished a couple of weeks ago and I’m not quite ready for the new one to start. If I’m honest I’ve enjoyed having a few weekends of not planning my life around those well-groomed lads dressed in red, white or orange.
But back they are, hopefully doing three games a week for most of the season, juggling our various other personal commitments to make sure that we can watch as many minutes of the current crop of handsome Reds as we possibly can.
How are you feeling? Are you a deluded optimist, a furious pessimist or something in the middle? Are you desperate to watch Jürgen Klopp’s side face off against Marco Silva’s Watford, wondering how he’s going to turn a team of former bouncers into a slick passing machine, and how the manager will deal with that, or do you wish the season started in September so you could have a few more weekends thinking about something else?
Your answer to the above question might be dictated by your answer to another question. How do you feel about the current squad and the transfer window so far? Are you furious? Are you struggling to sleep at night because you keep checking Twitter frantically every five minutes hoping that Marco Reus will finally be announced, and that Phil Coutinho will do his most popular magic trick ever and tell us that he wants to stay regardless of how much Barcelona tap him up?
Or are you calm? Do you have complete faith in the manager and trust him implicitly to do whatever he thinks is best, only signing players who he knows are better than his current options?
I started writing this piece following a calm and pragmatic discussion with Neil Atkinson and Sean Rogers for The Review show on TAW Player in which we discussed the current squad and the Liverpool manager’s approach to developing players. The way in which football supporters perceive the actions the club they support takes (or, more pertinently, doesn’t take) compared to those of other clubs fascinates me, as does the way in which we all, very predictably, react to signings of new players, or a lack of them.
Take Dominic Solanke, for example. If Liverpool had bought a new 28-year-old centre forward for £50million who had scored three goals in pre season and looked as lively as Solanke has, how excited would we all be? But the fact that his fee is likely to be only in the region of £3m and he’s young means that we instantly dismiss him as a squad player despite his pre-season form and his recent award as the best player of the Under-20 World Cup.
Likewise, Ben Woodburn. Everyone would be skipping down the street if the club spent a chunk of Fenway Sports Group’s cash on an 18-year-old Christian Pulisic from Borussia Dortmund, yet they have their own wonderkid capable of scoring goals like his strike against Athletic Bilbao and some supporters dismiss him as not ready for first-team action. We’re happy to commit to other team’s young superstars but not our own. We want the club to buy pre-Southampton Sadio Mane from Red Bull Salzburg but don’t want to watch Emre Can and Divock Origi develop when Liverpool do buy them from the equivalent clubs.
Regardless of the endless transfer debates, something of which I am certain is that Klopp rates his players much more highly than most of us do. He knows this group started the season like a house on fire last time out and backs them to do the same for longer this time around, given the extra year of development and the additions of Solanke, Mo Salah and Andy Robertson to the ranks.
Should he risk unbalancing his harmonious dressing room or his overall project for anything less than his ideal signings? My view is that he shouldn’t and we should all back him regardless of what happens in the next three weeks.
We should also all remember that it is possible for the club to sign players out of nowhere who turn out to be successful, like Gini Wijnaldum last summer, so there’s little point in worrying about anything until we know what happens next.
So, let’s all take a deep breath, sit back and enjoy the ride.
Whatever the season brings, it’s going to be fun to watch.
Unless of course Virgil van Dijk gets his wish of a move to Merseyside. In which case you can scrap most of what I’ve said, I’m talking nonsense. He’s definitely the final piece of the jigsaw and we’re going to win the league.
I’d best phone my mate and let him know.
To hear Paul Cope on the latest episode of The Review looking ahead to Liverpool’s season, SUBSCRIBE to TAW Player for just £5 a month. A subscription also gives you access to our podcast archive – here are some of the highlights so far…